Talk review: An outsider’s take on autism and its causes


Theo Chevallier reports from the Oxford University Science Society’s latest event with Professor Martin Raff

It is a rather odd experience meeting the author of one of your textbooks. It is also rather odd hearing said author give a talk about something more or less unrelated to the textbook. It is even odder still to be shown some of their home videos.

Professor Dr. Martin Raff (born 1938 in Montreal) is one of the authors of the Molecular Biology of the Cell – a definitive and hefty textbook that covers, well, essentially everything to do with cells. Its most distinctive feature, however, is on the back cover – for each new edition that comes out, the authors photoshop themselves onto the Beatles’ album artwork. I image one gets bored writing a 1000 page textbook, after all.

In his youth, Professor Raff worked in Montreal, and then Boston, before crossing the pond in 1969. Since 1971, he has worked at UCL, and is an emeritus fellow there. He started life researching immunology, before switching allegiance to cell biology.

Despite being a demigod of cell biology, Martin Raff talked to the assembled members of the Oxford Science Society on autism. Autism is, of course, a phenomenally complex, interesting, and potentially very debilitating disorder, which is – despite a recent surge of progress – rather poorly understood. The world’s best neurological minds remain essentially baffled by the disease, and the physiological, anatomical, and most of the genetic bases of autism are yet to be elucidated.

The question that presents itself, therefore, is why Professor Raff chose to talk about this subject. He answered this question early on in the talk: his grandson was diagnosed with the condition in 2004. He was able to show us many home videos that chronicled his grandson’s development from a normal 2 year old, into a classically autistic 3 year old. It felt odd, non-clinical, and potentially intrusive to be watching such videos – but, on the other hand, it was a very effective way of explaining what autism is actually like, rather than just reading out a list of symptoms.

Throughout the rest of the lecture, Professor Raff explained recent advances in the understanding of autism, in his gentle, Canadian, style. Perhaps the most dramatic change is that science no longer considers Asperger’s Syndrome to have a discrete meaning – its use has been dropped, and people with the syndrome are simply said to have ‘high-functioning’ autism. It was interesting to hear a talk from a man who clearly had such a personal interest in the disease – in most of my lectures, diseases tend to be presented as abstract problems, rather than conditions that effected real people.

All in all, the talk succeeded in giving a personal, yet scientifically relevant insight into autism.



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