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  1. Introduction »
  2. Brain and context
  3. Other theories
  4. Examples
  5. Chaotic emotions
  6. Left and right
  7. The observing self
  8. Organising idea
  9. References

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Introduction — Parallel Processing

Autistic traits are generally recognised as occurring along a spectrum — with severe autism at one end and a higher-functioning, ‘milder’ form (known as Asperger’s syndrome) at the other. The core areas affected, to varying degrees, are ability to understand and use non-verbal and verbal communication; ability to understand social behaviour and behave in socially appropriate ways; ability to think and behave flexibly; and over- or under-sensitivity to sensory information. Even people labelled as having Asperger’s syndrome can vary in the severity and number of traits they display, ranging from severe learning difficulties and low IQ to high IQ and a talent for learning that brings acclaim.

It seems remarkably odd to us that a person who needs specialist help and assisted housing can be included in the same category as a professor of physics, say, or a gifted poet or musician, or a computer programmer who is married with a family — individuals who, despite having Asperger’s syndrome, have managed to make an accommodation with the world and learn enough of the ‘rules’ to function highly efficiently and relate to people to some degree.

We suggest that, by looking at the evolutionary history of mammals and humankind, we can arrive at a more comprehensive way of viewing the autistic spectrum than has been offered to date — and that this new understanding can help us help those who seek therapy for psychological difficulties. We are going to put forward the idea that occurring throughout the entire autistic spectrum is a phenomenon that has not previously been identified; that a remarkable mental capacity, one that came to the fore once mammals started to evolve, is missing from all people on the autistic spectrum; and that this major deficit, while it may be just one aspect of what is missing in autism, is uniquely what is missing at the higher performing end of the Asperger’s spectrum. It is the ability to read context.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, one of the world’s leading authorities on autism, has suggested that there is a systemising brain (usually associated with the male thinking style) and an empathising brain (traditionally associated with female behaviour) and that we all have varying amounts of each.1 He has provided much evidence for this claim, showing how these sex differences arise more from biological than cultural causes, and goes so far as to support Dr Asperger’s suggestion that the syndrome is an extreme form of the male brain.1 However, after many years of working therapeutically with male and female adults with Asperger’s syndrome, as well as interacting with them socially and in business, we believe that the extreme male brain theory of autism, which does at first seem persuasive, is an insufficient explanation for the various deficiencies seen in this syndrome. It does not explain, for example, why many otherwise extremely feminine women show Asperger’s traits but many men who are good systematisers don’t. It was this sense that the puzzle of autism remained that led us to look back to our evolutionary past to search for new clues.

The evolution of mammals and birds began when they developed the ability to generate and maintain a constant internal body temperature, irrespective of the external environmental temperature — popularly known as ‘warm-bloodedness’. Reptiles regulate their body temperatures by moving to different places in their environment to get warm or cool down; they can move around quickly only when their blood has heated up and are sluggish when their blood is cold. In contrast, mammals can respond quickly and move around whatever the external temperature.2 But this greater mobility, flexibility and freedom of behaviour came at a high price: a staggering 0–90 per cent of a mammal’s energy is spent on maintaining its constant internal temperature. Compared with a similar-sized reptile, which controls its temperature by external means, this means a fivefold increase in energy requirement. Early mammals couldn’t afford to give way to impulses that would waste energy unnecessarily. So they had to evolve a mechanism which would make them more intelligent in their reactions. Mammals had to develop a brain that could store memories of previous encounters and use these to appraise future encounters more efficiently. In effect, this enabled them to subject every arousing event to a risk analysis: “Does that noise signify potential food – or danger? Should I hide? Am I likely to succeed in catching that rabbit?” They had to make decisions based on the specific circumstances or context that they found themselves in — and do so swiftly, as their survival might depend on it. Even if a rabbit was near enough to chase, it would be wasted effort if a rival could get there first — or fatal, if a bigger predator appeared on the scene.

Brain and context »