UCL, Linguistics, and Autism

Dinah KC Murray

2003 “UCL, Linguistics, and Autism” for the Alumni Reunion Conference (collected papers available from Department of Phonetics and Linguistics, UCL, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT)

University College London has a notable record of innovative research into autism and its related conditions (Autism Spectrum, AS hereafter) , and equally of theoretical contributions to understanding AS. John Morton headed a Medical Research Council Cognitive Development Unit (MRC/CDU) housed on the UCL campus in the last decades of the twentieth century where the work of Uta Frith and distinguished students and colleagues such as Simon Baron-Cohen, Francesca Happe, Rita Jordan, and Alan Leslie all flourished. These psychologists contributed to the development of two of the most influential proposals of what is sometimes referred to as “the core deficit” of the autistic condition.

Three ‘cognitive explanations’ of autism have been thoroughly researched in recent years. Here is how Russell (2001, p295) sums them up:‘…the core cognitive deficit in autism is lack of (or delayed or deviant development of) an innately specified ‘module’ for conceptualizing mental states – the so-called Theory of Mind mechanism ….[or it is] impairment in integrating elements into wholes (Weak Central Coherence theory), [or] impaired executive functioning (executive dysfunction theory).’

These ideas were developed partly in the course of some lively multidisciplinary seminars held in the MRC/CDU. Among the disciplines contributing to this discussion were linguistics and philosophy. In particular, pragmatics in the shape of Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Carston 2002) gave participants a way of conceptualising and understanding what is missed by people who are only picking up literal meaning, not reading each other’s intentions, and not bringing shared certainties to bear. Most recently (2003), Wilson has reciprocated the usefulness of Relevance Theory to autism researchers by using their results to tease apart issues around pragmatics and modularity. She finds support for the interesting conclusion that pragmatics is best conceived of as a sub-module of Theory of Mind.

UCL Linguistics department has also contributed to the study of Autism in the shape of Neil Smith’s work with Christopher (Smith & Tsimpli, 1995) the language ‘savant’ who has ‘autistic features’. This work highlights the possibility of someone on the autism spectrum having language among their (diagnostically criterial) “restricted range of interests”, thus a polyglot with knowledge of many different grammatical and semantic systems may still struggle with quotidian communication and its massive load of pragmatic meaning. More recently, Smith’s work with Hermelin and Tsimpli (2003) has demonstrated that a young man with Asperger Syndrome – the form of autism in which no language delay is identified – has, as they put it, a “quasi modular” Theory of Mind.

“Quasi modular” could perhaps be applied to the concept of an interest as developed by myself with Mike Lesser (Murray 1986, Murray 1992, Lesser and Murray 1995) and more recently Wendy Lawson (Murray, Lesser and Lawson in press). An interest is by its nature local but accessible to attention, the overall but limited cognitive resource measured in psychology by the concept of “task demand”. We assume that the economic principle of Relevance Theory, ie most gain for least cost, is driven by the actual scarcity of attention overall. Interest theory proposes that as with any limited resource, attention may be concentrated or spread thin: it may be concentrated in a few intense interests – monotropism – or distributed less strongly among a great number of interests – polytropism. In someone with a polytropic disposition several interests will usually be active simultaneously, while a monotropic individual will rarely, if ever, experience simultaneous arousal of more than one.

We suggest that this is a natural variation and that individuals who attract a diagnosis of autism are characteristically monotropic. Research findings which support the Weak Central Coherence account of autism (Frith, 1989; Happe, 1994) also support our account, whilst studies which find that drawing together attended information is not problematic in autism (Plaisted et al, 1998; Happe, 1999) also support the monotropism idea but argue against the Weak Central Coherence account. Simultaneous arousal of distinct interests is much less likely in a monotropic individual than in a polytropic individual, but not impossible, see below.

In fact, monotropism, ie a restricted range of unusually intense interests, is the core of the third diagnostic criterion for Autism:

Criterion 3

Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour, interests and activities, as manifested by …
encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus [DSMIV only]

The other two diagnostic criteria are about interaction and involve problems with sociability and problems with communication. We suggest that monotropic attention patterns may have a catastrophic impact in these areas (Murray et al, in press). In particular, they may result in speech not being singled out from other sounds as distinctive, or in speech being identified as distinctive but not as meaningful, or in speech being recognised as meaningful and therefore to be avoided (other people’s meanings interfere with one’s own interests). The last might be classified as “naïve pessimists” – to adapt Sperber’s classification re “theory of mind” (1994, cited by Wilson 2003) – tending to assume zero relevance in utterances addressed to them. Those responses to spoken language are typical among children who attract a diagnosis of classic or Kanner’s autism. For some of these children written language becomes one of their small range of intense interests, and they may develop reading skills well in advance of their ability to understand what they are reading (often labelled hyperlexia these days). Some children may have no problem with acquiring speech and may deploy a dazzlingly large vocabulary before the age of four but never move on to mastery of the relevance governed give and take of ordinary discourse. These people will tend to be pedantic, literal minded, obsessive on their own topics, and insensitive to lack of interest in others (such sensitivity may develop at any time during the life span). They are likely to attract a diagnosis of “Asperger syndrome”, ie autism without delayed speech – sometimes known as “the little professor syndrome”. They tend to know how to work but not how to play (Lawson, 1999, Asperger (1944) in Frith 1991).

  • Attention distribution varies both between and within individuals across time
  • Its quantity and distribution are correlated with cognitive capacity
  • Its quantity is related to current feeling state

Certainty and fear are feelings

The piecemeal, disconnected, understanding of their environment which monotropic individuals inevitably experience results in constant surprise. As Ros Blackburn, who speaks about autism from an insider’s perspective, often describes it, these sudden events have the shocking force of a balloon bursting behind one’s head. Thus the experiences of monotropic individuals tend to be repeatedly catastrophic, each catastrophe reinforcing the monotropic encapsulation and non-connectivity by heightening fear. Dr Temple Grandin, world reknowned expert in animal management systems, who herself has a diagnosis of autism, has inquired of many other individuals on the spectrum and found that fear is by far the most commonly reported feeling (Grandin, 1995). From a clinical perspective, autism is viewed as often “comorbid” with anxiety disorders (see eg Attwood 2003): these people tend to be anxious to a debilitating degree.

“The quest for certainty is a quest for peace which is assured, an object which is unqualified by risk and the shadow of fear which action casts” p12.Dewey 1928. In this series of lectures Dewey argued that certainty was a human need, an essential basis for the courage needed to repeatedly overcome the fear of action. Observations of animal behaviour suggest that exploration naturally occurs in oscillation with safety: frightened kittens cling to mum, go nowhere, start to feel safe again, venture off, have fun, play and explore, become alarmed, return to the safety of mum, etc. In human beings, certainty is the cognitive equivalent of that safe haven.

There are two sources of the desirable state of confident certainty: what one knows for oneself; what everybody knows (common ground). Consistency with either of these may be sufficient to induce a feeling of certainty.

  • Conversations are about achieving shared certainties – aligning common interests, establishing common ground
  • Conversations are about scoring propositions for likelihood – establishing mutual certainties – see Brandom, 1994, Sperber and Wilson, 1986/95
  • Monotropic individuals tend to miss this process

For young people on the Autism Spectrum, “what everybody knows” does not enter the picture, therefore other people will not be sources of comfortable certainty. A corollary of this is that as they grow up (a much slower psychological and emotional process than it is in a polytropic individual) young people on the autism spectrum may recognise that for most people Others are a source of comfort, and yet have no way of tapping in to that. They may eventually learn many of the unspoken rules but still apply them too awkwardly to avoid rejection (Segar, 1997). They may – to adapt Sperber’s classification once again (Sperber, 1994, cited by Wilson 2003) – become “sophisticated pessimists”, and conclude (with some justice) that ordinary speech is not truthful, and despise it. They may just give up (Lawson, 1995; Segar, 1997; ed Willey, 2003).

Whatever the eventual outcome, in their growing years monotropic individuals are likely to be solely dependent on their own resources and experiences in meeting their need for certainty. Given how frequently life ‘blindsides’ them, the odds are stacked against them in this area of potential comfort too. Here is a verse from a poem by Wendy Lawson, who writes from an insider’s perspective about autism:

A voice of definites; absolutes and all
A voice that is never small or tall
A voice that says there’s much and more
A voice that I can trust for sure,

(Lawson 2003, p54)

Polytropism is much better adapted to an environment with high and constantly changing levels of sensory as well as social experience. Out of this chaotic universe, those looking to themselves for certainty are likely to seek: actions which have reliable outcomes; sequences which have predictable order; patterns that recur; rules which are consistently applied. In our view, these are keys to the “systemisation” idea which Baron-Cohen (2003) has recently proposed as being at the core of both “the male brain” and Autism.

Creativity and forethought

The monotropism model of autism also implies that the idea that “impaired creativity” is a key feature of autism is mistaken (pace eg Craig and Baron-Cohen, 2001). Given a safe and confidence-inspiring immediate environment, autistic creativity can flourish. Below is a picture of a “jewel” created by Ferenc Virag, a young man of high ability with classic autism who is a friend of mine (see Murray, 1996) and an artist (Sunday Times, 2000). He has enthusiastically permitted me to use his work and pictures of himself to illustrate discussion of issues around autism. Ferenc frequently points out objects of beauty to me, because it is clear to him that I share his interest. He lives in a generally predictable and autism friendly environment in which he is mainly contented so long as he has opportunities to take control of his environment. When Ferenc sees me he knows that I will give him such opportunities.

On the occasion when he made the object below, as soon as I arrived he seized on a clear plastic beaker in the back of my car, rushed to his room and emerged with the inside of a biro which he proceeded to blow down steadily while revolving the beaker so as to leave a clear, even, trail of ink around its inside. He then took me to his fire-pit (at present he can only access this when someone is supervising him), and proceeded to use a metal shelf support as an ad hoc tool to hold the beaker (melted on) over the glowing cinders. He revolved it steadily and minutely as he did so, and periodically took it out to check its progress; the end result is similar to one created by glass workers in the Venetian tradition. He appears to have spontaneously reinvented the technique.

The monotropism model suggests that creativity and forethought as such are unimpaired in autism, but function within, and can draw information from, a much more restricted range of interests (see Murray 2001). While Ferenc is super-efficient at planning a contained project of this sort (see also Murray, 1996) he would not be able to organise any project which involved drawing together information relevant to many, otherwise unconnected, interests. His interests tend to be highly modular, intense, and encapsulated (see Plaisted, 2001).

It is possible to imagine an environment in which Ferenc’s high technical competence and resourcefulness would be more valuable than they are today. Such an environment could also be more predictable than ours by a factor of thousands, and include manageable, ritualised social exchanges with minimal demands on processing, and highly stable (and mainly non-negotiable) shared certainties. Even someone growing up a century ago would have been raised in a context much more like that. At that time someone whose monotropic disposition, unlike Ferenc’s, was to be keenly interested in language and relish extracting its regularities, might well have been able to flourish and be socially rewarded, however lacking in other social skills. The rounded skills profile required in most job descriptions these days is as ill suited to people with narrow interests as is the general pace of modern life.

Back in the early seventies, when I was first studying linguistics at UCL, one of London’s linguistics departments was headed by a brilliant syntactician and systemiser who many people may remember. I happened to live near him, and so was able to witness him on the tube platform while waiting for the train, talking animatedly to himself – high odds that the topic was usually syntax – while facing away from the people and towards the wall, and flapping the ‘wings’ of his long raincoat. This appeared to be a completely unselfconscious performance. The Professor lived at home with his mother who made sure he ate properly and generally supported him in life skills; when she died a neighbour appears to have taken on the same role. Apart from syntax, he pursued one other engrossing interest: playing with the uncertainties of the stock exchange.

If this Professor had been growing up in today’s world, he would have been unlikely to get through secondary school without being identified as extremely socially dysfunctional, and attracting a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. Cases such as this must contribute to the recent increase in diagnosed autism spectrum disorders. It is possible that this increase does not reflect an increase in numbers of people with a monotropic disposition so much as an increase in the (subjectively catastrophic) difficulties encountered by such people and a commensurate decrease in their ability to cope.


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