Socially aloof? Moi?

19 Jul

A New Scientist report discusses an intruiging new study that reports on how parents of autistic people process visual information. Turns out they do it very similarly to their autistic offspring:

The study evaluated how parents of autistic children evaluated facial expressions and found that they gauge the faces in exactly the same way as people having the disorder, despite them not being classified as autistic themselves.

And

They discovered that while those having autism had to make effort to read others’ emotions, all three groups of parents scored equally on the task, getting it right around 83 percent of the time.

But, when they paid attention to how the parents were judging the faces, it was found that the socially aloof parents with autistic children were increasingly dependent on looking at the mouths of the faces, and not the eyes.

“This bears a striking resemblance to what we have reported previously in individuals with autism,” New Scientist quoted Adolphs, as saying.

On the other hand, neurotypical people seemed to be more interested in looking at people’s eyes, in order to read how they are feeling.

This is yet another small cog in support of the genetic case for autism and a pretty interesting study in its own right.

“It definitely supports the idea that there is a genetic basis to autism,” says Angelica Ronald, an autism researcher at Kings College London.

One emerging theory is that behavioural traits such as introversion are passed down genetically, so if you have a parent who is introverted and another who is mildly obsessive, their child could be at increased risk of developing autism – although environmental factors are also likely to play a role as well.

The ‘social aloofness’ of parents of autistic people is something I’ve heard mentioned time and again, both online and amongst the parents I know locally to me. They (me too) tend to have few close friends and are quite happy with that, they are not big fans of smalltalk and are very happy with that. They have a few other features of autism too, which is again, not an unknown phenomenom.

I have heard some criticism of this study that it is tying to bring back the Bettlheim era of ‘refrigerator parents’. I don’t see how myself. That useless, unscientific idea expressley blamed parents for their children’s autism, stating it was a direct cause of bad parenting. This is is just an interesting take on how the parents of autistic kids in this study processed information in a way similar to their kids. The idea of blaming onesself for the genes you carry is faintly ridiculous anyway.

12 Responses to “Socially aloof? Moi?”

  1. dkmnow July 19, 2008 at 11:35 #

    ‘refrigerator parents’

    Pooh. Bruno is dead and buried. On the other hand, methinks I hear the loathsome door that leads to forced sterilization creaking open again…

  2. Kev July 19, 2008 at 12:13 #

    That is definitely something we need to be aware of.

  3. Maddy July 19, 2008 at 15:54 #

    Well with the New Scientist being a ‘British’ publication, I can see how ‘aloof’ might be their choice. I wonder what the American equivalent would be and whether it would be easier to spot?

    I wouldn’t wish to be too ethnocentric [perish the thought] but comparatively, Brits are known collectively for their [our] aloofness.

    I wish aloofness was a proper word.
    Cheers

  4. Sullivan July 19, 2008 at 16:07 #

    I’d like to respond, but I am too aloof.

  5. Socrates July 19, 2008 at 17:08 #

    One of the researchers, Ralph Adolphs from Caltech, commented “We hope this research contributes toward a cure for autism”.

  6. Dedj July 19, 2008 at 19:56 #

    The absolute worst thing that could come from this is a dismissal of parental input on the basis that any disagreement with the professionals involved is representative of ‘autistic misunderstanding’ rather than legitimate reasons.

    As a professional (albeit student) with clinical experience in autism , who is also in reciept of autism services, I hope that the subjective experiences of parents is never dismissed on grounds of (unconfirmed) diagnosis.

    I’ve had this happen to me and it really is a wholly negative thing.

  7. lurker July 19, 2008 at 20:41 #

    How can one look at someone’s eyes to read how someone is feeling, aside from seeing how far the eyes are opened and movements of the skin around the eyes? And since when has it been unusual for adults to have only a few close friends? I didn’t know they had time for so many friends.

    I’m concerned some researchers may be confusing introversion with autism and may obsessively look for traits of autism in the parents. I wonder how differences in processing facial information about emotions in the parents become inability to read emotions from faces in their autistic children.

  8. Kev July 19, 2008 at 21:46 #

    How can one look at someone’s eyes to read how someone is feeling, aside from seeing how far the eyes are opened and movements of the skin around the eyes?

    I’m not sure science is in a position to answer that question (maybe someone will correct me?) – but what they’re saying is that its happening. Its entirely possible to see _where_ on the face a person is looking when processing data. Even within my own humble profession (I’m a web developer) heat maps can be put to guide use such as seeing where on a web page most people look.

    I’m concerned some researchers may be confusing introversion with autism and may obsessively look for traits of autism in the parents.

    I don’t think thats the case in this instance. Face region of emotion processing is a pretty bang-on autistic trait.

    I wonder how differences in processing facial information about emotions in the parents become inability to read emotions from faces in their autistic children.

    Again, I don’t think science is in a position to answer that just yet.

  9. Joseph July 20, 2008 at 01:24 #

    I have heard some criticism of this study that it is tying to bring back the Bettlheim era of ‘refrigerator parents’. I don’t see how myself.

    That’s just a lazy way to attack a research result one doesn’t like.

    One emerging theory is that behavioural traits such as introversion are passed down genetically, so if you have a parent who is introverted and another who is mildly obsessive, their child could be at increased risk of developing autism

    No kidding. And in some cases both parents might be introverted and obsessive, and not necessarily mildly so.

  10. RAJ July 20, 2008 at 17:43 #

    Autism caused by ‘extreme emotional deprivation’ in infancy has already been brought back:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1809302?

    The children in this study were all diagnosed with an ASD using the Autism Gold Standard diagnostic tools ADOS-G and ADI-R.

    Bettlheim’s theory was that early emotional deprivation, the failure of mother – infant emotional bonding causes ‘autism’.

    Either emotional deprivation in infancy ’causes’ autism or that the Gold Standard diagnostic tools used for estalishing an ASD diagnoses is in reality ‘Fool’s Gold’.

  11. RAJ July 20, 2008 at 17:50 #

    OOPs, wrong link in my previous post re Romanian orphans diagnosed with an ASD. This should be the correct link address:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18093025?

  12. Brainduck July 23, 2008 at 18:01 #

    I actually did part of my dissertation on very closely related stuff.

    Briefly, people with ASD tend to show a more field-independent processing style, shown up by *superior* performance on the Embedded Figures Test (picking out a small shape in a large complex figure).

    Field dependence/independence in the NT population is one of the few reliable & valid measures of personality, correlating highly with measures of ‘introversion/extroversion’.

    Parents of people with ASD tend to show subtly different / better performance on the Embedded Figures Test – neither ASD nor exactly NT either.

    Can bung you a 5000-word lit review on the subject if you really want – brainquack at gmail dot com.

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