Nov 06 2015

Are People with Autism Psychic?

As a general rule of thumb, if a headline contains a question the answer is usually “no.” This headline is no exception.

Thanks to the low journalistic standards at the Daily Mail, an ESP proponent by the name of Diane Powell is getting another round of media attention for her claim that children with autism can have telepathic powers, which she feels is an evolutionary compensation for their otherwise limited ability to communicate.

The story revolved around a 5-year-old boy named Ramses Sanquino, whose mother believes is a savant as well as telepathic. I tend to be skeptical of specific savant claims, even though they are well documented in some cases. I don’t doubt the phenomenon, but I have also seen cases in which overzealous parents manufacture the perception of extraordinary abilities in their children.

I was even involved in a case in which a mother believed her young child, who was non-verbal, could read in two languages on a 10th grade level. She came by this determination through facilitated communication, which is not a legitimate technique. This was a clear case of projecting her hopes onto her mute and passive child.

Most of us probably know parents who take parental pride a bit too far. In extreme cases children can be pressured into becoming show ponies for their parents. On the other hand, there are legitimately bright children who are impressive in their early acquisition of knowledge and skills.

Children on the spectrum may also be very bright, despite lacking certain social skills others take for granted. This phenomenon is often referred to as savant syndrome, when autistic children display an “island of genius.” Research finds that such savant abilities are usually linked to an impressive memory for certain kinds of information. The exact nature of the savant abilities are still a matter of scientific debate.

Given the reporting, and even accounting for an over-zealous parent, it seems Ramses may be displaying some autistic savant abilities. Where I am skeptical is of the claims that he. “is already learning seven languages and solving complex mathematical equations.” When you read more deeply into the article there are clues that these claims are hugely overstated. Ramses, apparently, is learning words in seven languages. This is not quite the same thing as learning to speak seven languages. Mathematical ability is a bit trickier to assess, but the question is – is he learning to memorize certain mathematical procedures, or does he have a real understanding of mathematical principles?

As interesting as the savant question is, the real reason Ramses is making headlines is because his mother also believes that he has telepathy – that he can read her mind. By itself this is not terribly interesting, as parents come to believe all sorts of delusional things about their children (see Jenny McCarthy and Indigo children). What is driving this story is that a Harvard trained psychiatrist is researching his abilities.

As the Daily Mail reports:

“Dr. (Diane) Powell, who trained at John Hopkins University and currently runs a private practice in Medford, Oregon, is now studying Ramses as part a cutting-edge research project into telepathy.”

I’m not sure that “cutting edge” is the right description. Powell is, to be blunt, a believer. She is a contributor to the Institute of Noetic Sciences and author of the book, The ESP Enigma. She believes that telepathy is an evolutionary adaptation in individuals who have otherwise impaired communication. She extends this to infants, who she believes communicate fears telepathically to their parents through dreams.

The Publisher’s Weekly review of her book says a lot:

In science it is axiomatic that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Powell, a neuropsychiatrist who has taught at Harvard Medical School, certainly makes extraordinary claims about the four basic psychic abilities: telepathy, psychokinesis, clairvoyance and precognition. But her evidence is consistently below par. She relies on self-reported claims by psychics, hundred-year-old newspaper accounts and the results of studies published by organizations like the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research rather than in reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journals (and sometimes she cites no source at all). Powell is woefully short on mechanisms to explain the phenomena she claims are so common, although she does turn to quantum physics to assert that molecular resonance and the space-time continuum are likely responsible, and she finds evolutionary explanations for the existence of psychic phenomena. She claims, for instance, that psychic events are related to dreaming, which may have evolved so babies, who mostly sleep, can detect threats and communicate them psychically to their parents. Undaunted by the weak evidence, Powell asserts that she is on the forefront of a Copernican revolution of the mind.

Powell was interviewed on Skeptiko in which she recounts two anecdotes from her childhood that impressed her with the reality of ESP. The first was when a magician at a circus was able to tell her the contents of apparently random books and pages from across the room. The magician said it was a magic trick (and it is certainly not a unique trick) but her father told her it sounded like telepathy. So there you have it – what other explanation can there be for a skilled professional magician to appear to have telepathic ability? Powell apparently doesn’t think he was using his skills as a professional magician, which is the art of appearing to have abilities you don’t have.

Her second anecdote is essentially that she received a convincing cold reading from a self-proclaimed psychic.

Getting back to Ramses, his mother claims he can see numbers or other information that she writes down from across the room. This, too, is an old trick. There are also many cases of clever children figuring out methods for “cheating” and pretending to have psychic abilities. People falsely assume that children are either inherently honest (not true) or too simple to figure out clever tricks (also not true).

The reporting strongly suggests a pattern in which Ramses’ mother is putting a tremendous amount of pressure on Ramses to be impressive, even if just through sincere parental pride. The positive feedback he would get for appearing to have telepathic powers would be overwhelming for a 5-year-old. It also seems that he is observant and clever, traits that are not uncommon in autistic savants.

All of this leaves us with the strong possibility that Ramses has simply figured out a way to do a simple magic trick, and his mother (in her enthusiasm) has bought it. It is also possible that Ramses’s mother is in on the trick. In any case, these more prosaic hypotheses would need to be strictly ruled out by rigorous research protocols before we re-write the physics and biology textbooks to account for an entirely new phenomenon.

Powell claims that her research is generating such evidence, but given her existing writing and opinions, forgive me if I am not impressed.

This is what Powell claims:

Believe it or not but I have data that could mute the Great Randi challenge. I know that is quite a statement but I do. To meet that challenge you have to have it reviewed scientifically and they want a recommendation from some science journal. They want to see it in print somewhere.

This is fresh. I just did these experiments last month. That’s how fresh this information is… I have digit sequences that are 18 and 19 numbers long and 100% accuracy. The stats on that are incredible. I even had this one sequence where it’s 162 digits Out of 162 digits there was only 7 mistakes, and when told that is the wrong number this autistic child got it right on the second go. The stats on that are just staggering. That’s why I am saying it is well beyond the great Amazing Randi challenge.

The good news is, if her data is so staggering and unequivocal, it should be a very easy matter to design a protocol for the Randi million dollar challenge that will allow Powell to win the challenge and shut up all the skeptics. As far as I can tell this challenge has never taken place. I will ask the JREF if they have any records on Powell and post an update.


At present there is no compelling scientific evidence that any ESP phenomenon is real. There is no plausible mechanism to explain ESP. There is no evidence to suggest the people with autism have ESP.

Believer in ESP, like Powell, always seem to cite low quality evidence that does not reach the threshold for scientific acceptance. At the same time they claim remarkable success, but they can never seem to replicate their success when proper independent controls are put into place. The simplest explanation for this persistent pattern is that ESP does not exist but that humans have a very deep capacity for self-deception.

197 responses so far