Dyslexia and autism: Cognitive profiles at the tail-ends of the same spectrum

As part of my research I have had the opportunity to work with individuals labelled as neurodevelopmentally disabled. I have been able to study their cognitive profiles, neuroimaging studies and results of their postmortem examination. From this cumulus of work I postulated that dyslexia and autism stood at the tail-ends of a spectrum that described different cognitive profiles. Highly-esteemed friends and colleagues, like Uta Frith, wondered how this could be the case? They have certainly seen autistic individuals with learning/reading disorders, so instead of clearly separate entities they would regard these conditions as suffusing with each other. Although I see the logic in their argument they do seem to miss my point. Autism is defined as a pervasive disorder because it involves so many cognitive and behavioral areas. Many autistic individuals do have a reading disability as part of their pervasive disorder; however, whether this is the same as that seen in congenital dyslexia is arguable. Indeed, after investigating cognitive profiles, brain size, gyrification patterns of the cerebral cortex, evoked electrophysiological responses, and how the different brain regions are interconnected, I have argued that these conditions (autism and dyslexia) stand at polar opposites of any given spectrum. It is therefore of interest that very recently I was contacted by a graduate student who wanted to illustrate many of my observations in a single figure. Her name is Jennifer Plosz. I will let Jennifer introduce herself and then attach the image that she provided.

“After being a high school math teacher for a number of years, I decide to go into graduate studies. This decision was informed by both my own experiences with dyslexia and my sons. I am currently a Master’s candidate at the University of Calgary in Canada, looking at the role that visualization and images might play in the growth of mathematical understanding.”

“In the first few years of school, my son struggled a lot with both reading and math. In the area of math, my initial attempts to help him were completely unproductive; yet, when I began paying more attention to how my son learns rather than how I teach, things changed. I began engaging with him through a more intuitive-visual form of mathematics and movement began, not along a slow linear path, but more like leaps and bounds across sporadic intervals. This experience caused me to question the label learning disability. If my son could learn so well, was the issue with him or the teaching approach. I was interested in Dr. Casanova’s work, as it deepens our understanding of variation in mind organizations, more towards a concept of neurodiversity, rather than disability. I am interested in furthering my understanding of the dyslexic mind organization in order to improve remediation in areas of weakness, but also support areas of strength in both mathematics and reading.”

Microsoft Word - Casanova's comparison of autistic and dyslexic

Jennifer did a great job summarizing many of our observations. I see a great future for her not only in education but maybe even as a writer, and someone who can make difficult ideas accessible through her illustrations.

My work has been used many times to sustain the basis of Neurodiversity. I agree with Neurodiversity on the existence of different cognitive profiles and their valuable use in our society. I also feel an urgent need to provide proper accommodations for many individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders. However, I also believe in research and in medical treatment for those who need the same. There are many individuals seriously impaired by their disorder who need much more help than accommodations alone can provide.

40 responses to “Dyslexia and autism: Cognitive profiles at the tail-ends of the same spectrum

  1. The antiinnatia theory of autism, IQ and genius, was originated in 1982, published in 1993, and there is an updated presentation available at http://www.autism-causes.org in the righthand links.

    From its beginning the autistic syndrome was considered by the antiinnatia theory to be towards one end of a dimension of individual differences (antiinnatia), with the other end involving “ordinary” low IQ thereabouts. (In practice both zero antiinnatia and 100% antiinnatia would result in non-viability so not be observed as live persons.) Subsequent to the 1993 publication substantial further support has emerged, to the point where the antiinnatia theory can only now be ignored by flat earth enthusiasts. However most of this further information has been suppressed from publication, so there is a forthcoming book titled “Experts Lying to You” hopefully to be published next month or so.
    (You can meanwhile find on the internet the “peer-reviewed” publication of “Rising-falling mercury pollution causing the rising-falling IQ of the Lynn-Flynn effect, as predicted by the antiinnatia theory of autism”.)

    Meanwhile in the original writing of the antiinnatia theory, I noted the common concept of dyslexia as involving inability to distinguish mirror-images (like b and p). I incorporated that into the antiinnatia concept with the observation that in the natural world, mirror images just about ALWAYS convey the same significance, because just about all natural things (animals plants) have a plane of symmetry. And for that reason there would be evolved innnatons to make a brain assume that mirror images have the same meaning and identicalness. And so when raised antiinnatia causes people to lose their more recent adaptions for actually distinguishing mirror-images, they then end up back in the more typical mammalian and animal brain situation of being unable to distinguish them. And that also explains the sometime assocation of autism and dyslexia.

    HOWEVER. The matter is complicated by sloppy use of terminology, “dyslexia”. As stated above, the antiinnatia theory considers the opposite of autism to be ordinary low IQ. And one of the most characteristic features of that is…… difficulty learning to read. Which the sloppy terminology easily ends up labelling as “dyslexia” rather than just the low IQ. And I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily the end of the complications, because there are of course other variables besides the level of antiinnatia. And perhaps Manuel here may be looking at one of those? Cheers….

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  2. I’ll want to study this research of yours more fully when I have time from getting this book launched. For now I’ll just raise a bit of a question about that diagram.
    I’d have thought there was a lot of reckoning that autistic tends to relate also with holistic thinking, high creativity as well as (in more pathological cases) routine, and
    synthetic thinking as much as analytical.
    Meanwhile, I’ll have a guess that maybe you are looking here at an unrecognised and un-named ID variable cutting across the high-antiinatia population. A bit like “famous people” can include “rich stupid bstds” and “low-paid great intellectuals” and anything in between.

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  3. Very Interesting, as usual. But I think this dense vs. long range networking trade off in dyslexia may be more specific to language-related brain areas. I think there is same but more brain-wide “sparse and long-range” bias in schizoid spectrum. I’ve covered several aspects and known mechanisms for dense vs. long-range trade offs in cortex here: http://cognitive-focus.blogspot.com/2014/10/cortical-trade-offs-specialist-vs.html
    It covers some of your work, would appreciate your comments.
    Thank you for blogging!

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    • Good blog, much more thorough than any of mine. I specially liked the end with the speculations. I have written some articles/chapters about the hierarchical organization of the cerebral cortex, but unsure how it may relate to autism. As an aside Henry Markram is far from being himself autistic. Thank you for your comment and for the reference to your blog.

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      • Regarding “hierarchical” aspects of autism, what do you think about transcranial magnetic stimulation therapy, that was reported to temporarily “unlock” social skills in autistics?
        To me, it suggests that in autism higher association areas (which also deal with social activities) are normally inhibited by overactive lower / primaty areas. Of course, that depends on specificity of stimulation, which is not good enough yet.

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  4. As it happens I was the person who first introduced rTMS as a potential therapy for ASD. Thus far I have had 14 clinical trials and included over 200 patients, not including thus in the wait list controls. I based the first trils in the lack of inhibitory borders to the minicolumn. I thought that TMS would preferential act on the inhibitory elements that stand at ninety degrees tot eh cortex. I have written several blogs in this regard, including one in how I came about with this idea, others on its mechanism for neuromodulation, etc. Like the way you think.

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      • I targeted the DLPC in order to use a cascading effect wherein fixing one site would positively modulate those sites that it was connected. Also I did a topographical analysis of the minicolumnopathy of ASD and found the most salient findings in the preforntal cortex. The problem with TMS being that you can only use it in one brain region.

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      • DLPC is connected to every other single area of the brain. Limiting a discussion to a task-positive network would not do justice to its function. However, our initial way of thinking was much more simple. We found an area with a defect in lateral inhibition and tried then to fix the same.

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      • There seems to be a competitive inhibition but this did not weigh heavily on why we should use TMS in DLPC. The first study Epub in 2008 (done during 2006) used gamma as outcome trying to go after an improved binding phenomenon in ASD. We believed back then that this was a core abnormality of the condition. TPN may not have been on the map back then.

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  5. “There seems to be a competitive inhibition but this did not weigh heavily on why we should use TMS in DLPC.”

    Thanks. In retrospect though, you don’t think therapeutic effect may have been in part due to disinhibition of DMN? I guess I was wrong about primary vs. association areas. But I think DMN is also hierarchically higher than TPN, in term of generalization. At least in a sense that its contents are far more stable.

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  6. Hi, I would like to contact Jennifer Plosz. Do you have a way to get in touch with her? I have a daughter who has a very unique Learning Difference. She has almost no symbol imaging. She cannot understand symbols detached from context. It affects math and some science learning. She can do math (in fact she is quite gifted), as long as her instruction is very direct, explicit and creates the pictures for her. She cannot self-generate a picture. She was not able to learn to read music in 3 years of lessons. She is not autistic, but has some similarities in behavior and rigid thinking at times. She has a photographic memory and is partially synesthetic (sees numbers in color). Jennifer’s work sounds like it is very related.
    thanks.

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  7. Hi Liz,
    My work is around building images in students minds in order to attaching meaning to symbols. Mathematics in classrooms is often, in my opinion, too highly focused on symbols and not enough on building the images and relationships that help form the conceptual understanding of mathematics. When I work with students both autistic and dyslexic, I provide opportunities for Image Making (Pirie & Kieren, 1994) through acting out mathematical ideas with blocks, beads, drawing etc.

    I quite like Ronid Bird’s work (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GstqJ5sEEoo) and mathusee.com. I will hopefully be updating my website over the holidays, with more activities that I have found work for my students, but there are some currently posted (mathshift.com). The key aspect that I have found through working with students both one-on-one, in classrooms, and through my studies of other researchers on developing mental images is for students to discover relationships through visual and action based activities. This is not just good for students with learning challenges, it is good for all students.

    One thing I have noticed about my autistic students is that I need to check that they are making the relational connections and not just memorizing. Whereas, with my dyslexic students, I never have to worry about them memorizing, if they don’t understanding why their is no moving forward. Let me know if there is a specific mathematics topic you are looking for help in.

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    • thanks, in fact she does not have dyscalculia. her problem lies in her ability to build working memory pictures from symbols. when the picture is built for her then she can do math without difficulty and is quite good at it. I thought maybe this was similar to what your research is looking at. she sees the founder of Making Math Real- he is an educational therapist. Mostly I am looking for more information on symbol imaging.

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  8. Oh, okay. Sorry, I think I understand now. My son also does not connect well with symbols, the only thing I currently do with that, is when we are working on a mathematical concept I make a point of involving the symbol by having him write the symbolic version of the concept on a white board (he hates writing on paper, I don’t know if he feels it is too permanent, who knows). This seems to be enough for him. However, it seems your daughter’s may have a deeper issue with this than my son. You may have already tried these, but there is more sensory feedback if you have them form the symbolic version in sand or salt with their fingers, or form the shapes with playdoh, crayons on rough paper also gives more sensory feedback. Let me know if this answers your question.

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  9. Liz, I was just thinking. Something I would probably try is get some clay that you bake, have her form the mathematical symbols (numeric digits included) with clay that you are currently using, preferably in different colors of her choosing. Bake them. Have them available to her while she is working on the math, and then she can manipulate them according to the current question/activity she is working on. The fact that she has formed them herself will hopefully cause her to remember the act of building it every time she uses them. I find that if my son builds it, and then is repeatedly exposed to it, he remembers it well. I haven’t personally worked with this issue with math, but I certainly have with dyslexics and reading.

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    • Images and symbols are very, entirely, different categories. An image shows what the shape of the relevant thing is. By contrast a symbol may have nothing to do with what the symbolised entity is, for instance the number 7 has no resemblance to seven anythings. Our “plus” and “minus” symbols mean “ten” and “one” in Chinese! Symbols require cultural acquired learning from others and memorising the association. Images don’t, we “naturally” understand them without learning.
      And my own experience has been in line with the person described above – I was rather average in algebra (symbols)(well despite severe mercury poisoning illness I got a medium grade A-level in pure maths so not *population* average!), whereas by constrast I was entirely off the scale in geometry and in mechanics (“applied maths” which was in practice also mostly geom).
      I interpret that from the point of view of antiinnatia theory (above-mentioned) as follows. According to that theory (as published) there are “IQ-aiding innatons” which tend to get suppressed by the high antiinnatia in autism. And the variable zapping of one or other of those IQ-aiding innatons gives rise to the variable (dis-)abilities observed in autism. And while I and the person mentioned above are not outrightly autistic, we do have the highish antiinnatia that is causal of high IQ, and that has suppressed our IQ-aiding innatons specific to symbolism. Because symbolism is a more or less human-unique phenomenon, with limited history of natural selection, it would be expected to be less resistant to antiinnatia and thus the results we see. I’m not sure if the opposite occurs so often: people who are brilliant at algebra but duds at geom and engineering. By the way, did you make any more progress with the experts book, Manuel? Prof Boyd Haley wrote “I highly recommend this book….”.
      (Though of course all Americans say that sort of thing about everything….;~)
      Cheers, Robin

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  10. Interesting Robin. I totally agree with your description of symbols. The look of symbols often has very little relation to the object or idea it denotes. Sometimes I wish we used hieroglyphics.
    Symbols/graphemes are a big problem for dyslexics in reading, as the same sound can have 5 different spellings:
    OO – root, ruin, rude, new, through
    where as the same spelling can have 7 different sounds:
    OUGH – through, cough, enough, dough, bough, borough, bought
    This poses a major problem for those that don’t memorize easily, and are therefore taught through spelling rules and decoding.

    The only way, I know of, to learn math symbols is through repeated exposure while engaging with meaning based activities. Also, the more sensory feedback (texture, color, shape, etc.) that you can involve in the formation of the symbol, has been shown to increase memory. I don’t have a citation for that off the top of my head, but I’m sure I could find one.

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    • Your mention of hieroglyphics raises a further thought. That is that writing symbols initially did resemble the denoted things, this being seen in hieroglyphs, our alphabet (in its origins, “a” originally being an oxhead), and also Chinese characters in their most ancient forms (and still to some extent). And even nowadays note the letter at the beginning of Oral and Open, and the B at the beginning of Bottom, Buttocks, Breasts, Bust….. (anyway I’ll stop before this gets out of hand!).
      From this I will tentatively advance a hypothesis that the more ancient writing systems would have fewer mirror-image-differentiated symbols (such as b and p). (I think the word might be “chiral”.)

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  11. Though they say ADHD and autism are opposites, using ADHD psychostimulants for me has been a great help, anxiety, executive dysfunction, sensory problems, repetitive behaviour, random intrusive flashing thoughts and images, and more were greatly relieved and I feel socially less afraid. I don’t know why but that is what happened.

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    • Stimulants increase dopamine activity, which is selective for appetitive vs. aversive signaling. That’s why they suppress all that negative stuff. Autism may give you bottom-up overload, dopamine activity is more top-down. If you get too much, it may actually give you schizophrenic symptoms, which I think is the opposite of autism.

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  12. Thank you for your work. I teach Anatomy and Physiology and my husband teaches Comparative Anatomy. Between our backgrounds and the fact that we are raising a son with pretty severe dyslexia your work is fascinating. His school has been pushing for more testing and we believe they are trying to diagnose him as autistic too. I see more anxiety and possible dyspraxia symptoms. I have heard of other individuals being diagnosed as both dyslexic and autistic. Given these extreme anatomical differences, do you think these are misdiagnoses? Do you have any idea of what the long term implications could be if there is an assessment of autism and they create an IEP based on that instead of anxiety?

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    • They are not misdiagnosed. Autism is a pervasive disorder because it involves so many areas of cognition, including learning. Whether learning difficulties, e.g., reading, is the same as developmental dyslexia, is the question that can be argued. The IEP should be based on the primary diagnosis. Having additional comorbidites may speak as to the severity of the disorder. Thanks for the comment. As an aside I have written several articles on comparative anatomy that bear on the minicolumn.

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