Steve Silberman on Autism in Pop Culture- Today on CBC Radio Q with Gian Gomeshi

Today on Q with Gian Gomeshi, there was a short interview with Steve Silberman about the portrayal of autism in popular culture, specifically, on the ethics of ‘sentimentalizing’ autism as a super power or state of ‘innocence’.

Archives of the show can be found at:

http://www.cbc.ca/q/

Here is an interview from Autism Talk TV with Silberman on his earlier work, including historical approaches to understanding the spectrum of autism disorder and “sauvantabilities”

http://www.wrongplanet.net/article388.html

Mixed Britannia

In October 2011, BBC released a documentary series entitled “Mixed Britannia.”  A related news article can be found at the link below:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-15164970

The first couple of parts spend quite a bit of time touching on the pseudo-science of eugenics in Britain, and the role it played in shaping its society, as well as its views on women.

The Racial Hygiene Society focused in the early 1900s on looking at race, and most specifically, mixed race.  As one quote from the documentary stated, Continue reading

One Child, Three Biological Parents – End of Diseases?

Last week, The Telegraph announced that within three years, it will be possible to have three biological parents for any one embryo using in-vitro fertilization.  Why would anyone pursue such a technique?  To “eradicate hereditary disease.”  You can read the full artcle below:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9025121/Babies-with-three-parents-possible-within-three-years.html

This controversial method proposes that transferring a tiny fraction of DNA from a different donor than only the parents will result in a child without mitochondria-related diseases.  (Mitochondrial diseases are often severe and incurable, including muscular dystrophy and ataxia).  Researchers believe they can wipe out such diseases within a generation.  Children would also retain DNA from both their mother and their father.  The genetic implant of a third person is described as being “as minimal as changing the batteries in a camera.”

Researchers are also placing great emphasis on needing public support, before current laws (which would prevent such an operation) become changed.  Strong opposition comes from “groups who oppose embryo research and claim genetic engineering can result in serious defects.”

What is perhaps equally interesting to the article itself is the poll available on the website.  The Telegraph asks: Continue reading

Talking to the Absent?

Dr. Adrian M. Owen, a British neuroscientist currently working at the University of Western Ontario, recently presented his research at the University of Alberta.  The research team at UWO, led by Damian Cruse and Adrian M. Owen, claims to have found a way to test for consciousness in patients utterly unresponsive.  Using an fMRI scan to take images of patients’ brains while asking them to imagine certain things (either playing tennis or walking through a house) as a means of responding “yes” or “no” to questions, revealed, according to Dr. Owen, that at least 20% of patients labelled as being in vegetative states are in fact conscious (at least some of the time), but merely unable to communicate with the outside world that they in fact are conscious.  Because the mental states associated with playing tennis are consistently and ubiquitously correlated with a distinctly different part of the brain than mental states associated with spatial location, the UWO team deemed the “tennis-playing” and “house-walking” thoughts to be perfectly suited to code for such distinct responses as affirming or negating something.

The problem with assessing whether or not someone is conscious is that short of asking, all we have at our disposal is diagnoses made based on behavioural outputs (one such output being an affirmative verbal response to the question “are you conscious?”).  However, assessing the level of consciousness of a patient incapable of outward communication of any sort becomes quite difficult.  According to Dr. Owen, 20% of patients previously labelled as being in vegetative states showed signs of consciousness precisely because, thanks to the fMIR scans and the questioning techniques used by the UWO team, they were able to acknowledge their awareness by correctly responding to questions about their personal lives (i.e. questions regarding the names of a parent, the location of their last vacation prior to the accident, etc.).

Such a breakthrough, according to Dr. Owen, could potentially help clinicians make more accurate diagnoses (he cited a current 45% occurrence of misdiagnosis of patients with severe brain damage) and, perhaps even more importantly, it could help shape policies regarding the passive euthanasia of patients like Terri Schiavo.  Here is a New York Times article directly related to Dr. Owen’s research.

There are several questions, in light of Dr. Owen’s research, that come to mind: Is there a problem with passive euthanasia if a patient like Terri could have been asked?  Was there a problem with it (in the case of Terri) regardless of such a possibility?  What if once assessed as conscious and subsequently asked, a patient expressed a wish to be euthanised, but not passively euthanised because of the long and cruel nature of death by starvation and dehydration?  If 20% of patients in Dr. Owen’s study showed signs of consciousness, could there be more?  What should we make of the moral status of individuals who’s mental lives weave in and out of consciousness or consist of some very faint traces of consciousness?  What “amount” of identifiable signs of consciousness is enough?  Is it appropriate at all that consciousness is, as it seems to have become, the moral threshold between life and death?  There are many interesting questions that emerge from this issue more generally as well as the research at UWO more specifically.  For now, as I continue to digest Dr. Owen’s talk, I just pose some of these questions in their raw and unpolished forms, hopefully to get some insightful comments, concerns, other questions, etc., which will certainly aid in my thinking through such issues.

Forced Sterilization for Transgender People in Sweden

An article at Mother Jones looks into an obscure Swedish law that requires those who want to legally change their gender to first get divorced and sterilized. The article uses this law to transition to a discussion on the long history of eugenic practice and sterilization in Sweden — a practice that surprises many, considering the general impression of Sweden as a bastion for liberal ideals and equality.

Sweden is considered extremely gay-friendly, with one of the highest rates of popular support for same-sex marriage, and more than half the population supports gay adoption. Arguing that the current law is both unpopular and abusive, the country’s moderate and liberal parties want to see it repealed. In response, the small but powerful Christian Democrat party formed a coalition with other right-of-center parties to join in upholding the requirement for sterilization. End result: a proposal for new legislation that allows trans—a preferred term for many people who undergo gender reassignment—to be married but continues to force them to be sterilized.

Head on over to Mother Jones to give it a read. Also check out another article about the same story in the Swedish press.

 

 

Gender Stereotyping and Parenthood Dilemmas

In an effort to avoid gender stereotyping, Beck Laxton and partner Kieran Cooper concealed the gender of their son from the world.  The gender neutrally named Sasha has now turned five and is starting school.  Prior to the commencement of formative school years, Sasha has been given the choice to dress in clothes that appealed to him, be they hand-me-downs from an older sister or an older brother.  When Sasha turned five, his parents were forced to reveal his gender, which means that Sasha will have to get used to being perceived as a boy by his peers.  Although the school requires different uniforms for boys and girls, Sasha’s mom is intervening by letting Sasha wear a girl’s blouse with his pants.

Last year, a different couple made a similar decision not to reveal their child’s gender.  Some psychiatric experts voiced their concerns:

“To have a sense of self and personal identity is a critical part of normal healthy development,” Dr. Eugene Beresin, director of training in child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, told ABC News. “This blocks that and sets the child up for bullying, scapegoating and marginalization.”

The article continues:

But as parents well know, bullying is hard for any child to avoid. It’s more important to raise someone who’s confident enough in himself to overcome peer pressure. It’s also important to have his parents have his back.

The question of personal identity is interesting as gender is certainly a big part of it.  However, that’s precisely the problem couples like Beck Laxton and Kieran Cooper are attempting to avoid.  The question of bullying, scapegoating and marginalization is a bit trickier since such actions are certainly a product of dogmatically ingrained gender stereotyping, but they will not cease to exist just because Sasha’s parents have grown past them.  Although bullying may well be hard for any child to avoid, some children do get bullied more than others.  And although Laxton and Cooper are trying to inculcate a sense of self and others in Sasha, which they hope will be lacking gender stereotyping, are they also not sacrificing their child’s emotional and physical safety by setting him up for potential bullying?  It is quite important to raise someone who’s confident enough in him or herself to overcome peer pressure, but it could also be the case that exposing a child to more risk of bullying may have an adverse effect on his or her confidence.

That’s not to say that Sasha will be bullied, but it will depend on his environment.  If Laxton and Cooper chose an appropriate school, perhaps their goal of raising their son to be confident in himself and have a valuable dual perspective on gender will not be compromised by the very gender stereotypes they are attempting to undermine.  “Egalia,” a preschool in Stockholm, Sweden comes to mind (as an example of the kind of environment in which Sasha could flourish).  Staff do not use words like “him” or “her,” but rather a made-up neutral term and students are encouraged to do the same.  Moreover, traditional “boy” and “girl” toys are spatially integrated so as to obliterate any value systems associated with stereotypical gender preferences.  For those interested, here is the article.

Bullying has not ceased in spite of a laudable movement to curb it.  Although Laxton and Cooper’s hearts may be in the right place, they have influence only over Sasha’s worldview and not that of other children (who get theirs from their own parents or guardians).  Are they putting Sasha at risk, as Dr. Eugene Beresin claims?  And if the answer is yes, are they entitled to make such choices for Sasha if they lead to increased risk of bullying, which could potentially be developmentally as well as physically harmful?