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Further reading (and watching) on autism

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Pianist Derek Paravicini, who has severe autism, processes music in fascinating ways. Here, resources for learning more. Photo: TEDxWarwick

Pianist Derek Paravicini, who has severe autism, processes music in fascinating ways. Here, resources for learning more. Photo: TEDxWarwick

Derek Paravicini is many things: an incredible piano player, a blind man, an excited talker, a musical savant, and a 30-something with severe autism. Derek Paravicini and Adam Ockelford: In the key of genius Derek Paravicini and Adam Ockelford: In the key of genius In today’s TED Talk, we get a fascinating peek into how he understands music. Paravicini — who was playing major concert halls at the age of 10 — not only has perfect pitch, that rare ability to recognize and re-create any musical note, but is also able to hear all the individual notes played simultaneously in a piece of music. Paravicini has a memory for an incredible catalogue of songs, and is able to transpose them into any key at will. But while Paravicini has been called “The Human iPod,” his longtime piano teacher Adam Ockelford says that this description misses the point.

“Derek, you are so much more than an iPod,” says Ockelford. “You’re a fantastic, creative musician.”

Today’s talk brings up many questions. Is there a connection between autism and music? How do autistic minds work, and what is the experience of living on the spectrum? And what forms of communication are open to those who have a hard time with traditional conversation?

We asked our own Michael McWatters — who writes the blog ASD Dad, which includes his thoughtful reflections on raising a son on the autism spectrum — to curate a list of resources surrounding this talk. Here are his suggestions, focusing on the parental and personal experience of autism.

Watch: Neurotypical. The word ‘autistic’ covers a huge range of people who fall somewhere on the spectrum. But there is also a word for those who fall off of it: Neurotypical. Filmmaker Adam Larsen adopted this term as the name of his new one-hour documentary, which looks at autism from the perspective of those who live it. The doc boldly turns the lens on what it’s like for three fascinating people — 4-year-old Violet, teenager Nicholas and adult Paula — as they negotiate the world around them. This doc aired as part of PBS’ POV series last week, and will continue to play throughout the month. Check your local listings to see when the documentary airs next in your area or watch online through the end of August.

Temple Grandin: The world needs all kinds of minds Temple Grandin: The world needs all kinds of minds Watch: Temple Grandin: The world needs all kinds of minds. People with autism tend to have specialist minds, explains Temple Grandin in this talk from TED2010 — they’re very good at a specific type of thinking. This highly-specific thinking has led to many innovations — she points out that Einstein, Mozart and Tesla would likely have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, if it had existed in their time. In this talk, Grandin shows us how she thinks — in images, something she delves deeper into in her book Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism. Overall, she shows why society needs all types of thinkers — including autistic ones.

Read: Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism. Paul Collins’ son, Morgan, excelled from a very young age in reading, spelling and math — but found negotiating social interactions nearly impossible. In this incredible book, Collins brings us into his son’s world. But while the book is part memoir, it is also a sweeping history — introducing the reader to theories of autism throughout time and pointing to historical figures who were likely autistic. It’s a personal story and yet so much more.

Read: Studies on musical skills in autistic children. This study, published in the journal Autism in January, tested what has been found in surveys before — that children with autism are more likely to have perfect pitch and are better at remembering melodies than their neurotypical counterparts. Observing a focus group of 25 children with autism and 25 without as they performed musical tasks, it confirmed the hypothesis. For example, while eight of the autistic children demonstrated remembered 15 of the 16 melodies they’d heard a week before, only two children in the control group were able to do this. While Derek Paracivini is clearly a musical savant, able to do this to the extreme, this 2009 study published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society looked at musical skills in autistic children who are not savants. They too appeared to have enhanced musical abilities. The study concludes, “While the phenomenon of the savant syndrome is of considerable theoretical interest, it may have led to an under-consideration of the potential talents and skills of that vast majority of autistic individuals, who do not meet savant criteria.”

Faith Jegede Cole: What I've learned from my autistic brothers Faith Jegede Cole: What I've learned from my autistic brothers Watch: Faith Jegede: What I learned from my autistic brothers. In this passionate talk given at TED@London, Faith Jegede introduces us to two incredible men: Remi, 22, who has never told a lie, and Samuel, 16, who remembers the year of release for every song on her iPod. These are her brothers, both of them autistic. In this talk, she shares what they’ve taught her about individuality … and about how “normal” is highly overrated.

Watch: Loving Lamposts. The subject for his next documentary hit director Todd Drezner in the face when he took his son, diagnosed with autism at just a few months old, to the park and watched his routine of visiting a set of lampposts. Drezner began to wonder: is autism a disease to be cured, or is it simply a different way to be human? In the film, he looks at the “recovery movement”—those who aim to reverse autism—and the “neurodiversity movement”—which aims to accept autism as a variation. The tagline for the movie has stuck in the autistic community: “If you’ve met one autistic person … you’ve met one autistic person.”

Read: Carly’s Voice: Breaking Through Autism. Carly Fleischmann’s life changed with a few clicks of a computer keyboard. At age two, Carly was diagnosed with severe autism. She was uncommunicative and sometimes violent, and her parents and therapists assumed no one was home in her mind. And then at age 10, she typed out three words: “HELP TEETH HURT.” This book, co-written with her father, gives a fascinating view of the interior life of severe autism, which isn’t always visible to outsiders.

Watch: Wretches and Jabberers. According to the two main characters in this documentary, “wretches” are those who have limited abilities of speech. Meanwhile, “jabberers” are … everyone else. In this moving film, two self-declared wretches — Tracy Thresher, 42, and Larry Bissonnette, 52 — tour the world on a two-fold mission. First, the pair — both autistic and excluded from normal schools as kids — aim to interact with people of all sorts and change attitudes about autism. And second, they set out to see parts of the world they feared they never would.

Read: Presuming competence.” The central idea of this paper, published in Equity & Excellence in Education in 2006, remains a motto to many parents of autistic children: that rather than assuming their child won’t or can’t understand, to act as if they will. Authors Douglas Biklen and Jamie Burke write, “Teaching literacy is carried out with the expectation that most, if not all, children are capable of developing literacy skills. Yet with children classified as autistic, it is not uncommon to link early expressive difficulties to a presumption of incompetence.” Their advice: do not make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.