Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Autism - the earliest signs

Recently, I’ve been finding myself talking about Autism with an increasing frequency. Whether it’s about epidemiology, symptoms, perceived increases in prevalence or very early warning signs. Often we hear parents describe the onset of symptoms at about the age of 2.

A close friend with a one-year boy asked me just the other day if I thought her child’s head size was bigger than average because she was told that he’s too young to make assess for Autism. She was told for example to look for delays in language and/or the child’s ability to respond to his name, etc. I am over simplifying this particular case because I wanted to contrast these with the subtle and earliest signs, like lack of joint attention, gestures, or social reciprocity.

It is therefore imperative that parents chronicle the developmental milestones and share them with their pediatrician. The following are by no means definitive markers for Autism but signs that can be examined and discussed with practitioners.

At 4 months, is your child

   Following and reacting to bright colors, movement, and objects?
   Turning toward sound?
   Showing an interest in watching people's faces?
   Smiling back when you smile?

Other early red flags
     No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by six months or thereafter
     No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions by nine months or thereafter
     No babbling by 12 months
     No back-and-forth gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving by 12 months
    Loss of speech
     Any loss of speech or babbling or social skills at any age

In the second year of life common signs for autism may include
     Lack of showing
     Lack of gestures: pointing, reaching, waving, showing
     Lack of sharing interest or enjoyment with others
     Repetitive movements with objects
     Lack of appropriate eye gaze
     No words by 16 months
     Lack of warm, joyful expressions
     Unusual prosody (rhythm and intonation of language)
     Repetitive movements or posturing of the body
     No two-word meaningful phrases (without imitating or repeating) by 24 months

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Crazy and Social Networks

Over the years I’ve been on and off Facebook for quite a large periods of time depending on my perceived need to socialize, catch-up with people I had lost touch with, and perhaps unwittingly, and as one “friend” put it “stalk away” with an all knowing smile J to say it was okay.

We all know Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and some other sites have become the gold standard for socialization and the connectivity that such sites offer have made them compelling and for some people essential to daily life.

Some psychologists now believe that having a social network account is a sign of good mental health and, as evidenced by people like James Holmes and Anders Behring Breivik who didn’t have such accounts. So it’s a good thing I was tempted to reactivate my Facebook account – not a minute to lose.

Avoiding social networks won’t in itself make a person a psychopath, however, people who are prone to serious mental illness like these people are perhaps more likely to avoid such sites in the first place.

According to one psychologist, “Crazy people tend to not have a lot of friends and the ones they do have tend to not be very close. It’s not the lack of friends that make them crazy it’s the crazy that makes them not have any friends.

However, a person not having friends is not a rock solid indicator that the person will eventually go on a shooting rampage. Those types of things are traditionally very tough to predict,”

Friday, August 17, 2012

A jaw dropping idea

I’ve had a lot of lonely and soulful nights lately giving me the chance to think about how precarious life really is.  In those quiet times of contemplation one has the chance to ask what is this all about. What is nothing and does the world require things so that “nothing” can be understood.

What is nothing?. I know this sounds like a frivolous question. After all, we think we all have an intuitive sense of nothingness. But when we actually try to answer this question – it is an extremely, extremely question to answer. Everywhere we look, there is something there.

If we were to remove everything out of a box - the dust, the dirt, the air, every last single atom., what then exists in the box. Is it really nothing? Why this maters is because emptiness makes up almost the entire universe.  More so, it’s possible that understanding emptiness might help explain the origin of the universe, everything, and perhaps even why we exist at all.

Ever since the early 20th century when the strange structure of the atom was revealed each additional insight has fed into a radical new picture of how nature works at its smallest and fundamental level. A quantum mechanical description in which, against all common sense it seems to make it impossible to ever truly have nothing.

At the most fundamental level Nature is itself based on uncertainty. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is usually expressed in terms of momentum and position. That is the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. However, this Uncertainty Principle can also be expressed in terms of energy and time.

And this is the rub. In theory, if we were to examine a very small section of an empty space we could in principle determine how much energy is in that space very very precisely. However, if we slow down time - Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle tells us something very bizarre. It suggests that at these levels the uncertainty is so great that there is enough energy to create particles literally out of nothing at all.

So in truly tiny intervals of time and space something could be created from nothing. The truly bizarre implication is that quantum fluctuations may create and destroy matter. Some say that energy is borrowed from the future, particles are created, destroyed and the debt repaid quickly.

From this, the most jaw dropping idea of all is that matter we think of in the every day world - everything we see and feel might be nothing but the left over froth of particle creation and destruction.

One of the most profound and beautiful ideas in science and philosophy therefore is that quantum reality has shaped the universe we see today. Our universe may be nothing more than a quantum world inflated many many times out of quantum fluctuations.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sydney winter weekend, Psychopathy and Tony Soprano

On a cold Sydney winter weekend watching old reruns of the Sopranos seemed just a treat. Especially when other’s in my life are too busy contemplating their future address. Who would have thought I’d be prompted to work. I must have missed the episode where Tony Soprano’s therapist Dr. Melfi finds out that that studies show talk therapy doesn’t help psychopaths and that it may only give them an opportunity to test their manipulative skills on someone else and in some ways reinforce their psychopathic behaviour.

The Sopranos are after all make believe characters, albeit very well developed characters. As an aside The Sopranos, which focuses on the trials and tribulations of a fictional New Jersey crime boss and his families. For the most part, real-life “wise-guys” not only like the show, some believe they’ve been the inspiration for a few of the characters and plots. Art imitates life, and sometimes life is flattered.

So back to talk therapy – can it actually somehow enable psychopaths? A quick Google search did turn up that the study that is quoted on the show is real.

It’s generally regarded that there are no medicinal treatments for psychopathy, and talk therapy only serves to further the ability to mimic emotions. There is believed to be a genetic propensity in the cases of psychopathy, as the trait appears to run in families. As a possible genetic disorder, there may never be an effective treatment. It must be observed that one possible common cause of psychopathy is abuse.

Tony to his credit has done more work in therapy than most people. He shows regret, he feels pain, he expresses concern for others and when he isn’t being the “captain of enterprise” (read mob boss) he even breaks down.

Tony’s past isn’t much different from a kid raised by an abusive father who knows no more than the power of exacting pain.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mosman school kids and Piaget

In a recent article in The Mosman Daily school children as young as 4 had been asked to describe their city of dreams to help Mosman Council shape its plans for the next 40 years.

The thing that caught my interest was the way kids use language to represent objects by images. I am of course talking about Piaget’s work and in particular the stages of cognitive development. Piaget talks about the representation in the mind of a set of perceptions, ideas, and/or actions, which go together (schema) and periods in a child's development in which he or she is capable of understanding some things but not others (stages).

We know Piaget's theories focus on:

  • Children, rather than all learners.
  • The development, rather than learning per se, so it does not address learning of information or specific behaviours.
  • Discrete stages of development, marked by qualitative differences, rather than a gradual increase in number and complexity of behaviors, concepts, ideas, etc.
So here is what some of the kids had to say…

·             A 6 year old wants  “Waterslides, bumper cars and rollercoasters”
·             A 7 year old says “Horses that we could ride to school”
·             A 6 year old “Miniature cars that we could shrink to fit” and
·             Pet dragons that breath lightning

According to Piaget 2 to 7 year-olds learn to use language and to represent objects by images and words. Such as dragons that breath lightning.

Their thinking is still egocentric - have difficulty taking the viewpoint of others. Horses that we could ride to school

Classify objects by a single feature: e.g. group together all the red blocks regardless of shape or all the square blocks regardless of color such as Miniature cars that we could shrink to fit.