Category: Autism

Who let the dogmas out?

Have you ever noticed how irrationalities (a) tend to cluster, (b) tend to offer hope to the desperate, and (c) tend to appeal to folks with strongly held dogmatic beliefs? No? Well here’s an interesting example of the genre:


December 2015 edition (Original image posted by petepuskas to r/ireland)

Get a load of Alive!, a FREE Catholic newspaper produced in Dublin, Ireland. The magazine has a reputation for being, shall we say, a tad conservative (even by Catholic standards), having famously in the past spoken out against against marriage equality, feminism, the European Union, and what Wikipedia describes as “the veracity of global warming [and] the perceived anti-Catholicism of the environmental movement in general.”

For good measure, Alive! has a big problem with people like me:


…as opposed to god-fearin’ psychology (Pic: Wikipedia)

In fact, by and large, the publication has some interesting (and at times hilariously so) views on education:


And this is where the science (or rather lack of it) comes in. Take another look at the December 2015 cover and you’ll see the headline “Children with autism given their voice.” This reports on a technique known as the Rapid Prompting Method, which purports to enable previously uncommunicative children with autism to convey their views and feelings. Here is Alive!‘s own description:

Dramatic changes in children’s lives have been brought about by a revolutionary new teaching method for people with autism. Rapid Prompting Method was introduced to Ireland by a group of Mayo parents…They discovered it online and brought trainers here from the USA to try it with their children, holding the first RPM workshop in 2013.

There the trainer showed that [the parents’ child who has autism] could understand normally and could already spell. By the end of the workshop he was communicating with his parents for the first time.

RPM holds that autism is not a lack of intelligence in a child but a difficulty in motor control and a lack of speech. The child is taught to point to letters on a letter-board and spell his or her answers. Eventually pupils learn to spell on a keyboard or an iPad that speaks for them. It is very successful with people with autism who have no, or limited, speech.

All of this sounds great, of course. The problem, however, is that RPM is a scientifically controversial practice. Readers may be familiar with an already disgraced method of doing more or less the same thing, known as Facilitated Communication. Facilitated Communication was shown to be misleading because the helpers doing the facilitating were succumbing to “a subtle process in which well-intended facilitators were answering questions themselves – without any awareness that they were doing so.” As a result, the American Psychological Association published a statement dismissing Facilitated Communication as a bogus treatment.

RPM is effectively Facilitated Communication repackaged for the iPad generation.

Here is a link to a paper published in the journal Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention. Despite running to nine pages, the paywall-savvy authors neatly frame their conclusion in the title of their review:

The only study investigating the rapid prompting method has serious methodological flaws but data suggest the most likely outcome is prompt dependency

That’s some title. (You can tell these folks are communication experts.)

Here’s another paper where the authors describe RPM as a “strategic rebranding…and repackaging” of Facilitated Communication. Moreover, the approach comprises

old tactics that capitalize on confirmation bias, pseudoscience, anti-science, and fallacy

and because it perverts the values of independence and dignity of people with autism, it

suppresses self-determination, usurps voices, and obstructs the development of a personal identity of people with disabilities.

That paper is not behind a paywall and can be downloaded in full from here.

And here’s a short article that classifies RPM as a “questionable autism approach,” concluding that:

Both Facilitated Communication and Rapid Prompting Method are unsubstantiated and — due to the need for facilitators — expensive attempts to help nonverbal children with autism learn academic materials and communicate independently. Both methods should be avoided by parents, especially in light of available AAC strategies that do not introduce the opportunity for facilitator co-option. Ensuring that our children’s gains are honestly their own and that the communication they engage in is genuine should be every parent’s and educator’s priority.

In short, the Rapid Prompting Method is not just an ineffective means of finding out what persons with autism might be thinking, it is an exploitative and undermining technique that demeans the person being facilitated. It offers false hope to parents and caregivers (“It’s like meeting your child for the first time,” said one parent in Alive!). And by purporting to reveal ‘hidden’ intelligence that would otherwise go unrecognized, it bolsters the view that ‘low’ intelligence in one’s child is somehow unacceptable to countenance. As such, it perpetuates a stigma against persons with authentic intellectual disability.

The strange thing is how such a method becomes a popular cause for particular interest groups. Already, in Ireland, RPM has been championed by a popular gospel singer and a prominent right-wing conservative parliamentarian, as well as getting front-page coverage in Alive! 

Maybe it’s because stuff like this happens. Here’s Alive! again:

[One child] did his first workshop in August 2014. “Now we realise that he can spell and read, even though he was never taught,” says his mother…He can tell his parents when he is in pain and how he feels after a seizure…He has expressed deep faith in God and that it was his belief in Jesus that sustained him during his long years of silence.

And what exactly did the mother — using RPM — discover this child wanted to say?

“I believe Jesus is just waiting. Go to him. Spend time with Jesus. Mother Mary is only wishing with all her heart that you love Jesus. The moment you start to roam you might regret leaving this loving person.”

Hmm. For the record,

[this child’s] parents were told he had a mental age of 2.

Presumably they were told that by those pesky secular psychologists…

Why ‘Inside Out’ is kind of interesting


Metaphors are powerful tools. Similes are like tools. And tools are — well, tools are just tools. Now, of the three statements just made, only the last (‘tools are tools’) is truly indisputable. And yet for many people it will be the least interesting, the least compelling. Such is the power of metaphor. Metaphors are smart.

Inside Out — the Pixar movie that everyone’s raving about — takes the metaphor gun and blows the audience’s brains out with it. But does that mean it’s as smart as everyone says it is?

People certainly are raving about this movie. It has been praised for encapsulating elaborate philosophy with heretofore unattained clarity. It has been lauded for providing a framework for children and adults to better understand mental health and illness. It has even been credited with helping previously unreachable autistic kids communicate their emotions to therapeutic effect. And it has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. You’ll probably want to go see it.

Across a series of reviews, The Guardian described it as “high IQ family entertainment“, “a metaphysical mouldbreaker“, and “a crash course in PhD philosophy.” One of its reviewers was the prominent British philosopher Julian Baggini, who completed a (real) PhD in the relevant subject matter, as well as a well received book. He thought Inside Out “succeeds brilliantly” at being among the best children’s movies, and “reflects some of the most important truths about what it means to be an individual person.”

Baggini’s review attaches particular merit to the way the movie depicts Riley’s “self” as comprising the sum of different and competing impulses, rather than a single autobiographical inner monologue. He also really likes the way the movie shows the various parts of a person’s selfhood to be impermanent and shifting, and the importance of memory for gluing everything together. As he describes it, our self is the end-product of many ongoing processes, with nothing permanent at its core.

From the perspective of contemporary scientific psychology, this is all fair enough. But is it really that astounding? Inside Out uses as its paradigm some well established psychological perspectives on consciousness. Its success is in bringing these to a new audience — and in explaining them in ways that (even?) children can comprehend. But in my view the content itself is just not that profound.

In fact, the content has many imperfections. For example, the whole storyline implies that our emotions are (a) finite in number, and (b) separately functioning impulses that jockey for influence over our thoughts and motivation. In reality, emotions are far more confused and are not so easily disentangled. This is shown in the movie itself when the various emotion characters themselves feel mixtures of different feelings: sometimes Joy experiences sadness and fear, at other times Fear exhibits joy, and throughout Sadness expresses, if not quite joy, then at least intermittent satisfaction or happiness. Individual emotions cannot and do not function or exist in isolation. And it is misleading to suggest that we have just five (or so) of them. Instead, our thought processes are permanently addled by a hotchpotch of multidimensional and often ambiguous emotionality.

Some questions might help explain the point. Firstly, how might the Inside Out model explain negative emotions such as shame? How might it explain emotions that are partly negative and partly positive, such as schadenfreude? Secondly, are there not several different types of every single emotion (for example, different types of happiness)? And thirdly, straight from Philosophy 101, if Riley has all these little characters (the philosophical term is ‘homunculi‘) running the show inside her mind, then who is running the show inside the minds of each of these little characters? Do they have a team of homunculi inside their minds too? And if they do, then who is running things inside the minds of these homunculi? More homunculi? You can see where such a metaphor is limited. It isn’t.

The contribution of Inside Out is not its explanation of the mechanics of the human psychological self. This explanation — involving competing emotional impulses, ephemeral islands of identity, and the nuances of memory storage and retrieval — combines a number of different theories from mainstream academic psychology. Many of these theories are decades if not centuries old, and some are hampered by unresolved shortcomings. Nope, the really groundbreaking impact of Inside Out is the very fact that audiences get to see any of these ideas portrayed on-screen at all.

It is something of a sad commentary on the profile of academic psychology that its theories can seem so awe-inspiring to movie audiences. When psychologists use a series of mechanical metaphors to depict what goes on inside your head, they are ignored. When Pixar do it, they are heralded as geniuses.

Now I’m not saying this because I’m jealous of Inside Out and feel that psychology should get more credit. Actually, that’s the opposite of what I feel. I’m saying this because I worry that people might eventually notice where these theories come from and then draw false conclusions about psychology. They might conclude that it is psychologists who are imaginative geniuses and that they deserve, I don’t know, maybe Oscars.

In many ways, Inside Out is a terrific movie and I’m sure it will continue to get many many accolades. However, the praise should be for its imagery, story-telling, dialogue, sentimentality, conciseness, clarity, and suspense. We shouldn’t simply assume that a structured effort to explain or depict human cognition marks a movie out as some kind of intellectual landmark of culture.

Being comfortable citing concepts from academic psychology — in other words, talking like a psychologist — is not synonymous with having a “high IQ”.

Take my word for it. I know a lot of psychologists.

What ‘Science By Press Conference’ looks like

Exhibit A: 1989 and Pons and Fleischmann announce cold fusion — an “inexhaustible source of energy” — at a press briefing in Utah, before they had applied for patents or published their technology. Too bad they were just plain wrong. I bet they feel embarrassed now.



Exhibit B: 2002 and five-word headlines circle the globe as Clonaid announce their human cloning activities. Twelve years on, and we’re still waiting for any evidence whatsoever of said clone.



Exhibit C: The WHO issue a press release concerning a yet-to-be-published paper on mobile phones and brain cancer. The world media reports a definite causal link, even though the yet-to-be-published-paper was (a) unseen by everyone in the world media, (b) focused on only a small subset of possible cancers, and (c) was merely a document where a group of boffins “discussed and evaluated” the available research literature, rather than a new study bringing new data to bear on the issue.


* * *

And finally, apropos of nothing at all, and arising just randomly from miasmic boredom of a Bank Holiday, here is today’s Irish Indo front page…

(Pic: Twitter)

(Pic: Twitter)

Hmmm. Stream of consciousness, eh?

Here are some observations on that story featured in the main headline. Continue reading “What ‘Science By Press Conference’ looks like”

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