Autism

As I was thinking about the way I should structure this article, a question kept running through my head: ”If we were to choose, do we want to be cool idiots or anti-social geniuses?” At first, common sense kicked in: “You cannot really put things like this; when it comes to human beings (and living creatures, in general) there are many shades of grey. Therefore, you can be smart and socially able at the same time. People are complex!” But what is intelligence? What really distinguishes intelligence from geniality? Are geniuses narrow-minded and do they excel in only one or two areas? Doesn’t being smart require broaden interests and different abilities, including social skills? Does intelligence involve creativity? So many questions, so many myths, so much confusion… I decided to write an article about intelligence at some point in the near future, but until then, let us focus on today’s topic – Autism!

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a rather peculiar brain disorder with contradictory manifestations. It is one of the reasons for the avalanche of questions above, and it has often left scientists baffled. I am sure most of you are all well aware of the characteristic symptoms an autistic person portrays. If you remember when we talked about empathy and mirror neurones in a previous article, we mentioned autism in the context of a dysregulation in the activity of mirror neurones. As a result, autistic people do not understand and tend to avoid other people, and they might not allow others to touch them. They also develop stereotypical behaviours. Repetition and strict schedules is what people with autism need in order to feel calm and safe. Anything that is out of the ordinary, according to their particular set of rules, can wreak havoc.

Some of you might add that autistic people have severe mental disabilities. I would like to point out a relevant distinction here: patients with Asperger’s syndrome show normal intelligence and often impressive language skills, and are not characterised by the same anti-social behaviours as autistic patients. The latter was first described by Leo Kanner in 1943, whereas Asperger’s syndrome bears the name of its discoverer who, nevertheless, used the same term (autism) in 1944 to describe the disease.

What is amazing about many autistic people is that, despite their so-called “mental retardation” and subaverage IQ (between 30 and 60), they exhibit incredible and unique talents, usually in one or two fields. These fields can rage from art and music to maths and impressive arithmetic skills. Either they are multi-instrumentalists, polyglots, compulsive drawers or writers, or are able to do almost impossible mental calculations, and it comes as no surprise that autistic people were also notorious geniuses (e.g., Michelangelo Buonarroti, Pablo Picasso, Amadeus Mozart, Charles Darwin, John Nash).

On top of this, autistic people can learn a new language or a classical music composition in a matter of days or even instantaneously (as it is the case of multi-instrumentalist Leslie Lemke). And if you are still not impressed, some have an amazing memory, being able to retain every information they read. Kim Peak, the man who inspired the famous film ” Rain Man”, has stored in his memory all the details in the around nine thousand books he has read throughout his life. Nevertheless, he is regarded as retarded and is almost completely dependent on his father.

But what actually happens inside those incredible people’s brains? What makes them work in a way normal people cannot, and yet still, why do they lack what we have? One possible explanation comes down to genes. It appears that a mutation in the fmrp gene causes the loss of the encoded protein, leading to structural brain modifications. The FMRP protein regulates synthesis of proteins in neurones and its absence leads to overly developed brain tissue.

Another theory has to do with brain trauma (such as in the case of epilepsy) at an early age, which can trigger different parts of the brain to be cross-activated. This, in turn, leads to another very interesting phenomenon – synaesthesia. Therefore, autistic individuals associate numbers or different other objects with colours, odours or shapes. This can account for their unbelievable abilities to memorise so much information. Some scientists believe that it is the loss of particular functions in the brain that trigger the genius abilities, more specifically the brain regions that control “higher” cognitive processes are or become inactivated. Ironic as it sounds, the talents of autistic people, which we all aim for, are actually linked to subcortical areas and in a normal individual are usually suppressed by the functions of the cerebral cortex. We can now understand why normal people are “normal” and autistic people are different.

As always, there is much more to tell, but unfortunately limited space requires this article to come to an end. I will come back to this in a future article about the creativity and intelligence. Until then, how about you reflect on the questions at the beginning of this article for a while? Also, I added a link to a very interesting video about an autistic young man who is not only extremely talented but also (surprisingly!) socially able.

For further information:

Antonio Damasio,1995. Decartes’ Error. Vintage Books

Bear et al., 2006. Neuroscience – Exploring the Brain. s.l.:Lippincott Williams & Wilknins pp. 706

Dick Swaab, 2014. We are our brains – From the womb to Alzheimer’s. Penguin Books, pp. 185-194

Video Daniel Tammet (highly recommended) 

Image by Damaris Pop