a sea change
my mother went out with my two-year-old sister Marie, people stopped to
admire her golden ringlets and beautiful face. My mother felt very proud.
But it soon became apparent that Marie had problems. Marie spoke of herself
in the third person, then gradually lost her speech, made strange ritualistic
movements, continually whirled and turned and was endlessly fascinated
by water. Back then, in the 1950s, we were given no name for Marie's
condition. It was only a quarter of a century later, when I became a psychologist,
that I recognised Marie was autistic.
is still viewed as a mysterious condition today. The National Autistic
Society describes it as 'a lifelong developmental disability that affects
the way a person communicates and relates to people around them'. It hinders
their making sense of the world and they find it hard to make friends or
create social relationships because of an inability to understand others'
feelings. Communication causes them problems as they struggle to understand
the significance of metaphor, nuance, gesture, facial expressions or tones
of voice. They may seem is if they are inhabiting a completely other world.
In the past 2O years of extensive research into autism, no insights have
been developed to explain the full range of strange, ritualistic, self-obsessed
and sometimes destructive behaviours associated with autism. I am about
to put forward a theory which, for the first time does just that. It also
suggests which approaches to treatment are most likely to be successful.
Furthermore, it explains the origin of many normal human gestures, feelings
and emotional expressions. The theory is ethological but I can also cite
support for it on biological grounds, reached totally independently and
from a completely different route by neurophysiologists at the University
of Maryland. I call it the 'fish out of water' theory.
to the sea
'fish out of water' theory is that children with autism have failed to
develop mammalian behavioural response patterns, so they have to rely on
an earlier system of orientations. En route from our aquatic
beginnings to being land creatures we progressed from having a primitive
brain (often called the reptilian brain) to a mammalian brain.
of the greatest achievements of this evolution was the development of social
life - in other words, the development of co-operation between members
of the group, which afforded greater protection to the group as a whole
and allowed a longer period of development for the group's young.
This, in turn, enabled more learning to take place during the lengthier
maturing period, resulting in greater flexibility and potential for further
evolution. The ileocortex, the last and most sophisticated part of the
brain to evolve, is concerned with reasoning, thoughts, memories, planning
the transition state between fish and reptiles, which subsequently allowed
evolution into mammals, there was an amphibious phase. The amphibians must
have had two sets of responses: those appropriate for land and those appropriate
for water. The more primitive responses continued to play an important
role in evolution, in many cases providing the initial behavioural response
on which adaptations could be built.
obvious example of fishlike behaviour, which most mammals seem to possess
without learning, is swimming. Very young children show a swimming reflex
up till the age of six months, at which point it is repressed to allow
walking to develop. There are some features of the human embryo and
foetus that are also present in other mammals and in fish. The gill arches,
for example, support breathing in a fish but go on to become the bones
of the inner ear in humans. The arteries of the human embryo are at first
very similar to those of fish and the human embryo also has a tail.
By stroking the sole of a 14-week-old foetus's foot with a hair; it is
possible to elicit quite complex and co-ordinated movements. These include
bending of the big toe and stretching of the leg - exactly the movement
a fish would make if it wanted to move its pelvic fin away from something.
young children make a similar movement and shape with their hands when
they want to be rejecting. The ethologist Niko Tinbergen published
a photograph of a very young normal child showing displeasure with his
mother - hands raised in front of the head with fingers fanned out, one
palm facing inwards, the other outwards and the head leaning outward.
This behaviour, typical of autistic children, can also be seen in normal
children when they are under stress. I suggest this is exactly that which
we would expect if the hands were fins and the child wanted to swim away.
particularly from cultures given to gesticulation, often adopt a similar
gesture as a non-verbal signal of disagreement during conversation. One
palm is brought up to the face, palm outwards, with the head turned sideways
from the other person, while the other hand makes a swift downward movement,
often ending by striking a desk or some other object. The effect of these
movements in water would be movement away from the speaker. Waving
is also based on the instinctive movement of fins which in water would
bring us closer to someone.
we can inhibit gesticulations if we wish and express our reactions with
words, the ancient part of our brain still urges us towards some form of
evidence of REM sleep
autism results from a baby's failure to develop mammalian behavioural response
patterns, then, I suggest, the fishlike response patterns which are peripheral
in a normal baby will come to the fore and provide the basis of the child's
perception of reality and his place within it.
is some evidence that the crucial mammalian patterns may be missing in
autism because of a failure to program the instinctive basis of these patterns
in REM sleep, as suggested by Professor Michel Jouvet. Children with
autism have primitive patterns of REM sleep compared with normal children.
If REM sleep is indeed concerned with programming mammalian instincts,
this is exactly as might be expected. This is explained in detail in The
Origin of Dreams.