I love this story about this incredible 13-year old boy (Joshua Beckford) who has been studying at Oxford University since he was 6 years old. He has also been diagnosed with high functioning autism. This is not unusual as I have worked and am working with many autistic children, adolescents and young adults around the world and some of them are completely nonverbal and others are like this are brilliant in certain areas.
I recently saw a boy in Bulgaria, that taught himself to read at 2, and taught himself piano at 3, yet he didn’t speak a word until 4 and still only spoke a few words at 6. I did a phone consultation with parents from the UAE yesterday and their son at 5 knows everything about the galaxy and the planets. He reads books on this every day. He was severely delayed in walking and talking but now he is 5 and can read and speak beyond the level of his 8-year old sister, who is also quite brilliant. These types of stories are what makes Autism so confusing to people and to most health and mental health professionals. How can a child be so advanced in certain skills and so behind in others? This idea of “unevenness of skills” has been documented in research and in education for decades. Not just in Autism, but in almost all developmental issues like ADHD, Dyslexia, Tourettes, etc. This confusion is because very few people understand what is believed to be actually happening in the brain of kids or adults with these issues. But this young 13-year-old boy is actually the perfect representation of what we actually see happening in the brain.
When you hear of all of the amazing things that this boy can do and really analyze them there is one thing in common, they are all predominantly left brain skills. His exceptional memory for details, his ability to learn academic material, his reading ability, his verbal skills- all of the exceptional skills this boy exhibits is clearly and exclusively left brain skills. When you see the video of the boy he appears to be pretty normal, he just seems like a very smart kid, but why then does he have a diagnosis of Autism? Because what we don’t see is that he struggles and is behind in a number of other skills; social abilities, his abilities to read others and situations, his ability to regulate his emotions. In fact, all of the skills that he is significantly delayed in are exclusively right brain skills. This imbalance is an actual window into what is actually happening in this boy’s brain and in Autism. Research from our lab and many others believe that the primary issue in Autism and many other issues are a developmental imbalance between networks in the brain especially between the two hemispheres of the brain. A smaller bridge of white matter between the two hemispheres and reduced synchronization of the two hemispheres is one of the main defining features of children with Autism compared to controls. The degree of the synchronization correlates with the severity of autistic symptoms and the level of communication- meaning the less connected and synchronized the two hemispheres, the worse the symptoms are. These areas are significantly problematic for this child now and will be even more as he gets older. The label isn’t given to someone just because they are exceptionally bright, it is not given easily or haphazardly to any child. Therefore, to actually have this label he must also have pretty significant problems that go along with his strengths.
People with Autism also have other physical issues, digestive problems, immune dysregulation, food sensitivities, sleep issues, anxiety, etc. Many people argue that all we need to do is accept people with Autism for who they are, and I agree, as we should with everyone, but most of the people arguing this don’t really understand what is happening in the brain. They think that “nothing can be done to change or improve the brain ” so they argue to just leave them alone and accept it. I think a better approach is to understand that there is this imbalance in the brain. This boy is brilliant in certain areas we don’t want to change or diminish that ability. We don’t want to change his nature or his personality. He is wonderful as he is. But what we do want to do is help him with the things he does struggle with if he or the parents wish to. By focusing specific stimulation and other activities and interventions on the weaker underdeveloped areas of his right brain, we can achieve more balance between these networks and in doing so, diminish or eliminate many of his deficiencies and physical issues perhaps allowing him to live a healthy life. In doing this, we don’t take away his genius, in fact, we enhance it, but we do potentially take away the struggles he may have. We can help him develop more maturity in the social world and form and maintain healthy relationships throughout his life. We can reduce anxiety and observe compulsive behavior that this boy already struggles with. Being smart is great but there is a saying in neuroscience, the left brain gives you success in school the right brain gives you success in life. The right brain is the social, emotional brain, and it has been shown that the most important factor in happiness and lifelong health are the quality of relationships. This is the area this boy may struggle with but it doesn’t have to be that way, we can change this.
This boy can be a genius and have great relationships and don’t we all want more balance in our lives? We have many problems in this world and kids and adults like this can help us solve the problems. We need them, but we can help them better achieve their full potential by helping to balance their brains.