Exploring Autism
A conversation with Uta Frith

Autism, it seems, is all around us. Once thought to only affect a tiny minority of 0.04% of the population, modern researchers are now of the view that it is more than 25 times more prevalent than we had once imagined, with current figures estimating that more than one in a hundred should properl...


About Uta Frith:

Uta Frith DBE is a psychologist and neuroscientist working at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. She has pioneered much of the current research in autism and dyslexia. She first read History of Art and then Experimental Psychology at the Universität des Saarla...


Some Additional Resources:
Autism: A Very Short Introduction

By Uta Frith

This Very Short Introduction offers a clear statement on what is currently known about autism and Asperger syndrome. Explaining the vast array of different conditions that hide behind these two labels, and looking at symptoms from the full spectrum of autistic disorders, it explores the possible causes for the apparent rise in autism and also evaluates the links with neuroscience, psychology, brain development, genetics, and environmental causes including MMR and Thimerosal. This VSI also explores the psychology behind social impairment and savantism, and sheds light on what it is like to live inside the mind of the sufferer.

Autism and Talent

Edited by Francesca Happe & Uta Frith

This book explores the puzzle of talent and its close association with autism. Expert contributors from many areas of both science and the arts describe the latest research - using brain scanning, experimental tasks, twin studies, and case histories of extraordinary savants. It considers many of the puzzling questions the relationship between autism and talent raises: Do similar genetic effects predispose for talent and for autism? What is the role of obsessive practice? Could we all become savants? What is special in the brains of people with savant skills? Is detail-focus at the root of talent in ASD and non-ASD individuals? How can talents best be fostered in children and adults with social and communication difficulties?

Autism and the Brain's Theory of Mind - UC Television

An invited lecture by Uta Frith at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute as part of their 2006 Distinguished Lecture Series.

Autism Science Foundation

The Autism Science Foundation's mission is to support autism research by providing funding and other assistance to scientists and organizations conducting, facilitating, publicizing and disseminating autism research. The organization also provides information about autism to the general public and serves to increase awareness of autism spectrum disorders and the needs of individuals and families affected by autism.

Gender and Autism - The National Autistic Society

A collection of resources from the National Autistic Society on the correlation between gender and the development of autism.

The Autistic Condition (Commentary Excerpt)

Autism, it seems, is all around us. Once thought to only affect a tiny minority of 0.04% of the population, modern researchers are now of the view that it is more than 25 times more prevalent than we had once imagined, with current figures estimating that more than 1% of us suffer from autism disorders. So what is going on? Are we in the throes of an “autism epidemic”?

Uta Frith of UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and one of the world’s leading experts on autism, says no. The vastly increased number of autism diagnoses is simply a reflection of our growing awareness of the particularities of the condition whose breadth has naturally led modern researchers to begin referring to an autism spectrum rather than one specific affliction. Psychological relabelling has played a strong role – population studies reveal that a decline in cases of “mental retardation” corresponds well with an increase in cases of autism - but another factor is directly related to an expanded definition that incorporates milder versions of autism together with cases of normal and high intelligence. Many people who are now considered autistic would have remained undiagnosed had they been born in an earlier time.

So no epidemic, then. But still: what are we really talking about? What is autism anyway?

Look in any standard autism reference manual and you will read that the following three specific behavioural criteria must all exist for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to be made:

- A qualitative impairment in social interaction

- A qualitative impairment in communication

- A markedly restricted repertoire of activities and interests

All three may vary enormously in range and impact, but only a simultaneous conjunction of the three symptoms results in someone being considered autistic. Crucially, the first signs of autism typically only manifest themselves in the second year of a child’s life. And for some specialized cases (such as those diagnosed with Asperger syndrome), the wait can be even longer (often from the ages of 8 upwards). Why does it take so long?

Suffice it to say that nobody knows for sure. But years of rigorous research have shown that, notwithstanding this standard delay in the condition manifesting itself, autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder rather than a psychological condition caused by environmental factors (such as a problematic mother-child relationship) as some once thought. Somehow, in some way, the autistic brain simply develops differently from that of the “neurotypical” brain. Of course, biology being what it is, at the root of all of this must lie some genetic trigger. And indeed, there is very good evidence to believe just that: population studies of genetic vs fraternal twins give overwhelming evidence in favour of autism’s core genetic basis. But confirming this in principle is a long way from understanding what, precisely, is happening.

After all, just being able to describe a set of behavioural pathologies and convincing oneself of its underlying genetic basis is hardly sufficient. What is needed is some theoretical framework, some specific description on how the autistic brain differs from our own.

Enter Uta Frith. Tiptoeing ever so nimbly through the academic minefield of cognitive neuroscience and taking great care to distinguish between her beliefs and a sense of universally accepted dogma, Professor Frith eventually avers that for a good number of researchers, herself included, the essence of autism is the lack of the otherwise innate ability to attribute an inner live to other people and to oneself: mental states, beliefs, feelings and so on.

What she doesn’t bother mentioning is that the first big insight in this direction came in the early 1980’s with her own research group, when, together with postdoc Alan Leslie and PhD student Simon Baron-Cohen, Frith conjectured that autistic children suffer from a unique inability to intuitively mentalize, or imagine the world through the eyes of someone else...

For the full Commentary, purchase this issue from our site, or buy the eBook from Amazon.com or iBookstore, or download our app off Apple Newsstand. Each issue comes with the commentary, the full conversation, a biography of our guest, as well as references for further exploration.