Strange things about Strange Son

I first became aware of Strange Son when I was trying to publish my own autism memoir. My agent was told that the reason we weren’t getting bites was that an autism memoir was about to come out that would dwarf all the others. The author was a huge name in autism–Portia Iversen, the co-founder of Cure Autism Now–and the book was a miracle cure memoir. Only later did I find out what the miracle was; for now, it was looking like all that publishers wanted in terms of autism memoirs were memoirs of this particular sub-subgenre (cf. Let Me Hear Your Voice and Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, recounting full recoveries, respectively, through ABA therapies and gluten-free diets). My agent advised me to retool my material into a non-autism non-memoir, and the result was Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World. The irony was that this title, chosen by my publisher, made my book sound more pseudoscientific than the miraculous autism memoirs it was distancing itself from.1

Reading Strange Son for the first time this week, I learned that there’s one additional way in which Iversen’s book connects to my own projects. It was shortly after its publication that my then-collaborator and I were awarded a Cure Autism Now Innovative Technology grant to do a pilot study of my software program. And it is shortly into Strange Son that we meet, at a Cure Autism Now Innovative Technology conference, one of the book’s protagonists. The person in question is Tito Mukhopadhyay, and, brought over to the U.S. from India via Iversen and CAN, he’s making his first appearance—as the conference’s keynote speaker.

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Speechless about Speechless

The original source of US-based facilitated communication is the Australia-based Rosemary Crossley. In 1989, Douglas Biklen visited her clinic, and was so impressed by FC’s efficacy there that he took it back to upstate New York. It’s therefore not surprising to encounter in Crossley’s book Speechless: Facilitating Communication for People Without Voices, published in 1997, many of the justifications for FC that we continue to hear to this day.

Speechless recounts Crossley’s work facilitating the communication by typing of an assortment of individuals with minimal speaking skills, from victims of traumatic brain injury, encephalitis, and untreated PKU, to individuals with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, Rett Syndrome, and autism. While some of these people type via head pointers (pointing rods mounted on head bands), most use an extended index finger, and most require support at the wrist, forearm, elbow, shoulder or sleeve while typing.

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Talking back to Talking Back to Autism

You’ve got to wonder how many of the enthusiastic reviewers of “A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism”—in the NYTimes, in the LA Times, and on NPR—actually watched, through anything but tear-blurred eyes, the final scenes of the movie. You’ve got to wonder the same thing about the various autism experts who appear in the movie: David G. Amaral, PhD, Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, Geraldine Dawson, Phd, and Catherine Lord, PhD. (There’s also a clip of Dr. Sally Rogers, but this was lifted from a 60 Minutes episode; she had no role in this movie).

First released in 2009 as “The Sunshine Boy”, and later as an HBO documentary, “A Mother’s Courage” tips its hand within its first ten minutes. On a pilgrimage from Iceland to the US to learn more about autism, the mother in question, Margret Dagmar Ericsdottir, is shown seated on an airplane with a copy of Portia Iversen’s Strange Son in her lap. Strange Son (say tuned for a full review) recounts Iversen’s efforts to bring Soma Mukhopadhyay and her Rapid Prompting Method from India to the US to unlock Iversen’s son and other non-speaking American autistics. Having foreshadowed the miracles to come, the film takes a long and winding road, making stops at the offices of the autism experts, Temple Grandin’s ranch, the homes of several autism families, and an ABA clinic, with detours through the countryside and rough shores of Iceland with Ericsdottir’s family, including her two non-autistic older sons and the severely autistic Keli. Then the film reaches its destination and devotes its final act to Soma.

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The myths of Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone

Today’s episode of my series of reviews of pro-FC books and movies looks back to 2005 and a book called Autism and the Myth of the Person Alone. Published by NYU Press and authored by Douglas Biklen, best known for bringing Facilitated Communication to the US in the early 1990s, this book attempts to challenge the prevailing scientific understanding of autism. Its evidence? Testimonials about autism that purportedly come from autistic individuals. 

Purportedly is the key word here: all of these individuals communicate by typing, and though Biklen claims that all but one of them have learned to type (or, in some instances, write) independently, all require a helper to sit next to them while they do so. As Biklen puts it, “I found that the contributors could converse fluently with me, but only if their mothers or other trusted, familiar persons in whom they felt confident were nearby.” Each person, furthermore, underwent years of active facilitation in which these trusted, familiar persons maintained physical contact with them during typing. 

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Can the captain of an airplane teach 5th grade?

One thing led to another, and we found ourselves, mid-January, on a flight to Aruba.

The announcements began not long after we boarded.

“When you purchased your tickets with Jet Blue, you agreed to a contract stating that you would wear a mask on the airplane. If something has changed between that time and now, and you feel you are no longer able to wear a mask, please contact the stewardess and she will help you make other travel arrangements.”

Mask contract?

?

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‘We don’t need AI, we just need I’

I love this!

About 12 minutes in, “ZDogg” and Marty Makary talk about their problems with AI censorship. ZDogg says he’s had whole pages taken down by Facebook, no reason given; Makary says he’s managed to evade the AI censors thus far, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

Makary says he’s constantly getting people telling him ‘What medicine needs is artificial intelligence.’

Makary also says the UK medical establishment has done a much better job than ours … and that the two risk risk factors they found most predictive of COVID mortality (I think it was mortality per se) were sickle cell anemia and kidney disease. Which means vaccines ought to be delivered to dialysis centers, but no…)

His complaints about medical-journal style sheets are hilarious.

Out on Good Behavior is Out! Here’s my review

Barry Garelick’s Out on Good Behavior: Teaching math while looking over your shoulder has just come out, and it’s a fantastic read.

It is, among other things, a fascinating insider account of the struggles and insights of a novice grade school teacher who is also a seasoned mathematician and a proponent of traditional, evidence-based math instruction. We watch Garelick in action as he teaches struggling, under-motivated students how to subtract negative numbers and factor polynomials. We eavesdrop on the often awkward feedback sessions he has with mentors and other supervisors who are sometimes taken aback by Garelick’s commitment to traditional teaching methods—and by the compelling case he makes for them.

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Beyond Reasonable: a memoir of autism, adoption, and Facilitated Communication

Ralph Savarese’s memoir “Reasonable People” recounts a momentous project undertaken by two people who are manifestly much more than merely reasonable. In the course of the late 1990s, Savarese and his wife decided to adopt a profoundly autistic child, and they succeeded in educating him to the point of communicating in complex sentences, reflecting thoughtfully on his childhood and his autistic identity, composing poetry, and thriving in regular ed classes.

There’s just one issue. The boy composes these complex sentences, thoughtful reflections, poetry, and regular ed assignments through Facilitated Communication.

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Winograd schemas as a window into reading comprehension

In one of my earlier posts on the limits of Artificial Intelligence, I reported on the difficulty AI has figuring out what “it” means. As measured by so-called Winograd schemas like the one below, even the most sophisticated AI performs at levels not much better than chance:

SENTENCE 1: “The city council refused the demonstrators a permit because they feared violence.”

QUESTION: Who feared violence?

A. The city council B. The demonstrators

SENTENCE 2: “The city council refused the demonstrators a permit because they advocated violence.”

QUESTION: Who advocated violence?

A. The city council B. The demonstrators

The problem is that even state of the art AI lacks worldly knowledge–including background knowledge about city councils and demonstrators and their typical concerns and plausible goals. Who might fear violence and feel a responsibility to prevent it? Who might advocate violence?

Of course, even the occasional human has been known to have deficits in background knowledge, and those deficits have increasingly been implicated in problems with reading comprehension. In general, if you lack the knowledge that a text takes for granted, you’ll struggle to make sense of anything the text asserts that’s based on that knowledge.

For example, if you don’t know about the functions of antimicrobial agents, or what bacterial resistance and immunosuppression entail, you’ll struggle to make sense of this paragraph (even if you happen to know words like “pathogenic” and “concomitant”):

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What Grammarly overlooks

In my last post, I discussed how Grammarly’s feedback mostly targets individual words and phrases–with the exception of its knee-jerk rejection of passive voice. This means that Grammarly mostly overlooks sentence-level revision tools–i.e., the sorts of tools that Catherine and I address in Europe in the Modern World.

One of these tools is passive voice. Compare:

Despite these harsh conditions, the settlement with the Nazis relieved most French men and women.

and

Despite these harsh conditions, most French men and women were relieved by the settlement with the Nazis.

In the second sentence “the settlement with the Nazis”, moved by passive voice to sentence-final position, receives more emphasis than it did in the original.

Choosing appropriate end-focus involves considerations of sentence meaning and communicative intent that are beyond today’s AI. The same goes for another key element of good writing: sentence cohesion.

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Can AI help us with our writing?

I spent my last three posts discussing the failure of artificial intelligence, even state of the art AI, to understand what we say to it and what it says to us. But understanding, surely, isn’t everything. Real-world communications aside, how does AI fare re one of Catherine’s and my other core interests: linguistic tools for clear, coherent sentences?

Two elements of clear coherent sentences are word choice and punctuation, and some of the more common word choice and punctuation errors have long been handled by basic word processors. In the last decade, however, more sophisticated tools have emerged: tools like ProWritingAidGinger,  WhiteSmoke, and Grammarly. The latter, with over 10 million users, is hard to miss unless you completely avoid YouTube. If you survey Grammarly’s Internet reviews, you get the sense that it is the most sophisticated—and most expensive—of the new tools. It’s also the easiest one to get information about without buying a subscription. So Grammarly is my focus today.

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Does AI know what “it” means? A look at Winograd schemas via Melanie Mitchell

I left off my last post with a claim that AI systems–even those that can answer questions and engage in conversations–are eluded by little words like “it.”

To flesh this out, I turn to a fantastic new book I just finished by Melanie Mitchell–Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans. (Her book first crossed my radar back before my Twitter suspension, when “autism gadfly” Jonathan Mitchell–her brother and my Twitter friend–mentioned it in a tweet.)

In a chapter on the limits of natural language processing, Mitchell discusses miniature language-understanding tests called “Winograd schemas”, named for NLP researcher Terry Winograd. Here is the first of her examples:

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