Monday, November 9, 2009

About Me

As part of the process of applying to Ph.D. programs, I've had to write a statement of purpose. What I wound up with was an unusually frank declaration of parts of my history that I don't normally talk about and of who I am today. It is perhaps longer than I'd originally intended, but that's fine by me.

I debated posting it here. Beyond simply being long and highly personal, parts are probably overly technical for a blog post. As such, I've reached a compromise of sorts and edited out two paragraphs, both of which are technical descriptions of past research projects.

In any case, the edited version is as follows:

My love of psychology started in the summer of 2002. At the time, I was a hopelessly naïve undergrad with all of the self-education and executive functioning skills that they teach you in a public school program for the emotionally handicapped. I was studying computer science even though I was quickly coming to understand that I wasn't terribly suited for the discipline and was overwhelmed by unfamiliar academic demands. In an attempt to find an easy class to bolster my GPA, I decided to sign up for an introductory psychology class.

It was a decision which changed my life.

For the first time, things which other people said and did – things which I'd never truly understood – started to make sense. Other people started to make sense, not because of projective heuristics which had never worked for me ("Put yourself in their shoes!"), but rather because of scientific theories laid out in a manner that I could actually understand. It took me a while to fully abandon my childhood dream of becoming a computer programmer, but once I did, I never regretted it.

Of course, this doesn't mean that everything was perfect. I found the scientific study of human nature to be endlessly fascinating, but it didn't exactly take me long to realize that many of the theories and rules I was studying simply didn't apply to me. My memory shows little to no primacy effect (and a very strong recency effect), my cognition tends toward algorithmic rather than heuristic processes, my sensory thresholds tested as far lower than those of any of my classmates… the list goes on and on.

In other words, it really drove home the fact that I was different, and that these differences from my peers were anything but minor. I even had a name for these differences: "Asperger's Syndrome".

When I'd first received the diagnosis, it had seemed like just another diagnostic label in a long series of often-inappropriate labels attached to me by psychiatrists. It was then that I started to realize that it was something more.

Throughout this, I continued to take every psychology class I could. My love of understanding, of knowledge, and of psychology was one of the few things that was constant during this time. It remains constant to this day – I am never quite so happy as I am when learning new things about my discipline of choice. I also came to enjoy cultural anthropology and scientific sociological approaches to small group dynamics, two disciplines whose overlap with psychology is rather difficult to deny.

At the same time, I began to seriously develop my ability to critically evaluate the scientific literature. I became interested in individual studies rather than books, I started to realize the gaps in our knowledge (although this process would continue to develop for a long time), and I started to seriously consider what I wanted to do with my knowledge.

Still hopelessly naïve and buying hook, line, and sinker into the oft-repeated clinical rhetoric that Asperger's was distinct from "proper" autism and was a more "mild" form, I started to both over-complicate and oversimplify things in my head. Desperately trying to understand how I was different from my peers, I sought to understand autism, figuring that the best approach to understanding answering this would be to understand the differences between the "autistic" and the "normal" groups, with myself being somewhere between the two. A number of details about my neurology and the way my brain works somehow got lost in the mix.

I felt that the best way to understand myself would be to come to understand the differences between an autistic mind and a non-autistic mind. To do this, I believed that the best place to start would be to run a series of external validity studies on the more noteworthy studies on non-autistic psychology, starting with Kahneman and Tversky's classic heuristics and biases studies. This would produce a baseline of sorts – not only of the areas in which differences could be found and targeted for further investigation, but also of those areas in which autistic and non-autistic processes were similar or the same.

Much to my disappointment, I soon found that while such studies had been done on occasion (e.g. De Martino et al.'s 2008 paper on framing effects), they'd been done only in a piecemeal and ad hoc fashion, and were often interpreted through a biased framework. I wanted to rectify that.

By this time, I had graduated and decided to spend some time getting clinical experience, both to shore up weaknesses in my understanding and to learn about autism-related clinical practice. At the same time, I used the time I was no longer spending reading coursework-related materials to focus more on reading about autism and related topics.

It took a while, but I came to understand just how naïve I had been. Tracing a number of the claims that I had taken for granted back to their origin, I soon discovered that many of them were based on shaky evidence – or were simply made up in a number of cases. I discovered that many of the researchers whose conclusions I'd previously accepted had little to no empirical basis for their statements, and that even the DSM description of autism had some pretty serious issues (e.g. the assertion that most autistic individuals are mentally retarded; see Edelson, 2006 for review and discussion).

I saw the state of the modern autism clinical community. I met children who'd been restrained and secluded by schools that didn't know how to deal with them. I saw intelligent, loving children drugged into a stupor by their clueless and frustrated parents. I met teenagers who had suffered even worse bullying than I had been in my own childhood. I met desperate parents who, not understanding scientific medicine, took pseudoscientific treatment approaches that endangered their beloved, if misunderstood, child's life. I read absurdly dehumanizing books about people on the spectrum, some even going so far as to dismiss the idea that we could have any sort of innate claim to humanity (e.g. Barnbaum's The Ethics of Autism).

I also both met and read the writings of "properly" autistic adults who were and are very much like me, facing many of the issues that complicate my life. I found others like me, and a community of people who both understood and accepted me. Bit by bit, my naïveté was stripped away.

It was in the middle of doing this that I, in an attempt to learn more about psychology and to attain clinical credentials useful in the world of autism, applied to Nova Southeastern University's postgraduate applied behavior analysis program. I learned about the early history of behaviorism, about biases in research, about the practical consequences of woefully inadequate ethical codes which are drastically under-enforced, and far, far more.

I also learned about the utter cluelessness and spectacular naïveté of many of today's professionals. In one notable incident, I had to correct a classmate – who had been working in the field of autism services for years – on the statement that the vast majority of autistics were mentally retarded (and got fervent denials of my correction even after I cited the relevant reviews). In another, my class reacted with shocked horror when I pointed out just how a professional could manipulate a client's family to worsen the client's self-injury (and provided a plausible, if highly unethical, motive for doing so). The thought that a professional who would put financial gain before a client's welfare could exist was apparently shocking to them. There were countless other such incidents, some of which involved my teachers.

This isn't to say that everything was bad (and, in fact, this was far from the case). It is to say that I started to understand just how badly things needed – and still need – to change. What had started as a simple quest for self-understanding grew to be more, because understanding is needed to produce that change. The practical consequences of ignorance are too great to ignore.

And, accordingly, I came full circle. I still want to conduct the external validity experiments I'd originally intended to, but I've come to understand that the importance of them – and of other, similar research – extends far beyond the realm of academic understanding and my personal quest for knowledge.

The fact that gaining that knowledge involves doing what I love and exercising my strengths is just icing on the metaphorical cake.


  1. You wrote:
    "The thought that a professional who would put financial gain before a client's welfare could exist was apparently shocking to them."

    "Young" and "idealistic" sort of go together. Many of them will also succumb to the ways of the world, in time. But You, I wish you good luck.

  2. Clay,

    One of the strongest shock reactions in that case came from a woman in her mid-to-late-30s who worked in the autism services industry and had an autistic son. This was pretty consistant with the demographics of the class.

  3. "I saw intelligent, loving children drugged into a stupor by their clueless and frustrated parents. ... I met desperate parents who, not understanding scientific medicine, took pseudoscientific treatment approaches that endangered their beloved, if misunderstood, child's life. "

    This year at Baudhuin has been so frustrating!
    We have a child that is being given benadryl every day(this is against the warnings on the bottle, it is not meant for continued use). The mother ignores the medical warnings and gives him the benadryl because of some unidentified allergy. This poor kid is so drugged up that he can barely stay awake.
    Another child's mother believes some wacked out "autism healing" treatments, a mash up of jenny macarthy and some crazy doctors of her own. Yesterday when he ate a goldfish cracker, (forbidden under the treatment) she gave him three adult doses of charcoal. He had to be kept home today because of the side effects on his digestive system.

    I don't know what to tell these parents( besides 'are you insane?'), and even if I did, they would not listen. I'm just growing very sick of it.

  4. Talk about it! The way these parents jump into the quackery, I figure it's only a matter of time until I run into a parent who's trying Lupron...

    Ugh. It makes me want to tear my hair out -- and I mean that literally.

  5. Alex, you are a great man. By that I don't mean that you're large or that you're particularly masculine. What I mean is that you have the potential to be one of the most sought-after minds on the planet... and if I can ever do anything to assist you in getting there I'd be honored to do so. The world needs more people who care as much as you do about what's going on. NEVER GIVE UP!

  6. Hey Alex, I'd like some advice on something.
    We have a really sweet student in my class who gives and requests a lot of hugs and squeezes and general sensory pressure. The teacher i'm working with says that I shouldn't give him the sensory input because it will make him less focused and hype him up. I end up doing it affectionately because he's nonverbal and squeezes are the best way to connect with him.
    Am I keeping this kid from being focused? should this child have a right to his sensory needs, or is it better for him to function without it?

  7. Hey, Lauren!

    I wish I could give you a simple answer to that, but the simple truth is that I don't know the child in question.

    It would be great if there were simple answers to questions like that, but the world is hardly a simple place... and people are one of the most complex things in it.

  8. Alexander, I found your blog in a message on the ASAN mailing list. I'm so glad I clicked on that link!

    I look forward to reading your work for a long time to come!