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I turned on the car radio, and the cello sang out at me. The Sarabande from Bach’s cello suite No. 1 in G major. Not that I knew that until later. But the cello is my favourite instrument, so I carried on listening.

Mischa Maisky playing the Bach Sarabande.

After the piece had finished, the presenter discussed it with an unknown person who had clearly chosen the piece as one of several for the programme. They discussed how composers often had mathematical brains and were good at schematising, how this ability enabled the composer to see the whole piece of work from above. The two men considered the possibility that composers and musicians fell into two camps – schematisers and those who used music like some painters used paint and some writers used words, to convey emotions. My ears pricked up since this is a favourite subject of mine. The man being interviewed opined that truly great music was written by those with balanced brains who had both an ability to schematise but also an empathetic ability to convey emotions to the listener, thus pleasing both schematisers and empathisers in the audience. I was hooked.

The next piece of music (The Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem) illustrated the emotions that music could convey. After this piece the interviewer asked the man being interviewed about his relationship to Ali G. Ali G is a character created by the British comedian. His real name is Sasha Baron Cohen.

The penny dropped and I smiled. This moments of serendity seem to happen to me an awful lot. Sasha Baron Cohen is the first cousin of the Cambridge psychopathologist and expert on autism, Professor Simon Baron Cohen, and it was he who was being interviewed. I had been thinking about Simon Baron Cohen’s work a lot this week as it was he who proposed that Asperger’s syndrome and autism were at the male/schematising end of a continuum with its opposite end occupier by females/empathisers, and I had recently written a post about Asperger’s. I was very happy that I had happened to be driving alone in the car at this very moment, and that I had chosen to switch on the radio, and that it was still tuned to Radio 3 (not my usual station) because I had been bored on the previous occasion and fiddled around with frequencies. I usually think these sort of coincidences are meant to be.

The next piece was wonderful too. About a year ago my husband and I spent a term of Sundays listening to music as part of an Open University course. The course introduced us to a range of music that we had never heard, but almost none moved us more than the music of the wandering Ashkenazy Jews. This music is called Klezmer and this is a piece by the Budapest Klezmer Band, not the same piece played on the programme.  Imagine it accompanying a circular dance.

By now the two men were discussing why we so often turn to music to move us to sadness. Simon Baron Cohen agreed that he was more moved by sad music than by happy music, and there was a short discussion of the division in Western music between music written in a major scale (intervals between notes of tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone) and music written in a minor scale where the intervals in the (natural minor) scale are tone-semitone-tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone. Music written in a minor scale strikes us as sad, whilst music written in a major scale is triumphant, happy music. Simon Baron Cohen says he would like to carry out research with very young babies to see whether this is a habit acquired in the West, or whether it is an instinctive universal truth. This is also an obsession of mine, though my own observations with my two children when they were very young, and with our family dog, is that it is an instinctive response. Our dog only howls along to minor music and can clearly distinguish between the two. My elder daughter used to insist that some songs or music (by John Denver in particular!) were switched off because they made her sad. I wondered how much it would cost to fund the research, because nobody seems to have an answer and I would so much like to know. The most reasonable explanation I have come up with is that when we speak about sad things we speak them in a minor key, and so we associate music written in the same key with the sadness of the spoken word. It is fairly easy for a child to tell that sad emotions are being expressed in the words spoken since the sadness will be reflected in the person’s face and the child’s mirror neurons in the their brain will reflect that sad expression back to them. Which rather begs the question whether babies have to learn to be sad, or whether that, too, is instinctive hardwired … You see how my thoughts run on, provoked by the short discussion. Perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber and his brother Julian, with all their millions, could fund the research?

The next piece was my second favourite instrument. The piano. The 2nd movement (Adagio) from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no 8 in C minor, called “Pathetique”. Baron Cohen explained how he experienced this piece as a complicated interplay between the sad, bass clef of the left hand, and the more optimistic upbeat chattering of the treble clef in the right hand.

One of the final pieces in the programme was a recording from Belsen just after its liberation by the British Second Army on April 20th, 1945. The recording was broadcast by the BBC and a copy of the recording on an acetate disc was discovered decades later at the Smithsonian Institute, New York. If you wish to listen to it, you will need to register for a free account here.

You can listen to the whole programme which includes an introduction to Professor Baron Cohen’s theory on autism (and see a complete play list) here for the next seven days…

I’m trying to finish a post on Russian painting, but it seems stuck. In the meantime, I wanted to write about this …

According to widely-quoted statistics, somewhere between 1 in a 100 and 1 in a 250 people have Asperger’s Syndrome.  A recent, as yet unpublished, piece of research at Cambridge University puts the figure at 1 in 58*.

Asperger’s Syndrome is sometimes otherwise called “high functioning autism” – those with Asperger’s Syndrome (often called “Aspies”, just as the syndrome is shortened to “Asperger’s”) do not show the same developmental indications as those with full-blown autism and, almost by definition, have an intelligence well above average if measured using the traditional IQ scale. The vast majority of these people are male. Professor Simon Baron Cohen characterises them as being very good “schematisers” and occupying one end of a spectrum, at the other end of which are the “empathisers”. The vast majority of empathisers are women.

Given all of this, it seems reasonable to assume that a pool of men, all of whom have IQs above, say, 130, will contain a sizeable number of men with Asperger’s syndrome. Men usually measure higher than women on traditional IQ tests, so it seems reasonable to assume that almost all women measuring, say, 130 on an IQ test would be schematisers, or have a degree of Asperger’s syndrome.

Not all men and women with Asperger’s will marry. Marriages with Aspies tend to fall into two camps. First there are those Aspies who marry other Aspies. Secondly, there are those Aspies who marry those who are “neuro-typical” or not Asperger’s. This is often a marriage of opposites where the strengths of one are complemented by the strengths of the other, or the weaknesses of one may be compensated for by the strengths of the other. Neuro-typical partners are often very empathetic but are still likely to have high IQs as they would be unlikely to interest the Aspie otherwise.

Because of the circles I move in, I know what seems like a huge number of men (but also women), with Aspergers, several of whom have received formal diagnoses from Professor Baron Cohen. The fact that they have Aspergers often comes to light when they have children. Aspergers is a highly hereditary condition (apparently). Often adults with Aspergers have learnt to fit into neuro-typical society, but their offspring have yet to learn and so the behavioural manners of the adult are magnified in the child.

I remember a philosophy class when, to the horrified silence of the rest of the class, I suggested that all babies should have a brain scan before their first birthday to discover whether or not they had Aspergers, and then should be cared for and educated accordingly. I actually wasn’t joking, but my comment was provoked by the misery of so many of my female friends.  These friends all seemed to be abandoning their marriages, usually for a man who was empathetic.  They all described living in an emotional desert, receiving no affection and no intimacy.  Yet their husbands were good men, devoted to their families and hardworking, if more than usually interested in arranging huge classical music collections alphabetically, or playing “Dungeons and Dragons” or achieving world wide acclaim for their esoteric mathematics.

Researchers in Sweden believe that early intervention can promote better outcomes for children with autism.  Babies in the Uppsala Babylab are being wired up so that their brain patterns can be followed.  Similar studies on infants are being carried out in London.

I move in circles where most of the men have very high IQs, and I have chosen female friends who have high IQs too. Some of these women probably have Aspergers, but a proportion do not. This second neuro-typical high functioning proportion tends to be married to men with similar or higher IQs. A significant number of these women are, therefore, married to men with Aspergers.

One odd thing about Aspies and love is that Aspies appear to function quite normally when they are “in love”. This period typically lasts about two years. After that the real work of “loving” as opposed to “being in love” starts. The Aspie does not know what “love”, outside the obsessional interest of being in love, means.

He will typically become immersed in his special interest – often his work – and will be disinterested in the minutiae of everyday life. He will have fixed ideas about things and will respond badly to being asked to do something that does not correspond to these fixed ideas. Typically he will not be in the slightest bit snobbish. He will typically have a very strong sense of fairness, though this sense of fairness is abstract. By abstract, I mean as it applies to other people, other than himself. Typically he will not be able to see why he should not do what he wants to do when he wants to do it. Typically he will not value possessions, needing very little. He will have almost no interest in clothes and will prefer them to be functional and comfortable rather than smart. He will only want what he actually needs to survive and will not see the point of anything else. He will typically not be interested in earning large sums of money – for he has no need of it. He will typically seem very pure and not of this world. He may have a tendency to take things literally, unless he has learnt to interpret phrases correctly. He may be fascinated with words, and very skilled at foreign languages. He will typically not hold a grudge, and will typically not be jealous. But he is not jealous because jealousy is tied up with preference and preference with love, and he is not concerned with that. He does not understand love as a “going out” feeling. He is more likely to understand love as “respect”. He will typically like rules, and be happy if they are followed. He will typically dislike holidays and leaving home. He will typically enjoy spending a lot of time by himself, away from other people. He will typically have been bullied at school. He will typically not have excelled at sports, though he may be able to recite all the winners of every football competition since the game was invented. He will typically be not quite sure what the point of women is, except to have his babies and bring them up. He will typically not imagine that she has any emotional needs, and will typically not see the point of wasting money on useless or decorative or fragrant presents or adornments. He will typically be close to his mother. He will typically have only a very small number of friends, and will share interests rather than feelings with them. He will typically always tell the truth, and speak his mind with no regard for the hurt the truth may cause: this is both a boon and a curse.  He will speak a different language which neurotypical people rarely grok.

He will usually be a very loyal friend, though you may not hear from him very often, and he will not know how to share what has been happening to him.  He will usually feel lonely sometimes, despite wanting to be alone, and will be devastated if those who he has high regard for disappear from his life but he will be unlikely to know what he should do about it.  He may have bouts of anger born of frustration.  He is likely to have periods of depression. Left to his own devices, on his own terms, he can be very happy with very little. Pushed to behave like a neuro-typical person, he will typically distance, and become very difficult. But then, so would a neuro-typical person asked to behave like someone with Asperger’s. He will have his own, unique character, and be shaped by his birth order and circumstances just like any other child would have been.

All of this is likely to produce confusion in his wife or partner.  On the one hand she will know him to be loyal, good, honest.  On the other hand she will experience him as being inside a glass ball.  However hard she knocks on the glass she cannot really get his attention, cannot really connect with him.  He will not know how to soothe her, or actively listen to her, he will not be able to put himself in her shoes.  He will not do empathy, though he might, if she is sad enough, feel sorry for her as he would for a wretched animal.  Psychologist have grouped together a basket of symptoms that such women often show, and have called it the Cassandra Phenomenon. The basket of symptoms is so called because the woman will rarely be believed when she describes the cause of her desolation: a romantic partnership demands a level of intimacy that no other relationship or friendship does, and so families and friends may not be aware of the deficit. It is easy to be judgmental when these women give up knocking on the glass and find emotional intimacy elsewhere. But these women are often not aware of the manifestations of Aspergers syndrome. Even if they are, it is a lot to ask of a woman, to live her life without emotional intimacy. Monkies wither away and die in similar circumstances. Simon Baren Cohen calls those women who stay with their Aspie husbands “saints”.

I often think that Christ (absent the miracles) may have been an Aspie. The internet was developed by Aspies for Aspies. At least, only Aspies would find it a truly rewarding form of communication. It suits them perfectly since there are no facial expressions or body language to read (they cannot read them very well, so better not to have the potential to misread them), and it also allows them time to process the speech they receive before they have to respond. This is true of emails, true of instant messaging (which need not be very “instant”) and comments on blogs. In my experience Aspies do not tend to be prolific bloggers. If they have their own blog it will usually only feature occasional posts. They may, however, be quite prolific commenters with a tendency to appear troll-like if they are not careful.

One of the most well-known writers about high-functioning autism is a woman called Temple Grandin. She is an expert on the industrial handling of livestock, but is also known for having invented a machine that will hug her. She writes this about the brains of those with autism and Asperger’s:

Autopsies of autistic, Asperger’s, and normal brains by Margaret Bauman and her colleagues reveal that in both autism and Asperger’s there is immature development of the cerebellum, amygdala, and hippocampus. Small cells are packed tightly in these immature parts of the brain, signifying true immature development, not damage or atrophy. Brains from people with autism are more immature in hippocampus development than are Asperger’s brains, which may help explain the cognition problems we see in low-functioning autism. The situation is reversed for the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotion. Here, the Asperger’s brain is often more abnormal than the autistic brain. Could the more normal hippocampus preserve the cognitive function in Asperger’s, with the less normal amygdala causing the social problems?

Corroboration comes from brain scan studies showing that people with Asperger’s or high-functioning autism process emotional information differently than do normal subjects. The British autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen has done functional MRI studies indicating that normal people activate the amygdala to judge the expression in another person’s eyes, but people with Asperger’s call on fronto-temporal regions of the brain. It is true that brain scan studies show less clear-cut results in terms of differences in amygdala size than do autopsies, but this may result from the subjects’ positioning in the scanner, from gender, or from differences in diagnostic criteria. In 1999, Elizabeth Aylward and her colleagues at the University of Washington School of Medicine found that in male non-mentally retarded autistic adolescents and young adults, the amygdala was significantly smaller compared to normals. But a British study by Matt Howard and his colleagues showed that high-functioning autistics had a larger abnormal amygdala. A third study, by Mehmet Haznedar and Monte Buchsbaum, showed no differences. Possibly the differences among these studies could be explained by differences in the criteria used to diagnose the subjects. Also, a brain autopsy is more accurate than a brain scan on a living person. Brain autopsy research has shown that both Asperger’s people and the highest functioning people with autism have a small amygdala; in cases of low-functioning people, by contrast, the amygdala is more normal and the hippocampus more abnormal.

More recently, a study by Haznedar revealed that in the brain of the high-functioning autistic or Asperger’s person, the circuit between the anterior cingulate in the frontal cortex and the amygdala is not completely connected. As a result, people with autism or Asperger’s have decreased metabolism in the anterior cingulate.

These brain studies demonstrate that the social deficits in autism and Asperger’s are highly correlated with measurable biological differences. But the question remains: When does a difference in the size of a certain brain region become an abnormality, instead of just a normal variation? If I selected 100 people at random from a large corporation or at an airport and scanned their brains, I would find a range of differences in the size and activation level of their amygdalas. It is likely that brain scan results from this normal cross section of the public could be closely correlated with tests that evaluate sociability and social skills. Conducting this experiment on the general public would show that normal brain variation could be measured. Furthermore, people tend to choose careers that they are good at, and I predict that there would be a high correlation between a person’s job and the characteristics of the amygdala. Out of the 100 hypothetical people from a large corporation whose brains were scanned, the technical people in the computer department would probably show less activation in their amygdalas compared to the highly social salesman in the marketing department.

The rest is here.

Important Note:


I do not update this blog regularly any more.

More importantly, for more than the last five years I have been pursuing an intensive training in psychoanalytic psychotherapy.  Through the training I have gained insight to the degree to which so-called ‘autistic’ defences are used as a means of surviving very difficult childhoods, and I am more likely now to see those defences as developmental challenges than before.  I would point readers in the direction of the Tavistock Clinic in London which works with children and adults with autism and Asperger’s, and to the many writings of psychoanalysts on very early developmental intrusions.  Ogden, for example, writes about the ‘autistic-continguous’ position.  Rhode and Klauber have written a useful book, endorsed by the Tavistock Centre.

Good luck with your journey towards understanding.  I guess we can only begin where we start from, and try to find our way.

Uppsala Babylab
Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck College, University of London
Other sites
The Asperger Marriage Site
Alone Together: Making an Asperger Marriage work – if you read nothing else, read this …
National Autistic Society: Partners
Radio Four, Home Truths, An Asperger Marriage
Families of Adults Affected by Asperger’s Syndrome (FAAAS)
On-line Asperger Syndrom Information and Support (OASIS)

*A report of the research, published in the Guardian, has been removed from the newspaper’s website. The report said that some of the team of researchers believed that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, but Professor Simon Baron Cohen has since distanced himself from their views.

See also my earlier posts: “The Space Between: Mind the Gap”; Asperger’s Test; Austistic Traits and Testosterone