Monday, November 30, 2009

It feels like it's been Christmas forever

Someone should write a Christmas carol with the title "It feels like it's been Christmas forever". It's still November, and I've already had enough of the festive season. Eaten an already stale-tasting fruit mince pie. Taken the little one to see Father Christmas (No Mum, his name is Santa Claus! Sandy Claws? NO!! SANTA CLAUS!). Done a little Christmas shopping amid dazzling baubles and unrealistically perfect Christmas table setting displays in department stores. Wondered how much longer Planet Earth can cope under the load of rampant consumerism before a complete ecological collapse. Resolved not to buy too much stuff, and to spend more time at the beach. Gawked at giant Christmas tree displays. Heard from rellies that I haven't had a thing to do with for years. Sniffed many a perfume. Been made nauseous by the smell of some quite terrible fragrances. Cursed those fools who mess about with classic perfumes and create deplorable new versions. Tested Guerlain's new fragrance. Enjoyed Guerlain's new fragrance. Coveted Guerlain's new fragrance. Convinced myself that it is too much of an extravagance. Gotten over it. Made a mental note that if I win lotto, I'll be at the Guerlain counter quick as a shot. Bought a bestseller by Richard Dawkins at a bargain price from a variety store for a Christmas gift. Felt smug about my bargain hunting success. Don't you think it is more than a little ironic that buying a book by the curmudgeonly king of atheists to give as a present has become a Christmas ritual for thousands of people all around the world?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Today's forecast - more autism cure hype and early interference

I've heard on the news that our government's latest big initiative might be a national disability insurance scheme, and this could cover people who are deemed to be disabled from birth, presumably funding more of those much-hyped early intervention services. This would certainly apply to conditions on the autistic spectrum. I've no reason to believe that such funding would be conditional upon proper scientific evidence that such interventions are effective and do more good than harm. I've already seen so much uncritical hype in the Australian mass media supporting interventions that target autism, and I've never heard an Australian politician daring to question the effectiveness of such "therapies". Did you see Ross Coulthart's story about autism quack therapies on the Seven network's Sunday Night TV show last week? A heap of quackery, some of it potentially very dangerous, was shown in that story, and only the mildest tweet of scepticism from Mr Coulthart. Before I saw that story I had thought very highly of this journalist. Now I can see that he is of the same league as the 60 Minutes crowd.

What could this disability insurance scheme mean for autistic people? I guess it could mean that masses of children, many of them barely autistic or misdiagnosed, could be aggressively funnelled into the various types of early intervention, which are time-consuming and represent some burden to the parents and the subjects, some of which could make no difference at all to the children's trajectory of development.

I can also forsee another possible negative consequence of this. These highly qualified therapists are expected to produce good outcomes. There would be an ever-present pressure on them to identify improvements or even cures in their young patients. I can imagine that there could be many young autistic kids being put forward as success stories who are no longer autistic. And how many of these kids will go on in life to feel different, to feel like an outsider, to be an outsider, to run into brick walls and difficulties when faced with social situations that are unsuitable for them, only to be told that this is all nonsense because a nice lady therapist said they were cured of autism many years ago when they were 4 or 5 years old? It doesn't matter how much money you throw at a service, if it is essentially ineffective and misguided, the results will be nothing more than a delusion.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Interesting Case of Syd Barrett

(This article last added to November 2010, quotes added at end December 2010)

Lili Marlene has written ebooks about some other famous synaesthetes! These ebooks can be downloaded from Smashwords. Here is a link to Lili's author page at Smashwords:

For a number of years I have had fun maintaining and adding to my list of famous people who are, or were, or perhaps were, or perhaps are, on the autistic spectrum. What an fascinating bunch of people! It is a list full of genius, brilliance, eccentricity and original vision. For a long time I've been aware that the enigmatic Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd fame has been identified by some as an autist, but till recently I hadn't realized how widespread this speculation has been. I was intrigued when I recently read his sister's description of Barrett's synaesthesia. I was excited when I found a different description of Barrett's synaesthesia in another publication, from a different source. I knew this could be an effect of drugs, but I also know that there is quite a lot of overlap between my list of famous autists and my other list of famous synaesthetes.
To be honest, I hadn't been in a hurry to include Barrett in my list of famous autists, because his story is so often characterized as a sudden and tragic decline of a charming and extroverted young man into madness and a reclusive lifestyle, and autism just isn't like this. Autism and Asperger syndrome are not types of mental illness, they are more correctly categorized as disabilities that can have positive features, or valuable forms of human diversity. As far as I know, autistic spectrum conditions do not cause any sudden decline in sanity or functioning. These conditions are detectable from early childhood, probably having their origins before birth, and are highly genetically determined. The Syd Barrett story appeared to be a story about bad things that aren't autism.

I am aware that some other synaesthetes might be irritated to discover that Syd Barrett has been identified as a synesthete, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are anecdotes (not many) in which synaesthesia has been misdiagnosed as psychosis or schizophrenia. This possibility is a thing that concerns many synaesthetes, and this is one reason why many synaesthetes will not mention or discuss their synaesthesia. One can imagine that a type of synesthesia such as coloured hearing or coloured music could be misunderstood as visual hallucination. So you can understand that some synaesthetes might be irritated to read that a famous person with the nickname "crazy diamond" experienced synaesthesia. Another reason why some synaesthetes might not be pleased to see Barrett identified as a synaesthete is that many of us are fed up with the joking about LSD and drugs that we often receive when we tell others about our sensory experiences. Synaesthetes are sometimes accused of being closet drug users by very rude and ignorant people. I have been unable to clarify whether any of Barrett's reported synaesthesia was experienced during periods in his life when he was known to have been not using LSD. His synaesthesia could have been nothing more notable than a drug side-effect, which would mean he was not necessarily a natural synaesthete born with an unusual brain. But considering Barrett's early creative talent, his many eccentricities and problems, I believe his brain must have been something exceptional.

Another reason why I wasn't jumping to include Barrett in my lists was my fear that if I started researching an outline of his life, I would find the subject so complex and mysterious that I would become hopelessly bogged down, ploughing through books over a span of weeks or months. That is exactly what has happened.

Syd Barrett's real name was Roger Barrett, and he used his real name for much of his life, which started in 1946 and ended in 2006. He was an English songwriter, singer, guitarist and visual artist, best known as a founding member and songwriter of the psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd. Barrett's membership of the band finished after repeated failure to perform during concerts. He had been the main songwriter. Barrett withdrew from public life, but released two solo albums in 1970, full of strange and unforgettable tunes with nonsense lyrics. Pink Floyd went on to become massively popular and commercially successful, their style evolving towards progressive rock, a popular musical genre that would enable millions of dim young men with limited prospects to experience the feeling of intellectual exhilaration without the necessity to read, learn or do anything much. Syd/Roger Barrett lived an apparently simple and solitary life, receiving royalty payments, until he died in 2006, leaving an estate worth over 1.5 million pounds to his siblings. His access to spending money had been controlled by his family (Willis 2002 p. 143). There has been much speculation about why Barrett ceased to be a member of Pink Floyd, withdrew from the public eye, shunned his own fans, left behind the nickname that he had never himself used or liked, and disconnected his home's door bell.

The most established explanation, that he developed schizophrenia as the result of the heavy use of LSD, is the least likely explanation, for many different reasons. Firstly, it appears that there is little or no scientific evidence that LSD causes schizophrenia (or any other serious mental illness). Medical researchers have found a link between cannabis use and schizophrenia, mediated by genetics, and some people have identified dope smoking as the cause of, or trigger for, Barrett's problems, but this cannot be proven. There is also evidence that long-term use of cannabis can cause cognitive deficits, which no one needs. But we needn't bother ourselves with speculation about what might have caused this supposed case of schizophrenia in the absence of any evidence that Barrett had schizophrenia at all. I have not come across any evidence that Barrett suffered from any of the characteristic features of schizophrenia such as delusions or auditory hallucinations ("hearing voices"). In all of the books and articles that have been written about Barrett and Pink Floyd, where is there any description of any irrational belief system, schizophrenic "word salad" or the wearing of any tin foil hat? Pink Floyd members reportedly claimed that Barrett was unusual before he started using drugs heavily (Pareles 2006), undermining the theory that Barrett was a regular guy driven insane by drugs. In addition to an absence of evidence of schizophrenia, there is positive evidence that Barrett did not have schizophrenia. One is obliged to take seriously Barrett's sister's claim that Barrett was examined by psychiatrists and found to be not insane (Titchmarsh 2007). According to the Willis biography Barrett was never sectioned and was never given a diagnosis nor medication by the psychiatric profession, except for the drug "Largactyl" (Largactil?) following two extreme fits of anger, a situation that would not be inconsistent with an autistic condition. Largactil/Chlorpromazine is a drug that has a number of psychiatric and medical indications, including the short-term management of aggressive or severe anxiety episodes, treatment for amphetamine overdose, schizophrenia, hiccups and tetanus. It was once incorrectly believed to be an antidote to LSD.

Barrett had issues but he wasn't schizophrenic or insane. Pink Floyd member Roger Waters is a prominent exponent of the theory of Barrett as a schizophrenic, and this idea has been an inspiration for some Pink Floyd songs. I personally find it disturbing that one can still find many references to Barrett's mythological schizophrenia in books and articles in print and on the internet, and also in filmed interviews. I am sure that if I were to describe the late New Zealander novelist Janet Frame as a schizophrenic author I would promptly have Frame's fans and family's disapproval coming down on my head like a ton of bricks, but all and sundry feel free to apply to the late Mr Barrett a psychiatric label which qualified psychiatrists apparently decided was not correct.

Schizophrenia isn't the only type of mental illness that has been suggested as a diagnosis for Barrett. Bipolar has apparently been suggested as an explanation for Barrett's withdrawal, but I have not found any document outlining this theory. One friend of Barrett's has been quoted as saying "It always felt to me as if he'd fallen into a depression more than anything." (Blake 2007 p. 142). Former band-mate David Gilmour put forward a theory that a combination of epilepsy induced by strobe stage lighting and drugs altered Barrett's mental health (Geiger 2006). A similar fanciful theory involving mescaline and strobe lighting has been put forward (Miles 2006 p. 107-108). Some have argued that Barrett simply had a breakdown due to stress. Biographer Tim Willis has described Barrett's period of withdrawal as ".. an extended nervous breakdown exacerbated by his drug intake .." (Willis 2002). Willis drove home the point that Barrett had been under great pressure from 1965-1972 by including a detailed schedule of Barrett's concert and studio work during this period, as an appendix to the biography. Barrett developed some chronic medical illnesses later in life and died prematurely of cancer at the age of 60. I thought the speculations about the cause of Barrett's breakdown and withdrawal on page 139 of the Watkinson and Anderson biography Crazy diamond were insightful. They wrote about Barrett's belief in total freedom, the loss of his father in his early teens, the easy access to drugs and girls, and his lack of discipline. The teens and early twenties are a period of life when young people need to master important skills, continue to exercise self-control and find a sustainable role within society. Failure to achieve these things is a personal disaster.

I am surprised that I have not come across any argument for ADHD as an explanation for Barrett's problems and childhood oddities, considering his lifelong history of "hyperactive" behaviour, minor conduct problems as a child, his creative gifts contrasting with mediocre academic achievement and his drug-taking behaviour that could be interpreted as irresponsible or impulsive.

One could also speculate that Barrett could possibly have been an intellectually gifted underachiever. I have not been able to find any information about any IQ or scholastic testing or scores. His mother has been criticised for giving him the idea that he was some type of genius. Many would argue that this label was appropriate, considering his creative legacy. The literature about the educational needs of gifted children tells us that gifted kids who are not properly identified, not appropriately educated, or who have hidden learning problems, are at risk of developing self-defeating patterns of behaviour or mental illness, and can become deliberate trouble-makers.

All sources agree that Barrett was a heavy user of illicit drugs when he was young. Later in life he was a cigarette smoker, a chain smoker according to the Watkinson and Anderson biography. He used LSD in the 1960s, but how much is a matter for debate. Heroin is a possibility. Biographer Tim Willis has described Barrett as ".. a fanatical dope-smoker - day and night, year in, year out .." (Willis 2002). Barrett also used the sedative hypnotic drug Mandrax, which was popular as a recreational drug in the late 1960s to early 1970s because it could be used to bring about a state of waking trance, and it was also thought to have aphrodisiac effects. It is easy to imagine how a combination of a pressured work life and illicit drug use could lead to burnout, breakdown or a complete lack of functioning. We are left with the question of why Barrett chose to be a heavy drug user. If a mental health issue was a part of the Barrett story, it could have been a motivation for, rather than the effect of, illicit drug use. Autistic people are particularly vulnerable to anxiety-related disorders, stress, depression and "nervous breakdowns". This could explain why Barrett might have been unable to cope with the same work pressures that his band-mates apparently were able to cope with.

For a long time there has been speculation that Barrett was autistic (Gallo 2006). Willis described Barrett's mind as "... extraordinary ... bordering on the autistic or Aspergic." (Willis 2006). Barrett had talent in the areas of visual art and music, two in a group of talents that are characteristic of the autistic-type mind, and these talents were evident early in life (Barrett learned piano at the age of 8). Barrett could be described as creatively gifted. People who have Asperger syndrome (AS) typically develop a strong, sustained interest in a narrow, unusual subject or interest, and the primary or only motivation is enjoyment or curiosity. Barrett's sister Rosemary has described his interest in Byzantine art " was an enormous interest of his and he said it was going to be a book but it was really just a collection of dates and facts that interested him." (Titchmarsh 2007). This project was pursued "purely for his own enjoyment" (Willis 2002 p. 144). It is also worth noting that his painting from his school years to late in his life was done to please himself (Chapman 2010 p.8).

Autism is an inherited condition, and Barrett had many personality traits in common with his father, and some could be interpreted as autistic traits. His pathologist father was also a painter in his spare time and also had a great love of music. Like his son, Dr Barrett enjoyed learning about a subject in great depth, gaining an expert's knowledge of fungi and cot death syndrome (Miles 2006). Fitting the stereotype of a father of an autistic child, he had a scientific/technical career and spent little time alone with his kids (Miles 2006), but according to Barrett's sister, Barrett and his father "... had a sort of unique closeness." (Manning & Dodd 2006, p. 10). In Watkinson's biography of Barrett, an "... exceptionally warm personality" (Watkinson & Anderson 1993 p.13) is cited as a characteristic that father and son had in common, which does go against the stereotype of the cold autist. One would expect family members who are both on the spectrum might have a special empathy, so it was probably a terrible loss for Barrett when his father died of cancer when Roger was only 16. Perhaps it is notable that both father and son died prematurely from cancer.

Two (probably related) characteristics of Syd/Roger Barrett's strike me as particularly compelling evidence of autism; his apparently decades-long habit of bouncing, and his toe-walking during adulthood. Barrett bounced on the balls of his feet during his high school years, a habit that persisted into adulthood (Miles 2006) and Willis has described finding Barrett bouncing on the balls of his feet when he answered his door, at some time during the last years of his life (Willis 2002). Long-term girlfriend Libby Gausden persuaded Barrett to stop bouncing for a while (Willis 2002 p. 45), but that did not last, and neither did the relationship. Numerous mentions of Barrett's bouncing and odd gait can be found in books about Pink Floyd and Barrett. The first-hand description of Barrett's strange walking (in a public place) on page 154 of the Watkinson and Anderson biography by makes it clear to the reader that Barrett was a fundamentally unusual man. Autistic people often have the habit of rocking or jumping about, not just once in a while, but a habit that can last years or even a lifetime. Even the most intelligent and accomplished autists can have such habits - Bill Gates is almost as famous for his leaping as he is famous for his extreme wealth. There is some evidence that Barrett’s unusual habit of bouncing on the balls of his feet while walking might have had advantages over the normal way that people walk and run. A study reported in New Scientist in January 2010 has found that running on the balls of the feet instead of the heels has much less physical impact on the feet, and two-thirds of endurance runners who habitually run barefoot run on the balls of their feet. Barrett was probably barefoot more often than is usual while growing up, because shoes do not accommodate toe-walking.

Toe walking is common during early childhood, but if a child walks on their toes past the age of three years, a medical evaluation is recommended. Toe walking can be a sign of a number of different conditions and illnesses, including autism. In Mark Blake's book about Pink Floyd a person who had seen Barrett in his pre and post decline periods was quoted as saying ".. he was still walking on his tip toes, in the way that he did." (Blake 2007 p. 223). A description of Barrett standing on tip toes, from another associate of Barrett's, can be found on page 30. Toe walking could have been one reason why Barrett had the habit of wearing shoes without socks or laces, sometimes wearing no shoes at all. Toe walking might have damaged his footwear - he was known for wearing elastic bands to hold his boots on after the zippers broke. These habits dated back to his school days. Another odd habit of Barrett's that could be interpreted as a sign of autism was wearing minimal clothing during all seasons, as reported by neighbours (Willis 2002 p. 12). He was apparently not troubled by cold temperatures. Willis has described Barrett answering his front door wearing only underwear. Asperger syndrome (AS) expert Dr Tony Attwood has described people with AS who wear clothing that is not typical for the season as appearing to have "... an idiosyncratic internal thermostat." (Attwood 2007).

During his teenage years Barrett constructed (beautifully) some tetrahedrons from balsa wood, which he hung from the ceiling of his room. This precise and geometrical teenage craft creativity is interestingly similar to one childhood hobby of Prof. Richard Borcherds, winner of a Fields Medal for mathematics, who was identified by autism expert Prof. Baron-Cohen as a person who had AS but was not dysfunctional enough to meet the official diagnostic criteria for AS (Baron-Cohen 2003). In his school years Borcherds had constructed hundreds of unique polyhedra which he hung from ceilings throughout his parents' house (Baron-Cohen 2003 p. 161-162). A tetrahedron is a type of polyhedron. Professor Baron-Cohen would probably classify this hobby of polyhedron construction as an example of systemizing behaviour. Baron-Cohen has argued that autistic people are hyper-systemizers. This hobby is precise and mathematical, and there is an element of experimentation, because one explores the relationship between two-dimensional shapes and three-dimensional shapes. Decades later in 1996 Barrett's nephew revealed in an interview that Barrett was exploring geometric and repetitive patterns similar to tiles or weaving in his painting (Willis 2002 p. 144) (interview also available online at Dolly Rocker), a continuation of an artistic theme explored in his youth.

Barrett's polyhedra and geometric painting were not the only examples of systemizing behaviour that Barrett displayed. His experimentation and innovation with musical sound effects was also a form of systemizing. Barrett got novel sounds out of his guitar using ball bearings and a cigarette lighter. His music often featured sounds played backwards. He recorded the sound of a motorbike with the intention of using it in music, and I recall reading about Barrett experimenting with the sound of a clock ticking under water. Barrett was reportedly a pioneer in using a gadget called the Binson Echorette to produce echo effects with his guitar (Watkinson & Anderson 2006 p. 50). One might think that songwriting is a purely creative activity for which there can be no system or set rules, but Barrett's ingenious songwriting system ("structure") is described in Willis's biography. Barrett displayed a more conventional systemizing talent at the age of 15 by building his own amplifier. Systemizers love gadgets, and Barrett was no exception. The biography by Watkinson and Anderson details Barrett's extravagant fascinations with collecting guitars and state-of-the-art television sets during the 1970s. Chapmans’s book Syd Barrett: a very irregular head gives a hint that Barrett might have had the long attention-span that is characteristic of autism – when he visited great art galleries with his girlfriend “he would sit for hours looking at one painting” rather than hang out with interesting people in the cafeteria (Chapman 2010 p. 44). While a lack of verbal ability is not a part of Barrett’s popular image, some accounts hint that he had some problems with verbal expression. Barrett’s nephew Ian Barrett described his uncle taking a long time to describe things in a very precise way (Chapman 2010 p. 366), a trait which apparently runs in the family. Barrett’s sister Rosemary theorized in the same book that because Barrett lived such a solitary life during his later years with no one to speak to, he got out of the habit of speaking and lost verbal ability (Chapman 2010 p. 377).

Reading books about Barrett, one could easily get the impression that his youth was just one big party, but Mark Blake's book about Pink Floyd gives descriptions from two different sources of Barrett's habit of disappearing from or avoiding social occasions which he was expected to attend, without any explanation. He would sometimes bore his girlfriend by taking her for drives to look at landscapes rather than going to parties as planned. Another friend has described how Barrett could "... suddenly withdraw from everything" despite having a great sense of humour (Blake 2007 p. 30). This type of behaviour is consistent with Asperger syndrome. According to some sources quoted by Blake there was also a distance between Barrett and his band-mates, one source saying he thought Barrett was an outsider within Pink Floyd (Blake 2007 p. 78). This is supported by quotes from the biography by Watkinson and Anderson "There was no togetherness because they were always backing musicians to Syd and not a group." (p. 89). In light of this revelation, one does not need to believe in the myth that Barrett was insane to find an explanation for why the other members of Pink Floyd might have wanted to exclude him from their musical group. In Blake's book one can find an anecdote about Barrett refusing, without explanation, to board a bus with other students for an art school excursion (p.25). Asperger syndrome could also explain this behaviour. The noise, smell and crowding of buses and public transport can be a real challenge for autistic people who have sensory hypersensitivity. Further support for the argument that Barrett had difficulty dealing with gatherings of people can be found in the Willis biography and in the interview with Barrett's nephew which can be viewed at the web site Dolly Rocker. It is asserted that Barrett had avoided houseguests by staying in a basement during the 1970s and in the 1990s was still "unable to cope with large gatherings". Rob Chapman’s 2010 book about Barrett gives a complex account of Barrett in social life. One source claiming Barrett was independent socially, getting around but not settling with any particular group. Another source gives an account of Barrett as very choosey about his friends and untrusting, but not without friends. Another source described Barrett as kind, generous and sensitive but also in a world of his own.

Some features of Barrett's behaviour relevant to communication have been cited as evidence of mental illness. These include being verbally uncommunicative, a stare that frightened people and a lack of facial expression; "Trying to talk to him was like trying to talk to a brick wall because his face was so expressionless." (Willis 2002 p. 77). It has also been observed that Barrett's style of communication was of making statements rather than normal conversation, and was strange and fragmented (Willis 2002). A lack of eye contact in noted on page 163 of the Watkinson and Anderson biography. All of these characteristics can be found in people who are autistic. If a person's body language changes, becoming less expressive than before, this could be a sign of mental illness. It could also be the result of an autistic person deciding to stop "acting normal".

There is another characteristic of Barrett's that could be found from his childhood to adulthood that I believe is typical of an autistic personality. Barrett had a great attachment to his home. He has been described as a recluse in his later years, but homebody tendencies were evident as early as his school years, when he would disappear from cross-country running to create paintings at home, and his home's back garden was also his preferred venue for painting during his art school years. There is an anecdote about Barrett walking to Cambridge (his home town) from London, and one friend of Barrett's believed he was out of his comfort zone whenever he was outside of Cambridge. One's home is (or at least should be) a place that offers security, quiet, privacy and protection from unwanted interruptions and intrusions, and these are things that many autistic people have a special need for. Homes and home towns are also places where we can reconnect with memories that reinforce our sense of personal identity, and this can be a comforting thing in a hostile and chaotic world. Some of the most ugly anecdotes about Barrett's behaviour, times when he was clearly very troubled or violent, happened when he was using drugs and also sharing accommodation with a number of other people.

Although media reports almost always describe Barrett as a case of mental illness, his sister claimed he was never mentally ill, but never fitted the norm either. According to Rosemary he spent some time in an institution (but was given no treatment), and was assessed a number of times by psychiatrists over the years and was found to be unusual but not insane (Titchmarsh 2007). Being labelled as mad by ordinary people but pronounced sane by qualified psychiatrists is an experience reported by some adults who have Asperger syndrome. Rosemary quoted in Chapman’s 2010 book about Barrett claimed that “personality disorder” was a label that was given to Barrett after his stay in an institution (Chapman 2010 p. 361). This is the type of label that was given to some autistic adults before Asperger syndrome was recognized.

A lot of evidence can be found to support the autism explanation, but there are some elements of Barrett's life story that could be seen as incompatible with this explanation. I have found anecdotes in which Barrett compared his own social status with that of John Lennon, whose career was more established. This seems very contrary to the lack of concern for social status that is thought to be typical of autists. One could instead interpret Barrett's comparisons as evidence of role model copying, which is a rather desperate strategy used by some autists to deal with the social side of life. As a child Barrett has been described as an extroverted, gregarious joker. He did well in the Boy Scouts, rising to the level of Patrol Leader. Young Roger/Syd excelled in public speaking, poetry reading and played the lead in school plays (Miles 2006). He avoided potential trouble with teachers with smiles and jokes (Miles 2006). This level of ability in social manipulation and personal presentation does not fit the established image of the socially disabled autist. But in contrast, Barrett has also been described as having "... a child-like innocence." (Manning & Dodd 2006 p. 10). Despite his apparent social skills, Barrett was not the perfect child. Despite obvious intelligence his academic achievement in junior school was mediocre, and he was regarded as rebellious student at school and also as a college art student. By all accounts Barrett had a very bad temper. In childhood he was known to break windows and throw rocks at cars when things did not go the way he wanted (Miles 2006). According to an account in Willis' biography, Syd/Roger did not throw rocks alone, so this behaviour could be a reflection of a lack of adult supervision. It is interesting to note that a neighbour of Barrett's during his reclusive years complained that Barrett had a habit of smashing (his own) windows (Sore 2006), so this appears to have been another one of Barrett's almost life-long strange habits. Windows aren't the only parts of homes that Barrett has attacked. In the 1970s he smashed the door of his flat off its hinges, and put his head through a ceiling after a bad review of his last concert. Barrett's life-long capacity for intense anger could be consistent with a condition on the autistic spectrum or possibly epilepsy of the temporal lobes. There is a most striking photograph of Barrett in Blake's book about Pink Floyd. It shows Barrett being "doorstepped" in 2006, wearing minimal clothing, and the look in his dark eyes would have made me step backwards a metre or two. There are many photographs of Barrett from his Pink Floyd years showing eyes that have the most striking expression, perhaps terror, over-stimulation or shell-shock. A Rolling Stone reporter described Barrett's "eyes reflecting a permanent state of shock." (Watkinson & Anderson 2006).

During his teens and early twenties Barrett was involved with a number of girlfriends and affairs (Willis 2002). In addition to these relationships, there was no shortage of groupies hanging around after he became famous. Barrett was very popular with the ladies from his mid-teens till his withdrawal from public life, but it could be a mistake take this as evidence that he had the "social skills" of a normal non-autistic person before his decline. Barrett's good looks, fame and creative intelligence were most likely important elements of his charisma. Surprisingly, one woman who had enjoyed Barrett's company claimed in an interview that Barrett "... wasn't the sort of guy to flirt." (Blake 2007 p. 122). Barrett was a very attentive boyfriend in one of his earlier relationships, but he appeared to place little value on later relationships. He has a deplorable record of smashing up buildings and violence towards girlfriends. There is a theory that autism is an extremely masculinised type of brain. If Barrett was autistic and this theory true, this would mean Barrett would have had very little in common psychologically with the average female, an even greater gulf between him and most women that that between average men and women. This might be the explanation for why Barrett's romantic relationships apparently came to nothing. According to one author, after Barrett broke up with a girl that he had been engaged to, in 1970, there were no more known intimate relationships. Biographers Watkinson and Anderson wrote that one fan of Barrett's who collected Barrett memorabilia was of the opinion that Barrett had at one time had a girlfriend in a relationship that was kept a secret from his family and the media. When speculating about the motivations behind Barrett's choices of lifestyle and behaviour I try to keep in mind the fact that Barrett's finances and contact with the world in general were controlled by his family to a degree that is not clear to me.

Barrett was too adventurous in his use of drugs, and he also showed a taste for adventure in creating his own personal style. He wore black eyeliner during his rock star years and had his hair permed, and wore psychedelic style fashions in fine style. He was the most visually appealing, photogenic and interestingly dressed member of Pink Floyd. I think Barrett's seductive stares at the camera resembled the poses of female fashion models. It appears that Barrett cared little for our culture's disapproval of men making a display of their personal appearance. There are reports of Barrett being spotted cross-dressing. This has been interpreted by some as evidence of mental illness, but I don't think there's such a large difference between wearing drag and wearing the type of gear that Barrett wore as a band member in photo shoots. Barrett's cross-dressing makes one wonder about the theme of Pink Floyd's first single Arnold Layne. This song, written by Barrett, is about a transvestite who stole women's clothing from washing lines. It is based on real-life incidents of theft of underwear, which apparently belonged to female student lodgers staying at the homes of Barrett's and Roger Waters' families. One of the people interviewed in the documentary The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story claimed to know the identity of this underwear thief. Who would do such a thing?
Barrett's fashion-consciousness in his rock star years goes against the stereotype of the geeky, fashion-blind autistic person, and this could be interpreted as evidence that Barrett was not autistic. One could give a counter-argument that Barrett was violating gender norms and distinguishing himself from his peers with his fashion. Autistic people are sometimes conspicuous because they do not adopt fashions typical of members of their gender in their peer group. This can happen because autists often care little about fitting in.

Barrett's sister and biographer Tim Willis have described Barrett as a synaesthete or possible synaesthete "... he would say that a sound was a colour to him." (Titchmarsh 2007). A report that Barrett described (to Rado Klose, an early Pink Floyd member) a C chord as yellow is given in the biography by Willis (page 21). Much later in Barrett's career, during the recording of his first solo album, one of Barrett's comments about the music provides further evidence of synaesthesia; "Perhaps we could make the middle darker and maybe the end a bit more middle-afternoonish [because] at the moment, it's too windy and icy" (Willis 2002 p. 106). Willis wrote that Barrett "drew" songs (Willis 2002 p.21), representations that could have been based on synaesthesia experiences. Barry Miles' book about Pink Floyd gives slightly fuller descriptions of Barrett's visual representations of his songs, in coloured paintings (page 69) and drawings that resembled Venn diagrams (page 83). It would be fascinating to see these creations, if they still exist today. Some types of synaesthesia can be caused by high doses of LSD, so one could dismiss Barrett's synaesthesia as merely the side-effects of psychedelic drugs. My guess is that the way that Barrett apparently used his synaesthesia to represent and describe his music shows that his synaesthesia was a more complex, stable and natural type of synaesthesia. One would need to find evidence that Barrett experienced synaesthesia early in life, before he started taking drugs, before we could categorize him as a natural synaesthete.

As an art school student Barrett had a very well developed sense of colour (Chapman 2010 p.50). One study had found that synaesthetes have an enhanced memory for colour (Yaro and Ward 2007). In his 2010 book Chapman asserted that the imagery in the song Astronomy Dominie by Barrett “conveys a strong sense of synaesthesia” (Chapman 2010 p.156).

Barrett's synaesthesia was not just an isolated personal oddity. Synaesthesia-like experiences were a part of the psychedelic scene which Barrett and Pink Floyd were a part of at the time. People were inventing various devices and systems of stage lighting for the types of venues that Pink Floyd played in, some of them designed to move in time with music. One 1967 concert by Pink Floyd was given the title "Music in Colour". Researchers have reportedly found a possible genetic link between synaesthesia, autism and epilepsy (Robson 2009). It is possible that Barrett had some combination of these conditions. As far as I know, no link has ever been found between synaesthesia and schizophrenia, so evidence of synaesthesia contributes nothing to the case that Barrett was a schizophrenic.

I find it interesting that quite a few of the writers who have been identified as influences on Barrett's song-writing were major figures in children's literature and were themselves unusual people. Lewis Carroll was one of the best known writers in the genre of literary nonsense. He had migraines and epilepsy (possibly temporal lobe epilepsy), an inherited stutter, was a mathematician and never married. Carroll was identified as having had Asperger syndrome in the book The genesis of artistic creativity: Asperger’s syndrome and the arts. Edward Lear was another major writer of literary nonsense. He was also a gifted painter and an epileptic who suffered from depressive episodes. Lear never married. Pink Floyd's first album was named after a chapter of the classic children's book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, and this book has been cited as an important influence on Barrett's work. Grahame was an intelligent and eccentric loner who married late in life to another eccentric. Syd Barrett wrote a song Golden Hair based on a poem by James Joyce. Joyce was one of the famous people discussed in the book Unstoppable brilliance: Irish geniuses and Asperger's syndrome.

The world of childhood is an innocent and beautiful world that has a great attraction for many people who have Asperger syndrome. Even though he was not a father, in many ways Barrett was well-connected to the world of childhood - through his strong attachment to Cambridge where he grew up, his personality has been described as childlike, his artistic inspiration from children's literature, and his love of children in contrast with a very reclusive lifestyle. Barrett's sister Rosemary has described Barrett's rapport with children in 2006 in a Sunday Times interview with Tim Willis. The legendary mathematician Paul Erdos and writer/mathematician Lewis Carroll are two famous geniuses who have both been identified as autistic by Prof. Michael Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald 2007, Fitzgerald 2005), who were both single and possibly asexual, and who both demonstrated a love of children and an enjoyment of the company children.

One last detail of Barrett's life that I believe indicates autism is Barrett's evident lack of interest in popular team sport events. All men love to watch the footy, don't they? Autistic people are often the exception to this rule. Autists don't need the crowding and the camaraderie involved with being a sport player or spectator. I believe slow attention-shifting means autistic people are likely to have trouble following the fast-paced action of team sport. Watkinson and Anderson describe in their biography observing Barrett making a visit to a DIY/hardware shop by foot, walking through the deserted streets during FA Cup Final day with an unnatural spring in his step.

I believe Barrett was somewhere on the autistic spectrum because there is such a large quantity of evidence for this conclusion, even though some aspects of his life could be interpreted as evidence against this conclusion. Similarities can be found between Barrett's experiences in Pink Floyd and the career of Australian rock star Craig Nicholls of The Vines, who was given a formal diagnosis of Asperger syndrome in 2004. History repeats. I am not convinced that drugs and autism were the only factors that caused the end of Barrett's musical career. I agree with Willis and many Barrett fans who believe that Barrett chose to leave the music business following years of good and bad experiences, to return to his painting. We can be sure that Barrett experienced coloured music synaesthesia, and very likely other types of synaesthesia. I have been able to find stacks of evidence for Barrett's autism and synaesthesia scattered through many books and articles about Barrett and Pink Floyd, even though most of the authors of these works did not explicitly argue that Barrett had these conditions. In contrast, I have been unable to find any evidence to support the idea that Barrett had schizophrenia while reading these same books and articles, even though most of the authors of these works were of the opinion that Barrett had been mentally ill. Barrett certainly did act in crazy and non-functional ways during one period in his life - this is what happens when people take mind-bending drugs.

The famous painter Vincent van Gogh is another famous person who I believe had a number of features in common with Barrett. Both men were painters who displayed an original creativity. Both have been identified as possible cases of autism. Both experienced synaesthesia. Both have been given the label of "schizophrenic". Both had limited luck with romantic relationships. Both had a capacity for unusual levels of anger. Some believe van Gogh's angry outbursts were caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. Both have been the subject of many different theories about the exact nature of their mental conditions.

Barrett's story has often been presented as a cautionary tale to warn against the abuse of drugs. Could his story have been a happier one if different choices had been made? We now know that heavy use of cannabis can damage the brain, and in some people can trigger mental illness, so things might have been different if Barrett had stayed clear of this drug. But it is possible that being an autist in a world that does not accept nor understand autistic people was Barrett's biggest problem, and there would have been no useful advice about how to deal with this, nor any effective support available to Barrett in his teens or twenties, if he had sought it? He was facing the biggest challenges in his life during a time when the psychiatric profession's responses to autism included institutionalisation, misdiagnosis as schizophrenia (with a number of possibly seriously harmful consequences), baseless mother-blaming theories, useless and expensive psychotherapy, and LSD was even used by some psychiatrists as an experimental therapy for autistic children. Barrett could hardly be blamed for taking acid and dropping out, considering the crazy times he lived in. The famous psychiatrist that Pink Floyd members tried to get Barrett to see in a consultation, R. D. Laing, turned out to be a sufferer of depression and alcoholism, whose work is no longer an influence on mainstream psychiatry.

Roger/Syd Barrett played a number of different roles in his life - a wild and creative beautiful boy, the enigmatic wanderer who was the subject of rumours and local legends, and a wonderfully scary-looking chain-smoking millionaire recluse. He proved that one doesn't need to die young, or die at all, to attain legendary status. Now that he is gone, many questions about his life will remain forever unanswered. Don't you love a mystery?

Some Syd Barrett Quotes

I'm sorry I can't speak very coherently.

I don't think I'm easy to talk about. I've got a very irregular head. And I'm not anything that you think I am anyway.

It's always been too slow for me. Playing. The pace of things. I'm a fast sprinter. The trouble was, after playing in the group for a few months, I couldn't reach that point.

I'm disappearing, avoiding most things.

I think young people should have a lot of fun. But I never seem to have any.

I wasn't always this introverted.

I'm full of dust and guitars.

I'm treading the backward path. Mostly, I just waste my time.

Have you seen the roses? There's a whole lot of colours.
From BrainyQuote

About Syd Barrett/Roger Barrett (and Pink Floyd)

AtomicSpiderProductions (2000) Set The Controls Interviews Ian Barrett. Dolly Rocker. (tribute web site).
[interview done in 1996?]

Blake, Mark (2007) Pigs might fly: the inside story of Pink Floyd. Aurum Press, 2007.
[a substantial book]
Chapman, Rob (2010) Syd Barrett: a very irregular head. Faber and Faber, 2010.
Gallo, Phil (2006) Reclusive Floyd founder Barrett dies. Variety. July 11th 2006.

Geiger, John (2006) The mystery of Syd. National Post. July 12th 2006.

Kent, Nick (1974) The cracked ballad of Syd Barrett. New Musical Express. April 13th 1974.

Manning, Toby & Dodd, Philip (2006) The Rough Guide to Pink Floyd. Rough Guides, 2006.

Miles, Barry (2006) Pink Floyd: the early years. Omnibus Press, 2006.
[The author appears to subscribe to the theory that Barrett had schizophrenia. Barrett's visual representations of songs described on pages 69 and 83 were possibly records of musical synaesthesia.]
Pareles, Jon (2006) Syd Barrett, a Founder of Pink Floyd, Dies at 60. New York Times. July 12th 2006.

Pink Floyd legend Syd Barrett 'never wanted fame'. (2008) NME. August 27th 2008.
[Barrett's sister Rosemary interviewed]
Rolling Stone (1971) The madcap who named Pink Floyd. Rolling Stone.

Sore, David (2006) The genius next door. Mail on Sunday. December 3rd 2006.
[I have not checked any complete online or hardcopy publication of this article from a British tabloid newspaper. I have only read republications and reviews of it online, and part of it available through a business article seller. I could find no trace of the article through searching Mail Online. It appears to be an unsympathetic account of Barrett's reclusive years by someone who claimed to have been his neighbour for many years.]
Titchmarsh, Ben (2007?) Rosemary shares memories of her brother and her hopes for ‘The City Wakes’. The City Wakes (web site).
[Synaesthesia is mentioned in this interview with Barrett's sister.]
Watkinson, Mike & Anderson, Pete (2006) Crazy diamond: Syd Barrett & the dawn of Pink Floyd. Omnibus Press, 2006.
[The authors subscribe to the theory that Barrett had schizophrenia. Parts of the 2001 edition of this book can be read at Google Book Search]
Wikipedia contributors (accessed 2009) Syd Barrett. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Willis, Tim (2006) My lovably ordinary brother Syd. Sunday Times. Timesonline July 16th 2006.
[autism and synaesthesia mentioned]
Willis, Tim (2002) Madcap : the half-life of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's lost genius. Short Books, 2002.
[A short book but an enjoyable read, Asperger syndrome and synaesthesia mentioned, a report by Barrett of an experience of synaesthesia is described on page 21, and more evidence of synesthesia in a quote on page 106]

Willis, Tim (2002) You shone like the sun. Observer. October 6th 2002.

Willis, Tim (2002) Extracts from the Book "Madcap - the half-life of Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd's lost Genius". Dolly Rocker (tribute web site).

Other References

Asher, J. Lamb, J. Brocklebank, D. Cazier, J. Maestrini, E. Addis, L. Sen, M. Baron-Cohen, S. & Monaco, A. (2009) A Whole-Genome Scan and Fine-Mapping Linkage Study of Auditory-Visual Synesthesia Reveals Evidence of Linkage to Chromosomes 2q24, 5q33, 6p12, and 12p12. American Journal of Human Genetics. Vol. 84, issue 2, 13 February 2009, p. 279-285. [a recent genetic study that sometimes incorrectly refers to synaesthesia as a disorder. Quote from paper: "The marker obtaining the highest LOD score (D2S142, with HLOD = 3.025) has been linked to autism."]

Attwood, Tony (2007) The complete guide to Asperger's syndrome. Jessica Kingsley, 2007.

Baron-Cohen, Simon (2003) The essential difference. Penguin Books.

Fitzgerald, Michael, and O’Brien, Brendan (2007) Genius genes: how Asperger talents changed the world. Autism Asperger Publishing Company, 2007.

Fitzgerald, Michael (2005) The genesis of artistic creativity: Asperger’s syndrome and the arts. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
[Gaudi, Hopper, Quine, Wittgenstein, Maxwell, Swift, H. Christian Andersen, Melville, Carroll, W. B. Yeats, Conan Doyle, Orwell, Chatwin, Spinoza, Kant, Weil, A. J. Ayer, Mozart, Beethoven, Satie, Bartok, Gould, van Gogh, J. B. Yeats, L.S. Lowry, Warhol]
Hoffman, Paul (1998) The man who loved only numbers: the story of Paul Erdos and the search for mathematical truth. Fourth Estate, 1998.
[An enjoyable and recommended book. The title is somewhat misleading - Erdos was unmarried but he did love children and was friendly and compassionate (see p. 9)]
Robson, David (2009) Genetic roots of synaesthesia unearthed. New Scientist. February 5th 2009.

Run on tiptoe like your ancestors. New Scientist. January 30th 2010. p.15.

Walker, Antionette and Fitzgerald, Michael (2006) Unstoppable brilliance: Irish geniuses and Asperger’s syndrome. Liberties Press. 2006.

Yaro C, Ward J. (2007) “Searching for Shereshevskii: what is superior about the memory of synaesthetes?” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 60(5):681-695.

Copyright Lili Marlene 2009, 2010.

Lili Marlene has written ebooks about some other famous synaesthetes! These ebooks can be downloaded from Smashwords. Here is a link to Lili's author page at Smashwords:
Carl Sagan Day 2009

Today the memorable scientist, astronomer, humanist and popularizer of science Carl Sagan would have turned 75. Carl Sagan is one of the 140 famous people who are currently listed in my massive referenced list of famous people who are/were or could be/have been on the autism spectrum. Carl Sagan is one of the famous people written about in the 2002 book Asperger’s and self-esteem: insight and hope through famous role models by Norm Ledgin.

Carl Sagan Day

A referenced list of 140 famous or important people diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition or subject of published speculation about whether they are or were on the autistic spectrum

Friday, November 06, 2009

Defeating autism: a damaging delusion by Michael Fitzpatrick - what a top read!

I've just been reading Defeating autism: a damaging delusion by Michael Fitzpatrick, published by Routledge. I'm surprised that such a wise and well-researched book has been released for quite a while and I've noticed virtually no promotion of this book. Maybe it's just me.

This book is basically a critical history of the diverse movement of people who believe in environmental causes of and "biomedical treatments" for autism, written from the point of view of a British general practitioner who's son was given an autism diagnosis in 1994. Dr Fitzpatrick has been there and done that, and is able to admit that many of the things that they tried had no discernable effect (or were harmful).

The author has certainly read widely about the many controversies in the world of autism, discussing or quoting from experts, book authors, internet commentators, fifth-rate scientists and quacks from all sides of the autism battleground - Kanner, Bettelheim, Shattock, Rimland, Baron-Cohen, McCarthy, Maurice, the Geiers, Kirby, Wakefield, Seidel, Grinker, Offit, Leitch, Klein and "Ventura 33".

Here are two of my favourite quotes from the book:

"The autistic child has become the symbolic point of convergence of two major currents of contemporary anxiety: anxiety about early childhood development and anxiety about impending environmental disaster." (page 15)

"Jenny McCarthy provides a first-person account which is all about one person - herself - and everybody else, including Evan, has only a walk-on part." (page 45)

If you are a parent of an autistic child this is one book that you should read and own, just so that you know who is who and how things got to be this crazy, and this book might prevent you from wasting a lot of time and money on other books, and quackery, that are no use to anyone. If you work with autistic people of any age, buy this book and read it and claim the cost on your tax. If you are one of the fighters in the many political battles over autism, I'm sure you'd want to own this book.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Gilbert and George - I like their style

Did you see that documentary about the British artists Gilbert and George that was recently screened on the ABC? They are two strange ducks for sure, and I found the things that they had to say about politics in the UK art world to be quite interesting.

I thought there was something just a little bit peculiar about their body language and personal presentation and their lifestyles. The way they don't have a kitchen in their house and don't cook, because for them it is time wasting. I've read that their restaurant-visiting habits are extremely unchanging and precise. The way they always seem to wear near-identical formal attire, and like to walk together in synchronized steps, like they are members of a highly regimented organization that has a membership that is strictly limited to two men. The way they talk in a matter-of-fact way about subjects that would make many people blanch. The lack of facial and bodily expression. The interesting collections. The careful, detailed and technical system that they have formulated for producing their art. Their committment to renovating a historic building and to making art that presumably entails staying interested in the same things for years and years. Their attention to detail.

Gilbert and George reminded me of Stanley Kubrick in the way they take a huge number of photographs in preparation for a new series of art works. The style of their art reminded me of Andy Warhol and Pop Art. The way they complained about being persecuted by a leftist art establishment reminded by of the Australian poet Les Murray. Their robotic look reminded me of Kraftwerk. Kubrick and Warhol have been identifed posthumously as autistic. Murray has identifed himself as autistic. There has been speculation about some members of Kraftwerk and autism. Have Gilbert and George been turning their autism into living art for the last few decades?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

It's on for young and old at Wired!

I see that Wired magazine has a number of stories running that appear to be critical of the crowd who argue that vaccinations cause autism, so it's on for young and old in the comments sections of some online Wired magazine articles. So much hot air! It's such a pity that so many people on both sides of this debate have to waste so much time over a dispute that only has one rational side.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

I'm not dead and I haven't given up this blogging caper, I've just been to busy doing the mother and housewife thing. It's boring, I know.

The other day I was looking into free activities for young kids that our local city council provides to us good ratepaying working families. I saw something that I thought might be fun for one of our young ones, except that this free kids' activity session included an element of vigorous exercise, presumably with the aim of preventing or curing the much-hyped epidemic of childhood obesity. This is the last thing that our youngest needs. My gene for childhood hyperactivity has certainly not been wasted. You know your child is genuinely very active when they often complain of aching legs after particularly busy days. I think it's funny that this child of ours is probably very much in vogue this year, because these days everyone is supposed to be getting children to be more active than they otherwise might have been, and obesity and lack of fitness are some childhood disorders that are now most fashionable things to hate. Active children are "in" this year and children who like to stay put for long periods of time are "out" this year. But I cast my mind back to the time when I had my first very active young child. I felt most defensive. Back then it was definitely not the desired look to have a child who is a blur of hyper-excitable haste. That time was the tail-end of ADHD mania. When fashionable young mums get together to chat these days they might swap tales about their son's speech therapist or OT, but back then the chatter was often about which foods or drinks or chemical substances were thought to trigger manic and unmanageable behaviour in our troublesome offspring, usually sons. So I'd like to congratulate all of those mums and dads, child health nurses, parent educators, natural therapists, doctors, prescribing paediatricians, parenting experts and inferfering grandparents who set their minds to curing the terrible epidemic of childhood hyperactivity back in the 1980s, the 1990s and earlier decades. You did well, rather too well. Be careful what you wish for.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

I wish life really meant life in Australia

I guess it is some consolation that Sharyn Ward, formerly from Hawk's Nest in New South Wales, Australia, who left her seven year old autistic daughter to starve to death over a long period of time while imprisoned in her filthy bedroom, has been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. I guess having an autistic child was not accepted as a valid excuse for child murder in this case, which possibly shows that attitudes are improving. But I can't understand why the "father" Blakeley Ward, only got 12 years for manslaughter. He had no idea what was going on? He was unable to do anything to prevent what happened? Prison sentences are a joke in Australia anyway. Life never means life, and crims get let out early all the time. Will these murderers be allowed to start new families when they have done their time? Nothing stopping them.

Readers might be a bit confused about the identity of the child who was murdered, because the child has been reported as having two different names in Australian press coverage. Recent media coverage names her only by her middle name "Ebony" and the older media coverage from the time that the murder was first discovered gave her normal name "Shellay Ward". This is because of some bullshit law that we have here that is supposed to protect the identity of children who are victims of crimes. I believe this law protects the identity of family members who murder or molest their own young kin, as the names of all family members are also suppressed from media coverage. This law is a very convenient thing for adults who do the wrong thing by children, but it isn't doing a damn thing to help young Shellay Ebony Ward, because she is long-dead and beyond all help now. She was apparently under the dilligent supervision of the New South Wales Department of "Community Service".

Links to press stories:,23739,26155231-953,00.html,25197,22716498-2702,00.html

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The book that I've been waiting for ...

Did you know that Amazing Ben, who is famous for his Badass of the Week web site, has a book that is soon to be unleashed upon the world? Maybe you are wondering why I'm mentioning this new book in my blog, which is generally concerned with Asperger syndrome-related matters. Actually my blog has some major things in common with Ben's "Badass of the Week". I have in my blog a huge list of quite amazing, unstoppable and unusual famous people who have been identified as autistic. I've been compiling this list since 2005. Autism and Asperger syndrome are characterised as conditions resulting from "too much testosterone". Since 2004 Ben Thompson has been gradually, weekly, compiling a huge list of amazing, unstoppable and unusual famous people who clearly have too much testosterone.

It is no surprise that there are some famous people who are included in both my list and Mr Thompson's interesting and amusing compilation - Nikola Tesla, Paul Dirac, Charles XII of Sweden and Marie Curie. The Duke of Wellington was Badass of the Week in 2008. He would also be in my list if I could verify the existence of one journal paper. In 2004 American politician and retired professional wrestler Jesse Ventura was featured as a Badass of the Week but this article is not currently available. I've seen video of Mr Ventura rocking in a way that suggests that he might belong on my list as well. The Blues Brothers were Badasses of the Week in 2005. Dan Aykroyd is in my list. Moby Dick was Badass of the Week in 2005. This demonic white whale is the fictional creation of writer Herman Melville, who is on my list. Testosterone is an amazing steriod hormone.

My only reservation about this book is that I am not sure if it will include portraits any of the powerhouse intellects that I find most interesting. In any case, I expect it will be a highly educational tome.

Book details:

Thompson, Ben (2009) Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live. Harper Paperbacks (release date October 27, 2009).


Friday, September 25, 2009

A top time to go out!

I believe that there is some important football match taking place about now in Australia. This means you now have an excellent opportunity to enjoy Saturday shopping with much less overcrowding than is the intolerable norm for Saturday afternoons at malls and shopping centres. If you are a person like me who is indifferent to sport in all of it's forms and also has no desire to join a crowd just for the sake of joining a crowd, and you prefer the company of others who are similarly indifferent to sport and lack the "herdstinct", and you are currently single, and you also wish you were not single, today is your day to go out and meet like-minded people. You may wish to browse in a quiet book shop, search for useful items in a half-empty hardware store, enjoy refreshments in a cafe among empty tables, or relax in a deserted public library. Bliss!!! You will feel like King of the City as you watch tumbleweeds bouncing their lazy way along the main drag.

I have a word of warning - you may wish to stay off the roads today. During past Saturday afternoons of big footy matches I have found that there is a unusual level of dangerous driving and erratic and rude behaviour in public places. I believe this is due to people being drunk or on drugs, impatient to get to some social occasion, or psychologically ill-equipped to deal with irrational mass excitement. But for the most part this afternoon we will be able to enjoy an afternoon free of sheeple and fools, who will presumably be glued to their TVs or massing at social events. If only every afternoon could be like this.

P. S. Your next opportunity to enjoy this type of situation will be Melbourne Cup Day. I think it is held some time in the spring season.

P. P. S. Have a great day!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Recognition and apology for Alan Turing from UK Prime Minister

Alan Turing was an English mathematician, cryptographer and logician, a pioneer of modern computer science, and he played a major role in deciphering the Enigma code used by the Germans during WWII. Turing apparently helped to bring World War II to a swifter conclusion. He was also one of those eccentric geniuses who have been identified posthumously as being on the autistic spectrum. In 1952 Turing was convicted of "gross indeceny" after admitting to police that he had a sexual relationship with a man. The bizarre punishment/treatment was a choice between imprisonment or injections of female hormones which were thought to reduce libido. In 1954 Turing died of cyanide poisoning and an inquest found it was suicide. The 1950s were certainly not "happy days" for this national hero.

A computer scientist started a campaign seeking an official apology for Turing and a posthumous knighthood from the Queen. A petition attracted thousands of signatures, with support from scientists and LGBT activists. On Thursday September the 10th Gordon Brown issued an official statement in which he wrote "... we’re sorry, you deserved so much better". I'm sure that many scientists and LGBT people are pleased that a famous person who's trials or talents they can identify with has been given posthumous recognition. As an autistic person I also feel pleased that something has been done to recognize a past injustice to one of our people.

The year 2012 will be the centenary of Alan Turing's birth, and many events are being planned to mark this occasion. I hope any events or writings that will be a part of this celebration will depict Turing realistically and in an unbiased way as an autistic person, rather than simply a martyr to autism or a "sufferer" of autism. I believe that the committee planning these celebrations should include at least one autistic person (formally diagnosed or not) who has an understanding of intellectually gifted people who are on the autistic spectrum. There is evidence that the autism of intellectually intact autistics could be more representative of the autistic phenotype than the different varieties of autism and autism-like conditions that co-occur with intelllectual disability (Leonard et al 2011), so any autism expert who's experience has been primarily with intellectually disabled autistic people will most likely not be able to add anything to our understanding of a gifted autistic historical figure.

Turing's story is a special story, because of his historical importance, his intellectual achievements (which are beyond my understanding), his amusing eccentricities, and because of the terrible personal injustice. It appears to be a story about the individual being rejected and crushed by society. Once or twice I've retold Alan Turing's story to teens, and the response is "Wow, you mean being gay was against the law?" I think this response shows why it is important to have these little talks. In the decade before our kids were born gay sex still was illegal here, and it wasn't so very long ago that divorce was considered a major scandal, and women were forced by law to resign from the public service if they got married. I often find myself telling the young ones horror stories about injustices of the past: Aboriginal people having their wages and children and land stolen by the government, severely limited opportunities for women, orphanage children made to work like slaves, life under Stalin, genocide in Europe, Africa and Asia. I tell these horror stories because I know children don't get taught a fraction of this stuff at school and I want the next generation to appreciate and guard the freedom and the rights that they have, to understand how it would feel to be the victim of gross social injustice, and to understand that injustice is a feature of every type of human society, a problem that we must all recognize and engage with.

Brown, Gordon (2009) Treatment of Alan Turing was “appalling” - PM. September 10th 2009.
[an official posthumous apology from the Prime Minister of the UK]

BBC News "PM apology after Turing petition"

Helen Leonard, Emma Glasson, Natasha Nassar, Andrew Whitehouse, Ami Bebbington, Jenny Bourke, Peter Jacoby, Glenys Dixon, Eva Malacova, Carol Bower, Fiona Stanley (2011) Autism and Intellectual Disability Are Differentially Related to Sociodemographic Background at Birth. PLoS ONE. Received: January 8, 2011; Accepted: February 11, 2011; Published: March 30, 2011.

O’Connell H., Fitzgerald M. (2003). Did Alan Turing have Asperger’s syndrome? Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine. 20, 1, 28 – 31.
[a particularly well-written paper about a very interesting man]

A referenced list of 140 famous or important people diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition or subject of published speculation about whether they are or were on the autistic spectrum
[Alan Turing is included in this list]

Breaking the Code (1996)
[TV dramatization of Turing's life directed by Herbert Wise with Derek Jacobi in the lead role]

Gelonesi, Joe (2007) David Leavitt on Alan Turing. The Book Show. ABC Radio National. August 30th 2007.

[an interesting interview in which the biographer said he believed Turing possibly would be diagnosed as AS if he were around today]

Gray, Paul (1999) Alan Turing: the Time 100: the most important people of the century. Time. March 29th 1999.

Hodges, Andrew (1983) Alan Turing: the enigma. Burnett Books with Hutchinson, 1983.

[a highly regarded biography]

Leavitt, David (2006) The man who knew too much: Alan Turing and the invention of the computer. W. W. Norton, 2006.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why would an autistic man want to read a postcode book?

I enjoyed listening to a repeat of an old interview with one of Australia's finest poets on the radio this afternoon. I have no time for trivialities such as poetry or novels, but having once dipped into some of Les Murray's work just for curiousity's sake, I somehow managed to find the time to read most of the book. In the radio interview Les Murray had some interesting things to say about Asperger syndrome, which he has to a degree, and he read aloud a couple of his poems on the subject of autism/AS. Ramona Koval often sounds somewhat flippant on her radio show, but in this interview I thought her mood seemed quite different.

Clark, Sue (presenter) & Koval, Ramona (interviewer)
The Biplane Houses - Les Murray. (a repeat of a 2006 interview from The Book Show)
Life & Times.
August 29th 2009
ABC Radio National.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

US Senator shows an enlightened attitude towards autistic people as thinkers and employees!

I must thank ABFH for helping to spread the news about this speech through her blog Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

I don't know a thing about the politics of Sentator Dick Durbin, as I'm Australian and only mildly interested in politics, but I do love what this senator has said about some of the important achievements that autistic people have already made to society, and continue to make, despite the obstacles and unecessary problems created by the many well-meaning or openly prejudiced anti-autistic bigots out there.

I am also rather disappointed that the senator has apparently failed to recognize that autistic people in the world of work often face a different type of obstacle than those that challenge disabled people in general. For many autistic people the big problem is not so much a lack of support or a lack of training, or a need for accomodations, but a need for protection from harassment, bullying and discrimination. I guess it too much to expect a politician to give a speech that reminds the audience about the ugly side of human nature.

SPEECH: Employees with Disabilities--An Untapped Resource
Speech delivered by United States Senator Richard J. (Dick) Durbin
Thursday, August 13, 2009.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

If you say it often enough, it will become the truth

When we view or read journalistic coverage on the subject of autistic spectrum conditions such as classic autism, Asperger syndrome or autism that is secondary to general intellectual disability, the opinions and quotations from so-called experts are sought, to give the story added authority and to provide a nice, concise overview of the topic. This is where speculative ideas about the nature of autism are very often presented by these experts as though these were scientifically proven facts. Experts have never been very good at making clear the distinction between their own pet theories and widely accepted facts. Scientific enquiry being what it is, contrary findings and opinions can appear in the scientific literature, but at the end of the day, it appears that the theory that has the most charismatic expert with the publisher that has the most effective PR department will have his ideas believed and recounted over and over again, regardless of the evidence.

We have been told by those experts that (all) people with autism have trouble recognizing faces. We have been told that some type of inborn brain defect that is unique to autism is the basis of so-called theory of mind deficits. We have been told that recognizing human facial expressions is an essential and basic human ability that all normal people have, with the exception of autistic people. Is this all a load of B. S.? Sometimes the evidence gets in the way of a good theory, dammit!

Ananthaswamy, Anil (2009) Language may be the key to theory of mind. New Scientist. 27th June 2009. p. 13.

Callaway, Ewen (2009) Human facial expressions aren't universal. New Scientist. 13th August 2009.

Wilson, Ellie (2009) Heterogeneity in the ability to recognise faces in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Asia Pacific Autism Conference 2009.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Monster child grows bigger!

I have just updated my awe-inspiring, massive and carefully researched list of famous autistic people, replacing dead links, adding more fascinating information and references and generally giving it a spruce-up. I have also added a new name, Caiseal Mor, an Australian writer of novels in the fantasy genre who has been interviewed by Donna Williams.

So if you are interested in reading about dead or living people who are or who may be or who may have been autistic, or if you are interested in any individual famous person who is or who may be on the spectrum, and you want to know in which published document(s) or broadcast their autism is mentioned, my list is the place to start your search. It includes links and references about all of the people included in the list in the references section, organized alphabetically by name. Claims made are backed up by references. I don't conjure this stuff up out of thin air.

A referenced list of 139 famous or important people diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition or subject of published speculation about whether they are or were on the autistic spectrum

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A synaesthesia-like effect is a part of the charm of a little kids' picture book

I've noticed something interesting in a children's picture book - Mr Pod and Mr Piccalilli by Penny Dolan and Nick Sharratt. It's a sweet story with nice illustrations that has been featured on Play School on ABCTV. Have a look at the picture (on page 4?) that shows Mr Pod and Mr Piccallili relaxing in their different sitting rooms in their flats. Both characters have cats who have names that rhyme with their surnames - Pod and Tod and Piccallili with Millie, and they also have sitting rooms with a decor in a style that in some hard-to-define but obvious way suits their surnames. Have a look yourself if you can access a copy of this book. There is a correspondence between the sound of the names and the shapes in the decors (and the shapes of the characters).

The effect in this book is just like the so-called "bouba-kiki effect" that has been researched and publicized by synaesthesia researchers V. S. Ramachandran and Ed Hubbard. Ramachandran and Lindsay M. Oberman have done some research on this type of effect with autistic study subjects (and a control group). They have apparently found that autistic subjects show an impairment in "the bouba/kiki task". They have argued that this might show that the so-called mirror-neurons in autistic people do not work properly. I can easily think of an alternative explanation of why autistic subjects might not respond to "the bouba-kiki task" in the way typical of non-autistic subjects. The bouba-kiki effect follows no known system of logic - there is no logical, objective rule for matching sounds with shapes. This effect is the result of subjective, creative type thinking. It is this lack of logic that makes this effect similar to synaesthesia, we know something odd, something different to the normal processes of rational thinking is going on when people insist that (in their own mind) a specific colour corresponds with a specific letter of the alphabet, or a specific name corresponds with furniture of a certain shape. Synaesthesia is the most subjective way of thinking that I know of. Most, if not all, synaesthetes recognize that our quirky associations only apply to us individually - we know these are not observations about the world outside of our minds. There is no social convention that the letter S is navy blue coloured. We also realise that there is probably no other synaesthete in the world who's synaesthesia associations are exactly the same as ours. It is a truism that many autistic people prefer to devote our energies to work or pastimes that are objective, logical and rule-based in nature. Autistic people like to deal with stuff that could be described as the opposite of synaesthesia. I would argue that this does not necessarily indicate any deficit in other ways of thinking, this could simply be a conscious or unconscious strategy to avoid situations in which conflict or interaction with other people might arise. Are there acromonious debates, personality cults and bitter factionalism in rule-based, logical academic disciplines such as engineering or mathematics? If there are, I've never heard of them. These unpleasant things can be found in the world of psychology, a more subjective and less rule-based academic discipline (evolutionary biology has also had some pretty lively moments). Would you expect a person who prefers to limit their thinking or communication to logical, factual and rule-based areas to give the "correct" answer to any bouba-kiki test? Of course you wouldn't, silly.

I wonder how the researchers that I have mentioned would explain the fact that I have been able to identify an effect that is much the same as the bouba-kiki effect in a kids' picture book. Might they suggest that I am really not autistic, or might they suggest that my synaesthesia has compensated for any autistic bouba/kiki deficit that I might otherwise have suffered from? This is where their ideas fail to make sense - if failure at "the bouba-kiki task" is a sign of a central feature of autism, and at the same time synaesthesia is similar to or the same as the neurological process that enables people to succeed at " the bouba-kiki task", then it should surely be impossible for any person to have both synaesthesia and autism at the same time. But many people do. People like me. People like Daniel Tammet. People like the late Syd Barrett. I am a problem for many people, and it is most amusing to know that my very existence is a problem for Professor Vilayanur S. Ramachandran.

Link to page for Mr Pod and Mr Piccallili at Amazon:

Link to Wikipedia page about the bouba-kiki effect:

Link to Wikipedia page about Synaesthesia:

Link to research by Ramachandran and Lindsay M. Oberman about Autism and the bouba/kiki effect: