Shifting the Stigma is Not Okay

In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, a wave of articles has appeared that have protested the almost immediate linking of the perpetrator with autism. As I write this, it has been informally confirmed that he did have such a diagnosis, but not whether he had been taking psychotropic medication at the time of his shooting rampage.

The unfortunate early mention of a possible diagnosis of Asperger syndrome was taken by many to imply that his being autistic somehow “explained” his violent criminal act. In fact, of course, autism is not causally linked with violence, criminal behavior, or mental illness.

Many advocates and self-advocates have made this point more eloquently than I possibly could, and have bemoaned the stigmatization that inevitably accompanies such false attributions. Ari Ne’ewman has written an eloquent warning about the dangers of stereotyping. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg has penned an essay on scapegoating. Emily Willingham has protested in a NYT blog piece (and, with her usual thoroughness, supplied us with many links to other articles and essays). My friend and fellow AANE Board member, Lucy Berrington, has written an extensive PT blog post containing links to and descriptions of many, many more such postings. Lucy has also put AANE’s statement on the Newtown incident on the AANE blog.

So, in light of all of this, I am very troubled by an article that appeared on The Atlantic website on December 19, entitled “Autism Is Not Psychosis.” The author “is a neuroscience journalist” according to the introductory blurb on the site, and I am familiar with her work. My critique here is not directed at the writer or her work, which I have always found to be excellent, and I’m sure her reporting here is an accurate reflection of current thinking in the field. Instead, I am questioning the state of the art on which she is reporting, and with which I find much to disagree.

Autism Is Not Psychosis. So far, so good. The title is spot on, and the article makes many good points. Along the way, though, there are passages that I find annoying, and the report contains much information that is, in my opinion, just plain wrong.

…autistic people are actually less likely to commit crimes compared to those without the condition. There is, however, another disorder that can both be linked with planned violence and mistaken for autism, which may account for part of what went wrong, in this instance or others. That’s psychosis, which can occur as part of schizophrenia or in some cases of severe depression or drug misuse.

Thus, autism is, implicitly, a “disorder” this is a very common description, of course, but I neither like the label nor think it is accurate. Many of my autistic friends agree with me that we represent a “different order” and that autism is not an abnormal brain condition. There is a fine line between difference and disorder, and psychosis seems to live not too far over that line.

At this point, I should insert my usual disclaimer that I am not an expert in the biology of autism. I have no formal training in this field nor in related disciplines, such as psychology and medicine. I have read widely, however, and have a keen interest in the topic, and I have spent the last few years trying to puzzle out why I am the way I am. Of equal importance, I have nearly 67 years of experience, living as an autistic human being. And, over the past several years, I have exchanged views with literally hundreds of other autistic people, as well as clinicians, family members, spouses, and so on; both online and in person. I think I have a pretty good understanding of what it means to be autistic, although I admit I always have more to learn.

One of the things that I have learned is that autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar (and perhaps other conditions, such as dyslexia) are very closely related. So, the title of this post is a protest against one of the themes of the article under review, which, as I see it, is to shift the stigma of associating psychosis with autism to associating it with schizophrenia, which in my mind is not much of a shift at all. To say that psychosis “can occur as part of schizophrenia” is about as inaccurate as saying it can occur “as part of” autism. Any person on the planet can have a psychotic episode, and many do. Some of those people will be autistic or schizophrenic or blue-eyed, but to say that such an episode is “part of” some characteristic is baseless.

Another perspective I have is that autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar (and related labels) are names given to brain-based differences that are perfectly natural and okay. The literature is full of pathologizing language, such as “disease” and “disorder.” If you start from such a premise, there is a natural human bias toward finding evidence to support it. This is a form of “motivated reasoning” where we start with the conclusion and find ways to justify it.

If, however, you start from a place of believing that these differences are a natural part of the human condition, you develop an entirely different strategy for dealing with them. And, in all of what I say, I do not mean to belittle the extreme difficulties encountered by many people who have these labels. I do consider autism to be a disability, because, at a minimum, living in an alien world makes every day a challenging experience. Trust me, I know.

Like autism, schizophrenia is now believed to be a condition involving differences in early brain development, which probably begin in the womb, even though symptoms may not appear until years or even decades later.

Early symptoms of schizophrenia can sometimes be indistinguishable from those of autism: they include social withdrawal; communication problems and restricted speech; odd, repetitive behavior; an apparent lack of emotion or emotional expression and often, lack of conformity in terms of hygiene and dress. In both cases, the symptoms can start in early childhood…

Perhaps the reason that the symptoms of autism and schizophrenia are often indistinguishable is that they are really the same thing. The latest brain-imaging techniques have failed to find a way to clearly differentiate the brains of people with these diagnoses. In a study published last month by Columbia University Medical Center, the authors as much as said they couldn’t tell them apart:

The study also uncovered an intriguing connection between schizophrenia and autism. “If we hadn’t known that these were two different diseases, and had put all the mutations into a single analysis, it would have come up with very similar networks,” said the study’s senior author, Dennis Vitkup, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Informatics, the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, and the Columbia Initiative in Systems Biology at Columbia University Medical Center. “It shows how closely the autism and schizophrenia genetic networks are intertwined,” he added.

Notice again the disease model. And, because psychiatrists have decreed that autism and schizophrenia are two different things, the scientists are trying to prove that, and are surprised when they can’t find a real distinction. So they say they are “intertwined” rather than identical. More motivated reasoning. I don’t want to get sidetracked into a discussion of this issue, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it, in greater detail, in future posts.

The Atlantic article contains some of the usual false sterotypes around autism, including the reference in the “indistinguishable” quote above to “odd, repetitive behavior.” These behaviors are not at all odd to the person engaging in them, but are soothing behaviors that ease anxiety. Likewise, it is said that symptoms “include social withdrawal” but that could more accurately written as “social exclusion” because most autistic people I talk with wish, like me, that they could have been more accepted by their peers during school years.

There is also the rather strange statement that “Both conditions [autism and schizophrenia] are also sometimes linked with extremely high intelligence…” Sometimes? Sure. About as often as in the neurotypical population. I’m not sure what “linked” means in this sentence, but there is no correlation between any measure of intelligence (either IQ or functional adaptive ability) and the likelihood of being diagnosed with autism.

The list goes on. There is mention of the “paranoid fears and delusions” associated with schizophrenia. In my experience, these tendencies are also very common (if not universal) features of autism. It may be that only when they become so pronounced as to be obviously impairing a person’s ability to get by successfully in the world that they are labeled as schizophrenia.

And then we have the empathy thing.

While autistic people sometimes have difficulty understanding the thoughts and intentions of others — an ability sometimes known as cognitive empathy or theory of mind– research finds that they are not impaired in “emotional empathy” or the ability to share the pain and pleasure of others. In fact, some autistic people have such high levels of emotional empathy that their distress about other people’s pain prevents them from actually being able to reach out and help.

Hurray! Some progress has been made. The acknowledgement that we have emotional empathy is a fairly recent development, despite the fact that autistic people have been saying that for years. But it seems we still have some work to do to explain to the neurotypicals who run the world that our theory of mind works just fine, thank you very much.

I think the reason there is so much misunderstanding about this issue is that the human mind is programmed with the default assumption that another person’s brain works the way ours does. Cognitive empathy is not mind-reading. It’s a thought process (some of it aided by mirror neurons and other brain devices) about “what would I be thinking/feeling/intending if I were exhibiting those same actions (including speech, facial expressions, and other cues)?” Because, in some important ways, autistic brains process information in a different way from neurotypical brains, people of different brain types will not naturally understand each other. I may not understand what a neurotypical person means by a given statement, because it would mean something different if I said it.

But cognitive empathy is a skill that can be learned. I work with many couples in a support group setting, where one partner is neurotypical and the other partner is neuroexceptional (most commonly with an Asperger’s diagnosis). The one thing that I’ve found that makes the most difference in improving communication within such a relationship is to develop an understanding on both sides of where the important differences are in ways of thinking about, perceiving, and describing the world.

Out of the sadness of the Newtown tragedy, I am hoping that (at least) two things will emerge. One is a public outcry to reduce the availability of the weapons that make possible such large-scale crimes. The other is a better public understanding of autistic people and those with closely-related profiles.

The article I have critiqued here is a supportive one that would not have appeared even a few years ago. Understanding is changing, for the better. We still have a long way to go. More and more autistic people are speaking up, as witnessed by this post and the many that I have linked to. We don’t have all the answers, either, and we can make make mistakes. But we do know what it is like to be autistic, and we know how we think and feel. Out of tragedy may there come love and understanding.

Neurobabble and All That

Neuroeverything

After reading a couple of articles recommended by friends, I am going to have to rethink how I describe my reading habits. I have been saying I devour pop-science books on neuroscience. (Of course, I do read a lot of other things, too, on evolutionary biology, philosophy, ethics, autism, and more.)

But it seems that a few authors (not the ones I read, of course!) are giving “neuroscience” a bad name.

Meet the “neuro doubters.” The neuro doubter may like neuroscience but does not like what he or she considers its bastardization by glib, sometimes ill-informed, popularizers.

A short while ago my friend Art recommended a NYT review written by William Saletan of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. I think what interested him was the idea that in today’s highly-charged partisan political atmosphere, Haidt’s appeal that we all learn from each other instead of shouting past each other speaks to an inner need for peace and friendship. I haven’t read the book (and the review doesn’t make me want to), so I can’t say if I agree with the reviewer’s interpretation, but there are aspects of the story that are attractive.

Haidt … seeks a world in which “fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means.” To achieve this goal, he asks us to understand and overcome our instincts. He appeals to a power capable of circumspection, reflection and reform. If we can harness that power — wisdom — our substantive project will be to reconcile our … differences.

Another friend, upon hearing of the first recommendation, directed me to an article by Steven Poole in the NewStatesman that slammed that book, as well as many other books.

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. … The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

[The] pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error … is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret [brain activity], and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view.

I have problems with both articles (I’ll get to that), but they are both thought-provoking, if nothing else. I will continue to read “pop-neuroscience” books (by which I mean books written for a general audience, as opposed to peer-reviewed articles, although I read my share of those, too!), with the emphasis on “science” as opposed to “how-to” or “self-help” books. Of course, the line between these categories is nebulous in places, because even the most serious scientists seem to succumb to the idea that their brilliant insights will somehow change the course of future research and lead the way to enlightenment and a better life for all of us. Still, I’d rather read upbeat and hopeful than “woe is us” writing.

The Importance Of Language

Some of my autistic friends are not fussed by certain words and phrases that I find offensive or misleading. I have active conversations on Facebook and Twitter (@mfwilcox), and I’ve had many exchanges on the use of language. I should probably write a post containing a glossary of all those controversial bits of usage, but the one that is relevant here is the word “neurology” which to me implies pathology, and I see “neuroscience” and “neurobiology” as being more neutral labels for the study of the brain. Several people have objected, saying that “neurology” simply describes the study of the brain, and not necessarily just “disorders.” (These friends pretty much agree with me, I think, that autism is not a brain disorder, but a difference.) Some point out that the words I prefer have been tainted, too. Reading the three articles linked above has made me aware of the pervasiveness of that truth. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg has suggested that rather than continually seeking out new words, we should reclaim the old ones. She says, “I think it’s up to us to reinvest the words with meaning.”

She makes a good point, but I’m also aware that

“If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. ” ― Lev GrossmanThe Magicians

And, of course, there is the delightful exchange in Through the Looking Glass:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Unfortunately, words do not always mean to others what we wish them to mean. I’m rather a big fan of making up new words. I’m sure I’m not the first one to use “neuroexceptional” but I don’t see it being commonly used, so I’ll take credit for promoting it. I think it divides the world neatly into two categories, “neurotypical” and “neuroexceptional,” and is more accurate than the autism-centric use of “neurotypical” to denote “non-autistic” people. There are other neurological [see, Rachel, I’m trying!] conditions that are closely related to autism, such as dyslexia, bipolar, and schizophrenia. People with such neural makeups would not be considered “neurotypical” but are not quite autistic, either, at least as that label is understood today. Says Poole:

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscience-explains-everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. … Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Before I finish up with more on “neurobollocks,” allow me to critique the Saletan review.

More Humpty Dumpty Words and Thinking

Saletan starts out confused, and it doesn’t get better as the essay labors on, although sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s the reviewer or the author who is being inconsistent.

Like other psychologists who have ventured into political coaching, such as George Lakoff and Drew Westen, Haidt argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational.

Two problems with this, one perhaps a bit picky; the other of more substance. George Lakoff is not a psychologist; he is a cognitive linguist. It’s true that he and Drew Westen have come to similar conclusions, but they do start out in different disciplines. More importantly, Saletan gets sucked in to (what is evidently Haidt’s description of) [the fallacy] of Cartesian dualism. Intuition and cognition are not contradictory or things apart; they are complimentary processes arising in the same brain.

This duality of experience would perhaps be better expressed as that of the conscious versus the unconscious (or subconscious) mind. We are aware of our conscious thoughts, but a lot of what goes on in our brain is outside our day-to-day awareness, and maybe not even accessible to us. That doesn’t mean we have no control over our subconscious behavior; if we have a bad habit, for example, we can bring it into consciousness and change our behavior. Or, we can at least try (think New Year’s resolutions!).

To be fair, Saletan addresses this bit of illogic:

The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But … Haidt’s account of reason is a bit too simple — his whole book, after all, is a deployment of reason to advance learning…

Bingo! The portion of the review that follows is actually quite good. He talks about the differences between individualistic cultures and collectivistic ones. Assuming he is accurately portraying Haidt’s views here, though, I have to disagree with the takeaway from this enlightened discussion. Along this axis, at least, I do not see the conservative (collectivist) view to be morally equivalent with the liberal (individualist) philosophy.

A Sidebar on Political Philisophy

Again, this topic deserves a separate blog post, so I’ll only skim the surface here. Western individualism, rooted firmly in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), stresses the value, responsibility, and reward of individual actions. Eastern and Native North American traditions tend to emphasize a more holistic view, with the welfare of the individual subservient to the collective good.

Modern American conservatism and liberalism are strange blends of these two worldviews, and libertarians seem to want to pick and choose the best that both of these philosophies have to offer, adding to the confusion. One of the slogans of the right, for example, is “individual responsibility” which sound like individualism, but it really isn’t. The “responsibility” is to the collective. Women, for example, do not have the freedom to decide whether to bring a baby into the world; it is in the collective interest that they do so. Liberals stress individual liberty, but only to the extent that no other individual is harmed. Thus, the rights of each individual are sacred, and it is the collective responsibility of society to care for those in need, according to this view.

Beliefs have consequences. We’ve all seen those maps and tables mocking the “red states” for their high divorce rates, teenage pregnancy, and so on; when these are the very things they preach against. I see these statistics not so much as ironic as being evidence of the outcome of a collectivist mentality. There is a dark side to this, too. Steven Pinker has documented, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that rates of domestic violence have little or nothing to do with education and wealth, and everything to do with cultural norms around collectivism versus individualism.

The Value of Diversity

Haidt believes in the power of reason, but the reasoning has to be interactive. It has to be other people’s reason engaging yours. We’re lousy at challenging our own beliefs, but we’re good at challenging each other’s. Haidt compares us to neurons in a giant brain, capable of “producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.”

The metaphor is a bit weird, but the basic point is a good one. We don’t learn and grow if we only talk with people we agree with. Haidt’s proposals for “civility” (civil dialog), however, quickly devolve into silliness. The review ends with the appeal I quoted near the beginning of this essay. Haidt, according to the reviewer, wants us to “reconcile our differences.” I don’t see how that is possible. One either sees individual rights or the collective good as paramount. There is no intermediate position.

Evolution is said to result from the “survival of the fittest.” Throughout most of human history, survival of groups required group cohesion. Diverse ways of thinking and behaving were not well tolerated. Things changed with the advent of agriculture and permanent dwellings. Society became much more complex, and specialized division of labor became necessary. Suddenly, creative thinking was valued, not suppressed. Still, this was only a heartbeat ago in the long life of the human race. Our genes still carry the collective urge. Our job, it seems to me, is not to honor that urge but to overcome it.

A Few Words on the Neurobollocks Essay

Earlier in this already-too-long post, I promised to comment on the NewStatesman essay by Poole (quotes here are from that article).

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago.

I don’t claim to be an expert on William James, but in my understanding “medical materialism” had quite a different meaning. Perhaps more relevant to this discussion is that the modern view of emotion (“intuition” if you will) arises from James’s understanding that emotions have a physiological origin. See page 182 in Subliminal.

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

Ah, yes, now we’re talking! One of the most informative books I’ve read recently on this topic is The Emotional Life of Your Brain. There are many others. All of this brings to mind (so to speak) one of my favorite quotations, “Ce que nous connaissons est peu de chose, ce que nous ignorons est immense.” (That which we know is tiny; that of which we are ignorant is vast.)

Finally, skipping over Poole’s critiques of other books and authors, we have

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

and

Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do?

This mockery may be ill-advised. I’ve participated as a subject in brain studies of mirror neurons, and have experienced heightened awareness when they have been activated. One participant told me she was able to see emotional content in text that previously had been blandly neutral to her. A subject for another day.

The Stockbridge Munsee Tribe

Chief Wilcox, Sherry White and Barbara Allen honor Mohican life in Stockbridge

The “Chief” of this headline is not an Indian Chief, but my brother Rick, the Chief of Police in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

As explained in this nice blog post, he has carried on the tradition of staying in touch with the original inhabitants of the town where I grew up.

Our grandmother, as mentioned in the article, was very steeped in the local lore, and had more stories than I could ever remember about the early days of European settlement.

Mohicans and the Berkshires

In this follow-up post, more is told of the history of the Mohicans, and how they left Stockbridge in 1785, driven out by the Europeans who did not comprehend (nor respect) the Indians’ concept of communal property.

Like many Indian tribes, the Stockbridge Munsee were chased from place to place. They ended up in Wisconsin, on a reservation.

It is a truism that history is written by the victors, so there is little awareness of the long history of the Mohicans in the Mahicannituck (Hudson) River Valley and the surrounding area. I’m proud that my brother is doing his part to help keep alive the memories, the history, and “to preserve and care for places important to the people of the Stockbridge Munsee Nation.”

A Special Autism-Friendly Screening of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

A Special Autism-Friendly Screening

London’s National Theatre in HD
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Saturday, November 3 at 2pm

http://www.mahaiwe.org/events.html
Recommended for ages 13 and up
$10 Reserved Seating

Here’s a nice article in the Berkshire Eagle about the performance, and my involvement in it. I will be leading the post-screening discussion.

Here’s another very good write-up about the show. I’m hoping for a good turnout on Saturday; part of our purpose here is to help build community.

And a short spot that appeared on WFCR in Amherst.

Mark Haddon’s internationally renowned, multi-award-winning novel is beautifully and imaginatively adapted into a stage play for the first time.

Christopher, fifteen years old, stands beside Mrs Shears’ dead dog, Wellington. It has been speared with a garden fork, it is seven minutes after midnight and Christopher is under suspicion. He records each fact in his book to solve the mystery. He has an extraordinary brain, exceptional at math but ill-equipped to interpret everyday life. He has never ventured alone beyond the end of his road, he detests being touched and he distrusts strangers. But his detective work, forbidden by his father, takes him on a frightening journey that upturns his world.

The event will include a Q&A with local speakers who will give their reactions to the performance, moderate an audience discussion, and help people share information on local autism resources.

Running time approx. 2 hrs. 40 mins., including 20min. intermission

Health Warning: Don’t Swallow Churnalism Whole!

This post is a commentary inspired by a brilliant essay by Emily Willingham. Brilliant in the British sense. Well, in the American sense, too, actually. In fact, all her essays are brilliant  it’s just that this one caught my eye a couple of weeks ago because of something that was in the news, and I’ve reread it several times since.

She warns us of the tendency of some lazy journalists to simply repeat what is in a press release, perhaps even linking to sites that are little more than advertisements. She mockingly calls this churnalism. The particular study she dissects in her post relates to autism and mice. Along the way, she makes several observations that are gems, and I share some of them here with you. If you find these interesting, you will love the full write-up by Emily.

In her first major put-down, Emily translates the sales pitch of the press release into plain language:

Professors … have identified a specific dysfunction in neuronal circuits that is caused by autism. …the scientists also report about their success in reversing these neuronal changes. These findings are an important step in drug development for the treatment for autism.

She tackles the “cause” thing later on, but first gives the translation:

What the researchers really found was that taking mice that don’t make neuroligin-3 and giving them neuroligin-3 mitigates the behavioral signs the mice showed because they lacked neuroligin-3.

I’m sure you can see the equivalence of these statements.

Continuing her snark explanation, Emily quickly makes an important point about autism:

…the protein [neuroligin-3] has been implicated in some forms of autism that are heritable. …what we call “autism” comes in many forms, probably by way of many pathways, with a huge range of manifestations in different areas. … In other words, the six letters in the word ‘autism’ represent volumes of variability in human expression.

This is a critical concept on the path to understanding the mystery that is autism. As I learn more and more about autism, I realize what a short distance we have traveled on that path. One thing that is becoming clear to neuroscience, I believe, is the fact that autism should not be described as a “spectrum” (in the sense of a continuum) because, as Emily says, autism comes in many forms.

Emily then pauses in her deconstruction to give credit where credit is due.

What the authors of this study really did that was worthy of publication in Science–and it is interesting–was show that the brain after birth is still open to targeted interventions that alter function. …the real take-home is what [this research] shows about the malleability of the mouse brain.

This finding is entirely consistent with the growing awareness and even amazement among neuroscientists that the human brain (and presumably the mouse brain, too!) is much more plastic (changeable) than had been known until quite recently. I have participated (as a subject) in brain research that has shown (definitively, from what I’ve seen, though I don’t think the results have yet been published) that autistic brains are much more plastic than typical brains.

The topic of brain plasticity deserves its own post, so I won’t digress further except to say that the understanding of this difference may lead to explanations for some of the differences that autistics experience (some good, some not so good), such as sensory overload and learning style.

Emily returns to her critique of churnalism by noting the seemingly inevitable morphing of a research abstract that barely mentions the hope of a human connection to a press release that emphasizes that angle, to a Wall Street Journal article that sorta forgets to mention (at least in its lede) that the research took place on mice.

Roche Holding AG, a Swiss drug maker, and the University of Basel’s Biozentrum said Friday the study identified a way to reverse a dysfunction in the brain’s wiring typically caused by the disorder [autism], which stumps intellectual development and can cause aggressive and anti-social behavior, and becomes evident in early childhood.

In my view, autism is not a disorder, but a different way of being in the world. I’ve written about this before, and I have much more to say. I do not wish to minimize the difficulties that autistics face, living in a world that was not designed for us, and putting up with the very real consequences of the stereotypes, myths, and misunderstanding of autism that are prevalent in our society. Emily parses the quotation just given to show how much mischaracterization can be packed into a single paragraph!

“Stumped intellectual development” is not a sign of autism. … Autism [is] not identified with “anti-social behaviors” but rather with social communication struggles. Not the same thing. How to describe autism in a few words? “A (neurobiological) condition of varying intensity (and likely causes) that involves difficulty with social communication.” Parentheticals optional.

Also

This study does not show that the ‘disorder causes the wiring’, rather than the likelier ‘wiring’s causing the disorder’…

Emily goes on to point out the long road between a research study such as this and the development of a pharmaceutical aid. The odds are, nothing will come of it, and even if it did, the end product might take a dozen years of further research and testing. But that does not stop the hype. I suspect research grants are not often given to scientists who say they want to study how the mouse brain works.

Emily’s post is followed by a dialog with a commenter that is intriguing. One of the threads in that discussion centers on the question of the prevalence of autism and whether it has increased and whether it is universal (i.e. the same in every culture around the world). They sometimes use the word “incidence” as if it were interchangeable with “prevalence” but, in my understanding, “incidence of autism” is an oxymoron, since one cannot “acquire” autism. But the exchange touches on a lot of interesting and unanswered questions, and serves as a reminder of just how far we have to go on that path to understanding the mystery that is autism.

The Importance of Voting on November 6

The importance of voting on November 6 

[A downloadable pdf version of this post is available here.]

Much is at stake for the disability community

by Michael Forbes Wilcox

 

Never Underestimate the Power of Your Vote

Many elections are decided by only a few votes. Recently, in one contest for the Massachusetts House, the election ended in a tie! Any seasoned observer of the political scene will agree that we should never take any election for granted. Enthusiasm can win an election, just as apathy can lose it.

Never Underestimate the Power of Community

According to the most recent data available from the US Census Bureau, nearly 20% of the country’s population self-reports being disabled. Almost 30% of all households have at least one member who is disabled. Add in other relatives, friends, and support networks, and it’s pretty clear that people who care about disability issues are a huge percentage of the voting population.

Educate Yourself on the Issues and the Candidates

Knowledge is power! There are many issues, critical to the disability community, being debated in this election cycle. At the national level (including the Presidential election as well as the race for US Senator in Massachusetts), policies and programs around such things as Medicare, Medicaid (MassHealth), and Social Security are all very important to people with disabilities. Find out what positions each candidate has on these key issues. There are many other issues as well, including full funding for the IDEA (special education act) and the recently enacted Affordable Care Act (healthcare reform).

Of concern to many in the disability community is the Congressional House Ways and Means Committee’s proposal that would have a dramatic impact on long-term care for individuals with disabilities. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, you need to be aware of the implications of this proposal for people with disabilities. According to The Arc (US), key elements would be:

* An $810 billion cut in Medicaid over 10 years (a 33% cut);

* Medicaid would be converted to a block grant to the states;

* The elderly and individuals with disabilities represent 25% of Medicaid beneficiaries, but represent 2/3 of Medicaid spending. A 33% cut to the Medicaid budget would disproportionately affect individuals with disabilities.”

There are also many local races, like those for Massachusetts Senator and Representative seats, that will elect people who will have a say in how the Bay State budget looks in the coming years.

In addition, there are three ballot initiatives (questions) to vote on this year, including one on assisted suicide, which some disability groups oppose.

Know How You’re Going to Vote Before You Get to the Polling Place

You should have your mind made up before you cast your ballot, whether it is at a voting (polling) place, or by absentee ballot. This will reduce the stress of the process and ensure that your vote is used to best advantage.

Resources

Most disability groups have positions on issues that are important to them. By law, however, they cannot support candidates directly, so you will need to get that information from other sources.

If you have access to the internet, there are plenty of websites that have information on the voting process, the issues, and the candidates. A list is provided for some of these at the end of this article. A simple web search will find many more.

Also, the Disability Law Center (DLC) of Massachusetts (dlc-ma.org) has a Voter Hotline. Call 1-800-872-9992 anytime to get information on the mechanics of voting, and on election day, you can call if you have any problems with getting to your polling place (they can arrange a ride) or if you encounter any barriers to voting, such as accessibility, or language, or anything else.

Here is a short selection of the many topics covered on the DLC website:

  • You must be registered to vote. Call the DLC or your town or city clerk for more information. Braille forms are available from the DLC. You can also get detailed information on the state website at http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/eleifv/howreg.htm or phone 1-800-392-6090

  • The deadline for registering is October 17. You can register in person or you can request a form by mail.

  • You can vote by absentee ballot if you expect that on Election Day (November 6) you will not be able to get to your polling place in person.

  • All voting (polling) places must be fully accessible, including the voting booth.

  • You have the right to be assisted, and to be free of intimidation or discrimination.

  • Voters under guardianship still have the right to vote unless the guardianship was set up to expressly take away this right (that is rare).

Website (Internet) Links

Secretary of the Commonwealth, Elections Division has lots of information, including where you vote, how to vote by absentee ballot, and the ballot questions: http://www.sec.state.ma.us/ele/

Disability Law Center http://www.dlc-ma.org/ then click on “Information” and then “Voting”

The Arc of the US- has a page with links to many issues that affect people with disabilities:

http://www.thearc.org/page.aspx?pid=2669

The National Disability Rights Network has a page on their website with links to 15 different areas of concern: http://www.napas.org/en/issues.html

The Boston Globe offers a voter’s guide that will list which candidates are on the ballot at your polling place, and gives information on their backgrounds and positions, with links to campaign websites, when available. http://c3.thevoterguide.org/v/boston12/

Finally, feel free to call on me. If I can’t answer your question, I will find someone who can. My email is mfw {at} mfw(.)us and on Twitter I’m @mfwilcox.

 

Editor’s Note: Michael Forbes Wilcox, a resident of western Massachusetts, is a member of the Massachusetts Special Commission Relative to Autism, the Board of Directors of the Asperger’s Association of New England (AANE), and the Executive Committee of Advocates for Autism of Massachusetts (AFAM)

 

This article was written for the Fall 2012 issue of Advocate, the quarterly newsletter of The Arc of Massachusetts.

More on the Mystery of Executive Function

Those of us who are neuroexceptional are known to have difficulty with many of the cognitive processes that fall under the general rubric of “executive functions.” Why is that? If I knew that answer to that, there would probably be a Nobel Prize waiting for me. Still, I have given this a lot of thought. My interest is a pragmatic one. Through intense self-analysis, I have gained control over some of the important executive functions (such as impulse control and emotional regulation), but I still am frustrated by other aspects (such as task planning and initiation).

In an earlier post, I recorded an (uncharacteristic) triumph over my bank statements. That victory was short-lived, and I am now back in that limbo of not knowing exactly where all my finances stand. This is not to say that I don’t pay bills as they come due, but I certainly don’t do it in an organized and optimal way; I have only a vague sense of anticipation and planning.

Why is this kind of planning so difficult for me? I sometimes use my poor sense of personal finance as an example of how autistic brains struggle with this thing neuroscientists call “executive function.” It is for me an ironic shortcoming because I made my living as a financial analyst. I could invent new investment products and strategies for clients to help them meet their goals. I could use my computer-modelling prowess to scan the world’s markets and tell which countries’ bond markets offered the best risk-adjusted value, where foreign currency exchange rates were most likely headed, which stocks in the S&P 500 index were cheap by historical standards, and so on. Yet, I could not keep my checkbook in balance.

Often as not, when I offered this example, people would look at me, puzzled, and say, “But lots of people have trouble balancing their checkbooks. What is so autistic about that?” And, they have a point. There has to be more to it than that.

As should be clear by now, I identify as being autistic. I began this post with the more general term “neuroexceptional” because I realize that there are many people with different diagnoses who share a similar neural structure, and one that is very different from those who are “neurotypical.” I will have more to say in another post about the neural similarities of autism, schizophrenia, bipolar, and some forms of dyslexia. Clearly, these are very different from each other in terms of behavioral outcomes as well as being very heterogeneous from the point of view of neuroscience, yet they all stand apart from the neurotypical brain structure, and may share some common characteristics, such as difficulty with executive functioning.

The mystery of executive function is multidimensional. I’ve recently read a couple of things that may shed light on this mystery, but before I comment on those, let me take a moment to better define what is meant by and what is covered by the term.

“Executive functions” is an umbrella term for functions such as planning, working memory, inhibition, mental flexibility, as well as the initiation and monitoring of action. [Chan et al]

The study of executive functions falls under a field known as cognitive neuroscience. A related field (about which more in a moment) is computational neuroscience. To oversimplify, executive functions arise from the prefrontal cortex, which is the last part of the brain to have evolved in humans. Right below that part of the brain lies the anterior cingulate cortex, which seems to be implicated in brain imaging studies as the source of some of the different behaviors associated with autism.

It is thought that the development of these parts of the brain is what has given homo sapiens the right to its name (“wise”). Humans are able, perhaps better than any other species, to use these newer parts of the brain to override signals that arise in earlier parts of the brain. Which is not to say, by the way, that older parts of the brain have not evolved. At one time, scientists speculated that emotions arose in the older parts of the brain (collectively known as the limbic system), and that intellectual functioning was centered in the cortex (the outer layer and newest part of the brain). This is now known to be an oversimplification, since these regions of the brain interact with each other in complex ways. Still, for purposes of this post, it may be helpful to accept this distinction.

The purpose of executive functions, then, is to evaluate (and potentially override) the impulses that first arise in other parts of the brain. As an example, it is clear that xenophobia was programmed into the human psyche eons ago. It is a subset of those reactions (“fight or flight”) we experience when we encounter something that is “off” – I see this behavior in my horse when I go for a ride. If we are riding along a familiar trail, but something has changed, he will shy away from it. I’m amazed at his visual memory, but of course it arises from a keen survival instinct. Similarly, it may be that when we encounter a person for the first time who does not look like us (different skin color, different clothing style, different behavior), we may shy away from that person. Does this mean we are prejudiced? No, it means that our limbic system is doing its job of alerting us to a potential danger. We can consciously choose to override that reaction if our cognition tells us that the person is not dangerous, but just different. If we end up treating the person as a danger or as an “other” (inferior) without just cause, then we are acting in a prejudicial way. Prejudice, then, is a cognitive decision, though of course it might be operative at a subconscious level.

Many other examples could be given, but suffice it to say that “the optimal deployment of executive functions is invariably context-dependent.” This means that every decision we make will be influenced by our experience, our values, and our reasoning power. This might be a good place to slip in a discussion of “wisdom” (which may grow as we age and acquire a larger storehouse of experiences), but I will use my executive functioning to override that impulse, and save that discussion for a later post! 🙂

Notice, however, that I did slip in the word “values” and this is where computational neuroscience comes in. A full discussion will have to wait for another time, because I want to focus on the subject at hand. The thoughts that follow were inspired by the book Why Choose This Book? by Read Montague.

In his Introduction, Montague states that our minds “are quite literally valuation machines.” He says that computational neuroscience “stands on the shoulders of evolutionary biology.” And, since that’s another of my interests, it all fits very nicely for me. He goes on to “propose a new guiding idea – efficient computation.” Essentially, the rest of his book is full of examples and explanations of how efficiency in the brain is both a physical property (using, for example, as little energy as possible) and a goal- (value-) oriented activity.

The point of this essay (yes, there is one) is that Montague’s book led me to think in a different way about why executive functions might be so difficult for the autistic brain. I say “different” because I already had done plenty of speculating about this subject.

My autism diagnosis came to me late in life (at age 61, just 5 years ago), and started me on a journey to redefine in my own mind who I am and where I came from, both psychologically and in terms of my inheritance. Many of the quirks that had annoyed and puzzled me all my life came suddenly into sharp focus, and I began a journey of self-awareness, self-understanding, and self-acceptance. All of this brought a sense of peace that I had never before experienced.

Despite my new cognizance, my problems and challenges did not disappear. The brain is plastic (it can be changed, or rewired), especially so the autistic brain. Yet, change does not come easily. I spent long hours of introspection, set goals for myself, and purposefully changed my attitudes and actions. I also had the aid of two different therapists and a partner who was willing to do mirroring with me to help me become a better listener, and to acquire an awareness that I did not have a monopoly on reality.

I attended conferences and seminars, I read books, blogs, and academic papers. I spoke to many different audiences, participated in panels, and helped teach a graduate-level course; learning as much from the questions and comments I received as I did from my own preparation.

When all was said and done, I felt I had a good understanding of how I had overcome my shortcomings in many areas of executive functioning, such as impulse control and emotional regulation. Yet, more remained to be done, and I was mystified as to why I was not able to make more headway.

Somewhere in Montague’s discussion of how the brain functions (not physically, but when thought of as a computing machine), a light went on for me. I’ll have a post with quotations from his book and more about what I learned from it, but for now let me just focus on one aspect. Without getting into an extended discussion of it (see pages 60-62 and 279 of the book), let me just highlight his observations that “the prefrontal cortex plays a role in working memory, task or context switching, and executive control related to both.” He combines this with the concept of a “virtual machine” (which traces its roots back to the autistic genius Alan Turing), a concept that “blurs the the distinction between a device and an algorithm.”

…the prefrontal cortex is capable of cycling through entire virtual machines for solving particular problems; each machine would use its own working memory contrived for a task, would have some kind of executive control, and would be able to task-switch … This is of course just a speculation on my part…

In my words: our brains cycle through a series of “what if?” scenarios, tries to predict the outcome of each, based on our experience and knowledge, and evaluates each one based on how close it would bring us to our goals. We are then poised to take the action that makes the most sense under the circumstances.

Unless, that is, you are autistic, and cycling is not an easy thing to do. If the brain gets stuck on one scenario and analyzes it to death, the cycling, for all practical purposes, comes to a halt, and indecision is the result. We have clearly entered the realm of speculation piled upon speculation, so the mystery of poor executive function remains just that. Yet, I feel that I have found fertile ground for further cogitation, and will report back when I have had some time to stew on it.

 

On Beyond Brain Plasticity

What is the Basis of Our Emotional Style?

Is it a birthright, based on our genetic inheritance, or is it something we develop as we age? The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is “both.”

In recent years, the old debate over nature versus nurture has taken a new twist.

It was once thought (not that long ago) that one was born with all the brain cells one would ever have, and that one’s genetic inheritance was pretty much the last word on the person an infant was to become.

Not so, in either case, it turns out. Our brains develop and change as we age and learn. Neural connections can become stronger or weaker; and new cells can appear, to replace damaged ones or to expand an area of the brain that is being heavily used. Even more dramatically, it has been clearly demonstrated in a wide variety of studies that even the genetic component of our brains can change over time. Our DNA itself doesn’t change, of course, that is our inheritance, but its expression can be enhanced or suppressed by life experience, including intentional experience (i.e training).

Here is an ancient (2004) talk on brain plasticity, given by Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist who “studies neuroplasticity – the brain’s powerful ability to change itself and adapt” (NB someone who wasn’t with it created a URL with the word “elastic” in it – which is, amusingly, the opposite of “plastic”!).

This is my third in a series of posts based on “Emotional Styles” described in the book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, by Richard Davidson with Sharon Begley, Hudson Street Press, 2012. The first and second of this series addressed my speculation that there is a distinct autistic personality style, but my takeaway from this book is that it cannot be identified as simply as by ranking a person on the emotional styles described by Davidson.

What, Then, is the Connection With Autism?

Even my casual readers will know that the amateur neuroscientist in me springs not from a random late-life academic pursuit, but is born of my deep interest in understanding my own origins and how I fit into the world. I am reading books, watching videos, attending conferences, and questioning experts because I want to know what makes me tick, what it is about being autistic that has made my life better or worse, and why. And, even more importantly, how I can use that knowledge to bring deeper meaning and fulfillment to my life, both directly and through the satisfaction of helping others.

Beyond that, I’m having fun! It is very exciting to have new worlds to explore, new myths to fathom, new horizons to reach for. There is something pleasurable about stretching my mind, and every “aha” is rewarding. I’ll probably develop more insight into why that is so, too!

I love it when patterns begin to emerge. It’s almost as exciting as anticipating the next symmetry event on my odometer. While reading the book that is the basis for these essays, I am regaling in the examples of brain function, which compliment and extend what I have already learned from other sources.

The Important Role of the Prefrontal Cortex

One such observation is the confirmation that the prefrontal cortex plays a huge role in many neural differences that I have come to associate with autism. Early in life (almost certainly in the prenatal period) the autistic brain takes an atypical developmental pathway. Brain size (and perhaps body size) seems to be somewhat larger for autistic people. There is a delay in myelination in the autistic brain, which may explain many of the features of autism.

It’s still hard for me to grok how much the behaviors we associate with autism come from delayed development versus how much comes from the secondary effects of such delay. By this I mean that delays in the appearance of certain abilities (as compared with neurotypical [NT] people) might create feedback conditions that influence development (usually in negative ways). I will have much more to say about this at a later time, but don’t want to get sidetracked here.

Suffice it to give one example from the book [page 68]: “… the prefrontal cortex, site of such executive functions as planning and judgment, controls how emotionally resilient people are.”

It is well known that this part of the brain is the last to fully develop. Even in NTs, significant changes and development go on well into the late 20s or even early 30s. Not that many generations ago, life expectancy wasn’t too much longer than that, which may be why so many cultures revere and respect elders; they were the rare ones whose cranial capabilities had reached the level of integration and understanding that is known as “wisdom.”

Here’s where it becomes hard to distinguish the cause or source of certain behaviors. I am, for example, swift to indignation. I am even quicker to blame – it’s almost as if I really believe I’m perfect, and therefore anything that goes wrong in my life must, by definition, be someone else’s fault, or the fault of the world at large. I mention these foibles not just because I experience them; I know from talking to many autistic people that these are shared tendencies.

Now, is my defensiveness (one might even say paranoia) a result of my autistic wiring, or it is a result of my life experiences? And, by extension, would the same be true of my fellow autistics? It could be some of each, of course, but I’m inclined to think it’s a deadly combination of being easily confused by the strange world in which we find ourselves and the fact that we have been told (probably every day of our lives) that we are doing something wrong. It’s not too hard to see how that could produce a defensive reaction, and create an underlying rage at a world that is not only unfathomable but unfair. When you feel unjustly accused of wrongdoing with incredible frequency and consistency, it’s hard not to start from a place of anticipatory aggression.

Obviously, this is all material for another essay. Let me just mention, before moving on, that one of my most difficult (and most rewarding) learnings has been to engage in a conversation –  after I think (know!) I have been wronged –  with a friendly, polite, and open mind.

Left Brain, Right Brain – More Complex Than Pop Science Would Have You Believe

Of perhaps even more interest than the role of delayed development to me is the hemispheric differentiation that may give even more clues to what is different about the autistic brain.

I will continue that discussion in the next post of this series. Here is a preview:

I’m coming to the suspicion that there is asymmetric delay in the development of the autistic brain. That there is delay has long been known. The left side of the prefrontal cortex seems to develop more slowly in autistic brains. This is associated with higher shyness, depression, and discontent. It is also associated with lower communication and social skills, though that is more likely to be centered in Broca’s area, also a left-side part of the brain (which is also thought to be rich in motor neurons).

Much, much more to come. Stay tuned!

Never far from my mind is one of my favorite quotations: “Ce que nous connaissons est peu de chose, ce que nous ignorons est immense.” (That which we know is tiny; that of which we are ignorant is vast.)

Is There An Autistic Personality? Part II

In which I continue my unscientific search for common features of the autistic personality.

In Part I of this series, I noted several discordances between autistic characteristics, as I see them, and standard personality types. I believe these will prove to be the keys to understanding (hey, wait, don’t keys “unlock”? – add that to the list – literalmindedness!) how an autistic person (especially an adult) might be identified in a reliable fashion.

As so often happens with speculations such as the one I recently made, “Is There An Autistic Personality?” I have discovered that things are not as simple as I had hoped. I do believe I am on the right track, and I will keep pondering this question.

What I have determined, however, is that if there is, as I believe, a personality style that is a tell-tale sign that a person is autistic, it will not be based on the “Emotional Style” described in the fascinating book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, by Richard Davidson with Sharon Begley, Hudson Street Press, 2012.

I will tell you why, and I will tell you more about this book, which offers much insight into how the human brain creates and processes emotions.

As I delved into the details of the book’s description of the six dimensions of emotional style, I ranked myself with some fun questionnaires provided by the author. As I did so, I thought about other people I know, both autistic and not, and how they might fall along the continua that were presented.

My conclusion is that, as with many other characteristics, autistic people probably have just as much variability as do neurotypicals. The quizzes were designed to produce a number between 1 and 10, and here is how I rated myself (I am fully aware the results might have been influenced by how I want to be, but I did do my best to be objective!).

  • Resilience: 6 – slightly slow to recover
  • Outlook: 8 – mostly positive
  • Social Intuition: 10 – extremely intuitive
  • Self-Awareness: 9 – highly self-aware
  • Sensitivity to Context: 9 – highly tuned-in
  • Attention: 4 – slightly unfocused

I believe these rankings are fairly accurate (I would be interested in the reaction of people who know me well!). Yet, there is nothing here that screams “This is an autisitic person!” In part, this may be because I have worked hard over the years to change some of these dimensions, and probably I have succeeded. As one of the commentators on my previous post, Lucy MB, pointed out, one could get very different rankings by transporting oneself back in time.

The author of this system is quick to point out that none of these characteristics is good or bad in and of itself. “Only if your Emotional Style interferes with your daily life and constrains your happiness, only if it prevents you from reaching your goals or causes you distress, should you consider making an effort to change it.” [page 12] He also adds that “Civilization couldn’t flourish without different emotional types, including the extremes – we need all types.” [page 11]

And, one of the major points of the book is that we can change our brains. The author cites [page 10] a study conducted by Alvaro Pascual-Leone of Harvard University, to support his contention that “the amazing fact is that through mental activity alone we can change our own brains.” [page 11] This is fun for me because I know Alvaro, and have spent many hours in his TMS Lab in Boston, as a subject for studies done by his research associates.

To circle back to the connection with autism (if any), the author states [pp. 54-55] that “Self-Awareness … can be beneficial in several ways. It appears to play a crucial role in empathy…” and “High Self-Awareness can also extract a cost, however. Someone … who observes the pain of another will feel that person’s anxiety or sadness in both mind and body…

I know that I am a highly empathic person, and most autistic people whom I have asked about empathy feel that they share that characteristic. Speaking for myself, and supported by others who agree with me, I believe that the myth that autistic people are not empathic arises from the observations of others who see us responding with little or no outward emotion. What in fact happens is that when we see another person, or a non-human animal, in distress, we are so overwhelmed by emotion that we shut down emotionally so as not to experience the pain.

I oversimplify, of course, because there are other aspects of the dynamic, including our own experience of what happens if we express our emotional distress. More likely than not, we were told that what we did was wrong. So, we may choose, if only intuitively, to avoid any reaction so as not to be scolded or punished for it.

Empathy: a topic for another day!

Part III: On Beyond Brain Plasticity

Fledging From Free Food to Freedom

Yesterday was fledging day at my house. For several weeks, as I awoke at first light, I was greeted by the chirping of what was clearly a large crop of nestlings, as their parents brought them their breakfast. Finally, the day had come for them to leave the nest and fend for themselves.

What is it that makes creatures realize that the moment has arrived? A couple of years ago, while on vacation in North Carolina, I was treated to the sight of a sea turtle nest undergoing what is called a “boil” – the frenetic activity of hatchlings rising through the sand to the surface and heading down the beach toward the ocean. A single nest can contain dozens of eggs, and they sit there doing their thing for several weeks. Then, of a sudden, all of the wee ones know that the time is upon them – they break through their shells and claw their way to the surface. How is it that they all do this within minutes of each other?

Similarly, what was the signal that told the little birds above my bedroom that it was their time to fly? Instead of their usual gentle chirping, there was a clamorous scramble for the exit. Their nest is situated behind the gable above the windows of my bedroom. There are ventilation slits, and between these and the attic is a screen to keep critters out, but there is just enough space there to construct a nest that is well-protected from the elements.

Judging from the noise, the space must have been fully occupied. As they all scrambled to escape the small confines of the nesting area, there was much squawking and jostling. Then, one by one, a missile would drop past my window and find its way to the nearby maple tree. They all gathered together on the tree, hopping from one branch to another. Then, as if by signal, they all launched themselves into space and tried out their new aeronautic abilities.

Most seemed to do quite well immediately, but two or three were a bit disoriented. A couple of them flew back toward the nest, and mistook the lights of my windows to be open air. Fortunately, they had not built up much speed in the few feet from the tree to the house, so their discovery of the hardness of glass did not seem to harm them at all. My house is oriented to true north (built by a Freemason, no doubt!), and my bedroom is at the south end. I also have a window on the west side of the house, and despite the fact that the blinds were drawn, I could see the shadow of one of the birds as he fluttered against the glass, trying to get in. After a few vain attempts, he gave up and joined his nestmates on the tree.

I’m not certain what species my temporary tenants were, though they could be phoebes or some similar bird. I was reminded, by their evident joy, of a similar incident I witnessed in my youth. As a teenager, I had a job working at the Garden Center in Stockbridge (now known as the Berkshire Botanical Garden), and one day, as I was mowing the lawn, I paused to watch some young swallows who had obviously just fledged. They flew high into the air and then plunged straight down, only to swoop back up just before they reached the ground. They flew in circles and then repeated the whole performance, weaving among and between each other in a glorious celebration of being alive.