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13Dec 2013

Matter: Autism-The intense world theory.

What if autism is not due to deficits in the brain? What if it's the opposite--that "rather than being oblivious, autistic people take in too much and learn too fast"?

That's the question Maia Szalavitz explores in a thoughtful and sensitive story in MATTER, part of the news website Medium. I can't help but pull the same quote from the story that Virginia Hughes highlighted in a note on her Gray Matters email:

Imagine being born into a world of bewildering, inescapable sensory overload, like a visitor from a much darker, calmer, quieter planet. Your mother’s eyes: a strobe light. Your father’s voice: a growling jackhammer. That cute little onesie everyone thinks is so soft? Sandpaper with diamond grit. And what about all that cooing and affection? A barrage of chaotic, indecipherable input, a cacophony of raw, unfilterable data.

That, in short, is the "intense world theory" of autism. It's an idea from Henry Markram, "the man behind Europe's $1.3 billion Human Brain Project, a gargantuan research endeavor to build the supercomputer model of the brain," Szalavitz writes. Markram is also the father of an autistic boy, who has taught Markram how large a gap there is between cutting-edge neuroscience and help for patients such as his son. "As a father and a neuroscientist, you realize that you just don't know what to do," he says.

Szalavitz accomplishes two things with this piece: She tells us about Markram's research, about its promise, and about the theory's critics. And she shows us what it's like for him and his family to raise their son, whose illness can be very difficult to manage.

Szalavitz--a friend of mine, I'm happy to disclose--does a very nice job here. And don't miss the photography by Darrin Vanselow.

-Paul Raeburn

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