Processing the Autistic World through Cybernetics Theory: Literature Review

Central to the entire discipline of human-computer interaction research is feedback. In recent years there has been an increasing interest in a theory of feedback called cybernetics. Borne of military might and technocratic authoritarianism (McNay, 1968) of Europe and America in the 1940’s, cybernetics has forgotten it’s shadowy past and is applied in areas of art, science, mathematics and entertainment.

            I propose a research project which aims to use smartphone technologies to augment lens based data with a simple system of vector based visual feedback. In this essay I will exam whether the resultant visualisations can assist autistic and aspergers teenagers to make more sense of their perceived social world.

It is difficult to argue the merits of cybernetics and systems theory as their products; computer devices and computer-mediated industries are all around us, rendering the study of cybernetics success irrelevant. Instead this essay will critically evaluate a selection of relevant literature and assess the extent to which the accomplishments of cybernetics can be applied to assist some young Autistic Spectrum learners, manage and visualise social and educational data.

            It is generally agreed that Norbert Wiener coined the term ‘cybernetics’ (Wiener, 1948, p 11) whilst working with fellow mathematician Julian Bigelow, in 1948 at MIT. Weiner defines cybernetics as, “the science of control and communication, in the animal and the machine” (Wiener, 1949, p 11). His rather simple definition of cybernetics as the art of “steersmanship” belies the complexity of this interdisciplinary study. W Ross Ashby however offers a far more interesting and promising definition, stating themes such as ”co-ordination, regulation, and control” for his preliminary explanation. (Ashby, 1956, p 1) His view is that cybernetics envisages a set of probabilities much wider than the actual. Ashby then asks why particular ‘cases’ should conform to their usual particular restrictions? (Ashby, 1956, p 3) It can thus be suggested, even at this early stage that taking the ‘case’ of communication and data management in young people with AS, cybernetics may be an option to augment sensory information. However, as Ashby rightly encourages us, before any regulation can be undertaken or even discussed, we must know what is important and what is wanted. (Ashby, 1956, p 219)

            Autism is a term often associated with characters from the movie, Rainman (1988) and is not easily defined or categorized (Barranco-Mendoza et al, 2008). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth edition states the diagnostic criteria for autistic disorder as being a qualitative impairment in (1) social interaction, (2) communication, and (3) restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities. The criteria go on to include delays or abnormal functioning in social interaction, language as used in social communication, or symbolic or imaginative play. (DSM-IV, 1994). The definition is consistant with other studies and suggest that people with Aspergers syndrome and AS have dfferent ways of thinking (Atwood, 2007, p.252).

            The research of Prof. Temple Grandin has shown that Courchesne et al. (2004) noted defects in the white matter of the brain, claiming that connections that wire different parts of the brain together are defected in many people with autism. The frontal cortex gets less connections than other parts of the brain, but some local areas in the brain may get extra connections (Minshew & Williams 2007). Casanova and colleagues (2006, 2007; Casanova & Trippe 2009) found that the brain of both famous neuroscientists and people on the autism spectrum have more circuits per square centimeter of brain. They suggest that this may explain savant-like skills. The disadvantage of this type of brain construction is that these small circuits have fewer long-distance connections between distant brain regions that facilitate complex social behaviors.

            Prof. Grandin is clear that she thinks changed brain connections are responsible for Autistics having problems learning things that can not be thought about in pictures. (Grandin, 1984, p 13) A successful academic, and autistic herself, Prof Grandin says,

My mind is completely visual and spatial work like drawing is easy…Every piece of information I have memorised visually. When I think of abstract concepts like human relationships, I use visual similes. (Grandin, 1984, p.145)

This finding is in agreement with Tony Atwood’s (2007) findings who explains that Autistic and Aspergers learners often think in pictures. His data reveals that, like great mathematicians who have tended to develop mathematical concepts using visual images, where numbers are conceived as shapes not quantity, visual reasoning and imagery can be relatively advanced in some children with Aspergers syndrome (Atwood, 2007, p.240).

This study produced results which corroborate the findings of a great deal of the previous work in this field. Brenda Boyd’s (2003) experience shows that using visual aids such as sad and happy faces with younger AS children, gives him visual feedback on how he is doing (Boyd, 2003, p 59). Additionally, the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a successful approach that uses pictures to develop communication skills. It is appropriate for children and adults with a wide range of learning and communication difficulties including autism and aspergers. This system is successful in allowing AS learners to visualise information in a classroom environment, and encourages spontaneity (, accessed on 21/07/2012).

Visual thinking strategies are sadly however sadly inadequate, albeit that the research above all conclude that many AS young people and adults learn visually, none more so than non-specialist institutions like Secondary schools where a policy of mainstream integration is pursued. Tony Atwood has observed that school work is primarily presented for a verbal way of thinking. A teacher often uses speech and a lecture style to explain educational concepts rather than provide a practical demonstration. A strategy to help ’visualisers’ is to make greater use of diagrams models and active participation. (Atwood, 2007, p.253)

            The research shows that visual strategies can be used to augment information so that an individual with autism can better receive information. (ed Neisworth and Wolfe, 2005, p.229). Using this analysis, the project assumes some success in developing a tool for young people with AS to visualise and manage their social and information-based world. Barranco-Mendoza et al (2008) agree that there is a burgeoning need to provide intelligent guided E-learning systems and educational services to AS learners. They propose a knowledge representation model that incorporates the complex multidisciplinary data related with ASD, and artificial intelligence techniques to guide curriculum content in a simple and directed way (Barranco-Mendoza et al, 2008). The solution they propose is a complex system of installed hardware and software, in a strictly classroom based environment. So far, however, there has been little discussion of developing a feedback system to visually mitigate some of the burden of understanding in the AS world.

            The cybernetic method is one of the more practical ways of approaching this problem as it uses feedback as it’s central gamut, and most fundamental feature. When circularity of action exists between the parts of a dynamic system, feedback may be said to be present (Ashby, 1956, 53).

            Norbert Wiener’s research showed that cybernetics takes the view that the structure of the machine or the organism is an index of the performance that may be expected from it (Wiener, 1954, p 57). Based on Beer’s theory of ‘syntegration’ (1981, p 278) which at least in part, focused on social organization, the project can aim to supplement an economy of social data and information handling with real-time visual feedback (Pickering, 2010, p 269).

            Using the theoretical framework of cybernetics has assisted in framing the project research question and has helped decide a specific research approach, which in this case is survey and the focus groups (Lazar et al, 2010, p 290). This literature survey has been instrumental in deciding whether cybernetics can be related to the research topic of visualisation and data management in AS young people. Direct feedback from interested individuals is fundamental to human-computer interaction research (Lazar et al, 2010, p 290).


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