Sunday, October 19, 2014

Autism Rates and Movie Production Costs: Connection?

There is certainly no shortage of attempts to explain the rising prevalence of autism. I would like to present another. As we know, the rate of autism in 1997 was reported as being 1.6 per 1,000. That has sharply risen to 6.6 per 1,000 in 2007, and is currently reported as 14.7 per 1,000 in 2014. By comparison, the cost to make and market a movie in 1997 was around $60 million, increasing to $100 million in 2007, and $180+ million currently. The cost has more than tripled in just 17 years, coinciding with the sharp increase in the prevalence of autism.

It is likely that there are other factors involved, as the correlation does not appear to be linear. In addition, 1942's Casablanca cost just over $1 million to produce. During that same year, the rate of autism was effectively zero. This suggests that there may be a safe level of movie production cost, without risking elevating the autism rates.

It is not known at this time exactly how these two might be related. Some possibilities include more realistic special effects directing children to focus too much on small details, or more aggressive marketing strategies may lead to obsessive interests. Whatever the cause may be, I think further research may be merited.

Odds are very good right now that either you're laughing hysterically or you think I've gone completely nuts. In truth, I created a deliberately ridiculous example to make a point about correlation and causation. I don't believe that any sane person is likely to believe that movie production costs have anything to do with autism. However, there are many studies and theories that have little to no more validity than this, including several that gain widespread media attention. Unfortunately, most people are not adequately equipped to recognize a bogus or unusable study when they see one. I'd like to help by providing a quick guide to understanding the experimental process.

To start, I feel I should point out one of the basic rules of logic: correlation does not imply causation. Just because two things are happening at the same time does not mean they have anything to do with each other. They might be related, but further evidence will always be needed to establish a connection. My hope is that point is made above in the opening of this piece.

Second, it is important to always clearly define your terms. This is often overlooked in autism research, and perhaps other psychological studies. As definitions change over time and methods improve, researchers often neglect to adjust previous findings to account for these changes, leading to faulty results. If you look carefully at the above example, you may find a result of this fallacy. (Hint: Look up when Leo Kanner first published his autism research.)

The primary purpose of any experiment or study is to isolate one particular variable as much as possible. If there are too many variables, it can be difficult to say the reason for the results. There are multiple ways to isolate one variable. As many of them as possible should be used.

The first is to use a large sample group. Coincidences and unusual phenomena happen. With a small enough sample group, it can be difficult to tell if you're looking at a coincidence or an actual result of the experiment. The sample group should be large enough that coincidences should be expected. By doing this, it becomes easier to tell if a particular occurrence is happening at a statistically significant rate.

Next, we have to account for individual variation between different people. The best way to control for this is to have a diverse and representative sample. Many autism researchers look to particular programs or classes for their research subjects. The problem with this is that many of these programs only accept people with a defined age or level of intelligence, functioning, or income. Most of them also largely constitute people within a certain area. This means that autism is no longer the only variable involved in the study. The findings become unusable outside the one type of group in the study.

The third way we have to isolate a specific variable is to use a control group. A control group is a second sample group, similar to the experimental group, but without the variable being tested. The purpose is to observe alongside the experiment what a normal result would look like.

One type of control that's commonly used in treatment studies is a placebo. Often, a person will react to a treatment just by virtue of expecting a result. A placebo is designed to separate this phenomenon from actual results. The way it works is the subject is given an inert equivalent to the treatment and is allowed to believe that it is the actual treatment. Only differences between the actual treatment and the placebo group should be noted.

Another technique is a blind or double blind study. A blind study is when the participants do not know whether they are the experimental group or the control group. Most studies are conducted this way. A double blind study is when the researcher present with the participants also does not know which group is which. This is done to prevent the researcher from giving subconscious clues to the participants, or from subconsciously biasing the results.

To illustrate the isolation of variables, I'd like to use what may be considered to be an extreme example, Andrew Wakefield's research into vaccines. I realize this is a controversial example outside the scientific and medical communities. Allow me to explain why his research was never fully accepted.

First, Wakefield used a sample group of only twelve children. It is almost impossible to distinguish actual results from a coincidence with such a small group. Second, all of the children were drawn from his existing gastroenterology work, meaning that they all likely had gastrointestinal problems. That makes his results useless in terms of anyone with no gastrointestinal problems alongside autism. And third, he used no control group to compare his results. It is entirely possible that by using one or more control groups, he may have noticed similar results in unvaccinated autistic children, or different results in vaccinated neuronormal children. Either one of these would have rendered his observations irrelevant.

On a final note, you will occasionally find a study where the researcher appears to have decided on the conclusion before conducting the research. Usually, this is unintentional. Researchers are, after all, human like the rest of us. Sometimes, though, the data may be cherry picked to suit the desired conclusion. If you look at my example of the costs of movie productions, an astute reader may note that those costs have more or less risen steadily over the course of time, while the rates of autism diagnoses appears to have sharply risen in the 1990s, shortly after Hans Asperger's research was translated o English.

The check for this is usually the assumption that science is repeatable. If other researchers are unable to reproduce the same results, there is probably something wrong with the study.

If I may return to the Wakefield study into vaccines, there are two solid reasons to suspect his results may have been influenced by his desired conclusion. First, as often as his theory was put to the test, no other researcher has ever been able to reproduce his results. Second, it was later proven that at least five of his twelve subjects were showing signs of autism prior to vaccination. This second point, in particular, strongly suggests that this study may have been fraudulent.

The major take home message from this should be to not believe everything you read on the internet. There are certainly plenty of valid studies out there. Just be sure to check the methods and double check the data before you believe it.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Learning Process and How to Use It

It is commonly recognized that different people have different learning styles. Seven have been identified. Furthermore, most people use a combination of two or more learning styles. The seven learning styles are as follows:

  • Visual: Visual learners learn best using pictures, images, and other visual cues. Even the suggestion of a visual cue can be enough.
  • Aural: This learning style makes use of sounds and songs, such as how we learn the alphabet.
  • Verbal: Verbal learners will retain information by repeating it back, in either a spoken or written format. Essays and speeches both cater to a verbal learning style.
  • Physical: Physical learning involves associating movements, gestures, and actions with the information. In effect, this is learning by doing.
  • Logical: This is learning by reasoning. It is finding the answer by learning why it's the answer.
  • Social: Social learners learn best in groups, using others to reinforce what they've learned.
  • Solitary: A solitary learner typically does best learning on his/her own. Study groups are usually of little value to a solitary learner.

Most people are familiar enough with their own learning styles to find what works best for themselves. As a teacher, however, it's important to cater to as many learning styles as possible in each lesson. This not only teaches to the largest number of students, but further reinforces the lesson for those with multiple learning styles.

However, the ways that people learn can be simplified even more. Everyone goes through four stages in the learning process: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence. Let's go through these four stages in terms of learning to ride a bike, since most of us are familiar with that.

  • Unconscious Incompetence: At this stage, you would not only have no knowledge of the subject you're learning, but you wouldn't even have any idea what you don't know. In our example, a child might look at someone riding a bicycle and think of it as an almost magical phenomenon that something could stay upright on only two wheels.
  • Conscious Incompetence: After trying to learn a subject, you begin to become aware of the things you need to know. Most children learning to ride a bike experience this stage while using training wheels. They begin to understand that there is a trick to it, but still rely heavily on the training wheels.
  • Conscious Competence: This is when you would begin to understand what you're learning. You still have to think about it, but you know what you're doing. When learning to ride a bike, this could be constantly adjusting the handlebars to stay upright, or it could be finding some way to get speed without starting from a completely stopped position. This is also the stage where you will see the classic occurrence of a parent letting go of the seat without the child's knowledge.
  • Unconscious Competence: The final stage of learning is when you no longer have to think about it. In our example, you don't have to think about how to keep your bike upright. You just get on and ride. You may even no longer know how you didn't know to begin with.

Every time you learn something new, you will go through all four stages of this process. As a matter of fact, even babies will go through these stages when they learn how to walk, talk, and even eat. Teenagers go through this process when they learn to drive. Adults will even go through it when they start a new job. In addition, people are likely to move through each stage faster if they approach the subject using one of their favored learning styles.

My regular readers know that I usually write about autism-related topics. So, why am I writing about this? In part, it has to do with my fascination with how the human mind works. Even more, I feel that this knowledge can be used by multiple aspects of the autism community.

When I talk about learning styles, you're likely to think about teachers, so I'll start there. One thing I notice is that autistic people tend toward logical and solitary learning styles. I've never liked study groups, or even group activities in class. Many of my teachers have accommodated by allowing me to do group activities on my own, so that I only have to focus on learning the things that I don't know, without the distractions of everything everyone else needs to review, which has very rarely helped me. In addition, I've always felt that taking a logical approach and learning why the answers are what they are is a more concrete way to learn. If I forget, or if I want to know something related, I already have to tools to figure it out myself.

Additionally, it's often easier to work a person through the stages of the learning process by relating the subject to something they already know. For an autistic student, this is likely one of their interests. I realize that that may not be efficient in a large class. However, if you can get one-on-one time with the student, it may be more likely that you can help them through a difficult subject that way.

For parents, an understanding of the learning process may help in other ways. As you may know, some of the distinguishing characteristics of autism are social deficiencies and problems with independent living skills. Most people learn these almost automatically, so it's often easy to fill in the gaps. However, autistic people do not. Understanding that you must teach these things to an autistic child, starting from the unconscious incompetence stage, meaning that the child doesn't even know what he/she doesn't know, can help this process considerably. Don't forget to play on the logical learning style as much as possible.

From the autistic point of view, some of us are great self teachers. However, I'm constantly amazed that some of the autistic people I know have trouble getting started with the learning process, because they don't know anything about the subject. I admit that I struggle with this too sometimes. Getting past the unconscious incompetence stage can be difficult for specific-to-general learners like us. All I can really say is to dive in and the areas where you need to start will gradually become apparent.

Finally, a note for the self-advocate. Teaching others about autism is one of the cornerstones of autistic self-advocacy. Cater to as many different learning styles as you can. Logical should be easy for most of us, since we already think on a logical level. Being open about your autism and being the best example of autism you can be works on a visual level. Personal stories will help verbal learners. You can cater to physical learners by befriending and spending time with those who would be neurodiversity allies. Always keep in mind what stage in the learning process they are in.

I hope this information helps you. Now, go start learning what you don't know and teaching what you do.