“Is Autism A Gift?” (At New Scientist Live)

A while back, my brother told me about an upcoming talk called ‘Is Autism A Gift?’ Naturally, I was curious. And slightly sceptical. For me, Autism has been one struggle after another but I’m aware that that is likely due to the late diagnosis rather than the actual Autism. But who knows. So I was really intrigued as to what the talk would be like.

The talk was part of New Scientist Live, which is a huge event – a festival, really – all about “ideas and discoveries for everyone curious about science and why it matters.” I couldn’t describe it better than they do. It’s full of stalls, interactive experiences, and stages for talks on all different subjects. Had I not had previous engagements on the other three days of it, I would’ve loved to stay longer and explore more. I was almost giddy with all the potential for learning.

The speaker was Dr Anna Remington, the director of UCL’s Centre for Research in Autism and Education and a leading authority in the area of superior abilities in Autism. And she had me from the beginning: she asked how many people were autistic or had a personal connection to Autism, almost the entire audience put their hands up, and she said, “I personally feel that you are the experts.” She was warm and enthusiastic, the perfect combination of fascinated and respectful. I liked her straight away.

She started off with a brief outline of Autism, of the social aspects (struggling with non-literal language, eye contact, managing relationships) and the non-social aspects (the need for routine, areas of intense interest, sensory sensitivities). She also talked about the language around it, about using ‘autistic people’ rather than ‘someone with Autism,’ because so many people feels that it’s so intrinsic to their identity. She quoted someone she’d worked with: “You can’t separate the autism from me. It’s not something I carry around in a bag with me, it’s something that’s absolutely part of my personality and identity.”

She said that so many talks are about the difficulties of Autism but that she wanted to talk about some of the positives, not the savants but the areas where autistic people are shown to excel. She walked us through some studies – some visual tasks and some auditory, done with both children and adults – and showed us how the groups with autistic people did significantly better.

She introduced the idea of ‘perceptual capacity’: “The amount that we can process at any given time is known as our perceptual capacity. Everybody has a slightly different perceptual capacity and whether we process something depends on whether our capacity is full up or if there’s still room left over… Now the crucial thing is that we have to assign our whole capacity at any given time. You can’t assign just part of it. So, if the task that you’re doing doesn’t fill up the whole of your perceptual capacity, then anything that’s left over will automatically process something irrelevant around you.”

I found this whole concept fascinating. This is the idea behind why people listen to music while working or doodle while talking on the phone, filling in that left over capacity with information that doesn’t interfere with what you’re trying to do. I have always had stuff playing in the background (audiobooks, movies, TV shows – not music because I get distracted by thinking about the mechanics of the song and of the lyrics) and was always told that I couldn’t possibly do whatever I was doing well with that much ‘distraction.’ So it was very satisfying to know that I’d been right all along. If you want to know more about this, this article is very helpful.

She finished with why this research, why these findings, matter and how they can be applied in education and employment to improve the experience and opportunities for autistic people. The research is really exciting and I would love to be involved in some way; as I mentioned in my post about taking part in Autism research studies (here), there’s something really empowering about it, about feeling part of change. I spoke to her about it after the talk and she was absolutely lovely.

My one negative about it all was the level of background noise, this constant drone of indistinguishable voices. It made it difficult to hear the talk and it’s one of the things that I’ve found really drains my energy. But, although it completely wore me out, it was so worth it. It was such a positive experience and I’m looking forward to seeing where this research leads.

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