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Erik Engdahl:
Autism Spectrum Conditions - Neurological Abnormality and/or Cramped State of Communication Shutdown

(Version of 26 June 2011,
somewhat modified in comparison with the original version from 1998)

This forthcoming paper describes a hypothesis about how neurological fragility combines with cramped state of communication shutdown eventually leading to autism spectrum conditions. The author prefers this denomination rather than autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

In a previous work, originally presented at Tucson II, a conference on consciousness in Arizona, April 1996, entitled The Social Construction of Consciousness - a socio-cultural perspective on language-based consciousness[Abstract] Burns and Engdahl (1998) stressed the importance of symbolic communication in order for individual consciousness to emerge.

The development of individual consciousness is limited under conditions that a person fails to acquire tools of language (verbal, sign based, etc.), to learn collective representations of self and self's activities. The cornerstone is that external reflectivity at some stage of development, fylogenetically as well as ontogenetically, get internalised.

The present paper focuses on autism spectrum disorders(ASD), which constitutes one such type of limited development of consciousness. With improved methods to investigate the structure and function of the brain, e.g. by brain-imaging techniques based on magnetic resonance or positron emission tomography, the ratio of "non-organic" cases of ASD decreases. The non-organic cases are those when an abnormality in brain structure or function cannot be found. It seems likely that this ratio will eventually approach zero. This circumstance is sometimes supposed to prove the hypothesis that a brain abnormality is the direct cause of ASD. As is elaborated below, the link seems to rather be indirect.

A not uncommon phenomenon known by many parents but seldom investigated in the research literature, is that occasionally, sometimes very seldom, people with autism indeed may be in communication for a very short moment. This phenomenon may be the basis for the nowadays obsolete view that people with autism are imprisoned inside a glass bulb.

In the present paper it is argued that the existence of this phenomenon makes the hypothesis of a direct link between the brain abnormality and the ASD to be farfetched; For how could a brain abnormality suddenly disappear and then reappear? The idea of a direct causal link between brain abnormality and ASD seems to imply the idea that the primary aspect of communication is an activity that thus would require some kind of ability to be possible.

This paper presents the hypothesis that what happens on the above-mentioned rare occasions of communication is a momentaneous leave from a persistent cramp state of communication shutting off. The maintenance of the cramp state is a kind of on-going activity. The primary aspect of communication is to keep the communication channel open which is viewed as a non-activity within the ground or resting state of life.

What is then the cause of such a cramp state of communication shutting off? Some decades ago, bad nurturing, e.g. deficient emotional bond between nurturer and child, was supposed to cause ASD, at least in some cases. However, it has been convincingly shown that ASD is not caused by bad parenting.

An important question to answer is whether the debut of autism is sudden(pointing to a trauma mechanism) or if it appears gradually in the course of a distorted development. ASD debuts early in life (and is maybe later diagnosed as such). The debut may be before or during birth or up to the age of about three years. In many cases the development is good or even better than normal before the debut. Upon careful retrospection in search for early symptoms, precursors could often be found. Within the paradigm of this paper, these precursors are viewed to be semi-persistent cramp states of communication shutting off.

The cramp states of communication shutting off become persistent as results of traumas meeting environmental influences. They are socially inevitable due to some kind of neurological fragility, i.e. the relevant environmental influences and the traumas meeting them are on biological rather than social level. That the traumas are not on social level is plausible from the often very trivial character of such traumas.

Non-persistent cramp states of communication shutting off is a very common phenomenon, but most children do not have the neurological fragility which is necessary for the cramp states to be become persistent. There are many instances of extreme rejection and deprivation in childhood, none of which have resulted in autism.

Since about the beginning of the nineties, an important issue concerning ASD has been a characteristic mindblindness among people with ASD. Mindblindness disables mindreading, i.e. the possibility to imagine that other people have a mind and to imagine (more or less correctly) their intentions and feelings. The concept of the mind reading mechanism (consisting of the four submechanisms of intentionality detector, eye direction detector, shared attention mechanism, and theory of mind) was elaborated by Simon Baron-Cohen drawing on Jerry Fodor's idea of the modularity of mind, where the various mind modules are instinctively based. Other Fodor like modules are the various cognitive abilities associated with the senses and the language instinct.

Sometimes autistic individuals make substantial progresses later in life, in the teens or somewhat earlier. This could be associated with a kind of maturing (not necessarily the normal kind of maturing) of the nervous system enabling a (partial) abandonment of the communication shutting off cramp. However, ASD is a life-long handicap and residual symptoms remains even in the case when the ASD is not combined with mental retardation(low IQ).

Abandonment of the cramp state does not lead to a cure of ASD. This could be the result of the timing constraint mentioned by e.g. Steven Pinker in his book, The Language instinct. He claims that there is a timing constraint about when it is possible (or at least substantially easier) to acquire full functionality of various modules of mind, i.e. learning  a first language.

In the article it is claimed that for some of the instincts to develop to functionality, communication is necessary. This concerns e.g. language, mind reading instinct, reflectivity of mind, impulse system and self-preservation. For these instincts it is the very existence of communication that is necessary for development rather than good, pleasant, loving quality of it. The qualitative aspects of the communication may influence personality on a higher level. In (future) cases of ASD the communication is absent due to biological rejection due to a more than usual fragile nervous system.

Burns and Engdahl (1998) elaborated on the individual reflectivity mechanism which develops by internalisation through symbolic communication. Another mechanism, not mentioned in this previous work, is internalisation of an impulse system. The everyday life, as well as non-routine activities, consist of a multitude of procedures and subprocedures. In order to remember to remember to remember... ...to do the various doings of life, a functional impulse system is necessary. (If one fails early in life to internalise the impulse system, it is possible to more or less compensate for the failure by tailor-making rituals in order to ensure that external impulses are generated when needed.) The idea of the absence of a functional internal impulse system is  related(*) to the "executive dysfunction hypothesis" put forward by Pennington and Russel.

Another thing to be investigated is the relation between communication and the "weak central coherence hypothesis"(proposed by Happe) which refers to a preference by autistic indivudual for segmental over holistic information processing. This hypothesis is involved in a tentative explanation for exceptional talenta and restricted interests displayed by some autistic individuals.


[Burns and Engdahl, 1998a] T.R. Burns and E. Engdahl, "The Social Construction of Consciousness - Part 1: Collective consciousness and its Socio-Cultural Foundations", J. of Consciousness Studies 5(1), 67-85(1998). Abstract in http://www.erikengdahl.se/mind/jocs1a-en.html#part1.

[Burns and Engdahl, 1998b] T.R. Burns and E. Engdahl, "The Social Construction of Consciousness - Part 2: Individual Selves, Self-Awareness, and Reflectivity.",  J. of Consciousness Studies 5(2), 166-84(1998). Abstract in http://www.erikengdahl.se/mind/jocs1a-en.html#part2.

(*) To be checked.

Comments and suggestions could be e-mailed to erik.engdahlREMOVE.THESE.FOUR.WORDS@spray.se.

Se also by the same author...

Autism Spectrum Conditions as a Relational Phenomenon

Description of Bilateral Cramped State of Communication Shutdown (Non-Intimacy) by Use of the Semi-Quantitative Logarithmic Multiplication Table

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