One in 100 children in Australia will be born with autism. Neuroscientist Professor Lyn Beazley tells us why we should tap into the incredible capabilities of autistic people. In fact, the greatest advances we have made on the planet were made by people with autism.
“People on the spectrum will solve things in ways that you would never have thought of” – Professor Lyn Beazley.
Duration: 24 minutes.
Curtin University Autism Academy
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Welcome to My Warm Table, an Australian podcast of smart conversations with heart. I'm Sonia Nolan and today I'm delighted to welcome you to part two of my warm table conversation with pioneering neuroscientist Professor Lyn Beasley. If you haven't already listened to part one, I strongly encourage you to download that to your playlist next. Professor Beazley is an extraordinary scientist and you will be enthralled with her insights and the many legacies she has left us in our understanding of the brain and the practical approaches to healing brain injury which are making a meaningful difference to people's lives. Today in Part Two, we are talking about autism, and how those who revolutionised our world from Albert Einstein to Hans Christian Andersen, were undoubtedly autistic. Professor Beazley shares her understanding of the in utero and early childhood development of the brain. And the importance of tapping into the incredible capabilities of the autistic mind. Join us around My Warm Table to find out more. What I'm really interested to know about today is autism. Because that's something that we all know someone who's got autism. And it'd be really fascinating to understand how does that actually work with the brain? Because it all comes back to the brain and potentially the formation in utero?Lyn Beazley:
Yeah, we realise now, probably about one and 100 kids who have been born in Western Australia will be on the autism spectrum. We used to think it was mainly boys, but we're realising increasingly, it's girls to girls just a little bit better at hiding it, because perhaps they have more sort of verbal skills on the boys. So it's a really fascinating area. We don't understand what's happening in the brain. We don't know what changes that are, there are no obvious huge changes. When you look at the overall structure of the brain. It's something about the wiring that must be different. But it's a spectrum. People used to call it a disorder. I don't think it's that I don't see it as a disorder. I think everybody's got their own brain. We're all different. We're probably all on spectrum for quite a few things. I think I'm probably on about three. So seeing how we can ensure that people with autism have a positive life for their, for their families, for their friends for society, but not seeing it as something that we need to try and suppress. Because if you look through history, probably the greatest advances that we have made on the planet have come from people on the autism spectrum. So Isaac Newton, in a great plague of London, he got sent up to Lincolnshire to spend a year comes back with an extraordinary book, Principia Mathematica. Based all we understand about laws of motion now that govern your car, your the flight path of your aircraft, you name it, almost certainly on the spectrum. Isaac Newton was one but another one would be Albert Einstein most definitely Steve Jobs. Oh my gosh. Hans Christian AndersenSonia Nolan:
Oh, really?Lyn Beazley:
Yeah. I mean, those four Frozen films, and how many people have bought all the all the merchandise from those for their kids, or based on stories from a story from Hans Christian Andersen. So society has moved forward and more from people on the spectrum, I suspect them than we had ever imagined. So let's make the most of these talents and opportunities. But nevertheless, it's hard if you're on the spectrum, because you feel quite often isolated. You don't fit in as readily. So you're going to struggle sometimes at school. I mean, I know one young man at the moment, he's coming to one of our coding clubs, the CoderDojo has programmes and we now have several of those, particularly for young people on their autism spectrum, one in the northern suburbs, one in the southern suburbs, one in Mandurah, one in Bunbury, we're about to set up one in Albany. So these kids have just extraordinary talents and understanding, but have felt isolated. So the programmes we're running, not only teach them how to sort of cope with the social aspects of life, including how to get a girlfriend because that can be a bit tricky, important. Oh, absolutely. How do you do an interview? How do you cope with going on public transport? So Curtin uni have an enormously wonderful group, they're studying autism itself, but also doing practical things developing an app so that if youSonia Nolan:
Fantastic find going on public transport, it's noisy, it's crowded, these are the things that it's hard to cope with. If you're on the spectrum. Well, how do you travel out of hours, where's your training that you need a particular time. So practical things like this. So it's, it's making sure that you offer support. And the brain is so flexible, neuroplasticity, the word we hear a lot, but it's absolutely true. To make sure that we work with these young people, a wonderful guy at telethon, kids Institute, Andrew Whitehouse, he works with the youngest group, to make sure that they get that enrichment and support and reinforcing the behaviours that are good for them, but also good for their integration into the community. But one of my own daughters actually works in this space. She's a teacher, and now and she was working at a kindy. And aLyn Beazley:
Now isn't that extraordinary, and his parents young man came in age three. And his parents said he'd heard this spoken, and gently tried to find things that would interest him. And he seemed interested in numbers and letters. So she was teaching him one to 100 and A to Z. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, he doesn't seem particularly interested. But she's persisting. He comes back on Friday, and he does one to 100 and 100, back to one without missing a beat, which I don't think I could do A to Zed Zed to A. that he hasn't stopped talking sinceSonia Nolan:
and his grandparents couldn't believe it was the same kid. So all these early interventions are really important, not to suppress, but just to make sure that potential is reached, and these kids get a real chance in life.Sonia Nolan:
It's interesting, what you're reflecting on a lot of the great advances that we have as a society are because of people like Einstein and Jobs and Hans Christian Andersen and and at what point did our society change to not make people feel welcome and not embrace that diversity and that incredible drive to make things better? What happened? I mean, this is a philosophical question more than a science question.Lyn Beazley:
But a fascinating one, I think there are some several aspects to this, Often to be creative the way so someone like Isaac Newton was, he needed to have time in his own right to develop ideas. And so he became famous, and therefore his eccentricities were accepted and sometimes celebrated. So it was just an unusual set of circumstances that let him come through. And I think getting through that bottleneck, where you can get enough achievements, that people are going to be sympathetic to the ways that you don't always conform to society's norms that make it quite hard. I mean, Einstein hardly spoke to his first wife, he decided, within a day didn't want to talk to her and he didn't.Sonia Nolan:
Fair enough.Lyn Beazley:
So marriage didn't last long. So you know, there was a sort of, but by then he had the wonderful ideas. So, you know, I think the circumstances have to be unusual for people on the autism spectrum to thrive. And what I think makes it even more difficult these days is that projects are team work now. You know, Einstein came up with his ideas solo, Newton did too. But now, you know, if you're in almost any area, health, astronomy, environment, you're part of a team. And that's been really good, because I think it encourages all those different talents to work together for a solution. I mean, coming up with a vaccine as quickly as we did and different types of vaccines. Classic example of teamwork, but it's harder for people on the spectrum to fit into a team and appreciate that. What they go they can give will be in a slightly different sort of context that you might not want to work nine to five, you might be happier working odd hours or working at home sometimes or needing a space to yourself to sort of just go and chill out for a bit. But what youàll do will be enormously valuable? So it's it's partly getting society to accept that to make the most of these enormous talents, we have to have a more flexible way of working,Sonia Nolan:
Iàts accepting that neurodiversity, which, you know, we're starting to hear more and more. Lyn there's a lot, we're starting to appreciate about theLyn Beazley:
Yes, absolutely. And other aspects of neurodiversity, such as dyslexia, bipolar, and sometimes combinations of talking to people, for example, with dyslexia, some will say, well, literally, that the letters dance in front of me, and I can't imagine that. But if brain and child early childhood development, for example, I know you've got tricks to get round it, sometimes you can. So it's, I think we're getting a greater appreciation. But I think the faster the world really works out that ... if it's harder to get a job, for example, if you are on neurodiverse, than if you actually have a physical disability, well, we've got to sort things out so that everybody gets a chance. One because that's right and fair, but two because we're sure missing opportunities, if we don't. my children are both studying the health sciences, and they actually have to do brain development in early childhood, and so forth as part of their studies, which is fantastic. And they're all coming back with these amazing awarenesses about all sorts of things like the brain controls speech, and the brain controls, you know, whether how you breathe and, and clearly the brain is everything, the brain is the centre of everything that we do or don't do. And so that must have been so fascinating for you to be at the forefront of all of that research and understanding, When do you make the cells that are in your brain you make them all before you're born virtually all of them inSonia Nolan:
in utero, uh huh.Lyn Beazley:
And you make more than you need, and you trim down the number by a third to a half, depending on which part of the brain it is, for those connections that go to the wrong place aren't going to work out right. Thereafter, you've got that set of cells that last throughout your life. Now, any other part of the body, your liver, for example, your heart, you're turning those cells over, there are new ones born or ones die, it's a process of repair. But you have the same set of nerve cells that you were born with, which I think is totally amazing, with very small exceptions that I'll come to in a minute. So how does the brain become more complex? And how does it cope with all the information that's coming into it? It does it by these cells growing extra, like sort of tentacles and connections and wiring up in more and more complex ways. And that's why, during early development, it's so crucial that you get the right experience. So for the eye, for example, you can see a baby can see roughly as well as you and I would see in moonlight. So they'd see sort of large structures, but not fine detail. To see that fine detail, you then have to have information coming into the eye, and the brain can then tune up and say, Oh, that bit ties in with that bit. So let's reinforce that. So experience is hugely important. visual system is one of the first to wire up, because you can imagine you need to be able to see from pretty early on, there's a big survival advantage in that. But when you see something, say you you're watching someone playing a drum, you know that the sound comes from that spot. Interestingly, the brain wires up the sound to match the vision. So you, you're thinking for example, a baby is growing, the ears are becoming further apart, yet how does the brain keep it all wired up so that what you see happening and that the the sound you get from that house, it's still all good together. And you do it by the brain constantly readjusting to keep those good connections working and growing little new ones and ones that aren't working. So you've got a constant evolution.Sonia Nolan:
Is this the neuroplasticity? That neuroplasticity so that you can create new pathways in your brain?Lyn Beazley:
Yep, you can create new ones. But probably what you're doing is there is some there that are going to lie fairly dormant. And if you stimulate them enough, they'll get going again. And you have to do it. A lot of times, the brain needs to hear the same message over and over to say, right, that pathway is a good one, it's been quiet, I want it to be louder. This one, I don't need it as much anymore. And so onceSonia Nolan:
So what about the the idea of brain cells being you get to the childhood, and go through adolescence, and all these things, where you think, Oh, my gosh, you know, why is my teenage son getting up late in the morning, why's he grumpy one day and happy the next, there's a huge development of the brain taking place through that adolescent period, probably major rewiring up to about the age of 25. And what happens is that deep in the brain, there are regions it's called the limbic system that have things like the amygdala, you might have heard of them, and they control whether you're happy with your cross, whether you're enraged, whether you're calm, they mature more quickly, than the thinking part of the brain, the cortex that over lies it. So when you think of adolescents who might be involved in, in more risk taking activity, it's destroyed by things like alcohol abuse, and so forth? probably because parts of their brain are developing at different rates. And so that part of the brain that says, hey, that might not be such a great idea. Probably hasn't developed as much, I think caught up with. Exactly. So weLyn Beazley:
So yes, there's quite a lot of data on that. And asked a lot of our teenagers, and I was actually up in obviously, extreme alcohol use will do that. Lesser will, you Geraldton. And we were talking about neuroplasticity, and as I left, I heard one teenage boy saying to his brother, or next time, my mom's moaning at me, I'm gonna say it's not my fault. It's my amygdala. I thought, well, poor mom's gonna wonder where that came from. But but you can see we're understanding more and more now of this, which is absolutely brilliant. But it's a really complex world in the brain. It really is. It really is. know, I mean, I'm not averse to a glass of white or red in the evening. But it's in moderation. But certainly, if you're pregnant, don't drink, because that's going straight through to baby and I love those ads on the TV at the moment, you know, the glass babySonia Nolan:
Theyàre very clever arenàt they They're very exactly what's happening yet.Lyn Beazley:
So steer away from alcohol when you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant, I think that's very clear.Sonia Nolan:
Coming back to the brain, and the brain development of an autistic person in utero? Have you got any insights into that at this point?Lyn Beazley:
We don't know what it is, there's nothing that's particularly obvious. But of course, the other thing is that you can't go in and drill out a bit of the brain and have a look at it. Whereas I say the liver you can take, you can take a biopsy of the liver, because the liver will make new cells and work again, but so you're really in the dark. But there's been nothing obvious when you look at brain overall brain structure that's different. But it's the wiring of the brain that is clearly to an extent different. And I know when you think that the greatest rate of cell production in a baby's brain in utero is something like a quarter of a million cells every minute. Now, that's absolutely huge. And cells have to migrate. One fascinating aspect is that the thinking part of our brain, the cortex, is in six layers. The cells that make those layers are the innermost layer. So you might think that they produce cells. And as they pile up, that the ones that were produced first will be furthest away, and all the others would line up on them.Sonia Nolan:
Yes, that would be how you'd imagineLyn Beazley:
Yeah, that's exactly what the brain doesn't do, the brain does is that it forms temporary structures, like scaffolding, and the new cells crawl up that scaffolding past the ones that have already been born earlier. And keep going up and up and up. So instead of if you think of the innermost layer being one and the outer layer six, actually, it makes the bottom layer five first, then it makes for and they go past grow past five, three grows past four, and five, and so on. So it's created in this completely upside down way and then these scaffold cells along which the cells absolutely sort of crawl along a bit like a sort of a slug going along betwig, then those scaffold cells disappear. And then you get horizontal scaffold cells. So the cells not only go up, but they crawl across to different distances. So you've got a brain producing a massive number of cells at any time. And they're crawling around to different places. Imagine that. So I think what's extraordinary is that it works out as often as it does not the other way around.Sonia Nolan:
Right? Because it looks like there's a lot of things that could happen during crawling phase.Lyn Beazley:
Yeah, absolutely. You can't then go back and say, This is the brain I have now what happened during the development. So it's, there's an awful lot we don't understand. But the more we can intervene from the very beginning, I think, from very early on. And then because Western Australia is a really good place to be, if you do think that you have a young person on the spectrum, get support from the very beginning, and then look at getting more support through school and university. So one thing that the programme I'm involved with the autism Academy at Curtin uni does is that quite often the students who are very good at computer science and the like, will not be good at English. So get a portfolio together and get into university on your talents, not on on things that are weaker for you. And so I think universities and tapes are becoming far more aware, to look at people's talents, rather than stick to a much more standard regime of in or out. Yeah, and that's going to be a great advantage to, as well as employers seeing the potential. And it's happening along the terrorists. We have so many young people now who are in jobs. I think you've interviewed one recently.Sonia Nolan:
Yes, I'm going to be speaking on the podcast with someone in a little while. So stay tuned for that episode, where we are talking about someone who's leading a neuro diversity area in one of the big mining companies, so incredible and so important that we are tapping into that knowledge and expertise.Lyn Beazley:
Absolutely. Yeah, that's all to our advantage. It's the right thing to do. But it's going to help us socially, economically and environmentally, because they're going to come up with lots of good ideas. You know, I was talking to a radio astronomer once and he'd employed in his team almost exclusively young people. I said, Why did you do that? He said, because young people don't know what's impossible. So they go ahead and solve it anyway. And I thinkSonia Nolan:
Thank you, Lynn. Thank you so much. Again, font of wisdom really enjoyed chatting with you again today. I what an adage, and I think that applies also to people on the think probably the noisiest day in my neighbourhood. We've had the neighbour across the road, clean out his boat, we've had spectrum, because they'll solve things in ways you hadn't the flight path for the aircraft going overhead and we've had my dog barking. So look, we've had the full spectrum of the thought of. But that's where you get that real leap forward. neighbourhood experience in our little recording today. But thank you for your patience, Lyn, and for your expertise. Rather than little incremental changes, you get a new way of I've loved having you here at my warm tableLyn Beazley:
thanks for the opportunity to talk about autism and neurodiversity. It's just been an honour. Thank you. thinking about it. and off you go.Sonia Nolan:
Thank you, Lyn. You've been listening to My Warm Table with Sonia Nolan. In Italian, a tavola calda is a warm and welcoming table where you can share big ideas, friendship, laughter and life. So much happens around the kitchen table, and I wanted to amplify it here in this podcast. My aim is to feed your mind and soul through smart conversations with heart. No topic is off limits, but good table manners rule. I hope you'll join us each week as we set the table for my extraordinary guests who will let you feast on their deep knowledge, life experiences and wise insights. Let's keep the conversation flowing. Please subscribe to the My Warm Table podcast and share it with your friends and networks. Perhaps if they're new to podcasting, take a moment to show them how to download and subscribe so they don't miss an episode either. I'd also love you to join our community on Facebook. You'll find the group at My Warm Table Podcast. Your support is very much appreciated. So that together we can eat, think and be merry.