The Truth about Autism

Boston GlobeNovember 2011

THERE IS, living among us, a group of people with remarkable intellectual gifts.

They excel at spotting patterns despite huge distractions. They are able to discern subtle changes in sounds that escape most people. In their mind’s eye, they can readily flip and rotate complex three-dimensional shapes. Their memory is exceptional. And, one researcher found, they can rocket through a classic intelligence test, known as Raven’s Matrices, completing it 40 percent faster than the general population.

Science has a name for these people. It is “autistic.”

In the popular mind, autism is considered a disability, and it certainly is that. People with autism suffer from severe social deficits, which make it difficult for them to communicate, understand others, and generally make their way in the world. They can be hypersensitive to lights and sounds, and they experience a number of other symptoms – such as rocking or head-banging – that can be a challenge for them, and others, to deal with.

But autism is also a set of abilities. At the far extreme are the autistic savants, who can, for example, play a piece of music after hearing it once, or draw a complex three-dimensional scene, without error, from memory. Yet it is now clear that many autistics have specific areas of mental superiority that have been overlooked by science and go unappreciated by the general public.

There is an important social movement taking shape to tap these abilities – to find ways for autistic people to contribute, to hold jobs, to be brought into society instead of being shoved to the margins. It is a complex movement, bringing together parents, scientists, and entrepreneurs. Yet it is built on a simple insight: Just because a group of people have trouble navigating the world does not mean that they are incapable.

“Everybody knows that blind people have an adaptive problem, but nobody denies their intelligence,” says Laurent Mottron, an autism specialist at the University of Montreal.

Mottron writes of his own revelations about autism in the current issue of the journal Nature. Mottron recalls how he was working with an autistic patient, Michelle Dawson, who seemed to have a facility for research.

He invited her to help him, and began giving her some of his papers to check before submitting them for publication. He was astounded as it became clear that she was reading through every paper he cited, absorbing their meaning, and pointing out subtle errors of interpretation that he had made. Soon, he says, she was offering the kind of incisive feedback on his papers that he might expect from someone with a Ph.D. in the field, despite the fact she had no formal training whatsoever.

Dawson has since become a full-fledged member of the lab, and the two have coauthored 13 papers. Dawson, who now has an encyclopedic understanding of the research literature, pointed out an essential logical flaw in autism research. People with autism tend to score low on tests of verbal intelligence, and so Mottron and his colleagues had conceived of the condition as an intellectual disability. But autistics score much higher on non-verbal intelligence tests. Why, she asked, was this not considered a proof of intelligence?

Indeed, as Mottron looked at the field, he realized, as others have begun to do, that all differences between autistics and the rest of the population have been cast in a negative light. It is, he notes, like looking at someone in a wheelchair and saying that their arms are defective because they are stronger.

There is a Danish company called Specialisterne that trains autistic people to do IT work, like software testing, which requires incredible patience and attention to detail. The company’s clients, which include Microsoft, pay top dollar for the work, because the quality is superior. Other start-ups around the world, including Aspiritech in the Chicago area, are adopting the same model.

Not every autistic will be capable of IT work, but these entrepreneurs have shown that, with a little creativity, useful employment can be found for many people who are now languishing.

There is, of course, a strong ethical case for change. But there is also another way of thinking about it, which Americans, in particular, should understand: Tapping unusual minds provides a competitive advantage to companies – and to nations. Recognize the hidden strengths of our people, and we will all be the richer for it.