lisa feldman barrett and autism

Since I’m interested in both neuroscience and critical theory, I was excited to hear about Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions are Made.

The implications go against two major themes in the autism literature.

First, if emotions are socially constructed, and the evidence for universal human emotions is fatally flawed, can Simon Baron-Cohen please shut the fuck up about the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test? There are simply no universal correspondences between facial expressions, bodily states, patterns of brain activity in a scanner, and particular emotions. This isn’t the same photo used in the book, but it’s very similar:

Serena Williams of the U.S celebrates a point against Christina McHale of the U.S during their women’s singles match on day five of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in London, Friday, July 1, 2016. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

If you crop out her body and the surrounding context and just ask what the facial expression means, you’re unlikely to get an accurate answer.

So there’s one corner of the autism field that’s busy spreading the harmful idea that autistic people lack empathy.

Second, look at Barrett’s prescription for childrearing:

This is highly consistent with what Peter Fonagy and the mentalization people have been saying about childrearing in the context of borderline personality disorder.

It’s highly inconsistent with the practices of ABA, the mainstream advice on parenting autistic children. How are they supposed to learn theory-of-mind from parenting practices that come from behaviorism, the idea that it doesn’t matter if they have minds as long as you can control them? The child’s exposure to language and socialization will be totally impoverished and abnormal, impairing their capacity to relate to other people and regulate their feelings. Those problems, in turn, are blamed on the scourge of autism.

Really, we already knew that child abuse harms child development. People are just really slow to understand that ABA is abusive.

In short, Barrett’s ideas have a lot of potential to be good for autistic people. I can see in my own life that learning new vocabularies unlocks options in life. It’s all very intuitive to me because I’m on the hyperlexia end of things.

I was disappointed when I got to her book’s brief treatment of autism:

When prediction error from the world dominates prediction, you can have anxiety. Suppose you couldn’t predict at all, ever. What would happen?

For starters, your body budget would be screwed up because you couldn’t predict your metabolic needs. You’d have difficulty integrating sensory input from vision, hearing, smell, interoception, nociception, and your other sensory systems into a cohesive whole. You’d therefore have impaired statistical learning, making it difficult for you to learn basic concepts, even to recognize the same person from different angles. Many things would be outside your affective niche. If you were an infant in that situation, you’d most likely be disinterested in other humans; you’d stop looking at the faces of your caregivers, making it harder for them to regulate your highly disrupted body budget, breaking a crucial bond. You would also have trouble learning purely mental concepts of social reality because they’re learned with words, but you’re disinterested in humans so you probably have difficulty learning language. You’d never grow a proper conceptual system.

In the end, you’d exist in a constant stream of ambiguous sensory input with few concepts to help you make sense of it. You’d be anxious all the time because sensations are unpredictable. In effect, you’d have a total breakdown of interoception, concepts, and social reality. In order to learn at all, you’d need your sensory input to be very consistent, even stereotyped, with as little variation as possible. I don’t know about you, but to me, this collection of symptoms sounds just like autism.

Clearly, autism is an incredibly complex condition and a gigantic area of research, and it can’t be summed up in a handful of paragraphs. Autism is also hugely variable, a term applied to a wide spectrum of symptoms that probably have multiple, complex causes. All I’m saying is: the possibility is intriguing that autism is a disorder of prediction.

Follow the link for background on autism and prediction error. I agree that it’s an interesting idea.

That said, it’s bizarre to read the above as a description of my inner life! I think it demonstrates an awful truth about autism research, though. Barrett learned about autism from non-autistic researchers, and what she learned from them was insulting and offensive. Because that’s how autism research is. It’s a mix of insights and insults.

This is how her impression of autism compares to my experience:

I think increased excitability and synaptic plasticity is part of what autism is. Autism and epilepsy are related. Subjectively, it’s absolutely true that too much new stuff will lead to overload, causing shutdown or meltdown depending on the level of agitation. Uncertainty requires anxious vigilance, which is exhausting. So far so good.

That’s hardly the same as not being able to predict “at all, ever.” Autistic people are great at noticing patterns.

But it’s true that interoception is probably weird. I forget to eat, drink, stretch. It’s a big jump from there to being “unable to learn basic concepts.” Some amount of prosopagnosia is also common.

I’m told that I made eye contact as a baby, but I’m not sure that’s the only way of bonding with parents. My mom carried me around a lot, and both parents pushed me around a lot in a stroller, sometimes just sitting there in the living room pushing it back and forth. Autistic people like rocking, and I’m told the vacuum cleaner calmed me down.

It’s not clear to me that not speaking out loud is the same thing as “lacking a proper conceptual system.” I have social difficulties from being better at abstraction than most people. Autistic people are said to think concretely and to be good at math, which makes no sense.

About nonverbal people’s conceptual skills:

So you need to know about Kimba.

I met Kimba three years ago. I walked into the lifeskills classroom at the middle school, and he was moaning and flapping in the corner. I kind of wanted to do the same thing but I didn’t, which meant that the teachers mistook me for a neurotypical like them, which meant that the first thing I got to learn about Kimba was that “he just tried to throw a chair at me.”

I learned a lot of other things about Kimba in the next few days. I couldn’t sit within four feet of him, because he would attack me—he didn’t like anyone except his aide, and he went after her pretty regularly too. He had successfully convinced the teachers for an entire semester that he couldn’t read at all, only to be foiled when they gave him a puzzle of animal names and he completed it perfectly. The only words he said were “NO!”, “BUH-BYE!”, and “ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR-FIVE!”, screamed like something was breaking. About a month after I first met him, I learned two more things: he was a foster child, and the previous night he had attempted to beat his foster mother to death and had almost succeeded.

Here’s what I learned about Kimba over the next three years: he is incredibly intellectually gifted. He taught himself to read. He has a system in which he classifies every person he encounters as a different animal based on personality, appearance, relationship and attitude towards him, and the pleasantness of their encounter. He may be autistic, he may have various brain injuries, he might be selectively mute, he definitely had lead poisoning. He uses language obliquely, employing rich and innovative metaphors. He analyzes the symbolism in Disney movies, but his favorite television series is Kimba The White Lion. He taught himself how to use Google. He speed-reads. He spent the first nine years of his life in one of the most horrifically abusive environments my state has on record.

I’ve noticed my own seemingly miraculous ability to perceive sentience in autistic people who don’t talk. It’s actually something that’s wrong with normal people’s humanity. However, mine is frequently called into question based on Reading the Mind in the Eyes and other contrived laboratory things.