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Autism Has A Plus Side

Autism isn’t just a terrible cross to bear; in fact there are distinct advantages, according to a controversial paper which appeared in the journal Nature just this week (Nov 2nd 2011).

You will remember I recently did a post on the astonishing mental prowess of a couple of youngsters who were disadvantaged by autism and brain damage. Well, for them it wasn’t merely damage: they seemed to have amazingly augmented powers of mind that leave us ordinary mortal gasping with admiration. savants

Laurent Mottron, MD, PhD, from the University of Montreal’s Centre for Excellence in Pervasive Development Disorders, says the definition of autism itself is biased, being characterized by “a suite of negative characteristics,” focusing on deficits that include problems with language and social interactions. However, in certain settings, such as scientific research, people with autism exhibit cognitive strength.

He walks his talk and Dr Mottron has 8 individuals with autism in his own  research group including 4 assistants, 3 students, and 1 researcher, Michelle Dawson, whom he met almost 10 years ago during a television documentary about autism.

Though lacking a formal doctorate, Ms Dawson has since coauthored 13 papers and several book chapters.

According to the Nature article, “We think that the kind of strengths and cognitive profile that we find in autistics are much more specific than scientists usually acknowledge,” said Dr. Mottron.

“Unfortunately, there is no gold standard for the diagnosis of autism. Clinical diagnoses are reliable among scientists, but it is just a consensus…everybody may fail.”

He noted that as a result of a diagnosis, many individuals with autism end up working at repetitive, menial jobs despite their potential to make more significant contributions to society.

“After 18 years of age they’re not kids anymore, and they’re forgotten,” he said. “People have a cliché, that if he’s autistic you can do nothing with him. That’s not true. The fact that you have some terrible autistic life is not representative of autism in general.”

These are inspiring words, which I hope will be shared around. Certainly some of the autistic kids I have worked with over the years have had some fantastic plus points that make them companionable in a roundabout way, even if their direct interactions leave a little to be desired. Besides, it was very unusual to not be able to improve their mental and social skills dramatically with the regimes I was using in the 1980s and 90s.

Mottron’s unusual idea—and I think he’s a first—is that autism is part of the human spectrum, not just some disorder spectrum or a defect to be suppressed and “treated”. He’s convinced that, more than anything, people with autism “need opportunities, [and] frequently support, but rarely treatment.”

Radical stuff, I’ll say!

There is no question, of course, that autistics are different but that’s a better word than abnormal. Autistics rely less on verbal centers and demonstrating stimulation in regions that process both visual information and language.

Advantages may include spotting a pattern in a distracting environment, auditory tasks such as discriminating sound pitches, detecting visual structures, and mentally manipulating complex 3-dimensional shapes.

Individuals with autism also perform Raven’s Matrices (a trusted, nonverbal assessment of intelligence) at an average of 40% faster than nonautistics, using their analytical skills to complete an ongoing visual pattern.

Other benefits of autism include the ability to simultaneously process large amounts of perceptual information as data sets and the presence of instantaneous and correct recall.

That fits very well with the description of the two amazing young men I blogged about a month ago.

The important thing is there is a big degree of correctability with autism. I got severely disordered youngsters back to normal schooling, so I know that with personal certainty.

If we reach these individuals at a young age, when their brains are malleable, we can cognitively redirect the transmission of information via the corpus callosum to the speech areas in the left hemisphere of the brain and oftentimes speech and language will kick in.

Until then, intelligence in autistics should be measured only with non-verbal tests.

According to the article in Nature, autism is 3.5 times more prevalent than common statistics suggest.

I might add that there has even a suggestion that autism may come about because children lack normal interactions at the crucial period of growth and integration and that this in turn has been blamed on Moms going out to work, instead of being as mother.

A challenging and not PC idea. But it would explain why autism is

  1. recent
  2. on the rise
  3. far more common in the USA than the rest of the world.

One of Dr. Mottron’s most important points is that the performance of individuals with autism on normal tests may be poor but that with visual intelligence tests the true intelligence of people with autism is higher than is usually supposed.

Of course, there are detractors; mainly, I notice, people who make their money from autism “support”, rather than solving the problem!

But I applaud Mottron’s fresh stance. I think what Dr. Mottron is getting us to is the idea that autism is a different way of being, not necessary a disordered way of being, and the difference can give us strengths and abilities that other people may not have.

There is a plus side to autism!

[Source: Nature. Published online November 2, 2011]

The post Autism Has A Plus Side appeared first on Dr. Keith Scott-Mumby.

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