Today a friend sent me a link to an episode of ABC Radio’s Science Show called Living with Asperger’s. It features an mp3 file of the sound track of the film “Oops, Wrong Planet”. The sound track is absolutely brilliant! I’d love to see the film as well.
Living with Asperger’s
What do Einstein, Beethoven, Andy Warhol, Bill Gates, Bob Dylan, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Van Gogh, Mozart and Thomas Jefferson have in common? They all have suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. How is it that so many brilliant people are successful while suffering from this form of autism? Filmmaker Stephen Ramsay applied the test to himself and with a positive result, went in search of others who live their lives with Asperger’s syndrome. Today’s Science Show presents the soundtrack to Stephen Ramsay’s film, Oops, Wrong Planet.
Download Audio (from ABC website)
The ABC will eventually remove mp3 files of older episodes from their website so I have copied the transcript details below.
Transcript of “Oops, Wrong Planet”
Robyn Williams: This week, something completely different, as they used to say on Python. Hello Robyn Williams with another Science Show on ABC Radio National, where we like to be different all the time. I now want you to watch a movie, about Asperger’s, with Stephen Ramsay. He’s called it Oops, Wrong Planet, for reasons that will soon be quite clear.
Jane: (watching her partner Stephen reading a newspaper liftout) It’s a personality profile is it?
Stephen Ramsay: No it’s not a personality profile. It’s a checklist to see if you’ve got Asperger’s syndrome. “Are you an aspie?” That’s what it says there. It says Steven Spielberg has this condition called Asperger’s syndrome. Not only that but a whole lot of famous people like Einstein had it as well. Now, how could they be successful like that if they’ve got a disabling condition like a mild form of autism? Then I find this little questionnaire that says “Are you an aspie?”
Jane: Let’s go through the list and see if we think you fit the profile.
Stephen Ramsay: (reading the list) I find social situations confusing. I find it hard to make small talk. I turn conversation back on myself. I pick up details really well. I can’t work out what other people are thinking very easily. I focus really well. I’m rude very often… tactless. And I have really strong interests. And I do things in an inflexible way. I have trouble making friends. All those things are describing me, but I’m not disabled. So, what’s going on here?
Jane: But I do think you’ve got eccentricities. You think you’re completely normal. But your family – your children think you’re a complete weirdo. ‘Dad’s a weirdo’.
Stephen Ramsay: The concept of Asperger’s syndrome started in the 1940s with an Austrian psychologist called Hans Asperger. He had identified a group of high-functioning autistic children. They would obsess about a single narrow interest like trains. He called them little professors, but they were so bad at communicating they often ended up in institutions.
Tony Attwood: Asperger’s syndrome has always been of value. The autism gene is useful.
Stephen Ramsay: The more I read about Aspergers the more worried I got. The only consoling factor is that if I have it, I could be in the company of genius.
Tony Attwood: When you appreciate the art of van Gogh and Mozart – be grateful to Asperger’s syndrome because that’s why they were such good artists and composers.
Stephen Ramsay: I discovered that autism is now called the autism spectrum – and this spectrum includes Asperger’s syndrome. I’m willing to admit I do have eccentricities, but I don’t feel disabled….
Is it just another plot by the pharmaceutical companies? Are these people being conned?
Jane: Where are you going?
Stephen Ramsay: I’m going to Ireland and America…
I want to meet some people, some other people who might help me understand if there’s a genius link, whether there’s… what’s it like to have Asperger’s syndrome? Can they get over it? Is it a problem for their lives? Am I like them? I want to find out exactly where I fit in this whole scheme of things. I mean it’s a bit of a shock… it’s a real shock to your system to find out you’ve got Asperger’s syndrome because if you do have it there’s a lot of indications you can’t do anything about it. And it’s really stuffing up your life.
Jane: Do you think your life’s been stuffed up?
Stephen Ramsay: Well, that’s the thing. People don’t tell you if you’re a weirdo – they’re too polite. Most people are very polite, and don’t give you feedback. So I’ve gone through my whole life being not just eccentric – but impossibly eccentric!
Jane: What about your family? Have they ever told you?
Stephen Ramsay: No. My family are impossibly eccentric as well!
(music – traditional Irish jig)
Stephen Ramsay: Flying high above the crowds, banners are announcing the centenary of Samuel Beckett. And that same day in Dublin a book was being launched diagnosing Beckett with Asperger’s syndrome, along with eight other Irish geniuses. The book was co-written by Michael Fitzgerald, Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin
Michael Fitzgerald: Writing the book was a great pleasure, and the gentleman on our left here is Stephen Ramsey from Australia who’s making a film on autism and Asperger’s syndrome, and I was pleased that he was able to come for the launch.
Stephen Ramsay: Fitzgerald has now written three books about the great geniuses of history and he thinks many of them owe their gifts to Asperger’s syndrome.
Stephen Ramsay: (to Michael Fitzgerald) How do we know enough about these traits in dead people to be able to make the kinds of diagnoses that you make in your books?
Michael Fitzgerald: Well the reason we do it – there’s masses amounts of information on the people I have diagnosed. I mean Hans Christian Andersen was the most famous writer in Europe at that time. Everybody was writing about Hans Christian Andersen, everyone was leaving descriptions about Hans Christian Andersen. So you have a massive amount of information about him. One of their great strengths is their capacity throughout their life to see things through the eyes of a child. And that’s why they’re particularly good at writing fairy stories.
Stephen Ramsay: He’s telling me the stories are clues to Hans Andersen’s life and I’m wondering if they might be clues to mine.
Michael Fitzgerald: In a way the ugly duckling is an outsider.. And of course Hans Christian Andersen himself was an outsider – and the ugly duckling does of course represent Hans Christian Andersen. He’s showing that terrible sensation that people have with Asperger’s of being bullied – of being pushed out… he was the autistic … duck.
Stephen Ramsay: Fitzgerald is saying that each story describes a different aspect of Asperger’s. The Steadfast Tin Soldier. The Little Mermaid. The Emperor’s New Clothes. The Snow Queen.
But before I looked closely at the stories I wanted to visit 5-year-old David Twamley, who had just been diagnosed with Asperger’s.
Joanna Twamley: What are you drawing Davey?
David Twamley: Mr. Cross.
Aedin Twamley (David’s mother): You don’t think necessarily there’s something wrong. And for us it was like – we’ve had a son and a daughter and they’re like chalk and cheese. And people would say yes, boys and girls are like chalk and cheese.
David Twamley: You can see Mr. Men! (computer sounds) Mr Happy!
Stephen Ramsay: What’s it like at school for him?
Aedin Twamley: He’s fine academically. It’s just with all the people around him. The yard time would be the worst. When things are difficult he’ll hit out or kick out at people. Like it’s not personal. It could be me, it could be his teacher, it could be anybody.
Tony Twamley: (David’s father) We’ll watch it after dinner, ok?
David: (hitting tv) Watch it now!
Tony Twamley: If you do that you’ll break the telly, and you’ll never be able to see it. You can’t eat in here.
David: Yes! Yes!. (tantrum) I’m gunna watch it.
Tony Twamley: We’ll watch it afterwards okay? As a reward.
Michael Fitzgerald: (To David’s parents at a diagnostic session, as David obsessively draws) The first thing I’d like to ask you is just to tell me what your general concerns are – why you’ve brought David to see me.
Aedin Twamley: His eye contact is considered not typical.
Michael Fitzgerald: Yes.
Aedin Twamley: Although sometimes when he’s interested in something you get very focused…eye contact.
Michael Fitzgerald: Focused.
Aedin Twamley: Eye contact.
Michael Fitzgerald: Hyper-focused?
Aedin Twamley: Yes, even more like glued.
Michael Fitzgerald: Glued to it… hyperfocused.
Aedin Twamley: And really… the focus revolves around his areas of interest.
Michael Fitzgerald: Does he do jigsaws upside down? Without looking at the pattern? Quickly?
Tony Twamley: Quickly, yes.
Aedin Twamley: He got the nickname ‘Little professor’ at that.
Michael Fitzgerald: ‘Little professor’ who called him ‘Little professor’?
Aedin Twamley: The teachers.
Tony Twamley: We have a book. It’s like an encyclopedia on elephants alone. He could tell you the Latin for the various stages of elephant in evolution.
Aedin Twamley: But he doesn’t understand the rules of games.
Michael Fitzgerald: Yes.
Aedin Twamley: Like in the schoolyard.
Michael Fitzgerald: Social games? In the schoolyard, would he be on the edge of the group?
Aedin Twamley: He’d sit on a bench or a step.
Michael Fitzgerald: On his own. In a world of his own, sitting alone. Apart from the rest?
Aedin Twamley: Yes.
Michael Fitzgerald: Is he very controlling and dominating?
Aedin Twamley: Yes.
Michael Fitzgerald: I mean have things to be done his way? Problems in turn-taking?
Aedin Twamley: Dictatorial.
Michael Fitzgerald: Dictatorial, yes.
Michael Fitzgerald: They’re very controlling, very dominating. They often speak in a high pitched voice, like Hans Christian Andersen. And they have very narrow focuses on things that interest them. And also they have tremendous capacity for persistence. And this is absolutely key to their creativity – their persistence… and their workaholism.
Aedin Twamley: (at home as David obsessively draws) What’s happening now happens everyday of the Summer holidays.. He’ll sit and he’ll draw for hours. You know. I sort of kept the last few days to give you an idea of the quantity of paper we go though.
Stephen Ramsay: David unsettled me. He reminded me so much of me as a child; an outsider, unable to read all the little rules of the group. His only friend is his sister.
Stephen Ramsay: Andersen’s hero, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, has Asperger traits. He’s an outsider. He has communication problems with the other toys. He’s relentlessly persevering and all this causes tragedy.
Michael Fitzgerald: Well in The Steadfast Tin Soldier, obviously, he has one leg, and he also can’t speak, and all the other tin soldiers and toys in the nursery can speak. One day he’s thrown out the window and he’s eaten by a fish. The fish is caught and lo and behold the fish is brought back to the same house with the other tin soldiers. Unfortunately he’s blown off into the fire. The other person who melts with him is the paper ballerina and they both die together.
Stephen Ramsay: Like Hans Christian Andersen, the tin soldier’s disability undermines any chance of a relationship.
David Jordan: That’s my telescope I saved up for. A few years ago.
Stephen Ramsay: Were you bullied at school because of your interest in these things?
David Jordan: Well, I was in primary school, quite a bit. I just couldn’t stop talking about astronomy I was so interested in it. I wanted everybody else to be interested in it as well.
Stephen Ramsay: What did they call you?
David Jordan: Star boy, star kid, space cadet. … little professor. I was 26, 27, and never had a girlfriend. Never dated or anything. I’d see people moving in and out of friendships and relationships so easily and I’d wonder how they did that. On the one hand I was offered a PhD. I was really really intelligent. But on the other side I felt like I had the social intelligence of a child. So rather than sitting in my office or sitting at home, thinking and reading about Asperger’s, I decided to do something practical about it and use my interest by setting up a group for people. So this was the first group in Ireland, and probably the first one in the world. Set up by people with Asperger’s, for people with Asperger’s.
Nigel: I was diagnosed in 1996 when I was about 18. Up until then it was a huge weight off my shoulders when I found out what it was.- thanks to David.
Karl: Before I found out I had Asperger’s, I was getting all these obsessive compulsive behaviours and all that.
Nigel: If you have a conversation between two people, you let one person talk for a bit, and then they let you speak and so on. That was one skill we learnt. What was the other one David?
David Jordan: Recognising their emotions. Asking them how they are feeling. Not obsessing about yourself and telling them how you are feeling. Trying to make them feel important.
Karl: And one big point is you have to make eye contact.
David Jordan: That’s the typical Aspie habit, talking at people, lecturing them.
Nigel: You’re supposed to talk to people, not at them.
David Jordan: And I didn’t know. I was talking at people!
Nigel: I used to have a habit where if my mum was talking to a friend of hers up in the living room, I’d come in at the most inappropriate times, see, and interrupt their conversation. The same thing if she was on the phone – I’d come in again at the most inappropriate times, but I do have the awareness now , like you know, ‘hang on… you’ve got to give her a bit of space.’
Karl: I love talking about the Beatles all the time. I’m, I’m, I’m a big fan. The biggest fan in Ireland – me and Nigel are. I always keep my hair in the mop top – the John Lennon image – because my hair grows very fast. I said to the girl I want my hair like this. (stuttering badly) I want the John Lennon – 1964 – image.
David Jordan: If you meet one person, and talk about the Beatles, and then another person the next day and talk about the Beatles, that’s grand, but if you keep on meeting the same person over and over again each day, you don’t want to be talking abut the Beatles all the time.
Nigel: (puffing) Who had the Rickenbacker twelve-string?
Karl: George Harrison had. And John Lennon had three Rickenbacker guitars.
Nigel: Yeah, he had… you’re sure?
Karl: Yeah, the one he had in Hamburg, he got spray-painted in black.
Nigel: That was the one he had spray-painted in black and white, that was.
Karl: (busking, singing)
Wait a minute Mr Postman,
Well, yeah yeah yeah, Mr Postman.
Mr Postman, look and see….
If there’s a letter in your bag for me.
I’ve been waiting such a long time
Since I’ve heard from this girl of mine.
There must be some words to say
From my girlfriend so far away.
Stephen Ramsay: (walking, talking relentlessly at Karl) Do we need a medical label to put on genius? Why can’t we just accept that they’re eccentric or absent-minded or something like that. Why do we have to always go around saying that somebody’s got some genetic..
Stephen Ramsay: I liked Nigel and Carl and David a lot…and I felt they were kindred spirits. But being with them makes me more aware of my own Asperger traits. I also talk at people and interrupt conversations. I always thought these were harmless quirks…..but look at me… I can’t stop talking!
David Jordan: People with Asperger’s in a sense haven’t grown up. They’re trying to hang on to their childhood. Or maybe adulthood is too overwhelming with all the responsibilities and a need for more sophisticated social skills.
Michael Fitzgerald: We’d still be chatting in the caves if we still had good social skills. People who don’t have Asperger’s syndrome – they can turn a blind eye – but the person with Asperger’s syndrome has no choice but to tell the truth. And of course that’s what the little boy did in The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Stephen Ramsay: And The Emperor’s New Clothes is Hans Christian Andersen’s most celebrated story.
Michael Fitzgerald: And the king decided that he’d go on procession and show all the people the wonderful garments that he had. And everyone said they were brilliant. And finally one little boy says ‘but he has no clothes’. And everybody had to see what they were closing their eyes about.. You can see the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes as the first, kind of, whistleblower in fairy tales. Because quite a few whistleblowers I believe have Asperger’s syndrome or a high-functioning autism. One of the key things is that they have the immaturity. They see the world through the eyes of the child. And they also see the world in black and white.
David Jordan: One of the things I find very funny about Aspies is that when there’s a red light for pedestrians, they’ll never cross the road -even if there’s no traffic. So when they’re whistleblowing they’re actually doing what by the rule book probably is the right thing to do, but socially is the very wrong thing to do. Most people would be worried about repercussions, but with them – you know: ‘this is a rule – you’re supposed to do this!’.
Tony Attwood: But sometimes organisations don’t like it when someone blows the whistle on what they’re doing. And the person with Asperger’s is then very upset, that they’re the one who’ve upheld the codes of conduct, the law etc, and the organisation then despises them and makes life difficult for them.
Stephen Ramsay: Hayes is not an Aspie. He has classic autism. (Hayes calls out odd sounds) But his mother – Deborah Locke – is an Aspie. She’s also a retired Sydney cop, and a police whistleblower.
Radio talkback host: She’s written a book about her time in the force. She started questioning a lot of the corrupt practices in the police force, including the number one rule in the cops in the old days – ‘Don’t dob in your mate.’ and she’s on the line. Hi Deborah.
Deborah Locke: Hello. How’re you going?
Radio talkback host: Not bad. What was the corrupt climate like when you were in the force?
Deborah Locke: Oh. I was scared at times. I’ve never been scared of a crook. But there were some cops that I came across that really frightened me.
Radio talkback host: Yeah. What are you doing now? You’re out of the force.
Deborah Locke: At the moment I’m a member of Whistleblower’s Australia and I do support police and other members of the public when they have whistleblowing issues.
Deborah Locke: (later – in interview) It’s very rare for women, my mother was like it. It’s genetic – my grandfather had it. My brother. Both my brother and I had very autistic sons. The girls are fine – but it’s the boys…
Deborah Locke: (later, to son Hayes at table) Eat your breakfast.
Hayes: (yelling) No..o..o !!
Deborah Locke: He’s not eating his food.
Deborah Locke: (later) This is a typical whistleblower’s situation. You sort of have your Aladdin’s cave. You have all your documents in there. Have a look! (laughs) You keep everything filed and numbered and checked. You don’t miss anything because you never know when someone’s going to attack your credibility – or ask ‘What happened this day?’ or ‘What did you do then?’ It starts to pile up, and over the years it progresses to where you have to have a room full of them.
Deborah Locke: (later, in motel bathroom). Oh well. Today’s a great day. I’m looking forward to it.
Stephen Ramsay: Debbie is about to receive Australia’s first award for whistleblowing.
Deborah Locke: (In car) It’s being validated – that everything I said is true. They spent a lot of years saying I was imagining it, ‘It’s not true’. ‘The culture’s really good’. ‘There’s no corrupt police’.
Debbie’s spouse, Greg, in car : Especially at the time.
Deborah Locke: At the time they were viscous in attacking me. So now it’s quite bizarre that now they’re awarding me. When I start seeing those blue uniforms, the post-traumatic stress starts popping up.
(police band plays march)
Deborah Locke: Well. Now I’m feeling ill. I’m feeling a bit nervous. And I’m sure there’s going to be people here that hate my guts.
(police band plays march)
Announcement over p.a. system: Receiving the Commissioner’s certificate of merit, former Detective Senior Constable, Deborah Locke, whose subsequent efforts to report police corruption and mismanagement were instrumental in helping to establish the New South Wales Wood Royal Commission. Former Detective Senior Constable, Deborah Locke. (applause)
Deborah Locke: (to Police Commissioner) It’s great day for the police force. To acknowledge whistleblowing publicly. It means a lot. And it’s not just for myself, but for all the young police here. And everyone.
Stephen Ramsay: Like members of any group, cops are mostly team players. They value loyalty and comradeship. They obey the unspoken rules – like you don’t snitch on a mate. Debbie ignored these rules. She always went by the book.
Announcer presenting Debbie’s award: You stand for courage, honour, justice, fairness and truth.
(tumultuous cheering from police cadets)
Tony Attwood: And usually, at school, when the teacher’s at the blackboard, and somebody’s naughty, and says ‘Ok come on. Own up. Who did that?’ Code of silence. But the kid with Asperger’s says ‘He did!’ And the other kids say: ‘Shhh. Shhh. You don’t say that!’ ‘But he did! And you told him to do it!’ (laughter in audience)
Stephen Ramsay: On sale at the bookstore there was a video Professor Tony Atwood had made, diagnosing Brett, a 11-year-old American boy.
Tony Attwood: (on video soundtrack): Now, next to you is your mum. Your mum is called Karen. I don’t know much about your mum. In fact I know very little. You’re going to tell me what sort of a person she is.
Brett: (on video): She’s a female.
Tony Attwood: Are you sure she’s a female?
Brett: Yeah, ‘cos she’s a lady.
Tony Attwood: How do you know she’s a lady?
Brett: Because of the hair.
Tony Attwood: Oh? Does that mean that everyone with long hair is a lady?
Brett: Yeah, but, even a lady who’s um.. A lady… has one of those … big – you-know-whats. (laughter) And has to wear, you-know-what.
Tony Attwood: But you don’t have to wear…
Brett: No offence, Mum.
Karen: (Brett’s mother, laughing): None taken, sweetie.
Brett: If the police officers use kids as hall monitors at school again, I could be hall monitor. And get the kids in trouble if they’re wearing too short pants, see?
Tony Attwood: Oh ok. So they’ve got to be the right length.
Brett: Yeah, the right length.
Tony Attwood: What happens if your shorts aren’t the right length?
Brett: You get in trouble.
Brett: (now thirteen): I don’t understand why some people just don’t get what I care about.
Stephen Ramsay: Are there any other Asperger kids in your school?
Brett: Well… I’m not sure. I think I’m the only one there. Sometimes I just feel like I’m an extinct… child.
Stephen Ramsay: Extinct?
Brett: Yeah. The only one who has diabetes and Asperger’s syndrome.
Stephen Ramsay: Do the other kids bully you?
Brett: Well, only Daniel and Cameron and Justin. Did I say Justin?
Brett: Ok. Mum, I’m tired of being a one-of-a-kind freak.
Ken Emig (Brett’s father): Brett won’t go out in the front yard and shoot baskets. We can’t play catch with the baseball. We can’t throw a frisbie. Just the typical daily events that you do with your children… it’s very difficult.
Stephen Ramsay: What was the first indication that you had that Brett was going to be a unique boy?
Ken: I would say he was probably three years old, and he was still trying to verbalise and learn how to speak, and I would ask him a question, and he would respond with the question. And at that point it really hit home, that we had a child with a special problem.
Karen: He’d respond with the same question. Not just another question, but the same exact question.
Ken: ‘Brett, what would you like for dinner tonight?’. ‘What would like for dinner tonight?’ would be his response.
Karen: He talked at a typical age. But you know, a lot of echolalia – repeating back.
Ken: Even now at 13, you would ask him a question, and he will answer with a statement or a phrase from a video.
Brett: (entering): Shut up, cold brain. Shut up you dope geek, I want these quickly outa here. And I want them out now. Comprendez?
Karen: You see how he takes a whole phrase from a cartoon, and yet he changes it.
Brett: I’m gunna hurt your heart.
Karen: That would be a sad thing. Have a seat Ken.
Brett: I’m gunna stomp ya, and murderise ya, and bulverise ya.
Karen: What show’s that from?
Ken: What video’s that from?
Brett: Don’t wise-mouth me, bug-breath.
Stephen Ramsay: Is that a video or a computer game?
Ken: It’s a video.
Karen: That is… that’s muppets.
Brett: The next time you say one word to insult me, you just stand still so I can pell ya. I said get lost.
Stephen Ramsay: Like many autistic or Asperger kids… as he grew up, Brett started thinking – not with words – but with pictures. Thinking In Pictures is the title of the first memoir of someone diagnosed with autism, Professor Temple Grandin. So I’m paying her a visit in the cattle country of Colorado. Temple has pioneered humane methods for handling livestock, and she’s designed over half the cattle-handling facilities in America.
Temple Grandin: I thought everybody could do virtual 3D reality in their head. I didn’t know my thinking was different. When I was a young kid I didn’t know that other people didn’t think in pictures. I thought that everybody thought in pictures. I’m able to think in full-motion video.
Stephen Ramsay: So you can create a virtual version of a machine running in your head.
Temple Grandin: That’s correct. I’ve also read that Tesla, who also probably was autistic, who invented the power plant, would test his turbines by running them in his head.
Temple Grandin: The thing is, Asperger’s is a big continuum. There’s a tremendous amount of variation. Not every child that has Asperger’s is going to be a genius. There is a subset in there that can be a genius. And there’s others that can get kind of an ordinary kind of job. I find that a lot of people that I’m friends with – other designers and engineers – I think are a little bit on the spectrum.
Stephen Ramsay: When I went to this Asperger picnic, people didn’t worry so much about making eye contact or interrupting each other.
Temple Grandin: Well, you see in a technical kind of field I don’t think people get so hung up on eye contact. In order to sell jobs, I’ve made a portfolio, in order to sell my work – not myself. So as long as I don’t just do overtly rude stuff, then I was fine. When i was young I was taught not to go up and tell people off, or tell them their hair looked stupid, or something like that – that that was rude.
Stephen Ramsay: (laughing) I’ve actually gotten much less rude a person because of this film I think. I’ve become sort of so aware of the things I do that actually annoy other people, and I’ve stopped doing a lot of them.
Temple Grandin: Well, you see, that’s just learning. The more you learn – you just keep learning and learning and learning and learning.
Temple Grandin: I cannot think. If I don’t have a photo-realistic picture in my head, I cannot think.
Stephen Ramsay: Temple thinks in pictures because she has trouble forming concepts. In fact until she was 12 she couldn’t tell the difference between a cat and a dog.
Temple Grandin: Because if I asked you: ‘Think about a church steeple’ most people just get sort of a vague generalised one. I only see specific ones. I think what’s happening, I’ve got privileged access right to the primary hard drive. Allan Snyder, a scientist down in Australia, said to me, ‘Most people just get the file folders. You get the contents of the file.’
Stephen Ramsay: The scientist Temple had mentioned was Allan Snyder – who works at Sydney University in my home town.
Allan Snyder: Maybe savant-like extraordinary skills are due to brain damage or are due to brain impairment. Nadia, this extraordinary three-year-old girl, that was discovered in England a number of years ago, in a child’s school drawing contest across England or something like that could spontaneously draw, never went through a scribbling stage, just drew like Leonardo da Vinci in one step. She never learned how to draw. She couldn’t recognise her mother from the nurse. She was extremely retarded, couldn’t speak, and look, she could draw like that.
Stephen Ramsay: Allan Snyder says someone with autism or Asperger’s syndrome may have brain damage that’s affecting their left temporal lobe. According to Snyder, for a short time this subject’s brain won’t easily be forming concepts. There’ll be less of a barrier to the information streaming in from the outside world. He’s invented a machine that uses magnetic stimulation to partially turn off the left temporal lobe.
Jason Gallate: (Snyder’s collaborator) We’re inhibiting that part of the brain. The left anterior temporal lobe is higher order. It decides what raw data gets into consciousness – and it imposes concepts on the raw data, so you never actually get the raw data into consciousness. In a sense we are de-modularising it – so that more raw data comes into consciousness. Or you see more of the raw data. There’s less filtering of the data.
Stephen Ramsay: To test this theory, the subject here will guess the number of dots on the screen before and after his left temporal lobe has been inhibited, to see if there’s any improvement in his ability to take in information.
Experimental subject: A hundred and fifty.
Stephen Ramsay: After 15 minutes of magnetic stimulation this subject’s guessing skills increased three times.
Experimental subject: Two hundred and seventy.
Stephen Ramsay: And this supports Snyder’s theory that the left temporal lobe is the key to understanding autism and Asperger’s.
Allan Snyder: In a sense, the classical idealised autism is the state of not being prejudiced. It’s the state of not having pre-conceptions. So a whistleblower, who in one sense is someone I respect, in situations they may save lives, in other situations they may have lost the big picture, and I guess that could be an autistic trait – concentrating, you know, on the bark of a tree, and not seeing the forest.
Stephen Ramsay: Have you had the stimulation?
Jason Gallate: Have I had it?
Stephen Ramsay: Yes.
Jason Gallate: Yep.
Stephen Ramsay: What happened to you?
Jason Gallate: I thought it was great because I got a large effect. I was markedly changed.
Stephen Ramsay: Is there other work that shows the same kind of inhibition in the left temporal lobe – brain damage from car accidents, and things like that?
Allan Snyder: There was a case of a boy who was hit in the head with a baseball – right around the frontal temporal lobe, and he became a savant calendar calculator. There are other cases of people being injured, and becoming a mathematical calculator.
Temple Grandin: There’s been some research by a doctor name of Bruce Miller. And what Bruce Miller has found is that in certain types of Alzheimer’s patients, where they get frontal temporal lobe dementia, art and music ability comes out of a person that has no previous interest in art or music. And as the language areas of the brain get wrecked, the art and music talent will come out for four or five years. And then the Alzheimer’s destroys the whole entire brain.
Stephen Ramsay: So Temple’s brain seems to work in exactly the same way as Allan Snyder back in Sydney predicted. But if she can’t form concepts, how can she think at all?
Temple Grandin: One of the problems you have with people on the autism-Asperger spectrum – they have difficulty forming new categories, forming new file-folders. This is one of the reasons why you get the black and white thinking. It’s like two big file folders.
Stephen Ramsay: Black and white.
Temple Grandin: Yup. They’re not able to make folders for different shades of grey.
Michael Fitzgerald: If someone came to me and they wanted to win the Nobel Prize in mathematics, I would ask them, you know, ‘Have you got Asperger’s syndrome or high functioning autism?’. If the answer to that was ‘yes’, then I would say ‘I think that’s reasonable for you know to have a try. It’s not easy to win the Nobel Prize, and I can’t guarantee you’d get it, but at least you’re in with a shout.’ If they said: ‘No, I’m a very sociable person, I get on well with every body, I get As in school, the teachers think I’m wonderful, I’m the head boy in school,’ I would say: ‘You’re chances with that very rounded, balanced, average personality, – your chances of getting the Nobel Prize are very slim’.
Stephen Ramsay: Along with Francis Crick, James Watson won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA. Decades later he kick-started the human genome project. But now Watson has discovered that late in life he’s the father of an autistic son.
James Watson: We have a son with severe disabilities. He’s very very intelligent, but he can’t take care of himself. He didn’t speak till he was four – very late. Which you know we thought didn’t mean anything. But it did mean something. He doesn’t like to shake hands or be hugged. At times I think, you know, we’re almost broken.
Stephen Ramsay: Watson is so affected by his son’s autism that he wants to genetically engineer future generations. And find a prenatal test so that pregnant women can abort foetuses with autism genes. But some people in the autism community are worried that there’s a kind of autism or Asperger genocide in the making…that if we get rid of people with these genes we won’t have any geeks or specialists to solve the world’s problems…. Because there’s growing evidence that autism genes are the same genes as Asperger genes and geek genes.
Michael Fitzgerald: These are all survival genes you’re talking about eliminating, you know, from a Darwinian perspective.
Stephen Ramsay: This is Silicon Valley, the centre of geekdom, just up the road from San Francisco. I’m here to meet Steve Silberman, an editor from Wired magazine. I’d seen an article he’d written about an autism epidemic in Silicon Valley.
Steve Silberman: People who would not be necessarily diagnosed with autism, or even Asperger’s syndrome, but people who have autistic traits, but who are considered more or less normal, it’s possible that they might have a profoundly autistic kid, at a higher rate than the general population. I was on a trip for Wired magazine with a man who invented one of the most widely used programming languages in the world. And after the trip I asked him if I could do a follow up at his house, and he said ‘Sure, but you should know that we have a profoundly autistic daughter.’ A couple of months later I did an article on a completely different person, who was also from a family who had helped build the internet, and she said ‘Yes, but we have a profoundly autistic daughter’. And I said: ‘That’s interesting. That’s the second time I’ve heard that.’ So I said, ‘Do you know a lot of parents in Silicon Valley who have autistic kids?’ she said, ‘Oh yes, there’s an epidemic. There’s something very unusual happening in Silicon Valley. I spent quite a bit of time going down to Silicon Valley, talking with clinicians, talking with parents, meeting kids, and it appeared that there was something unusual happening in Silicon Valley. I spoke with someone who trains software de-buggers at Microsoft, and he said, quote, ‘All of my best de-buggers have Asperger’s syndrome’. And I said, ‘Why is that?’, and he said, ‘They tell me they can hold hundreds of lines of code in their head, and they look for a break in the symmetry of the image, and that’s where the bug is.’ and that suggests, along with a lot of other evidence, that people with Asperger’s syndrome think differently.
Stephen Ramsay: But geeks aren’t just in IT. We’re all over the place. We’re in universities, and libraries, and laboratories, and anywhere specialist fixations flourish. Such as bird watching, or plane spotting.
Stephen Ramsay: How long have you been doing it?
Male spotter: About 25 years.
Stephen Ramsay: Really?
Male spotter: Yes.
Stephen Ramsay: Are you a plane spotter as well?
Female spotter: Yep.
Stephen Ramsay: How many hours a week would you spend here?
Male spotter: In a week, six hours on Saturday, six hours on Sunday.. And maybe a few hours during the week.
Stephen Ramsay: Right.
Male spotter: This is the best airport in Britain for spotters.
Stephen Ramsay: What do you do for a living? What’s your work?
Male spotter: I work in the tax office.
Stephen Ramsay: The tax office. Really?
Male spotter: Yeah. I’m a tax man, yeah.
Female spotter: I’m in insurance.
Stephen Ramsay: Are you?
Female spotter: Yeah.
Stephen Ramsay: In Silberman’s article was a do-it-yourself test, designed by Cambridge professor Simon Baron Cohen. When I did the test I was shocked to see how well I fitted the profile. And not only that, Baron Cohen had some hard science to back up what Silberman was saying.
Stephen Ramsay: Are you aware of the article that was in Wired magazine about five years ago? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Simon Baron Cohen: Yep. What we found was that if you take parents of children with autism, you find that both parents are likely to show very rapid attention to detail on psychological tests. They’re faster than parents without a child with autism.
Stephen Ramsay: If you got 32 out of fifty – or more – in this test, it was a very good indicator that you might have Asperger’s syndrome. Well, I got thirty six, which puts me clearly in the Asperger’s part of the test.
Simon Baron Cohen: So, you know, those scores are high. But maybe there are lots of people out there who score just as high – like yourself – but who’ve never pursued a diagnosis – because they’re managing fine. They have a career, a family, they’re not depressed, and it’s often other reasons that would lead somebody to a clinic.
Stephen Ramsay: The fact is, if I can score this high, there might be thousands out there in the workforce close to a diagnosis. But they go unnoticed. And this could be – because they’re men.
Simon Baron Cohen: People with autism may simply be an exaggeration or an extreme of the male profile. The male profile in the general population is where an individual has a strong drive to systemise, and less interest in empathy, or the world of emotions.
Michael Fitzgerald: Hans Christian Andersen obviously was a classic Asperger’s syndrome person in absolutely every way. He had huge difficulties with empathy, but particularly with emotional communication.
Michael Fitzgerald: In his story The Little Mermaid, this mermaid in some way saves a prince from being shipwrecked. Because she can’t speak, she can’t tell him what she feels, and the little mermaid is there cut off, who can’t communicate with other human beings. And of course Hans Christian Andersen himself had great difficulties in communication and once again he remains in this story a kind of an outsider forever who can’t communicate with other human beings because of his autism, because of his Asperger’s syndrome
Stephen Ramsay: In Hans Andersen’s birth-place there’s a museum dedicated to his stories. And school children come in and re-enact The Snow Queen. In this story a boy is kidnapped by the cruel snow queen and loses the capacity for empathy. His heart is no longer connected to his mind, but his best friend Gerda rescues him and manages to thaw out his frozen heart. For Andersen it was a kind of wishful thinking, that it’s somehow possible to revive one’s missing empathy.
Stephen Ramsay: Have you found something else to talk about that engages your interest, not as much, but helps you get off the addiction to the Beatles?
Karl: You mean other interests?
Stephen Ramsay: Yes.
Karl: You mean I need to broaden my mind out more.
Nigel: I don’t just talk about the Beatles. I can change from different subject to subject – different things. I can maybe talk about the Beatles one time, public transport the next, history the next.
David Jordan: The titanic.
Nigel: Titanic, yes.
Karl: Well, I often get into the situation where I love talking about my personal interests. I love talking about my personal interests so much.
David Jordan: Some people with Asperger’s are very shy, very withdrawn, probably because of bullying or whatever… bad experiences in life.
Stephen Ramsay: (to Karl) Did you get bullied?
Karl: Em, well at some stage we all were, at some stage.
David Jordan: It got better when I went into 5th and 6th class. I had a good school teacher. And what he did, he was very helpful, he put me in a stage play as a space alien – a Christmas play – and that’s what the bullies were calling me – they were calling me a space cadet and space alien and all that sort of thing. But there was I – I was in the play making people laugh by being myself – so I wasn’t ever self-conscious for a long time after that.
Stephen Ramsay: While making this film I’ve realised that I can act sensitively in some social situations.
Stephen Ramsay: So, what’s your favourite album?
Karl: I like them all. I have them all at home. I have them on vinyl. In fact I paid a hundred sterling for Rubber soul. On vinyl.
Stephen Ramsay: Wow. A hundred sterling.
Stephen Ramsay: But I’m putting in effort because I’m working.
Stephen Ramsay: Why was it so expensive?
Karl: Well in London, you’re paying big money.
Stephen Ramsay: Right. It must be in very good condition.
Karl: Ow… Excellent condition.
Jane: (Stephen’s partner) You were asking me before if I thought you’d changed. I think there are two things that may have helped you over the last ten or fifteen years. One is meditation. You obsess about meditating. Every single morning, no matter where you are. I think that’s probably been good. The other thing is taking the dog walking, down at the dog park.
Stephen Ramsay: I’ve learnt that instead of avoiding everyone or talking exclusively about my dog, I ask about theirs.
Stephen Ramsay: Hi, how are you?
Stephen Ramsay: And suddenly I’m in this jolly conversation.
Stephen Ramsay: Is this Hercules?
Dog walker: Yes.
Stephen Ramsay: I think I might have seen Hercules before!
Dog walker: There we go!
Stephen Ramsay: Wow! Hercules, you’re the one’s meant to be doing that. Aren’t you! Getting a diagnosis was a wakeup call for me. It’s made me realise that I’ll always have to be vigilant if I want to fit in socially and not be an outsider.
Simon Baron Cohen: People with Asperger’s often like to be in control as well. And you could imagine that filmmaking would be attractive to somebody with Asperger’s. Because ultimately you have it on tape – or digital – and you can then do the editing, select the detail that you want. It’s almost like organising life according to the filmmaker.
Steve Silberman: It’s an interesting notion to consider, that autism is a thread, that has been running through the fabric of the human population for a long time and that we may be building a world in which people with some autistic traits are actually better suited to thrive than people who don’t have them.
David Jordan: I see that most people have a very spread out intelligence that’s kind of it. Lots and lots of different interests, but none of them are very intense. They never get good at one thing. Whereas the person with Asperger’s, because we’ve got a very focused mind, we get interested in one or two or three subjects, and therefore, even though our intelligence may be equal to everybody else, because it’s all focused on one bit, it’s almost like a little laser pointer. It’s all being concentrated from one big spread out area of interest into one little tiny narrow area.
Aedin Twamley: It’s like when he’s drawing, he seems to stop, and kind of flick through the movie, or flick through a book, it’s like he’s referring to something like that, and sees it very clearly and sits down and draws it with all the little details he remembers.
Robyn Williams: You were listening to a film by Stephen Ramsay called, Oops Wrong Planet, his quest to examine his own Asperger’s. And having known him for many years, I’d never have guessed.