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Talent and Autism
Few topics fascinate the public and psychologists alike as much as autism. Theory follows theory, each as plausible as the last, but this neurodevelopmental condition still stubbornly refuses to give up its secrets. Not least among these is how social, communicative and behavioural impairments can coexist with rare talent. 'Savant' skills are much more common in autistic spectrum condition groups than in the general population, and almost all such individuals are surprisingly good at something, even if this ability - for example, noticing minor changes in a room - can be a curse. In September, eminent names in the field gathered under the joint auspices of the Royal Society and the British Academy to examine what drives these talents, and to ask whether there could be a savant lurking inside all of us.
Francesca Happé (Institute of Psychiatry), who organised the event with Uta Frith (University College London), began proceedings by suggesting that the mindblindness aspect of autism may enhance talent. Imagine not having to spend time and neural space on all the social 'savant' skills that 'neurotypicals' manage on a daily basis. But Happé thinks that the real 'starter motor' for talent is an extraordinary eye for detail, a processing bias that allows people with autism to ignore the 'known gestalt', which among neurotypicals can inhibit tasks like realistic drawing. With new data from a twin study, Happé showed that it was the detail focus associated with repetitive behaviour and interests that was most strongly linked with parental reports of 'striking skills'.
Other speakers agreed. Michael Fitzgerald (Trinity College, Dublin) said that unlike typical accounts of creativity that focus on divergent thinking, autistic creativity was founded on a convergent style of thought - a narrow focus. Simon Baron-Cohen (University of Cambridge) spoke of how children with autism display this narrow focus in their concept learning, for example choosing to familiarise themselves with all the different types of apple rather than the prototypical concept. He pointed to strong systemising and sensory hyper-sensitivity as the origins of that tendency. Evidence suggests that autism is characterised by the drive to analyse or build systems, whether that system is mechanical, natural, abstract or taxonomic. A good example of this drive was provided by Ellen Winner (Boston College), who talked of 'precocious realists' - young children who produce strikingly accurate drawings - trying to 'crack the code' of representational artists.
However, unlike Happé, who has suggested it might be time to move away from a single explanation of autism, Baron-Cohen feels there could be an underlying common factor to autistic talent in the molecular neurobiology of sensory hypersensitivity. Supporting this, he and his colleagues have found new evidence of superior acuity amongst people with autism across auditory, tactile, olfactory and visual senses: in the latter, to near the level of birds of prey. New brain-imaging findings presented by Laurent Mottron (MacGill University Montreal) are also consonant with this account - his team found additional activation in the extrastriate (i.e. perceptual) areas of autistic brains relative to typicals. Mottron proposes an 'enhanced perceptual functioning' model, by which savants detect patterns and fill in missing information: important mechanisms in their talents.
A candidate for the neurobiological explanation Baron-Cohen seeks was provided by Manuel Casanova (University of Louisville), who believes autism is a 'minicolumnopathy'. Minicolumns are the smallest processing module of neurons in the cortex; vertical arrangements of cells that seem to work as a team. Casanova has found that people with autism have more neuronal minicolumns in their brains, and that they are smaller, thinner and closer together. A possible consequence, according to Casanova, is that activation suffuses to adjacent minicolumns more easily, removing the 'curtain of inhibition' that characterises neurotypical processing.
This idea linked neatly with Allan Snyder's (University of Sydney) assertion that knocking out that inhibition via the use of magnetic coils on the side of the head (TMS) can bring out the latent savant in us all. Adults receiving TMS to the left inferior temporal lobe tended to improve on numerosity and drawing tasks, and even reported fewer false memories. Snyder believes that we have evolved the ability to inhibit raw sensory input, in order to form concepts and make decisions more quickly. Creativity could stem from freeing ourselves from 'top down' interpretations and gaining access to another level of perceptual processing, in much the way people with autism seem to do .
The idea of such 'trade offs' permeated other talks during the event. For example, Eleanor Maguire (University College London) highlighted a lesser-known finding from her famous study of the hippocampal volume of London taxi drivers. She found increased grey matter in the mid-posterior part of the hippocampus of those with 'The Knowledge' when compared with bus drivers, and this correlated with experience. However, these drivers had less grey matter in the anterior part, and were much worse at acquiring new visuo-spatial information. Maguire said that expertise is a story of loss as well as gain, and she called for more research into the costs of talent.
Kate Plaisted Grant (University of Cambridge) has explicitly tested the idea that autistic strengths might be the result of compensation for weaknesses elsewhere. Using Navon stimuli (a big letter made up of little letters) and other tasks, Grant's team found no evidence for superior processing at a local level at the expense of group-level processing (results that do not sit comfortably with the theory of detail focus). Instead, other research, using visual stimuli and IQ test items suggests that the mental processing of children with ASC is qualitatively different from that of typical children, even if final performance is the same. 'They have unique ways that they come to the same conclusions we do,' she said.
Other speakers discussed the output from autistic talent. Ian Hacking analysed four autobiographies by authors with autism: Temple Grandin, Donna Williams, Tito Rajarshi Mukhodpadhyay, and Daniel Tammet. Hacking's was a mixed message. 'I encourage you to read these books,' he said, whilst also cautioning that there's no way these books can be seen to be representative of the typical person with ASD. He was particularly critical of the marketing of such books as offering a view from 'inside the autistic mind' as if there were only one kind. Douwe Draaisma (University of Groningen) was similarly cautious, warning of the intricate interaction between the scientific view of autism, the way it is prolifically portrayed in literature and film, and the reality of life for and with an individual with autism. The label may change the child, and the child may change the label.
Turning to art, Roger Cardinal (University of Kent) presented a slide show of 'outsider' works, 'wild, thrilling and spontaneous' pieces outside of the stereotype of any mainstream genre. For example, there's the mimetic, photo-realistic art of Stephen Wiltshire; the erotic overtures of Roy Wenzel's dominant female forms; the 'truly visionary' alternative worlds of George Widener; and the mundane stillness of James Castle's farm scenes. 'Art is a privileged medium of human contact,' Cardinal said. 'We can begin to move beyond a superficial reading of these paintings, beyond pleasure to learning something about ourselves.'
Meanwhile, in a blind comparison, Ilona Roth (Open University) had asked experts and non-experts to compare the poetry of people with autism and those without. She found no evidence for prodigious talent among the poets with autism, but there was clearly some accomplishment. The poets with autism weren't confined to a single form, nor were they confined to formalisms as one might expect (given systematising tendencies). However, the content of their poems was narrower, tending to be about the self, and there were fewer examples of wholly original metaphor.
So what do people with autism stand to gain from their talents? Are they simply destined for life as performing seals? Patricia Howlin (King's College, London) said it was important that savant skills are developed more effectively to enhance social functioning and social inclusion. A video presentation from Darold Treffert (University of Wisconsin) seemed to confirm this: Kim Peek, the inspiration for the film Rain Man, said that it changed his life. 'These skills are not frivolous,' said Treffert. 'They can act as a "conduit to normalisation".'
Celebrated professor Temple Grandin (University of Colorado), who has autism, agreed. She said that 'talent has to be trained into employment' (as hers has been, designing handling facilities for livestock using an uncanny eye for minor details which can stress the animals). In particular, she argued that 'young Aspies' need to be taught job skills and the importance and pleasure that can come from doing tasks for others.
Given the constellation of impairments most people with autism have, this teaching might be easier in theory than in practice. Indeed, Pam Heaton (Goldsmiths) acknowledged that communication difficulties present special challenges for music educators. She's identified a group of children with autism who have excellent auditory analytical skills and a recognised passion for music, but who have yet to be offered formal music education. Heaton opined that the benefits - for individual and social development - make it imperative that music teachers are trained to teach children with ASD, and that music instruction is made freely available.
However, there is still debate over the extent to which such education could allow savant skills to flourish into something that would be generally acknowledged as 'genius'. Michael Fitzgerald has written about autistic traits evident in the biographies of history's 'greats' like Einstein and Newton, but Allan Snyder offered a word of caution from Beate Hermelin: 'There are no savant geniuses about. No savant will discover a new mathematical theorem, initiate a novel stylistic movement, or render a revealing interpretation of a Beethoven piano sonata.' Grant appeared to concur. 'Society celebrates the savant performance skills,' she said. 'But we need greater recognition of the skills like attention to detail that are so useful to industry and academia. These skills need to be nurtured too.'
-Talent and Autism was a two-day discussion meeting held at the Royal Society in October in association with the British Academy.
-Report written by Jon Sutton and Christian Jarrett
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