Spiky Profiles, Peripheral Minds, and Evolutionary History

In that same interview, when he was asked about what would happen to society if autism was eliminated, he said, “That goes to the larger issue that we wrestle with all the time around [artificial intelligence]. Part of what makes us human are [sic] the kinks. They’re the mutations, the outliers, the flaws that create art or the new invention, right? We have to assume that if a system is perfect, then it’s static. And part of what makes us who we are, and part of what makes us alive, is that we’re dynamic and we’re surprised.”

Source: Garcia, Eric. We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation (p. 22). HMH Books. Kindle Edition.

Via:

That quote appears in Eric M. Garcia’s new book “We’re Not Broken” and brings to mind my blog post “Cognitive diversity exists for a reason.

One of the quotes featured in that post reminds me of the spiky profiles of neurominorities.

“there are no superior genes, only genes that provide advantages with a tradeoff for other disadvantages” (Kozubek in Scientific American, 2016)

Source: Is Autism a Stress Adaptation? – The Peripheral Minds of Autism

Our spiky profiles are much about tradeoffs.

There is consensus regarding some neurodevelopmental conditions being classed as neurominorities, with a ‘spiky profile’ of executive functions difficulties juxtaposed against neurocognitive strengths as a defining characteristic.

A definition has emerged for psychologists and educators which positions neurodiversity ‘within-individuals’ as opposed to ‘between-individuals’. To elucidate: the psychological definition refers to the diversity within an individual’s cognitive ability, wherein there are large, statistically-significant disparities between peaks and troughs of the profile (known as a ‘spiky profile’, see Fig. 1). A ‘neurotypical’ is thus someone whose cognitive scores fall within one or two standard deviations of each other, forming a relatively ‘flat’ profile, be those scores average, above or below. Neurotypical is numerically distinct from those whose abilities and skills cross two or more standard deviations within the normal distribution.

Most humans are average in all functional skills and intellectual assessment, some excel at all, some struggle in all and some have a spiky profile, excelling/average/struggling. The spiky profile may well emerge as the definitive expression of neurominority, within which there are symptom clusters that we currently call autism, ADHD, dyslexia and DCD; some primary research supports this notion. In the future, these may shift according to our educational and occupational norms such as social demands, sedentary lifestyles, literacy dependency and automation of gadgets. To elucidate, although there are clear biological markers for those with a spiky profile which lead to observable, measurable psychological differences, there is nothing innately disabling about those differences when we consider a traditional, tribe-based community of humans. Within the biopsychosocial model of neurodiversity, understanding work-related intervention and treatment becomes more about adjusting the fit between the person and their environment than about treating a disorder. Critical review of the extant biopsychosocial research supports the social model proposition that the individual is not disabled, but the environment is disabling.

Source: Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults | British Medical Bulletin | Oxford Academic

We’re the kinky outliers, the peripheral minds. We’ve always been here, living and working the edges, creating dynamism and surprise, “bringing value to cooperative goals”.

This theory proposes that throughout history we evolved working together in villages and communities. The core majority were a group of similar-minded individuals that could get along easily and keep the peace. They evolved to process and prioritize information for sociability. They were adept at imitation, following the crowd and working with others. Because we know from the work of Dr. Fisher and Dr. Michael Lesser that these personalities were dispersed in such a way as the periphery were the more rare personality types. More interested in things and tinkering, exploring, telling stories and taking up causes. These different groups, or personalities, processed information uniquely and had different priorities and motivations. They were innovators, explorers, protectors, leaders, scientists, geeks, artists and creatives (Lesser and Kapklein, 2003). These neurodiverse outliers processed and experienced the world very differently than the more sociable core. However, because of both the core and the diverse Peripheral Minds we thrived with each unique personality bringing value to cooperative goals (Bergmüller et al., 2010; Smaldino et al., 2013).

Source: Is Autism a Stress Adaptation? – Peripheral Minds of Autism

Throughout our history, we have always had communities and villages with a core majority group of stabilizing, social, community-oriented individuals, and we always had the periphery minds, the outliers, those who needed to take in more information from their environments. The hyper-aware and vigilant; the innovators, the explorers, the protectors, the athletes, the hunters, the scientists, the geeks, the artists and the creative.

Source: Theory of Peripheral Minds of Autism – Peripheral Minds of Autism

The Importance of Stimming as an Adaptive Coping Mechanism

Autistic adults highlighted the importance of stimming as an adaptive mechanism that helps them to soothe or communicate intense emotions or thoughts and thus objected to treatment that aims to eliminate the behaviour.

Furthermore, more recent theories have suggested that stimming may provide familiar and reliable self-generated feedback in response to difficulties with unpredictable, overwhelming and novel circumstances (e.g. Lawson, Rees, & Friston, 2014; Pellicano & Burr, 2012). As such, stimming may provide not only relief from excessive sensory stimulation, but also emotional excitation such as anxiety (Leekam, Prior, & Uljarevic, 2011). Consistent with these suggestions, autistic adults report that stimming provides a soothing rhythm that helps them cope with distorted or overstimulating perception and resultant distress (Davidson, 2010) and can help manage uncertainty and anxiety (e.g. Joyce, Honey, Leekam, Barrett, & Rodgers, 2017).

Reflecting the aims of popular interventions, language surrounding the topic of stimming is often pejorative (Jaswal & Ahktar, 2018). Researchers sometimes assume that stimming falls within voluntary control and has asocial or antisocial motivations (Jaswal & Ahktar, 2018; Lilley, in press). For example, a prominent review of repetitive behaviours in autistic people attributed the onset of stimming to a ‘self-imposed restricted environment’ (Leekam et al., 2011, p. 577). Stimming has become so associated with autism that some scientists and clinicians use the term ‘stims’ interchangeably with ‘autistic behaviour’ (Donnellan, Hill, & Leary, 2013). Furthermore, therapies continue to treat stimming despite lacking strong evidence of efficacy or ethics (Jaswal & Akhtar, 2018; Lilley, in press). While researchers increasingly acknowledge limitations in the under- standing of, and interventions for, stimming (e.g. Harrop, 2015; Patterson, Smith, & Jelen, 2010), treatments may remain popular, in part because many parents regard it as noticeable and stigmatising (Kinnear, Link, Ballan, & Fischbach, 2016).

Autistic people have become increasingly mobilised and vocal in defence of stimming. Autism rights or neurodiversity activists believe that stims may serve as coping mechanisms, thus opposing attempts to eliminate non-injurious forms of stimming (e.g. Orsini & Smith, 2010). They decry practices such as ‘quiet hands’ (which teaches the suppression of hand flapping), instead using ‘loud hands’ as a metaphor both for using such non-verbal behaviour to communicate and for cultural resistance more broadly (Bascom, 2012). In addition, autistic scholar-activists denounce attempts to reduce their bodily autonomy (Nolan & McBride, 2015; Richter, 2017) and declarations of their stimming as unacceptable or as necessarily involuntary (Yergeau, 2016).

Source: ‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming – Steven K Kapp, Robyn Steward, Laura Crane, Daisy Elliott, Chris Elphick, Elizabeth Pellicano, Ginny Russell, 2019

Let us stim! I couldn’t cope without my stims, including the self-injurious ones. They are lifelong companions that I wouldn’t want to be without.

Suppressing coping stims is violence against a neurominority.