Is it time to view autism as an advantage?

Is it time to view autism as an advantage?

By Liz Lockhart

A recent research study states that many autistic individuals have qualities and abilities that may exceed those of people who do not have the condition. 

In a provocative article published in the journal ‘Nature’, Dr. Laurent Mottron of the University of Montreal’s Centre for Excellence in Pervasive Development Disorders says ‘Recent data and my own personal experience suggest it’s time to start thinking of autism as an advantage in some spheres, not a cross to bear.’

Mottron and his team has firmly established, and replicated, the abilities and sometimes superiorities of individuals with autism in many cognitive operations such as reasoning and perception.  These abilities had previously been established.

Amongst Mottron’s  lab staff there are several people with autism.  One of them in particular, Michelle Dawson, makes major contributions to the lab’s understanding of autism through her work and her judgement. ‘Michelle challenged my perception of autism,’ Mottron said. ‘

He added that intellectual disability may be over estimated among people with autism because of the use of inappropriate test. ‘In measuring the intelligence of a person with a hearing impairment, we wouldn’t hesitate to eliminate components of the test that can’t be explained using sign language.  Why shouldn’t we do the same for autistics?’

‘I no longer believe that intellectual disability is intrinsic to autism.  To estimate the true rate, scientists should use only those tests that require no verbal explanation,’ Mottron explained.

Dawson sees autistic strengths as the manifestation of authentic intelligence rather than a trick of the brain that allows them to mindlessly perform intelligent tasks.

‘It’s amazing to me that for decades scientists have estimated the magnitude of mental retardation based on the administration of inappropriate tests, and on the misinterpretation of autistic strengths,’ he said.

The research suggests that very often, individuals with autism, outperform others in auditory and visual tests and are less likely to misremember facts.  In one of Mottron’s tests which required the completion of a visual pattern, people with autism finished 40% faster than those without the condition.

Dr. Mottron said that there are challenges attached to autism which should not be underplayed.  ‘One out of 10 autistics cannot speak, nine out of 10 have no regular job and four out or five autistic adults are still dependent on their parents,’ he said. He added that people with autism can make significant contributions to society in the right environment and he lamented the fact that many autistics end up working repetitive, menial jobs, despite their intelligence and aptitude to make much more significant contributions to society.

‘Dawson and other autistic individuals have convinced me that, in many instances, people with autism need more than anything opportunities, frequently support, but rarely treatment,’ said Mottron.  ‘As a result, my lab and others believe autism should be described and investigated as an accepted variant with human species, not as a defect to be suppressed.’


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