Digby Tantam asks Can the World Afford Autistic Spectrum Disorder?

Digby Tantam is the author of Can the World Afford Autistic Spectrum Disorder? Nonverbal Communication, Asperger Syndrome and the Interbrain. He is a Clinical Professor of Psychotherapy at the University of Sheffield and has written numerous articles and books on autism spectrum disorders. He also founded an Asperger Syndrome clinic in 1980.

How and when did you first become interested in Autism?

I first began working with people with autistic spectrum disorders in 1977 although I had come across people with autism before that, whilst in training. Unlike many other early workers in the field, I did not have a family member with autism. My interest came from a prior interest in nonverbal communication. That, I think, was itself motivated by my being a bit of a loner when I was younger, and having the chance to observe myself and other people and notice that a lot happened between people that was never acknowledged. When I read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams at the age of 15, I felt that I had known what he was talking about for years. I was wanting to be a doctor already, but it was that which prompted me to want to be a psychiatrist.

In your new book you discuss non-verbal communication. How does this differ between those with Autism and those without?

My new book is as much about people without autism, ‘neurotypicals’ as we are sometimes called, as it is about autism itself. I argue that neurotypicals are linked together, or rather our brains are, by a kind of wireless network, which I call the interbrain. Of course, it is not radio or microwaves that link our brains. So we are different from computers on a wireless network. But instead we have nonverbal communication. We look at what other people look at, we feel a tendency to smile or frown when other people do. We even touch our noses when other people do–it’s a signal that something embarrassing is going on which can spread through a room in a short time. We don’t learn to do these things. We just do them. But the consequences are profound. For example, all of us have been at a party when one of the other guests behaves in some inappropriate way. Even if it is way away from us, we know because, we say, ‘there’s something in the atmosphere’. We alter our stance a bit, perhaps getting ready to take some action, and the sound in the room increases in ‘nervous chatter’. This happens in meetings of heads of state, I am sure, just as it does at children’s parties. It’s something that is a consequence of the activity of a part of our brains tuning in to other brains. People with autism do not tune in, or not so much–that’s the main argument of the book. Their ‘interbrain connection’ is tenuous. They have ‘low bandwidth’. Much of the book looks at the consequences of this. They are both good, and bad, for the person with an ASD.

What do you hope people will gain from your work in this field?

I hope that it will help people with an ASD and their carers understand their experience of being different from other people without really knowing what the difference is. Perhaps, too, it will help people with an ASD know how to minimize the impact of this difference. It may certainly help to understand why neurotypicals can be so uncomfortable around people with an ASD. Part of the book deals with this reaction becoming a reason for bullying people with an ASD. As a psychiatrist who works mainly with adolescents and adults, I am only too aware of the very destructive consequences of bullying for the victims (and in fact for the bullies, too although I see less of them).

Who or what most inspires you?

My wife has been an inspiration, and all of my recent books have been dedicated to her. But I would also say that life itself inspires me. The moments when one feels part of a pattern, a community of scholars, an expression of nature, a consciousness which can be flung into the universe and yet return unscathed.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I like working, and don’t really think of having time ‘spare’. But I do some gardening, cycle, write poems occasionally, read a lot particularly philosophy, science fiction and detective stories, walk with my wife in the peak district where we live, I listen to a lot to music particularly romantic music like Shostakovich, Janacek and Verdi, and cook as much as I can. Mostly though, I enjoy hanging out with my wife and my children although the latter are now all grown up and away.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2009