New theory revolutionises understanding of autism | University of Oxford
Professor Geoff Bird, Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology, who is looking to transform perceptions of autism
Professor Geoff Bird, Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology, who is looking to transform perceptions of autism

New theory revolutionises understanding of autism

Geoff Bird, newly-appointed Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology, is building the University's strength in autism research with a new interpretation which transforms our understanding of the condition.

A fresh challenge to our perception of autism could offer new hope to people living with the condition and their families.

Professor Geoff Bird joined the University earlier this year as Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology and Tutorial Fellow in Psychology. In a new interview with Oxford Today, he explains how he aims to expand the University’s research effort into understanding and treating autism – and how a new theory underpins his approach.

In 2010, Professor Bird conducted a brain scanning experiment that proved you can be diagnosed with autism but still show empathy. Equally, and just as importantly, the experiment showed that non-autistic people may lack empathy.

Professor Bird said: ‘Ask anyone in the field what characterizes autism, and they’ll say a lack of empathy. An autistic person can’t recognize emotions. Sometimes they can’t engage in moral reasoning. We think that’s completely wrong. Completely inaccurate.’

The explanation lies in a different condition, alexithymia, which makes it difficult for people to determine what emotions they are feeling. It affects 8 per cent of the population and around half of all people with autism.  Professor Bird said: ‘What we’ve shown is that the supposed emotional deficits of autism are actually due to alexithymia.’

Professor Bird and his colleagues now believe they have an explanation for alexithymia, which could open the route to pharmacological treatment, as well transforming common perceptions of autism.

He said: ‘Individuals with autism are not unempathetic, psychopathic monsters. This is really important…I have heard so many stories about people who simply cannot get jobs or even volunteer their time because of this damaging myth, which causes additional frustration for the parents of autistic individuals. Individuals with alexithymia are also not psychopaths of course, although they may struggle to understand emotions in a typical way.’

You can read the full interview with Professor Bird online in Oxford Today.