Where did your academic interest in autism come from?
When I started studying biology and I taught a gymnastics class in the first year at a centre for autistic children, and I got so interested that I decided that in biology I would specialise in neurobiology. I wanted to study the disorders within the spectrum of autism, to search for different pieces of information on the topic, and after getting my BA in biology, I started to study psychology with a specialisation in neurobiopsychology. I also completed my MA studies at the Faculty of Biology, where I’m now doing my doctorate on the analysis of serotonin (a neurotransmitter in the brain) in the context of autism spectrum disorder. This is a connection firstly between biology, the serotonin aspect, research on rats and secondly autism spectrum disorder or purely psychological disorders. Hence the studies in psychology, to learn more about these people and to understand their problems. Besides, I’m working the whole time as a therapist, I look after an adult with autism, and I also help out a little at the centre.
What was decisive in your choice of studies?
I was always interested in medicine, and wanted to go to medical studies, but life revised my desires slightly and I came here to biology. Despite all this, I never gave up on this connection and I chose physiology, and the Department of Animal and Human Physiology to be precise. As a student, I was active in the Department of Physiology’s ‘Homunculus’ scientific circle, as part of which I participated in events such as the Baltic Festival of Science or the Academic Fair. We also started to spread the word on the subject of the brain, which is why the circle co-organises ‘Brain Days’ in the Tri-City. I also joined and help to implement the Faculty of Biology’s ‘Learn about the Work of a Biologist’ educational programme, where I lead a workshop on the theme of conditioning. Apart from the popular-science activities, I’m also involved in purely scientific projects, for example, I recently had the pleasure of taking part in the ASC-Inclusion programme, partially financed by the European Union, where the main aim was to work out a therapeutic programme to help people with autism learn to recognise and express emotions. The partners included professors from the University of Cambridge and the Karolinska Institute, i.e. authorities in this field. I was partly responsible for creating a Polish version of the programme. The programme is ready and pilot tests on children with autism spectrum disorder are being carried out. At the moment, we’re checking if everything in the programme works, if all the data is correct and active. Later the programme should reach a wider range of recipients. Another scientific project I’m part of is a purely neurobiological project concerning serotonin. I check if the means by which serotonin is administered to rats, whether to the brain or to the blood, has an impact on the formation of behaviours observed in people with autism, if they isolate themselves from groups of other rats, for example, or if they display greater levels of fear in fear-inducing situations than rats not given serotonin. In other words, I try to compare the behaviour of rats with behaviour in people.
You deal with the phenomenon of autism – lately there have been a lot of myths about it being caused by children’s vaccinations.
That is obviously a myth. The research which proved that vaccinating children in some way makes them more liable to be autistic was specially contrived to show that this was the case. The Lancet, the journal where the work appeared, withdrew permission for the article to be published. The article is still available in the journal, on the web page, but there is also the information that the publisher, after conducting wide research, states that this research may reveal something, but it’s not related to vaccination. People should not see this as vaccination and autism having anything in common. That is a myth. Lately there has been a campaign in the media not to vaccinate children. My opinion, as a biologist, and one supported by cooperation with psychiatrists and other doctors, is that I emphatically believe that children should be vaccinated. Vaccination does not cause autism. Some countries have withdrawn vaccinations and yet subsequent cases of autism have been observed, but if these vaccinations had been responsible, then there would have been no autism in these countries in the first place.
Is your work also your hobby?
Of course what I do is a type of hobby, working with people with autism gives me satisfaction. When I work with my patient, we include elements of therapeutic work, but on the other hand we have a good time – we go rollerblading or to the cinema. These things can be combined. We go to where there’s people, and at the same time, my patient is being tested. I ask him to do something, like buy tickets to the cinema. This is a great challenge for someone with autism, especially an adult. In the past, less was known about autism, therapy didn’t begin as early as it does now and so these people had problems functioning in society. Thanks to the fact that they are being motivated in these ways, they can find their feet in society. I also like to travel and taking part in academic conferences is a great chance to visit different countries. Because I was taking part in a conference in San Diego, for example, I had a chance to go to the USA and to see the country, and besides my branch of science is well developed in the USA. I was able to see the results of research, hear speakers from centres which have funding incomparably greater than ours and their research is fascinating. While taking part in the lectures, I couldn’t escape the impression that I’d have liked to stay there and conduct further research, but that just prompted me to work harder here and obtain research grants, so that I can achieve something in this field of science here in Poland.
People with autism are often extraordinarily talented in some area of expertise, is this true or is it another myth?
If you’re talking about the phenomenon of savants, i.e. people unusually talented in some area, research indicates that there is a higher percentage of them amongst those with autism spectrum disorder. It occurs more frequently. They show unusual talent when it comes to architecture, mathematical or artistic ability. Data shows that only a certain percentage of those with autism have these unusual talents, although therapists have observed in their patients that, despite deficiencies in social or, for example, linguistic abilities, despite all this, there are, maybe not unusual talents, but better mathematical skills. The disorders are compensated for by other abilities, with a talent for mathematics or for memorising being most prominent. My patient, for example, strangely, has a very good memory for faces. It is claimed that people with autism have social problems but very often it happens that we meet people that we saw much, much earlier and my patient recognises them and can greet them. It’s very interesting.
Interview: Krzysztof Klinkosz
Photos: Piotr Pędziszewski