Could you give us a brief introduction to your work?
I’m the director of the Autism Research Centre. We look at people on the autistic spectrum who might have classic autism or Asperger syndrome, which is the so-called high-functioning subgroup, and we try to understand those people at multiple levels, from psychology – how their mind works – through to the neural level – how their brain works – right through to the biochemical and ultimately the genetic level. So it’s multidisciplinary. There are scientists working here with very varied backgrounds, working collaboratively.
Tell me something about the theory of mind, an area you have done a lot of research into.
This is now quite an old theory, about 25 years old. It’s the idea that people with autism might have a specific difficulty in imagining other people’s thoughts and feelings, putting themselves into another’s person’s shoes, or taking on another person’s perspective.
A lot of research at the psychological level points to that as a specific area of difficulty, either that people on the autistic spectrum are not developing that ability at the age that you’d expect it – by pre-school – or they are just not developing it at all, or they aren’t using the usual parts of the brain for this function. Whatever the particular manifestation of the problem, it has a big impact on their communication and their ability to socialise.
Your first choice, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a fictional first-hand account of autism.
The main character is a young boy with Asperger syndrome. He’s completely confused by the social interactions of people in his community and in his family, but he’s also very precocious in mathematics. The book describes, albeit fictionally, the disconnect between his understanding of systems – in this case mathematical, numerical systems – and his major difficulties in understanding people.
How accurate is the portrayal?
I think in fiction the writer has some licence to deviate from what is real – it’s a work of art, ultimately, for people’s interest and enjoyment, but I think that the character is very recognisable of many people with Asperger syndrome. I think the author has done a very good job.
There’s also an extra element in that this boy is a victim of domestic violence, and that’s certainly not typical of most children with Asperger syndrome, so if the reader is trying to figure out what’s causing what, it’s quite difficult to disentangle. Are his difficulties just the result of his autistic spectrum condition, or the result of early neglect and abuse?
It’s a book that I would recommend, because I think it has a very original style – it’s very engaging. The risk that this book carries is that people who read it might think that all children with Asperger syndrome have talents, which is not always the case – there’s a slight risk of misrepresentation. You could come away with the wrong conclusion.
In popular fiction, autistic characters are commonly portrayed as savants – someone who has an islet of expertise, despite developmental difficulties. But actually this is quite a rare condition, isn’t it?
Well, people are unsure what the actual proportion is. Savant syndrome certainly seems to be more common in the autistic spectrum than any other psychological or neurological group, so there’s definitely the link, but people argue about what the prevalence rate is among autism or Asperger syndrome, and it’s by no means universal.
Let’s move on to your second choice, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, a 1974 film by Werner Herzog. Could you tell me a bit about it?
I saw this film more than 30 years ago. It describes an enigmatic real-life character who turned up in a village in Nuremberg in 1828. He has no language and seems completely outside of human culture, and is taken in by the local doctor who tries to socialise him.
Part of the enigma about Hauser was his origins – was he abandoned, did he have an important family history? But the big question was, how could somebody be, as it were, outside of human society and find it so hard to develop language and to make sense of people?
Kaspar Hauser might be the first well-documented case of autism in literature, or even in history. Some people wonder whether autism is just a modern phenomenon, but here we have a very early account. The film (and the original book) raises very similar issues to those raised in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and shares a main character who is somehow detached from humanity. Like The Curious Incident, Kaspar Hauser also suffered neglect and abuse (of a different kind – he was reportedly chained up and isolated for the first 17 years of his life), so this by no means represents autism. Indeed, it could be more similar to the case of Genie, a so-called feral child who was also reared in isolation and never properly developed language or social skills.
It’s interesting that they have managed to make such an interesting film – and book, in the case of your first choice – with a central character who is so difficult to relate to.
I think that in some ways that helps the reader. It taps into the same fascination that anthropologists have with other cultures, but in this case it is a fascination with someone who is not part of any culture. There’s a sort of mirroring that goes on, because the character is so detached he is observing other people. Some people with Asperger syndrome describe themselves as feeling as though they came from another planet: they watch human interaction and they don’t quite understand it. They don’t feel that they can participate in it. But it creates an outsider’s point of view, which I think works very well in literature and film.
Your third choice is The Language Instinct by Stephen Pinker.
This is a popular science book from a highly respected cognitive scientist. He took one part of the mind, language, and looked at it from every angle. It’s a really wonderful example of what you can do: take research into something as fundamental to human nature as language and make it accessible to a wide audience.
He looks at how infants develop language, whether other animals are capable of understanding language, how the brain produces and processes language, how we use language in the media…he looks at it from every vantage point. It was, justifiably, a very popular and successful book. Language is at the core of many of the humanities, yet here was a scientist addressing it and bringing into contact, for example, people who work in literature with people who work in brain scanning.
Your fourth book is The Intentional Stance by Daniel Dennett.
Dennett is a philosopher at Tufts University, near Boston. This actually links with our earlier discussion about theory of mind. One of Dennett’s goals was to take philosophical ideas and make sure that people in neighbouring disciplines were thinking about them. He was particularly targeting psychologists but appealed to primatologists just as much.
The notion was how we understand other people, and in particular, whether we adopt the ‘intentional stance’ – that is to say, whether we approach other people by assuming that they have minds, with beliefs, intentions, emotions, and desires. One of the problems with philosophy books is that only philosophers can understand them, but Dennett wrote a book that was very readable – he didn’t compromise the academic complexity of his subject, but he wanted to ensure that it was widely accessible.
This book gave rise to a lot of the research that was carried out in developmental psychology into how children understand other people, and how they develop the capacity to ‘mind-read’. It certainly inspired my work in understanding children with autism. Why is it that they are not developing the capacity to mind-read, or developing the ‘intentional stance’?
It’s interesting that someone who is such a long way away in academic terms (philosophy) can have such a big impact in fields like psychiatry and neuroscience.
You touched on this before – the importance of coming from all different directions in academia. Do you think that this is necessary for scientific progress?
Not all scientists work that way. Many are happy to focus on one problem, and study it from one discipline. But I guess that my experience in research is to take the broader approach and try to integrate from a range of different approaches and disciplines. That might reflect my training as a human scientist – my undergraduate degree – which itself is a kind of hybrid: it doesn’t expect any one discipline to be able to answer a particular question. It acknowledges that a discipline like social anthropology or psychology can contribute one part of the answer, but that ultimately what we should be aiming for are integrated answers that bring in different approaches, such as genetics or brain scanning. That’s how we work in the Autism Research Centre – collaboratively across disciplines – and the Pinker and Dennett books are good illustrations of how that works.
Your final book is John Bowlby’s Attachment series. Why did you choose this?
Bowlby’s theory of attachment, first published in the 1950s, was a very simple but powerful idea. In essence he told us something that we all knew, which was that the bond between a parent and a child is really important. But he didn’t just say this anecdotally, he said it on the basis of his clinical experience. He was working at the Tavistock Clinic in London, where he worked with children who hadn’t had the luxury of strong relationships with their parents. Many had been brought up in a children’s home, and many had developed delinquency or other problems by their teens. And just as Steve Pinker looked at language from the perspective of great apes or dolphins, Bowlby looked at attachment behaviour from the perspective of many different species. He unified the study of parent-offspring relations across the animal kingdom.
The reason I’ve selected it here is that it’s a very nice example of an environmental influence that affects all of our outcomes in adulthood. Whereas Pinker talks about genetic or innate factors that predispose humans to produce and understand language, Bowlby reminds us that our early experience and our social environment is equally important. What Bowlby’s studies have shown, now confirmed by scientists who came after him, is that the quality of your attachment to your parents can predict not just short-term outcomes, like how well you do at school and your social popularity, but also long-term outcomes like your risk of divorce and your risk of developing personality disorders in adulthood.
How does the attachment relationship change in the case of autistic children? Is there a special bond there?
Yes. Sometimes people imagine that children with autism don’t form any relationships at all, but actually that’s a myth. They do show selective relationships just like other children, showing a preference for their caregiver, whether that’s a biological parent or a foster parent. They are capable of showing strong attachment. But you’re right in that attachment is bound to change if you have autism. A typically developing child who is securely attached would be expected to be very confident and able to go out and explore the world. In the case of someone with autism, clearly there are other factors that will mediate whether that person will end up socially withdrawn or very confident.
This interview was first published in 2010.
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