Here’s an opening question for you: which one of the brain scans do you think belongs to a child with autism from the following image?
On Saturday the 5th of May 2018, the EJM Russian group organised a conference at the new Russian cultural center in coordination with the Naked Heart Foundation. As the high-tech lights swivelled to face the stage, a screen flickered on the wall. It read “What is Autism: Myths and Facts.” The two main actors of the event – Dr Svyatoslav Dovbnya and psychologist Tatiana Morozova – rose to the stage. As such, the talk began, on a light comic tone.
What do people think of when told the word “autism”? A genius in maths? A boy? Antisocial? Not looking at people in the eyes? The curious incident of the dog in the night-time? Abused by their parents? And which ones of these characteristics are true?
First of all, what is autism? According to Autism Speaks, it is a disorder with “a range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.” So, is it some kind of rare disease? In fact, no – it isn’t rare at all. The WHO (World Health Organisation) estimates that 1 in 100 people have this disorder. And even this number is quite conservative; others have even estimated 1 in 59 in 2018! The number of people with autism (that is the number diagnosed) has been growing exponentially since the time “autism” was first coined some one hundred years ago. And if you are in the IB program, the letters “T,” “O,” and “K” should be blinging in your head right now. Why has there been this increase in cases of autism? Could it be because of better, or different, or more inclusive diagnosis of autism?
Interestingly, for example, girls were assumed for a long time to be more “immune” to autism than boys. People talked about the autistic characteristics having been “cancelled out” by their social skills. However, now we are finding new ways to diagnose girls with autism, and this has revealed that female autism has different characteristics than the male version. Moreover, autism was not well defined before, which might contribute to the low diagnosis numbers in the past, too.
Coming back to the opening question – if you had chosen “left,” congratulations. The connections from just one simple thought connect to every part of the brain in (most cases of) children with autism. On the other hand, the “normal” right hand side brain image shows a clear, strong and unique connection. This means a fast and solid message in the normal brain, rather than the explosive, rather confused network created in the “autistic” brain. And this can be extremely overwhelming for the person with autism. Here is a striking video about how overwhelming these connections in the brain can be.
Another common misconception about autism is that these people are super geniuses (or genii – let’s respect Latin) with a talent in maths, or art, or memorising. Yet this is surprisingly not true for all cases. You often hear of the “autism spectrum.” Well this does actually exist, and can be shown on the diagram below (AS = Asperger Syndrome, MR = mental retardation; on the x-axis to the left is more severe lack of functionality, while on the right the person is fully functional; the y-axis displays the IQ of the person). A person diagnosed with autism can range from a fully-functional and mentally-speedy individuals, to individuals with severe problems like never learning to talk, having a mental impairment, and forever needing a carer, never a career.
Now it seems as if everyone is autistic. And in fact, many people nowadays talk about “degree of autism.” Everyone is “autistic to some extent.” No. This is as absurd as saying “everyone has some cells which divide very fast, hence everyone has cancer to some extent.” Just like a disease, autism can only be diagnosed if this condition is posing a problem on the person’s life. Problem would mean for example that the person cannot enter a crowded metro because of the stifling number of people and the sounds and images which thunder into their brain.
During the conference, we were also opened to the Foundation’s schools and teaching systems, as well as noteworthy advice for helping people with autism. The presenters showed us a few heartwarming videos of children and adults with autism learning how to speak and communicate. When interacting with this population, never ask: “are you autistic”! The best way is to present visual cues, keep your speech simple (do not overwhelm them with information), and wait until they process it.
A silence came, then suddenly a wave of clapping. The questions trailed on afterwards…
Dovbnya, Svyatoslav, and Tatiana Morozova. “What Is Autism: Myths and Facts.” Naked Heart Foundation. 5 May 2018, Conference Hall, Russian Cultural Center, 1 Quai Branly, 75007, Paris, France.
“What Is Autism?” Autism Speaks, 31 May 2012, www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism.
“5-Year-Old Girl with Autism Is an Artistic Prodigy.” ABC7 Chicago, 29 Sept. 2014, abc7chicago.com/family/5-year-old-girl-with-autism-is-an-artistic-prodigy/328957/#gallery-10.