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tree frogs and coming to grips with a diagnosis of autism

Posted Aug 06 2009 10:53pm
I saw Jason today whose family has not yet acknowledged his autism. They will soon, as society will not allow them to continue explaining away his stereotypical behaviors for much longer. For now, from the perspective of his family, "he loves to jump and wave his hands!" and "he just doesn't like to talk much." and "he loves rocking in that rocking chair!"

It is all fine; it is not my job to cram some doctor's provisional diagnosis down the family's throats. I don't even pretend to know how difficult it must be for parents to come to this kind of acceptance - but I frequently see how long it takes to get there so I can imagine that it is not an easy path to walk along.

Anyway, I was intrigued today while I was listening to his grandmother make many assumptions about Jason's behavior. Jason walked near the refrigerator and the grandmother interpreted this as him wanting a bottle because she believes that he is emotionally regressing since the baby brother was born. It was a complex set of assumptions tied to the simple act of walking through the kitchen.

When he walked out of the kitchen the grandmother perceived that he was mad because he didn't get what he wanted. It is possible that she was correct but there is no reason to believe that her interpretation was correct. It was all created perception, and there was no external reality to support the perception. Again, it was all fine - but the complexity of her interpretation based on limited facts was intriguing.

As I drove home I realized that this was very similar to an article that I read about tree frogs. The author hypothesized that they urinated before they jumped because they were "afraid" of large predators (as if frogs pee their pants when they are scared??). The more appropriate explanation is that the frogs urinate because they lose a significant amount of weight and frogs that urinate before they jump are able to jump farther, thereby giving themselves a significant survival advantage.

The author was guilty of the same anthropomorphism as Jason's grandmother. As humans we have a tendency to interpret all kinds of behavior as cognitively purposeful when indeed it may not be. I am in no way suggesting that Jason is cognitively equivalent to a tree frog; rather, I would just point it out that the grandmother's interpretations of his behavior fall into the same category of fuzzy logic as the author that attributes the emotion of 'fear' to a frog.

Perhaps in the absence of data it is easy for us to 'fill in' information that is consistent with our own cultural beliefs or world view. This is an adaptive mechanism for people who need to make sense out of their experiences. There is no externally valid 'sense' to a child having autism, so this kind of emotional 'closure' most likely serves as an important short term survival function.
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