December 2011

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Hidden talents of the Autistic

People with autism can often appear to be ‘in their own world’, with narrowly focused interests, repetitive behaviours, and a distinct lack of social contact. Yet, in some cases, this ability to cut themselves off can result in special ‘savant’ abilities.

Autism is also known by the name Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which (as the name suggests) means that it covers many different conditions which vary greatly in their severity. One milder form is Asperger’s Syndrome; typically with normal language but a certain social awkwardness, a difficulty recognising facial expressions and a tendency to take things very literally. This can often lead to a feeling of being ‘trapped’, and can make life very difficult.

There are, however, some common characteristics of ASD. One quite striking indicator is the lack of eye contact and problems with language; in one in ten cases, speech is absent altogether. Other signs include a heightened sensitivity to a particular stimulus (such as a loud noise), rituals which cannot be broken, and a strong attention to detail. Repetitive behaviours and a narrow range of interests are also common; children with autism can show an unusual level of interest in an object, for example repeatedly turning a light switch on and off.

It is this narrow focus and repetitive nature which can, in around 10% of cases of autism, result in ‘savant’ abilities. Awareness of this connection was increased by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rainman, which was based on a real-life autistic with a special knack for card counting. Other examples include Stephen Wiltshire, who has the amazing ability to draw complex cityscapes in exquisite detail after just a few minutes in a helicopter, and Derek Paravincini, a greatly accomplished jazz pianist who can play a huge repertoire of songs from memory.

However, cases like these, while incredible, should not be allowed to define our idea of what it means to be autistic. Maybe our focus should instead be to try to understand the nature of autism and to encourage the talents of individual autistics. It is gradually becoming apparent that the autistic mind works very differently; with, for example, less stimulation in the speech-processing areas of the brain and more in the visual-processing areas. It has therefore been suggested that intelligence tests which are based around verbal reasoning are not a suitable measure of the intelligence of autistics, and that they lead to an underestimation of their true ability. It has been suggested that a career in a science laboratory is particularly well suited, as little social contact is required but rule-based thinking is extremely useful. Other careers may also be possible if the right support and encouragement is given; different learning methods could be employed which better suit the autistic mind.

Although autism is known to arise from problems in the development of the brain, no single underlying cause has yet been identified. Overall, it is thought to be a mixture of both environmental and genetic causes; while studies on twins showed that there was a genetic component, the fact that identical twins did not both develop the condition in 100% of cases means that the environment must also play a part. It has been suggested by Simon Baron-Cohen that two parents who work in professions such as science, maths or engineering (or ‘geeks’) have a higher likelihood of having an autistic child, effectively extending the spectrum to include ‘neurotypicals’.

The earlier autism is treated the more likely it is that the child will be able to be an independent member of society later in life. These therapies try to give those with ASD the skills they need to be able to communicate effectively, for example by teaching them how to recognise facial expressions. Ideally, researchers would like to be able to diagnose the condition before the symptoms even show. This means that a large amount of research has been put into finding reliable biomarkers, which could be used to identify those at risk from blood or urine samples straight after birth. Recently, an alternative possible diagnostic test has been suggested which uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. Two studies conducted this year have identified differences in the brains of both children and adults with autism. More work is needed to determine how useful these tests will actually be for very young children, but they could provide a valuable tool for tailoring the therapy.

Much of what we know on autism remains incomplete, but with the rise in the number of cases, there is an increased need to identify the root causes and to develop effective therapies. It is now clear that earlier diagnosis improves the chances of the therapy working, and so a large effort is being put into finding more definitive diagnostic techniques as early in life as possible. However, despite it being clear that autism is a disability, it may be that we need to stop comparing autistics to our sense of what is normal, and to instead learn to see the world though their eyes. If provided with the tools needed, we may be able to unlock their real potential and uncover their hidden talents.

References

Anderson, J.S. et al. (2011). Functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging classification of autism. Available: http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/10/17/brain.awr263.long. Last accessed 24th Nov 2011.

Buchen, L. (2011). When geeks meet. Nature. 479, 25-27.

Hughes, J. (2010). New brain scan to diagnose autism. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-10929032. Last accessed 24th Nov 2011.

Mottron, L. (2011). The power of autism. Nature. 479, 33-35.

The National Autistic Society. (2011). What is Autism?. Available: http://www.autism.org.uk/about-autism/autism-and-asperger-syndrome-an-introduction/what-is-autism.aspx. Last accessed 24th Nov 2011.

Weintraub, K. (2011). Autism Counts. Nature. 479, 22-24.

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