redtabby's autism blog

A blog considering how psychology, psychiatry, social life and personal life do and don't interact with the autistic spectrum, sometimes obviously, sometimes not.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Phillips' screwdriver

In the woodwork module at art school almost the first thing we were told by Ian the woodwork man was that a chisel is not a screwdriver. Use it as such on a metal object like a screw and you will wreck the chisel, as it is a specially sharpened blade for cutting wood.
Adam Phillips has a new book out, 'Going sane'. I have not read it yet, just the review by Adam Mars-Jones, who likes Adam Phillips like I like him, for thinking differently, for not pushing psychoanalytic orthodoxy for the sake of it, for making it subtle and useful and new and different.
And then, apparently, he goes and jumps back in the pond of orthodoxy (when discussing forms of insanity) by quoting Frances Tustin as saying that autism is a big avoidance reaction-formation by the child when it realizes its separateness from its mother.
The cat goes splat on the mat: I can hear the birds twittering as I lie on the carpet stunned by this particularly huge old chestnut, especially when I recollect how hard it is for the average autist to build up, over many years, a strong sense of a self separate from anything.
Tustin's book ('Autism and childhood psychosis'), in psychoanalytic terms, is new (1972), but, in terms of modern autism thinking, it's antique. In the NAS and elsewhere we've all worked solidly for years to get away from this persistent psychoanalytic idea that everything that can go wrong with people's brains has to be the result of some kind of failure of relatedness.
Hasn't any analyst turned this on its head yet and seen that a failure of relatedness can be an effect, not a cause? Perhaps they never will: they'd say autism is their term and they can do what they like with it. It's an old term, invented (I vaguely remember) by Bleuler round about 1911 to describe a state of being disinterested in the world found in schizophrenia (also a new term then), and the idea that it has something to do with madness has been hard to shift ever since. And now, just as we thought we were getting somewhere with genetics and brain architecture, up it pops again.
OK, I haven't read the book yet, but Mars-Jones has, and thinks Phillips risks giving serious offence by it, and it 'comes uncomfortably close to the bad old days when...mothers were blamed as a matter of course.' Please, Phillips, let's not go there any more. I know psychoanalysts have terminology and meanings all their own, and any psychoanalytic text has to be read carefully so as to keep the old-hat theory separate in one's mind from the good, insightful bits, but maybe modern psychoanalysts should go out of their way a bit more to explain properly when one word has two meanings, so we don't mistake the chisel for the screwdriver.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Pigeons' drinks

And about time too. I've been snagged by the dread seasonal-affective nonsense & presently have wool for brains. And I worry that no-one is reading this, which is a tad depressing also.
Anyway, at Silvertabby's at the new year I was communing with the back garden, a moderate expanse of grass and a strip of ground by the wall of the flats that supports a few rose trees and a shrub or two, and wondering if the growing of magnifying grass would make the garden look bigger, when some neighbouring pigeons from the roof of the house opposite came in and footled about on the grass, investigating it for snacks.
The sun was out, it was cold, and it had not rained for a while. The grass is punctured at intervals by about a dozen holes for now-defunct whirligig washing lines, which were of steel, and they all rusted out and snapped off because the holes filled up with rainwater.
A pigeon had worked this out and had stuck its neck down a pole hole, taking a drink. I told Silvertabby about it and we saw the pigeon stick its neck down another pole hole a day or two later. Only one of them did this, so it appeared to be a bit of lateral thinking by one particular pigeon and the rest of the group didn't appear to have learned from it.
It made me wonder if we should go around with the watering can in the drier months topping up pole holes for pigeon drinks. They have stretchy necks but only little beaks, and I wondered how far down the hole the water level would have to drop before the pigeon could no longer take advantage of it. Would it discover, like the crow in the story, that dropping stones into the hole would permanently raise the water level, or had it not thought of that yet, having only just discovered the drink supply this autumn?
It made me think of the brainy Japanese macaque we read about, the northern one that learned to take hot-spring baths in the snowy weather, and her family group eventually followed suit and created a hot-bath macaque culture. Is there an urban pigeons' pole-hole drinking culture, or is this pigeon a rogue inventor, and all its family disregard it as a seriously misguided and bonkers bird that needs the pigeon shrink?

Saturday, November 13, 2004

AS or TS?

In Tony Attwood's 'Asperger syndrome: a guide for parents and professionals', chapter 2 ('Social behaviour'), p. 44, he says,
'Examine the biographies of famous scientists and artists for indicators of whether they had the same attributes as members of the group. This could be a homework or library exercise. The biographies of Einstein or Mozart would make a good starting point.'
This is in the context of social-skills groups for teenagers and things that could be done in them. I assume it's to help the people feel good about themselves.
It might, I suppose, unless it gives licence for bad behaviour ('Prince John did x, so I can too').
It might work too well if you have a big ego ('You can't tell me what to do; you know nothing about nuclear physics').
It might leave you feeling crushed if you're a depressive ('I'm not coping as it is and now they expect me to be Einstein').
It would be just as well to be as sure as possible the famous role models really did have AS. It's too easy to be casual about it. Anthony Storr in 'The dynamics of creation' put both Einstein and Newton in the schizoid mentality category, which includes autism but is bigger than that, and doesn't specify that you have to have the triad of impairments. Someone somewhere thinks Einstein couldn't have had autism because he had a sense of humour (The Times, 8.4.04). Well there's nice, as my Welsh relatives would say. You can grow a sense of humour later on if you work at it.
But where did Tony A. get Mozart from? Has he never sat down and really listened to the operas, especially the socially complex ones like 'Cosi fan tutte', 'Le nozze di Figaro' and 'Don Giovanni'? They're not just the formulaic setting of text to nice tunes. He understood what the characters were doing and thinking.
Being rude and crude and twitchy and funny and distractible, and being driven to play (in both senses) and driven to compose, and communicating all of this in a lively and voluble correspondence, doesn't sound like an over-formal young man struggling to communicate. It sounds like someone with OCD and ADHD, which, as James McConnel showed in his Channel 4 documentary (18th October) is a useful way of conceptualizing Gilles de la Tourette syndrome, which James McConnel (also a composer) has as well. He described how Mozart's music is self-medicating (serene and balanced) as well as innovative (Touretty twitchiness pushes you to go that bit further).
But the most important point in the role-models-with-AS context is that TS allows you to have perfectly good theory-of-mind, an immediate appreciation of what others might well be thinking and planning. In the opera ensembles the characters might sing together, but they can at the same time express conflicting thoughts. That takes social understanding, doesn't it?
It took me about a dozen listens over several years, plus seeing it in an intelligent production by Jonathan Miller, to begin to 'get' Cosi. Oh the effort! Mozart wrote the operas (and everything else) when he was young, but it's when you're young, before you've had a chance to develop some intellectual workarounds, that the theory-of-mind difficulties of AS are most obvious. It doesn't make sense, in the operas context, to say Mozart had AS when TS is more likely. Don Giovanni must be opera's most compulsive hero. The point of the opera seems to be very personal to the composer: everyone misunderstands his social motives. They want to damn him, but he just needs to play. If Mozart had AS, then I'm a dog.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

One in ten thousand

Just returned from visiting Silvertabby and Kitten. Kitten now has three A's at A-level and can go and be very clever at university! I knew she would.

While attempting to retrieve Silvertabby's watering can from the bogey-hole, I was assaulted by a supermop, an antique Fru-grain tin and several old wall planners. Then I filled the can up to top F sharp (i.e. full) and took it out to do the rose trees.
While doing that I thought about the piece in July's 'The Psychologist', about Pam Heaton's PhD work on perfect pitch in autistic children. 1 in 10,000 of the general population has it, apparently, but it's commoner in ASD folk. I'd like to know who established that! The article did not clarify that, but showed that appreciation of music is not lessened in the ASDs because of their condition. I didn't think it would be for a minute. Getting feelings into words and tying them to things that happen in the outside world is more the issue than feeling the feelings in the first place. At least for some of us, music is so immediate, while communicating is so laborious ...
I did wonder, though, ASDs being such a repository of the extremes, whether there aren't some autists who not only dislike music but are absolutely tone deaf and have perfect tin ears.
I looked in Darold Treffert's book 'Extraordinary People', and it doesn't seem that perfect pitch by itself is thought of as a savant skill. (Shame! That and spelling are the only things I do well.)

I've always thought that perfect pitch doesn't have to be a musical ability though; it's just sound recognition, really, useful for filling hot water bottles (B flat for your normal-sized bottle) and watering cans, and learning your music without a piano.
I got that idea ages ago from hearing about the bloke with perfect pitch who used to whistle international dialling tones to make free foreign phone calls. Apparently the judge let him off because he'd never heard anything like it.
When I was going to primary school, I used to la-la to myself going along the road, starting the tune again if I'd begun it on the wrong note. I never thought about it; I thought everyone could do that. I didn't find out it was 'special' until I went to a schools' choral weekend at the old age of 17, and the person I shared with had started humming a piece on the wrong note. Thereafter, it was a bit of fun, a party-piece - until I moved here, and found there were people who hated it, disputed it, didn't believe it and would be waspish about it until I cried. Whatever for? I didn't think it was possible for people to be so mean-spirited about such a little thing. Especially as it has only a 'maybe' connection to real musicianship.
I heard it hypothesized on Radio 3's 'Music Matters' a year or two ago that it's really a baby ability, the pre-verbal way that tiny tots start getting clues about the emotional content of the noises their mums and dads make before they can make sense of actual words. When they start getting a vocabulary, the skill disappears.
Makes sense to me; the difficulty lots of ASD folk have in getting language might help to explain why this skill is retained more in the ASD population.
This subject should be opened up more. It might tell us lots of handy things about how we learn.
Toodle-oo for now!

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Use it or lose it

I lost a blog the other day. Still lots to learn about how do do this. The connection timed out, and by the time I got back there it was, gone, magicked into the ether. That particular blog entry was further to the Furedi book, agreeing with him about therapy culture having escaped from its proper domain of treating ill people with moderate to heavy-duty difficulties and conditions, and spread itself thinly all over the place, trying to make the world a better clinic, and encouraging people to feel like victims, whether they are entitled to feel like that or not.
I wonder if this has anything to do with the great mushrooming of 'counsellors' in the last 20 years or so, which I deplore, I'm afraid. They're not like real psychotherapists - they aren't able to deal with the serious stuff but they may think they can, which is where damage gets done. I had the good fortune to have a real psychotherapist as a student counsellor once, before the terms 'Asperger syndrome' and 'autism spectrum disorders'and 'theory of mind deficit' had been thought of. This particular therapist had a good idea of AS nonetheless, as his mentors Winnicott, Fairbairn and Guntrip had realised the seriousness of probs that some of us have in relating and communicating. They used different names for these things, but in a sense that was immaterial; it was the understanding that mattered.
The therapy was light on psychodynamic theory and heavy on practical relating, which is the right way round for Aspo clients.
Thank you, JH! I'm sure you're still out there somewhere, as it's not that long ago I noticed in a Free Association Books flyer that you'd finally got the book written. I knew you would.

Monday, July 26, 2004

The Moth of Self-esteem

About lunchtime a big moth blew in on a fresh north-westerly through the kitchen window and got stuck behind the net curtain, which didn't help me identify it, but it really was a large one, with grey-brown forewings and what looked like a tomato-soup red splash on the hindwings.  It and I had a flapping session with the curtain as the moth wanted to be free and outside as much as I wanted it to, but was struggling in the draught.  Eventually it found the exit and took off, and, flap over,  I looked it up.  The only creature matching it is the Red Underwing, Catocala nupta, a nocturnal moth that flies in August and September, so it must be a new one that mistook the bad light for early evening.  I don't blame it.  This summer is positively Icelandic in its low cloud and low temperatures.

What's that got to do with self-esteem?  Not a lot if you're a moth, but I've thought for a long time that this concept is a) unhelpful and b) overused, but nevertheless attracts people to it like the moths to the proverbial light-bulb, and with no better effect.  I am reading Frank Furedi's 'Therapy Culture', and was pleased to find that he dislikes the concept of self-esteem as much as I do, and the authors he quotes (in chapter 7 mostly) have disliked it for some time too. 

I don't see how anyone can accurately deduce that someone necessarily has low self-esteem just from looking at them, or hearing them speak.  One or two people I know well have a vested interest in appearing mousy, down-at-heel and unconfident.  These folk happen to be somewhat melancholic and Aspergery, but can shine and laugh when they are not being socially observed, i.e. when that particular pressure is off.  They are all right on their own ground.  They may be unconfident socially, but that's a much more specific thing than the blanket condemnation 'You have low self-esteem'.  There's a big actor-observer difference here, especially if the actor is in any way autistic, and knows only too well that social 'rules' are a bit of a mystery.

Having said that, hopefully everyone looks a bit horrible in their own eyes now and again.  Without it we would never correct our own behaviour or develop our moral sense.  I hope the self-esteem promoters realise what it would be like to have a nation of vaunting egoists who never felt in the least bad about anything they said or did, who had no interest in correcting their mistakes, or even in knowing what a mistake was. 

Yeah, let's feel nice about ourselves - when it is justified.
Rant over!  Nighty-night, people.


Friday, July 16, 2004

Feel the fear and blog it anyway

It was said, I forget where, that if ordinary people are the dogs, then the folk on the autism spectrum are the cats.  Eating, sleeping, inhabiting comfortable chairs whenever possible - yep, I subscribe to that.  Not quite knowing whether to approach or avoid someone because they might stroke you or scare you, or do both at once - that as well.
I suspect Eric Berne was part cat.  He talked about stroking a lot.
Enlivened self sufficiently yesterday to get out of chair, put nice dress (even!) and posh ruby on, and go and celebrate birthday with friend at art gallery - yummy lunch and Newlyn School rural paintings.  Triffic!
Normal lethargy today; partially redeemed self by kicking off this blog, which I have meant to start for a while now, having informally collected untidy, scrawly, doodly ideas for same in the Rant Book,  a notebook for not being scholarly in, or formal or pretentious either. 

Let's not look naive because of failing to check what naivety looks like to more socially literate people, but, having said that, let's not show off by pretending to know more than we actually do. 
Redtabby feels that formality and pretentiousness are a health hazard for the autism-spectrum writer, as they inhibit spontaneity by seeming correct, and  are a big toothy rusty trap for the unwary; autism is a lot about being unwary.  Wariness about how what we do will look to others, although a major drain on our intellectual resources, is something we have to exercise every day in order to pass for civilized.
  Does that sound preachy?  Hope not.  Nighty-night for now.