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I was born Uta Aurnhammer in Rockenhausen in Germany and grew up in Kaiserlautern. At the Gymnasium I was enthralled by Latin and Greek,  but I also remember with fondness the teachers who nurtured my interest in the natural sciences. I had no idea what I would study and where, - there was too much choice, but I ended up studying History of Art and Psychology at Saarbrücken, Universität des Saarlandes. Because English was essential for Psychology, I went to London for an internship at the Institute of Psychiatry in 1964. By good fortune I met my husband, Chris Frith, which meant that I stayed in the UK, taking a Diploma course in Abnormal Psychology. I was also fortunate to find Beate Hermelin and Neil O’Connor, pioneers in the experimental study of mental retardation, who had just started their research programme on autism. I joined them as PhD student, and afterwards as a research scientist at the MRC Developmental Psychology Unit at UCL. Autism and Dyslexia are the two conditions that have fascinated me throughout my professional life.

When I started out, the idea of a brain basis, let alone genetic basis, of these disorders was ridiculed. Now we understand these disorders somewhat better, and know that they are genetic disorders with a basis in the brain. Although there is still a lot of work to do, we have some understanding of the underlying cognitive problems, for example, a problem in understanding other minds  in autism, and in dyslexia, a problem in mapping the sounds of speech to the alphabet. 

I am very grateful that the MRC has funded me since my PhD and that UCL has provided the setting for the Groups I have worked in. In 1998 I was one of the founder members of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, a wonderful interdisciplinary structure, which has allowed me to test ideas about mental development and its disorders through brain imaging. The best part is that I have been increasingly collaborating with my husband, who is also a neuroscientist.

I have always been interested in the history of autism. I am amazed by the popular interest in books, novels and films inspired by autism and would like to understand this phenomenon. I am slightly worried about the trend to assume that many famous scientists and mathematicians were autistic. This can’t be right and may point to some misunderstanding of what social competence is all about. There are many ways of being socially inept without being autistic.

I am also interested in the history of writing and collect alphabet samplers and also different examples of early writing and printing. I am addicted to illuminated manuscripts, and intrigued by the role women played in the teaching of before formal schooling. 

I am delighted by18th century blue and white porcelain, Chinese or European, and I love to visit Antique Fairs with my friend to find even more objects to add to my somewhat haphazard collections. My doll's house satisfies my lifelong longing for the good, sober and virtuously industrious domestic life, never achieved.

Photo by Ann Purkiss (akp@purkiss.eu)

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