Science writing

IMG_0168Misinformation and alternative facts. Inspiring Australia

We live, we are told, in a “post truth” world where scientific evidence competes with “alternative facts” and everyone is well and truly “sick of experts”. But is this a recent phenomenon? Or have new modes of communication made the problem worse? If so, what should scientists do about it? These were some of the questions considered during a recent workshop at Macquarie University which brought together science communicators and researchers from a wide range of disciplines to discuss the challenge of translating evidence into scientifically informed decision making.


20170511-BrockViewpoint1120Virtual reality may reveal new clues about autism social difficulties. Scientific American

You’re walking down a narrow corridor. Someone is walking toward you, so you step to one side. But in that moment, they step to the same side. You make eye contact, grin awkwardly and then, without a word, negotiate a way around each other. Our lives are full of these delicate social dances. Whether we’re having a conversation, playing a game or trying to avoid collisions with passersby, our social interactions are reciprocal. My behavior affects your behavior, which in turn affects my behavior. But until the past few years, research into social cognition — the psychology of human interaction — has been decidedly non-interactive. Participants looked at images of faces, read short stories about social scenarios, or watched videos of other people interacting. They didn’t actually interact with another person…



Autism diagnosis by brain scan? It’s time for a reality check. The Guardian

What if I told you that we can now identify babies who are going to develop autism based on a simple brain scan? This, in essence, is the seductive pitch for a study published last week in the journal Nature, and making headlines around the world. Early identification and diagnosis is one of the major goals of autism research. By definition, people with autism have difficulties with social interaction and communication. But these skills take many years to develop, even in typically developing (i.e., non-autistic) children. Potential early signs of autism are extremely difficult to pick out amidst the natural variation in behaviour and temperament that exists between all babies. A brain scan for autism would be a major step forward. But is the hype justified?


animation_render_002Quest for autism biomarkers faces steep statistical challenges. Spectrum News

Every week, scientists publish new studies reporting differences between people with and without autism. Many of these studies involve some form of biological test — for example, a brain scan, a blood test or a measure of eye movements. Coverage of these studies in academia and the popular media often suggests that the test in question could serve as a ‘biomarker’ for autism — an objective way of determining whether someone has the condition. The hope is that biomarkers could one day allow clinicians to identify people with autism earlier, more accurately and more efficiently than is currently possible. These are noble objectives. But with any potential biomarker, finding a difference, on average, between people with and without autism is only the first small step toward clinical utility…



Does psychology belong in the science club? The Conversation

…From genetics to climate change, building, testing, and improving models of reality is an entirely legitimate way of doing science – and that’s precisely how psychology works. We can’t measure memories, beliefs or attitudes directly. But we can measure behaviour. And we can use those measurements to test the predictions of our psychological theories – our models of the mind. Psychology is a science. But the connection goes far deeper…


mainMEG for kids: listening to your brain with super-cool SQUIDs. Frontiers for Young Minds

Inside your brain, you have over 80 billion neurons – tiny brain cells, all working together to make you the person you are. Neurons talk to each other by sending electrical messages. Each message creates a tiny magnetic field. If enough neurons are talking together, we can listen in on their conversations by measuring the magnetic field around your head. We call this MEG, which stands for magnetoencephalography…



Combining the old and the new: Bayesian and predictive coding accounts of autistic cognition. The Psychologist

Mark Rimland was not like other babies. As his father, Bernard, later recalled, ‘Mark was a screaming, implacable infant who resisted being cuddled and struggled against being picked up’. The paediatricians were baffled, and it was only after his mother, Gloria, remembered reading about Leo Kanner’s description of ‘autism’ in a psychology textbook that a diagnosis was eventually made. Today, autism is considered to be a neurodevelopmental disorder arising from the complex interplay of genetics and environmental factors during pre- and early post-natal development. However, in 1958, when Mark was first diagnosed, it was generally regarded as the child’s reaction to a lack of maternal affection – the infamous ‘refrigerator mother’ hypothesis. Bernard knew that this was nonsense and set out to determine the real cause of his son’s difficulties…



Redefining autism in the DSM-5. The Conversation

For autistic people and their families, getting an autism diagnosis is just the first step in a long struggle to access much-needed intervention, support, and appropriate education. In Australia, as in many countries, autism diagnoses are made according to criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The latest update to the manual, the DSM-5, is due for publication in May 2013 and will bring significant changes to the definition and diagnosis of autism…



The elusive essence of autism. Spectrum News

…One of the key challenges facing autism research is the heterogeneity within the condition. No two people with autism are alike, and apart from their diagnostic label, they may have little if anything in common. This heterogeneity is widely acknowledged by researchers. And yet autism research still focuses on the label itself, considering whether on average, people with autism are different from people who don’t have that diagnostic label. Underlying this approach is what philosophers would call an “essentialist” view of autism — somehow, beneath all the variation, people with autism share some essential property that sets them apart from those without a diagnosis…


presentation1Perfect match. Spectrum News

…Control groups are an essential part of autism research, providing a benchmark against which to assess those with autism. Finding, for instance, that participants with autism score an average of 68 percent on a test is meaningless if you don’t know how people who don’t have autism do on the same test. A control group can also be used to try and rule out alternative and perhaps uninteresting explanations for group differences. The logic is simple: If two groups are matched on one measure, such as intelligence or age, then this can’t explain differences on another measure, such as performance on an emotion recognition test, that is under investigation…



PDD-NOS and DSM-5 The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism

Some cases of autism are obvious. Anyone who knew anything about autism would agree that the child or adult in question was autistic. Other cases are less clear cut. Indeed, the term “autism spectrum” implies the existence of a continuum that fades gradually into what we think of as the “normal” population. Somewhere a line has to be drawn and where exactly we choose to draw that line defines what we mean by autism. It determines who is eligible to take part in autism-related research and this in turn influences the development of theories of autism. Eventually, this feeds back to our evolving definitions and cut-offs for autism. Most importantly when it comes to immediate real-world consequences, the diagnostic boundaries specify who is labeled “autistic” and, ultimately, who gains access to interventions and support…


Spectrum News

Six questions for connectivity theory research

Registered reports

Cracking the Enigma (selected blogposts)


Clouds cloudcatcherOne of my favourite bits about being a dad is, every now and then, just casually blowing my little boy’s mind – with science. Last weekend, for example, we were out for a stroll when he paused, looked up at the sky, and came out with “I wish I had a rocket so I could go and stand on a cloud”. Sensing an opening, I explained that clouds were made of tiny droplets of water that hang in the air, so you wouldn’t ever be able to stand on one. But that, when it’s misty, that’s just a cloud that’s really low down on the ground, so it’s actually very easy to stand inside a cloud. That pleased him, as he acknowledged his chances of owning a rocket any time soon were marginal at best…


Book Illustration Depicting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in a Train CabinThe curious case of the reversed pronoun

“You made a circle”, exclaimed Ethan, looking up from his drawing. “You did make a circle”, his mum acknowledged, ignoring the fact that, not for the first time, Ethan had reversed the pronoun, saying “you” when he should have said “I”. Ethan was one of six children from Providence, Rhode Island taking part in a study of child language development. Every couple of weeks, a researcher from Brown University would visit him and his mum at home, record, and then transcribe their conversations in painstaking detail. The transcriptions would show that Ethan was a prolific reverser of pronouns; frequently saying “you” when he meant “I” and “your” instead of “my” or “mine”. This curious habit began as soon as pronouns entered his vocabulary and he was still reversing pronouns when, just before his third birthday, the study came to an end…


NPG x82217; Alan Mathison Turing by Elliott & FryDid Alan Turing have Asperger syndrome?

It’s no exaggeration to say that Alan Turing was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Regarded as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, he also made ground-breaking contributions to the fields of mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Most famously, during World War II, he played a crucial role in cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code. He was also, it’s argued, a person with Asperger syndrome. There’s something of a cottage industry in “outing” historical figures with autism or Asperger syndrome. Candidates include Mozart, Einstein, Isaac Newton, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas Jefferson, Andy Warhol. In many cases, it seems, being brilliant at something and having a reputation for social awkwardness is all that it takes for a “diagnosis”. In Turing’s case, there is at least some more concrete evidence to go on…



800px-san_sebastian_kursaal_nocheTransforming autism research: Reflections on IMFAR, RDoC, and DSM-5

…Since Kanner, the idea of a discrete condition, “autism”, has made intuitive sense to researchers and clinicians alike. We could metaphorically throw a wide range of people into that group because, although they were different from one another in many ways, they seemed to have something essential in common. What was learned about one sample of autistic people could, we assumed be generalised to others. However, as more evidence has come in, the concept of autism as a coherent entity has been found wanting. This is the “validity” issue that so undermines the DSM. Insel’s bet is that the “domains” of RDoC do have validity, that they will map better onto underlying biological mechanisms and, crucially, that they will provide clearer insights into appropriate treatments and interventions for individuals. RDoC represents an alternative “ordering” of the human mind. But like the DSM, it needs to be empirically tested, refined, and, if necessary, rejected…

Theories of autism – lessons from Dr House

The common sense of science

Autism and the art of campervan maintenance

The many faces of autism

Does a baby’s eye gaze really predict future autism?

The messy science behind The Autism Enigma

Networks in the autistic brain – insights from graph theory

Of autistic mice and men

Using eye-tracking to investigate language comprehension in autism

The adventures of DataThief


Autismo Diario (Spanish translation)

Las pruebas de campo del DSM-5 dejan muchas preguntas sin respuesta

Adiós TGD-ne, bienvenido SCD

Cerebros con Autismo: ¿Sub o Hiper Conectados?