Monday, April 13, 2009

Nonverbal Communication, Autism, and the Interbrain Problem (Review of Tantam's book on autism)

Autism is one of the most tricky disabilities there is to understand. It is also one of the most prevalent As a special educator, I find autism puzzling and am always interested to try and understand it as a phenomenon. Recently I recieved a complimentary copy of "Can The World Afford Autistic Spectrum Disorder" to review (courtesy of It is a book that offers quite a novel theory about what autistic spectrum disorder is (primarily, the author says, an impairment in ability to pick up on an interpret nonverbal communication). For those not familiar, this view is in direct contrast to the predominant theory that autistic spectrum disorder is marked primarily by the inability to see others as intentional agents and, therefore, understand people as people. Anyone interested in the puzzle of autism should check this book out.


The title of Digby Tantam's book - Can the Wold Afford Autistic Spectrum Disorder - is a bit of a misnomer. The question only comes up, and is answered in the affirmative, in the book's last chapter. The majority of the book is devoted to a novel theory the author expounds that the primary impairment encompassed by ASD is that of nonverbal communication (rather than, say, mindblindness).

Theorists have debated for the past 10 years (at least) what the main impairment of autism was. Is it trouble with language? Lack of ability to see others as persons with intentions? Lack of ability to process emotions in self and others? The dominant theory, with Simon Baron-Cohen as its progenitor, is that autism is primarily a disorder marked by "mindblindness," or, lack of ability in tke autistic to see others as intentional agents, and hence, be able to "understand" people AS people.

Tantam offers a different, and quite convincing, theory. Tantam suggests that autism is a disorder (sticky term, that) marked first and foremost by difficulty reading non-verbal communication. To use his term, autistics have difficulty with things involving the "interbrain" connection between people. Most of us are born with and have no trouble developing our ability to "read" people and the subtle cues - gaze, body language - that autistics often cannot pick up. He uses a computer analogy; if the interbrain is like the internet (that non-physical connection that we have between each other), then the autistic is the one who cannot log on.

The first two chapters of the book are devoted to illuminating to us neurotypicals how important nonverbal communication is to everyday life (as we often forget because nonverbal communication is so automatic to us). The next few chapters are devoted to outlining and defending the interbrain theory. Tantam finishes off by suggesting some things that autistics and particularly those who care for them can do to help them cope with this lack of ability to access the "interbrain" world of nonverbal signals.

I would suggest that anyone reading this also read Simon Baron-Cohen's book "Mindblindess," which outlines the main theory Tantam is arguing against. To my mind, I think that Tantam's theory, while still quite speculative, is interesting and suspect that mindblindess (inability to see others as intentional actors) and the lack of ability to "access the interbrain" are quite connected. When one cannot appropriately read nonverbal communications, it becomes all the harder to "see what others are thinking." If one has trouble telling that someone is angry (recognizing their arms crossed, their face turn red, and their voice get tense), then it stands to reason that it would be very hard to predict what that person will do. In other words, I suspect that one will not need to choose between Baron-Cohen's theory and Tantam's theory. I suspect that mindblindess and lack of "interbrain ability" are quite related (whether one causes the other or they simply develop in parallel.

The last few chapters will be the chapters most helpful for caretakers of autistics (like myself). The author suggests that caretakers can help autistics navigate the world of nonverbal communication by acclimating them to it strategically - at once making sure they are not bombarded, but stay connected to others. We can also monitor out own behavior to be as literal and as verbal as possible, making sure that we cut down on the number of nonverbal cues we personally send out.

And as to the question of whether the world can afford autistic spectrum disorder, the author's answer is an unambiguous: "We better." He acknowleges the difficulty in expecting neurotypicals to accommodate themselves to such a large degree to the autistic, but also argues that autistics often have traits that it would be a shame for the world to go about. In the author's own words, "If the future lies more and more in collaboration with machines, then we may need more people with ASD, not less." For all the difficulties (both for autistics and neurotypicals) that ASD can cause, it would be a real shame to deprive ourselves of the unconventionality, originality, and often outstanding intellect and talent often associated with ASD.


  1. Hi Kevin
    My name's Tina. Thank you for your review of Tantam's book. I am currently completing a Masters- Communications (coursework and thesis). I have been preparing and writing a lit review in the last week and found information on Asperger's Syndrome to be a pandora's box. And, this is only part of my project.
    I haven't been able to read "Can we afford..." and "Mindblindness" (will do so pronto)but being Asperger myself was struck by the incongruity of some of these descriptions (perhaps the terminology is at fault here eg.use of the word 'subliminal'. Is it possible that my need to be part of social groups that mostly eschew me, means that I have learnt very clever and critical ways to read other cues, that inform me about the kinds of people I am confronted with in a way, that I am clearly able to determine the inappropriate kinds of people to be involved with? And on that basis am able to some degree to risk myself and test those people if I choose? But being unaware of the full consequences of that choice get in trouble anyway. I recommend "Concepts of Normality:The Autistic and Typical Spectrum" Wendy Lawson p.36 Deviation or Neural Diversity. Although not having read Tantam and Baron-Cohen I withold further comment till I do.
    Again many thanks for informative review.
    Tina Fry

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