Autism And Synaesthesia

The Naked Scientists spoke to Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre
20 March 2005

Interview with 

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre


Chris - What actually is autism?

The Essential Difference - Simon Baron-Cohen
Simon Baron-Cohen's book
The Essential Difference, which explores the difference between male and female brains and the basis of Asperger's and autism.

Simon - Autism is a childhood condition that we now understand to be the result of brain development just not being typical, and it results in the child having social difficulties, trouble making friends, and communication problems. Some of these children are late to talk or may never develop speech, and others just can't chat. There is also another feature which is narrow interests or obsessions.

Chris - But that just goes along with being male to a certain extent doesn't it?

Simon - We do know that more boys than girls end up with a diagnosis like this but we should be careful not to say 'is this all males?' because this is a medical condition and the diagnosis is only given out if the person is suffering in some way. So just because you are having some trouble socially or because you have strong narrow interests, that doesn't necessarily interfere with your life. But if it's so severe that it's actually causing you to be depressed, be very isolated or having trouble with education, you might end up in a clinic and need a diagnosis.

Chris - If you look at brain scans of people that have autism spectrum disorders, can you see any difference between them and what's considered normal?

Simon - Yes, there are findings coming out and that's one of the exciting results of having brain scan technology like magnetic resonance imaging. The first finding is that a proportion of people with autism have larger brains, and there's a whole suggestion now that the brain may be growing too fast in the first two years of life. Another difference is that when you use functional imaging, where you can see how the brain is functioning while the person is doing a task, the usual areas that should be active in a typical brain are not necessarily active in a brain of someone with autism. There's a special part of the brain called the amygdala, some people think of it as the emotion centre, which doesn't typically get activated in the autistic brain when they're thinking about emotions or looking at people's faces. In the more typical child or adult, the amygdala is very important for recognising how somebody else is feeling.

Chris - And that could explain why people with autism classically have a problem with relating to other people.

Simon - Absolutely. We don't really understand why social interaction happens so easily. For most of us, we chat, make friends and socialise without even thinking about it. For someone with autism, that can be the hardest thing. It's as if one part of their brain that should be working, if you like, naturally on autopilot, is not working in the normal way.

Chris - Didn't you do a study at the maternity hospital showing that one day after birth, children of one sex or the other already show some differences?

Simon - Yes. We were interested in sex differences in the general population and its possible link with developing autism. We looked at babies that were just 24 hours old, and we showed them either a human face or a mechanical mobile suspended above the crib. We were interested if babies would look equally long at each type of object. Some of your listeners may guess the result. What we found was that little boys, even on the first day of life, looked longer at the mechanical mobile, and little girls looked longer at the human face. Now finding a sex difference like that at birth, effectively, suggests that biology must be contributing to what we all recognise as differences on average between males and females. It's not that culture and experience don't also play a part, but finding it at birth also makes biology an important part of the explanation.

Chris - There was an unfortunate furore created that has now become a major health problem across the whole of our region and the country, which is in relation to the MMR. This was because a certain person down in London published a paper suggesting that the MMR vaccine may be linked to autism. It's subsequently been disproved hasn't it?

Simon - It has. The big problem created by that study was undermining public confidence in a health programme and vaccination. The suggestion was that the babies that have the MMR vaccine might be at increased risk of developing autism subsequently, as if the vaccine was causing the autism. Subsequent studies have not borne out any of the evidence for this link. In countries where the triple vaccine has been withdrawn, the rates of autism haven't really changed. And if you compare countries where a section of the people have had the vaccine and a section who haven't, the rates of autism are very similar in those two groups.

Chris - There was a massive study done in Japan fairly recently where 30 000 people who didn't have the vaccine were compared with people who did. They found that those without actually had a higher rate of autism, suggesting that the MMR is totally unrelated to the rates of autism.

Simon - That's right, and in contrast, an alternative theory of autism is that the condition is genetic. An incident or an event like a vaccine may not be relevant at all.

Anna - Autism is supposed to be an extreme male brain. Is that in any way linked to what you actually look like? Do you have a more male face or more masculine features if you have a more male brain?

Simon - Not necessarily. You can look at the sex of the brain in the sense of 'is it typical?' for a male or a female group. That may be completely unrelated to your outward physical appearance.

Chris - Synaesthesia. It's a tremendously long word, but what does it actually mean?

Simon - It actually means a mixing of the senses. Whereas most people can separate what sense they are currently experiencing, in people with synaesthesia you get this mixing. They may be listening to speech or music, and that triggers, for instance, the experience of taste or colour, so they can no longer keep track of which sense is active.

Chris - Do we have any clues as to why people get this?

Simon - Well we know that it is more common in females, and we also know that it runs in families. So our best guess at the moment is that it's genetic. Having said that, we don't yet know which genes are involved, but there's a project going on in Oxford at the Wellcome Institute of Human Genetics trying to track down the very genes that might be involved.

Chris - We now have Richard on the line who has synaesthesia. What's it like?

Richard - It's something that I basically don't choose to do, it just happens. It's not like waking up one morning and saying 'I'm going to see the world in colour today', I just do it. I experience that certain words, numbers days of the week and months of the year are in colour in my brain. So March is a pale yellowish colour whereas April is a deep red colour. I discovered I had synaesthesia when my wife walked in one day and said that she'd just heard our three children talking about what colour the days of the week are. I told her that that's what I do! Mondays are blue, Tuesday is a deeper grey. She thought that I was a bit odd, and so were the children, but I thought that everybody did it or nobody did. I didn't think it was anything to get excited about. However, a few years back I heard a programme on the radio that was detailing synaesthesia. I realised that this was what I had.

Chris - What do you find it does for you, because some people who have synaesthesia find that it affects the way they see the world and it makes them more creative.

Richard - Well I am a poet and have published my own collection of poetry. I do perform quite a lot in the Yorkshire area. Possibly it's a creative process. I understand metaphors and I've been reading poetry from a very early age and I've never had any problem with it. I also think that it's an important memory aid. It's very easy for me to recall events that happened 35 years ago because I think it goes hand in hand with a photographic memory. I have instant recall with something like photographs in the head.


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