Autism Made Simple

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What is Autism?

Unmitigated auto-feedback due to an overly connected brain.

    • The brains of these children are not damaged. Matter of fact, recent research has confirmed that their brains have more synaptic connections than typical children's brains.

    • The autistic brain is a powerful brain.

    • All the hardware wiring for verbal and social skills is there, intact.

    • There is no lack of physical connections, just a lack of information connections. (It's a software issue, not a hardware issue.)

Example of Auto-Feedback

When a microphone is placed too closed to a speaker, an auto-feedback phenomenon occurs. The sound waves latch onto one single frequency, and the volume becomes very loud. Autism happens exactly the same way. Due to the presence of additional synaptic connections nearby, the neural signals enter an auto-feedback loop. The signal strength is amplified, and the brain activities latch onto one single process. This results in sensory problems, repetitive behaviors, inability to focus on external objects, etc.

Maximization of Contrast

If you have ever been stopped by police driving at night, or if you have ever performed on stage, you know that you can't see things well when there is a spotlight shining on your face. Our brain does not work with absolute signal levels: it works based on signal contrast. A bright spotlight will make everything else look dark. In other words, it will amplify the contrast. The same thing is true with autism. When every single sensory input is amplified, what happens effectively is that contrast is maximized. That is the reason you will often hear people say "people with autism see things in black and white." What they mean is that people with autism maximize contrast in their sensory and thinking processes.

Let's consider the three main skill areas of development in early childhood: social, verbal, and visual. By nature, visual skills are the most important skills for the survival of human race. Even if a person is non-social and non-verbal, the person still can manage to survive by using mostly visual skills. Next comes verbal skills. A person could be very social, but if the person cannot speak the language of a hostile host, the chances of survival dramatically dwindle. Therefore, for human beings, their natural order in increasing level of skills are: social, verbal, and visual. For people with autism, due to the auto-feedback loops inside their brains, their natural level of social skills and verbal skills become significantly lower, due to the maximization of contrast. The situation is depicted below:

We have to keep in mind that what matters is the relative contrast level. Instead of viewing people with autism as naturally deficient in social and verbal skills, another way of viewing it is to point out their exceptional skill level for visual signals. Children with autism are visual, and that is the way how we should communicate with them. And that is the way how we should develop them. It is very common for children with autism to be able to read before they are able to talk. Many children with autism can truly read words and sentences when they are barely two years old.

Why do Stick Figures Work?

I always tell other parents that children with autism are visual. Some of them would tell me that there is no way their children are visual. Instead of arguing with them, I show them some of the stick-figure drawings I have made for my children. Some of these parents would then tell me: "Oh, now I get it." The next time I meet with these parents, they would enthusiastically show me the real-life photo pictures and family video clips they have made for their children. When I look at those pictures or video clips, I would just scream out: "no, no, no!"

Real-life, colorful pictures or video clips just don't work as well as simple stick-figure drawings. Sometimes I just feel dismayed at how little some parents understand their children with autism.

Why do stick figures work but photo pictures don't work? That's kind of obvious to an autistic person like myself, I don't even need to think about it. However, in order for a non-autistic person to understand it, here is the explanation from a PowerPoint presentation I have prepared.

When neuro-typical adults see the photo picture of the house above, they apply a "relevance" filter so that they can focus only on the important parts of the picture. In this case, they focus on the house and on the people in front of the house. On the other hand, when children with autism look at the same picture, the signal intensity of every single pixel is amplified. This leads to a maximization of contrast. We can emulate this maximization of contrast by using an image editor and turn up the contrast level of the picture. As is shown above, the cyan-colored sky and the bright-green lawn become the most salient features in the picture. If you are pointing the house or the people with your finger to your children, and their eyes don't focus on the house or people's faces, it's because to them, the sky and the green grass are much more interesting. In short, for photo images, what you see is not what your children see. There is no communication.

Now let's take a look at the same situation with stick figures. (This is a drawing from my book, it's the final frame of a story named "The Adventure of a Boy and a Girl". I made up this story with contribution from my daughter.)

When a neuro-typical adult applies the "relevance" filter, the same image is obtained. This is because when we draw stick figures, we invariably only draw those parts that are important. Now let us see the picture from the perspective of the children with autism. When they apply maximum contrast to the stick figure drawing, they also obtain the exact same image. This is because stick figures are drawn with simple colors (black and white in this case), so they come by default with maximum contrast. In other words, with stick figures, what you see is also what your children see. Now you are on the same page with your children. Now there is communication.

Many children with autism exhibit a "lost" look, simply because their eyes are focused on spots with maximum contrast. By communicating with them through stick figures, these children will learn to focus on people's faces and on relevant objects. That way, they won't have the "lost" look anymore. The usage of speech bubbles will introduce them to reading skills, and then verbal skills will follow.

Here is a sample video clip that shows the way I communicated with my children, by using a magnetic drawing board. I made up the story with contribution from my daughter, when she was about to be 4 years old. (The video clip is sped up to match better with the narration. I don't draw that fast!)

Pro-video vs. Pro-picture

Some parents would still insist that their children are not visual, because their children won't look at stick figure drawings. I know, like those parents, I have been there.

What I have learned about human brain is that, our brain not only can store concepts, it can also store processes. I think that is the most important contribution of my book. Our brain stores information in a grid manner. When we perform our thinking process, our brain signals travel in a zig-zag manner in the streets of our Brain City, like taxi-cab drivers in Manhattan.

All children with autism are visual. But autism comes in two varieties. One group of these children ("pro-picture") prefer to store information as concepts, as static pictures. Another group of these children ("pro-video") prefer to store information as processes, as videos.

Pro-picture children tend to be on the quiet side. They are good with phonics and with reading, and they may like to draw two-dimensional pictures early on. Pro-video children tend to be hyperactive, they tend to struggle with phonics, and they also tend to like playing with three-dimensional building blocks.

Pro-picture children are easier to communicate with: you can simply draw pictures for them, and they will start to learn very fast.

Pro-video children traditionally run the risk of underdevelopment, simply because up until today, parents and educators have never understood how to communicate with these children. These children need to be communicated first through cartoon-like video clips that are closely related to their personal life experience. My book describes the steps on how to introduce pro-picture skills to pro-video children. Video clips are the starting point for pro-video children. But as explained in my book, video clips are not an oxygen tank that these children need to carry for the rest of their lives. Once they master the pro-picture skills, they can be communicated with the very same tools as pro-picture children. Video clips are simply the very first bridge to help them connect their pro-video signals to pro-picture signals. This first bridge is the start of a beautiful journey, with breathtaking scenery at every stretch.

Pro-video children initially are not able to focus on stick figure drawings. They are hyperactive and do not have patience for static images. That is why many parents will misinterpret their children and claim these children are not visual. However, if you use the modulation technique as described in the book, you can modulate stick figures into their favorite video clips, and they will be able to learn to focus on stick figure images. Most parents/educators out there never realize this crucial initial step, and these children simply remain locked in their own inner world, because parents/educators have never even tried to build the very first bridge to get them into the pro-picture world. Once you build this first bridge, a chain reaction will happen. My son went from totally unable to focus on static images to be able to read simple words and sentences in just a few months. Autism requires hard work from parents/educators. You need to build this very first bridge. Your child's life depend on it. I have already explained above why children with autism have the "lost" look. Stick figures will teach your children to focus on people's faces and on the relevant objects you want them to focus on. Stick figures will help your children to lose that "lost" look.

The following is a sample video clip that I have used to teach Ivan to recognize himself in stick figure. It is very important that all four components of LIVE Communication are used (meaning Letters, Images, Voice and Experience.) The voice has to be the voice of the parent. The Experience refers to the experience of the child. In this case, the preamble video clip shows Ivan playing with toys that he was already familiar with, and the background music ("Twinkle Twinkle Little Star") was one of Ivan's favorite songs. Only if a video clip is based closely on the child's real-life experience, can the video clip truly attract the attention of the pro-video child. The parent's voice also provides a sense of familiarity not achievable by using other people's voice. Stick figure is modulated into this backbone of familiar "carrier signal" of the child, in a gradual and gentle manner. As an intermediate image, the child's picture goes through a "cartoonized" frame first, before arriving at the stick figure representation. The metamorphosis cycle is repeated to reinforce the learning. This video was a success. This was how Ivan started to learn to focus on stick figure drawings.

(The voice in the song is my own voice, distorted digitally. Ivan was non-verbal back then.)

Three Strong Statements

I have made three very strong statements.

    1. Children with autism are visual. Unless they have other physical impairments, this means they need to be developed visually.

    2. Stick figures are the natural communication channel to children with autism, because stick figures capture only the relevant features, and because they maximize contrast. Stick figures are perhaps the only common language between us and our children. Unless they have other physical impairments, all children with autism will be able to learn from stick figures.

    3. There are two and only two types of autism: pro-picture and pro-video. Pro-picture children store information as concepts. Pro-video children store information as processes. For pro-video children, video clips should be the starting point. By using video clips, we introduce them to stick figures and to initial reading skills. After they master pro-picture skills, pro-video children can be developed very much in the same way as pro-picture children.

Once these children are developed visually (including learning to read, before learning to talk), these children will also become verbal and social. Matter of fact, I believe that they will become verbal and social sooner, and better, than if we just focus on those two skills alone. The LIVE communication technique itself involves Letters, Images, Voice and Experience, and connects these children's visual prowess to the development of their verbal and social skills.

Digression: Maximum Contrast in Quantum Field Theory

The idea of auto-feedback (self-interaction) leading to maximum contrast is well understood in quantum field theory. For those with some physics background, here is some analogy. Kenneth Wilson is probably the first person to provide full insight into the renormalization of quantum fields through his study of the Renormalization Group. Structural simplicity happens when there is renormalization: most operators become irrelevant, with only a few becoming relevant. That is what happens in both autism and quantum field theory. If I dare to make simple, bold statements, it's because I firmly believe that the auto-feedback (self-interaction) process inside the autistic brain leads to maximum contrast, which translates into structural simplicity in the manifestations of these children. If we consider verbal and social skills as non-renormalizable/irrelevant operators, the same quantum field analogy points to its solution. Irrelevant operators do not mean that these processes will not happen: they simply require a high-order interaction through the relevant/renormalizable operators, like the case of light-by-light scattering or Higgs boson decay into two gluons. Translating this into autism, this means that verbal and social skills can and will happen: we just need to go about them through these children's strong visual skills.

If you are interested in the theoretical aspects of autism from the point of view of information theory and signal processing, please take a look at Fourier Transform and Autism.

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