Saturday, September 29, 2012

Autism, ADHD, Adaptation and Randomization


Some time ago I wrote a piece noting how it seems autism is becoming a useful "disorder" to have.  (I used the quotes for a reason which I hope becomes clear.)  The post, "Autism: the next 'specialty' credential," tried to create a kind of choral effect between an essay by Adam Philips on the cultural definitions (always changing) of "mental illness," and a Wired article detailing the hiring practices of an "entrepreneur" (someone with money, or access to money, who can create little bubbles of reality in which to try out new definitions), Thorkil Sonne; he finds the "autistic human capital" uniquely wired to work in the IT field.  "In Sonne's native Denmark, as elsewhere, autistics are typically considered unemployable. But Sonne worked in IT, a field more suited to people with autism and related conditions like Asperger's syndrome. 'As a general view, they have excellent memory and strong attention to detail. They are persistent and good at following structures and routines,' he says. In other words, they're born software engineers." ( Thorkil Sonne: Recruit Autistics in Wired, 9/09)


...I have been able to come to no other than the unsettling conclusion that the meaning of an utterance is the response to that utterance and that the connection between the two is entirely conventional.  That is, meaning is not immanent in utterance.  If that is the case, as I believe it to be, it follows that any utterance is theoretically capable of eliciting all possible responses, and that all utterances are theoretically capable of eliciting but one single response....Two kinds of what we call insanity can be understood from this point of view, the one characterized by an increasing randomness and unpredictability of response, the other by an increasing limitation of response, sometimes to the point that any utterance elicits one of only an increasingly smaller family of responses, or even but one response...Thus, to humans the world consists--except for reflex responses not fed through the brain--of signs, to each of which all possible responses are theoretically possible....(Peckham, Morse, "Humanism, Politics, and Government in the Nineteenth Century.")


Recently, at the WaPo "Answer Sheet," there was a piece regarding children diagnosed with ADHD in public schools.  Here is the set-up to the personal narrative that followed.
There’s a group of students struggling through school rd to navigate that gets little attention in the media or in the debate about how to fix schools: Children with ADHD. 
ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a brain condition that makes it especially hard for children to focus and concentrate in school and has a number of other symptoms. It is too often misunderstood by teachers, parents and even the students themselves. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 9.5% or 5.4 million children 4-17 years of age, had been diagnosed with ADHD, as of 2007. Many others who have the disorder haven’t had the benefit of a diagnosis. 
Here is a powerful post by David Bernstein, a nonprofit executive who lives in Gaithersburg, Md., writing about the difficulties that his two sons, ages 7 and 15, have confronted in school as a result of ADHD.
I normally like "The Answer Sheet," and it seems a column devoted to defending the schools as the proper locus of our social commons, but this piece set my spider-sense tingling.  And it reminded me of the piece on Thorkil Sonne.
Greg Selkoe, the 36-year-old CEO of Karmaloop, a growing hipster media company with revenue of more than $130 Million a year, stated in a recent interview in Inc.: “I was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school and actually got kicked out of several schools before landing in one for kids with learning issues. What made me not do well in school has actually been very beneficial in business, because I can focus on something very intensely for a short while and then move on to the next thing.”
What is the goal of "marketing" the benefit of "disorder?"
Yet today’s schools insist that we prescribe our kids drugs to rid them of their hyper-focus.
 There is a concerted effort to redefine a social "error" into a "creativity" and benefit.


Social management may thus be more precisely defined as the limitation and channeling of semantic response to verbal and nonverbal signs and sign-constellations, or, in one aspect fo language, the syntactical, sign structures.  Against such channeling two forces are at work.  The brain, such is its construction, constantly produces random variations of response--or at least at present (1973) the process is best understood as a random process, the nonrandom being obedience to the conventions and practices of a situation.  Second, as situations change by the introduction of novel factors, semantic response becomes inappropriate.  By this I mean that both these factors introduce incoherence into families of semantic response--a social role, for example.  For interaction to continue, such incoherences need to be resolved...(Ibid.)


In a classroom, the inclusion students are often ignored.  What I mean is that the strategy employed is that of ignoring the "minor" distractions of a child who cannot seem to sit with a "normal" attention or focus.  Constant movement, if small and contained, can be ignored; a kind of running commentary, if quiet, can be ignored; even getting out of the seat and simply moving to another place in the room can be ignored.  Other things cannot.  Loud outbursts of any kind, which means any of the above taken "up a notch," cannot be ignored.  And all attention moves towards the student.  At that moment, what can be taught and/or what can be learned?  What behaviors are instructed?


There is no doubt that schools are failures of flexibility.  They are easily the most recalcitrant institution we have.  The law changes exponentially more often than our schools.  What is at question though is the way the schools are losing their public mandate; rather, the way the public mandate of a place of commonness, and ostensibly "equalizing" institution, is being made "unpublic" and so "uncommon."


"Yet today’s schools insist that we prescribe our kids drugs to rid them of their hyper-focus."

I just wanted to note the figuration here of "schools" as agents as I will return to this again when I post about the homeschooling essay by Paul Elie in The Atlantic.

Schools are institutions managed by the state, and currently the state is under aggressive management by self-interested politicians with economic ties to privatization companies.  

Schools are not entities to blame.  They are "policed" (we might see this as "policy-ed") by the very people who are elected to protect our public interests.  People are to blame.  Senators and representatives are to blame.  School Boards are to blame.  Superintendents are to blame.  These are the institutional handmaidens of self-interested power.


I'm a guy who would easily ascribe much of our "new brains" to the configuration of our social "entertainments" but also our "change-oriented" lifestyles.  Constant imagery, constant change, constant stimulus.  Why not see this as a kind of adaptation instead of a disorder?  Perhaps this kind of brain is simply not constraining its randomness.  That's probably a worthy adaptive strategy.  Should we try to squelch this?  Or should we find ways to nurture it?  Should we encourage all brains to "randomize?"

"Science" as it theorizes (blindly guesses) is a kind of randomization engine in itself.  The Wikipedia entry on ADHD makes it very clear that all of the data is speculative, to put it kindly.  Here is my favorite part:
See also: Hunter vs. farmer hypothesis
As ADHD is more common than 1 percent of the population, researchers have proposed that due to the high prevalence of ADHD that natural selection has favoured ADHD possibly because the individual traits may be beneficial on their own, and only become dysfunctional when these traits combine to form ADHD.  The high prevalence of ADHD may in part be because women in general are more attracted to males who are risk takers, thereby promoting ADHD in the gene pool.

Sure, why not?  But that's unhelpful to say the least and bases unprovable nonsense on unprovable nonsense.

A behavior is "dysfunctional" when it is not conventionally appropriate.  That in no way precludes it from being highly beneficial.  

"Social management" lacks the flexibility to see dysfunction from a functional perspective.  Perhaps this is exactly the benefit that Thorkil Sonne and George Selkoe proposes.  Even if their perspectives are manipulative for profit, they are at least creating another possibility, an outlet for randomness, an appropriateness.

For aeons Satan and the other heavenly beings had been thronged in serried hierarchical order around the Heavenly Throne, worshipping the Divine Being.  One fine day, however, Satan said to himself, "Really, there must be something else to do."  What happened can be put, I think, quite simply.  he had been engaged in a socioculturally validated pattern of behavior--a pattern validated, moreover, by the highest possible authority; a pattern, worse still, which he had been created to perform.  His sin was simply that he innovated and performed an alternative pattern of behavior.  (Peckham, "Rebellion and Deviance.")


  1. There is no such discrimination of any sort when it comes to looking at Autism as a special kind of disorder. Rather, it's the alleviation of their stand in society and realizing that they can do it even better than the usual people on the task. It quite amazes people how they're able to accomplish IT tasks smoothly.

  2. Hello, Jordan, thanks for writing. I'm not sure I understand what you're saying. Can you rephrase?

    Also, can you help me think about "free will" as determines "social relevance?" What I mean to say is, often, it seems as though we (the standard deviation humans in charge of other humans and animals and plants) determine a "good" for a being that may or may not be able to express agreement with us.

    I can understand making use of a skill set. But I guess I become wary of using a being AS a skill set.

    Thanks again,