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Some with autism have intellectual advantages, psychiatrist says

I was struck by a commentary published yesterday in the journal Nature, which puts forth the idea that autism, when it occurs with high intelligence, provides some individuals with certain intellectual advantages over those who don’t have the disorder. The commentary author, Dr. Laurent Mottron, a professor of psychiatry and autism researcher at the University of Montréal, bases his conclusions on his own research as well as his experience working with an autistic researcher in his lab and several autistic research assistants.

“Everyone knows stories of autistics with extraordinary savant abilities. None of my lab members is a savant,” Mottron wrote. “They are ‘ordinary’ autistics, many of whom, on average, outperform non-autistics in a range of tasks, including measures of intelligence.”


He acknowledged that autism can be a harsh disability leaving 1 out of 10 people with the disorder unable to speak, 9 out of 10 with no regular job, and 8 out of 10 still dependent, as adults, on their parents.

With an estimated 1.5 million Americans diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the need for more professional opportunities for autistic adults has grown in urgency as the rate of diagnoses increases.

Many of those with the disorder have high levels of intelligence, often in visual-spatial abilities, that could make them indispensable employees if companies could learn to adapt to the common disabilities that come with autism, such as social awkwardness or tendencies to become overwhelmed in certain situations.

A new startup software company called Aspiritech in Highland Park, Ill., has banked on that, hiring young adults with autism to help locate software bugs by drawing on their talents: memory for detail, ability to find patterns in large sets of data, and intense concentration.

In a phone interview, I asked Mottron to elaborate on the autism advantage. Here are edited excerpts from our interview:


What evidence do you have about the advantages of autism?

Studies have shown that autistic individuals outperform those without the disorder in a wide range of visual perception tasks such as spotting a pattern in a set of numbers or shapes. Our own research analyzing brain imaging studies found that the visual spatial regions of the brain are more activated in autistics while they do a particular task and that they perform that task 40 percent faster. This indicates that these differences aren’t deficits, but are associated in some cases with superior performance.

Describe your experience working with those who have the disorder. How have you had to adapt?

We have several people in our lab who act as research assistants, and one, Michelle Dawson, does her own research. Dawson doesn’t have a college degree and used to deliver mail before I hired her seven years ago. She had no knowledge of science before the age of 43. But she’s extremely intelligent and read through all the bibliography sources of the first paper I gave her to proof-read. She learned quickly, and I began to rely on her to find hidden inconsistencies in my data going far beyond typos and grammatical mistakes in my English. Reviewers of our research papers now tell us that they’re “amazingly free of errors.”

Where I see the differences is in how we see things. I can look at things from the top down, seeing the big picture and making hypotheses based on a sample of data. Michelle sees things from the bottom up; she needs a full set of the available data before she can draw any conclusions. I can do things she can’t, and she can do things that I can’t.


In terms of adapting, I’m able to adjust expectations as needed, but I think it’s a good idea for employers to have mediators to help settle anxiety-provoking situations like anything unscheduled, changes to an existing plan, or negative criticism.

Do you think our high-tech world favors traits more dominant in autism?

I’m quite open minded that autism has real value in our society, but in order to see the relevance of that value, we need to adjust. Are companies willing to make modifications for those with low social skills who may perform poorly at sales meetings but may be indispensible when it comes to catching errors in an advertisement or inconsistencies in a new product design?

Given the differences in brain function and learning styles, do you think the education system should adapt to autistic children?

Autistic children should be included in a typical classroom, but yes, I think there needs to be adaption for their learning style. What I am against, however, are most expensive early intervention programs ... that are designed to teach autistic children to communicate by responding to certain prompts. There is no convincing data that these programs, which can cost $60,000 a year, work.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.