National Geographic : 2005 Mar
Initially diagnosed as mentally retarded, he was dragged from one doctor to another in his native India by a mother desperate to find the cause of her son's abnormal behavior and language impairment. Through relent less, sometimes unorthodox, training she broke through the barrier of silence, teaching Tito to add and subtract, to enjoy literature, and eventually to communicate by writing, at first by tying a pencil to his hand. Because of her efforts Tito, rare among low-functioning autistics, can describe with powerful clarity what the condition feels like from the inside. Tito's vivid autobiographical reflections reveal a sensibility and intelligence greater than his years. In Beyond the Silence, writ ten between the ages of eight and eleven and published in England in 2000 (published as The Mind Tree in the U.S. in 2003) he chronicles his early attempts to cope with the cacophony of disconnected information arriving through his senses and his profound struggle to control his own body and behav ior. He wrote of two distinct selves, a thinking self "which was filled with learnings and feel ings," and an acting self that was "weird and full of actions," over which he had no more control than if it belonged to another person altogether. "The two selves stayed in their own selves, isolated from each other." "Tito's remarkable achievements haven't overcome his autism," says Michael Merze nich, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied Tito. "There is still chaos occurring in his brain." Where does that chaos come from? There is no doubt that genes play a role in at least some forms of the disorder. Also, infants who later develop autism often under go a period of abnormal rapid brain growth in the first year of life, which may be related to an overproduction of cells that carry nerve impulses in the brain's white matter. Researchers Chris and Uta Frith at Univer sity College in London have pinpointed a suite of structures-one above the eyes, another near the ear, and a third high up on the sides of the brain-that allow us to infer what others are thinking and relate to people accordingly. These regions appear to be less active in individuals with autism and Asperger's syn drome, a milder form of the disorder. But other parts of the brain may also be involved, including the amygdala and the hippocam pus. It is doubtful that a disorder with such a broad spectrum of symptoms and patholo gies has any single cause. "Men and women are puzzled by what I do," writes Tito. "Doc tors use different termi nologies to describe me. I just wonder."