by Susan Leem, associate producer
Psychologists who study learning and memory have a special interest in how people navigate reality in a three-dimensional world. There is a huge variation in abilities for spatial learning among adults, and some of these skills don’t even appear until adolescence. How you interact with other people has a lot to do with how well you are able to literally take their perspective.
Johns Hopkins scientist Amy Shelton has found that strong social skills may be an important factor in your spatial skills. That is, people who are very good at taking on the visual perspective of another person also test well on social abilities. And these abilities only appear when the participant is asked to take the perspective of a person — not that of an object.
The paper’s authors suggest this ability to take another perspective is important because it requires Theory of Mind, something that is often found lacking in persons on the autism spectrum. Simon Baron-Cohen describes Theory of Mind as “being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.” Of course the author notes that there are a number of factors that influence social ability like “interest, comfort, and savvy in social situations.”
For this experiment, researchers focused on the question of perspective. They asked participants to describe the perspective of different objects placed near 22 Lego buildings. The variable that changed: one of the objects was person-like, a faceless doll, and the other two were not (a toy camera, colored plastic triangles). Participants were asked which figure had the view of the building displayed on the computer screen and tried to match them.
What they found was that one group of participants were much better at correctly identifying the views from the perspective of the faceless doll only. This group also scored low on “the Autism Quotient,” a questionnaire designed to assess the degree to which adults of normal intelligence show five different traits associated with autism spectrum disorders: social skill (higher score = poorer social skills), perseveration (higher score = more difficulty shifting attention), attention to detail (higher score = greater focus on details), communication (higher score = poorer communication), imagination (higher score = less imaginative).”
Amy Shelton says there are some interesting implications for thinking about empathy and viewpoints of an “other”:
“Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this research is that it emphasizes a ‘whole person’ approach. We tend to think of ourselves as being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at certain skills, but these results suggest that different skills really do interact and have an impact on each other. For instance, I might be good at giving directions to another person because I have good spatial skills, but I might be even better at it if I can also empathize or embody the other person’s perspective.”Comments
by Krista Tippett, host
Our show on autism with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder remains one of my favorites. And I’ve been enjoying a wonderfully written and moving memoir by Emily Colson about life with her son Max, now 19. Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free has a prologue and an epilogue written by Charles (Chuck) Colson. Colson, of course, served in the Nixon White House and went to prison for the Watergate scandal, then went on to found Prison Ministries International. He is now something of an Evangelical Christian elder statesman, whom I met and interviewed several years ago together with two Evangelicals of different generations.
Chuck Colson and his daughter have created a searching and sometimes surprising exploration of what autism may teach us about what it means to be human, written from a devout and searching Christian perspective. It is an important addition to our literary and cultural encounter with autism, and I recommend it.Comments
Krista Tippett, host
The Centers for Disease Control report that 1 in 110 children in the U.S. is now diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum of autism. In other words, this is a condition that affects many lives, many families. General reporting and publicized controversies tend to focus on the physiology and neurology of autism, or on possible causes and cures. As I’ve followed such stories, I’ve longed to understand something about the inner world of people with autism and those who love them. I’ve wanted to hear about autism in terms of spirit, intellect, and human nature.
And when I discovered Paul Collins’ warm and erudite book Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism, I knew I’d found a way in. During a routine checkup, his beloved son Morgan was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and a half. Paul then went searching for understanding in history and literature. He traced the winding process by which 20th-century physicians finally diagnosed autism after centuries in which it was conflated with very different conditions, such as schizophrenia and Down syndrome. He had previously written about eccentric characters and forgotten inventors in history, and he began to find evidence of autism in some of these figures who had already captured his attention. In his travels, he also experienced how the spectrum of autism quietly reaches into centers of contemporary invention — such as Microsoft.
Some of our shows feel like an “experience” in the making. This one did. Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder have opened my imagination about what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be autistic, without for a moment downplaying the debilitation that life with autism also entails. I had imagined this condition to be thoroughly isolating and inscrutable. The very word “autism” comes from the Greek for “self” — autos — connoting a state of being in which a person seems quite literally to live in his or her own world. And yet Paul and Jennifer help me grasp that autism is not one thing but a spectrum on the vast continuum of human personality. Autism has deepened their understanding of disability and of intelligence, curiosity, and accomplishment.
Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, are their stories of how life with Morgan has imparted a new generosity and respectful good humor to their dealings with each other and their families of origin. There is a documented correlation between autism and families with achievement in fields like engineering, music, mathematics, science — professions that require an aptitude for logic and a capacity for intense, solitary focus. The late scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote a beautiful essay about his son with autism.
And, Paul Collins writes this:
"Autists are described by others — and by themselves — as aliens among humans. But there’s an irony to this, for precisely the opposite is true. They are us, and to understand them is to begin to understand what it means to be human. Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. But autism is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an overexpression of the very traits that make our species unique. Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result."
There is more in our hour of "Being Autistic, Being Human" than I can evoke in these paragraphs. And if you enjoy it, I’d encourage you to listen to my original, unedited two-hour conversation with Jennifer Elder and Paul Collins. It is full of illumination and warmth, and I didn’t want it to end.Comments