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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Autism and the Social Synapse

Of course I find this fascinating.
The notion, essentially, is this - kids with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) are lost in a cognitive data fog.  Their brains have too many connections firing too much information.  Picture Superman's sensory overload in Man of Steel, and you have a visualization of what that could feel like.
Or better yet - look to our own world; social media, email, calls, texts, ads, traffic - we're all constantly bombarded by sensory overload.  Urban life is complex, integrated, busy; many people who love rural living point to the chaos of big-city life as something they want to avoid.
How many times have we heard social pronouncements along these lines:
 - too many priorities means no priority?
- multiculturalism can't work because you can't accommodate everyone?
- jack of all trades, master of none?
Social conservatives want a similar, less integrated world.  Big Government - a complex network that connects and coordinates activity across a broad spectrum - can't possible function well.
It's not "too big to fail" so much as "too big will fail."  Too many connections to be sustained, in other words.
Studies have shown that social conservatives tend to view the world in more black-and-white terms than those who commit sociology; there's right and wrong, no dividing line between.  Those who do bad things are criminals, are inhuman - there's no need to look to context to understand what's as plain as a shadow on the wall.  It's simple, uncomplicated, intuitive.
Look at the world around us and it's not hard to find supporting evidence; economic imbalances, ethnic conflicts, religious conflicts, partisan fights and class discord - it goes ever on.
Having said that, the history of human social evolution has been from the simple to the complex.  Small bands of hunter-gatherers have given way to communities, tribes, civilizations, nations, international organizations, multi-nationals, etc.  We've also become more nuanced in our understanding of what constitutes a human, justice, social justice - all things sociology.
The transition up is messy, and doesn't always hold, but the long-term trajectory is from simple connections to more complex, integrated ones.
If you believe in evolution, you know the same holds true on the biological level - from simple-celled organisms (which still exist) have evolved more complex organisms, reach all the way from the amoeba to creatures like us. 
Has anyone done a comparative study of our closest primate cousins to see what their synaptic count looks like?  How about other mammals? 
If it's not clear yet, here's the picture I'm drawing - evolution leans towards complexity.  Complexity is the integration of diverse elements into a functioning whole, like an ecosystem, or the body of an animal.  If our primate cousins have less synapses than we do, is it possible we've evolved from having less to having more synapses?  If so - do we sometimes over reach until the rest of our cognitive system (or perhaps our social system) catches up?
Taken from the other perspective - is autism less of a biological failing and more of an evolutionary transition?
Our complex society chafes in some ways, but allows for all kinds of development we couldn't do with mere physiology - specialization, healthcare, hobbies, science, massive social infrastructure, etc.  But we had to get there, didn't we?
The same holds true for all the cognitive development humans pride themselves on as separating them from other animals (or, in instances of racism, from each other); I'm sure the folks who first developed tools or harnessed fire could have been accused of having too many synapses in a comparison wit their peers, too.
But that's the thing - evolution is led by outliers.  A new note gets added before it become standardized.  And as with all things complex, we aren't generally fans of too many notes.
There has historically always been aversion to complex urban development and increased diversity of population, but it has progressed.  Connections and tangents have been lost, but new ones have been formed.
Perhaps we think autistic kids have too many connections; perhaps we think society has too many connections.  I'm sure other species could say the same about us - after all, most humans are absolutely useless in the natural ecosystem, expect as fuel.  We can neither fend nor fight for ourselves.
Together, though, we're something pretty special, aren't we?
Because we've learned to coordinate the various instruments into a band and compose the multitude of notes into a symphony.
Something to think about.

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