Sunday, December 24, 2006

Verbatim: Peter Szatmari's amazement

Peter Szatmari is the best known and most influential of Canada's autism researchers. His published papers are always worth reading, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his general direction. I'm bending the rules of Verbatim slightly and quoting from Dr Szatmari's 2004 book, which is a popular rather than scholarly book. It is, however, his only published book to date, and while Dr Szatmari is not a cognitive scientist, here he is musing about autistic cognitive processes. These are two excerpts from the same chapter. They are deliberately chosen to circumvent, as much as is possible in this book, Dr Szatmari's preponderant and constant reminders that, in his view, the autistic abilities he exclaims about are only the pathological side-effects of our overwhelming and devastating impairments. Justin is a 30 year old autistic adult, one of the first autistics Dr Szatmari ever met.

Justin is especially fascinated with thunderstorms. Every time there is a thunderstorm he takes his tape machine outside and records the sounds. Afterward he plays the tapes to amuse himself and to help him fall asleep. He also likes to buy commercially produced weather tapes and will add them to his collection of homemade tapes. Once, after he bought a couple of tapes, he quickly noticed the same thunderstorm was on both of them. He was not a little put out at the discovery. "How dare they try to pull a fast one on me?" he said indignantly.

I once asked him why he recorded thunderstorms. "They all sound the same, don't they?"

Justin looked at me as if I were the stupidest person on earth. "No," he said. "They all sound quite different." But he did not elaborate.

I asked him to bring some tapes to our next appointment, and we spent the hour listening to them. He was right; all storms do sound different. He pointed out the variation in the peals of thunder. There were differences in volume, of course, but I had never heard the wide range of pitch and rhythm. How amazing!


It is the ability to see, hear, and play with the intimate architecture of the world that is truly amazing. The rest of us can see this architecture too if we make a conscious decision to look. But we are rarely drawn to it as a natural affinity. We have to work at it. We have to turn away from language and from social relationships to see it. People with autism gravitate to it effortlessly.


Szatmari, P. (2004). A mind apart: Understanding children with autism and Asperger syndrome. New York: Guilford.