Science & friends
It's been a busy two months since you made my campaign a success. The main initiatives are developing a phenomenological model of autism - that is, a systematic description of how the world looks to people on the autism spectrum - and recruiting partners from the scientific world. On both counts I've made great progress, and here are some details.
Francis is a professor of cognitive neuroscience who studies the emotional implications of touch. In scientific terms this is called affective touch, and it is of great importance to our understanding of autism since many people on the spectrum have an aversion to what we think of as affection. Francis has also developed a "virtual touch simulator" which we can use for the exhibition.
Stephen is an expert on physiological computing, and he is developing a next generation human-computer interfaces that are nothing short of stunning. Through his lab the project has access to EEGs and other sensors that will allow us to create interactive environments that respond to the audience's emotional state - again a major factor in the internal experience of autism.
Thanks to Stephen and Francis the exhibition will present an important modality in autism - touch - based on the latest research and technologies. They are also great collaborators who have devoted many hours to helping me achieve scientific accuracy. And, in a wonderful development that makes me think of the Renaissance, they are working to integrate a clinical research component into the Neurodiversity exhibition.
In the past few months I've had the pleasure of meeting people diagnosed with autism, both socially as adults and in special education classes. A highlight was live a panel featuring Larry Bissonette and Tracy Thresher, two charismatic autism advocates who were promoting their film Wretches and Jabberers.
In May I visited education programs for autistic children in Richmond, Virginia and Toronto, Canada, spending half a day at each school where I was allowed to interact with the kids and speak with the teachers. And I've had some illuminating discussions in Denver and New York with adults with an ASD diagnosis and their families.
I've been working studying the clinical literature on autism, and I'm learning just how varied the condition is from a neurological perspective. My focus has been on the sensory basis of the condition, and I've noticed a distinct trend towards a sensory rather than behavioral approach from the 1980s through now.
Recent improvements in fMRI and other detection technologies has made the field very exciting, but they have also revealed the complexities of human consciousness.
The opportunity to do this research is particularly gratifying to me, as I've always pondered the fundaments of cognition. Here are three papers I found particularly illuminating.
We've always wondered how some autistic people can perform incredible feats of visual memory. These researchers perform a meta-analysis of current research on the visual perception of people with ASD, and they conclude that the clinical literature buttresses that impression. Meta-analysis is a way of validating scientific claims by using statistics to examine the results of multiple studies, in effect, performing a larger and more accurate study. This paper is important for the project because it can be used to model the visual acuity of certain conditions associated with autism.
Dr. Hakwan Lau uses Bayes' theorem to model the perceptual states that result in conscious awareness. Bayes Theorem dates to the late 1700s, and it's used to judge the probability of an event given the probability of related factors. I found this paper fascinating because it describes a possible mathematical model of conscious awareness that can be used to underpin higher-order descriptions used in philosophy and anthropology.
Many autistic people are acutely sensitive to noises and changes in their auditory environment. In this study the authors measured the mismatch negativity response, or MMN, which is a neuroelectrical signal that is generated in response to changes in stimuli. For instance, if someone is vocalizing 'ssssssss' and they insert a 'd' to make 'ssssssssdsssss'. Amplification of MMN responses in some autistic individuals comes at the expense of perceptual generalizations. Put in visual terms, they see the trees, but have trouble perceiving the forest.