For autism research pioneers, early work paved path to success


Getting to the top generally requires years of hard work, committed mentors and many missteps along the way.We asked a few of the most distinguished autism researchers to share memories from their first autism study, including their initial assumptions and what they’ve learned since. Their answers reveal the origins of modern theories as well as how much ideas about autism have changed over the years.

Uta Frith:

My first study was inspired by an ingenious experiment by my wonderful Ph.D. supervisors, Beate Hermelin and Neil O’Connor. They compared recall for random words (for instance, “fish, ate, they, fresh”) and for the same words when they formed sentences (“They ate fresh fish.”). Normally, we expect recall for words in sentences to be a lot better than recall for words in random strings. But this was not the case for children diagnosed with Autism. I was fascinated by this finding and wanted to repeat it. This led to my first and only paper ever accepted without revision, in 19691.


In that first study, I recorded myself saying strings of words and played them back to the children and asked them to repeat what they heard. I soon gave up using the tape recorder, which only distracted the children. I found they willingly did the task as long as I spoke the words to them directly.