Is There an Up Side to Autism?

Society's Negative Bias Toward Autism Needs Rethinking, Expert Says

Yael Waknine

November 07, 2011

November 7, 2011 — Autism may be an advantage in some settings and should not be viewed as a defect that needs suppressing, according to a provocative article published online November 2 in Nature.

Dr. Laurent Mottron

"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," author Laurent Mottron, MD, PhD, from the University of Montreal's Centre for Excellence in Pervasive Development Disorders, told Medscape Medical News.

According to the article, 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.

"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."


Autism should be described and investigated as an accepted variant within human species, not as a defect to be suppressed.

Dr. Mottron has 8 individuals with autism people in his 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.

Following the show, Ms. Dawson experienced problems in her job as a postal worker and was asked by Dr. Mottron to edit some of his papers.

"She gave exceptional feedback, and it was clear that she had read the entire bibliography," Dr. Mottron noted. Her single-minded autistic abilities to discern patterns out of mountains of data and instant recall of correct information made her perfectly suited to a career in science, he said.

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

Dr. Mottron said Ms. Dawson and other individuals with autism have convinced him that more than anything, people with autism "need opportunities, [and] frequently support, but rarely treatment."

As a result, he believes that "autism should be described and investigated as an accepted variant within human species, not as a defect to be suppressed."

Dr. Mottron noted that autistic brains do function differently, relying 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 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.

Because data and facts are of paramount importance to people with autism, they also tend not to get bogged down in career politics or seek popularity via promotional publishing; online essays such as those posted by Ms. Dawson in her blog may instead receive unintentional acclaim.

Intellectual Disability Not Intrinsic

What we know is that 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.

"I no longer believe intellectual disability is intrinsic to autism," Dr. Mottron said, noting that intelligence in people with autism should be measured with nonverbal tests.

In his article, Dr. Mottron cites recent data, including an epidemiological study that showed the disorder is 3.5 times more prevalent than common statistics suggest.

He noted that the study showed that many of those with autism have "no adaptive problems at all," and can function relatively normally.

However, he added, a focus on "normocentrism" prevails in some countries. France, for example, has proposed mandatory interventions aimed at forcing children with autism to adopt "typical" learning and social behaviors, rather than allowing them to make the most of their differently wired brains.

Dr. Mottron finds such a concept concerning.

"There is no current treatment for autism, just educational strategies that do not put the emphasis on learning abilities for nonsocial information.... [W]e need to take their learning style for what it is and feed it," he said.

Joanne Lara

Some of these therapies may include engaging children with autism in a music and movement program, said Joanne Lara, MA, founder of Autism Movement Therapy, Inc, in an interview with Medscape Medical News.

"What we know is that 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."

She continued: "The audio processing of music in the brain combined with the forward, backward, and side-to-side movements stimulate and activate the dormant areas of the brain that, in autism, do not generally receive transmission of neurons.

"Movement and music, when combined with gross motor and visual processing, oftentimes helps the areas of the brain of the individual with autism to work together to allow for a whole-brain processing approach," she added.


Dr. Jonathan Tarbox

"I think it's critically important to acknowledge the potential strengths associated with autism, but it's equally important, if not more important, to reiterate the notion of the right to effective treatment," Jonathan Tarbox, PhD, BCBA-D, director of research and development at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, Tarzana, California, told Medscape Medical News.

"If an individual with [autism] is having a difficult time in their life because they don't know how to do something that they want to do, and there is a proven effective method to teach that skill, then we as fellow humans have a moral and ethical responsibility to provide the treatment that addresses it," he said.

Behavioral intervention programs, he said, should be used in a supportive environment to treat skill deficits in individuals with autism wanting to learn, similar to those used for literacy and mathematics. He added that autism is no different: People who have skill deficits and want to learn have a right to effective treatment.

Dr. Tarbox took exception to Dr. Mottron's contention that individuals with autism need opportunity more than treatment.

Environmental support, he said, does create opportunity. In addition, he noted that research shows that early intensive behavioral intervention increases the ability to communicate and function independently.

"How can a newly found ability to communicate not be considered an opportunity?" he said.

One of Dr. Mottron's main points is that the performance of individuals with autism on visual intelligence tests is often overlooked, showing that the true intelligence of people with autism is higher overall than verbal intelligence tests would indicate.

"This is, of course, true, but true intelligence is of little relevance to a person's everyday quality of life. What really matters is one's ability to do what one wants to do in life independently; that is, without having to rely on support from others," said Dr. Tarbox.

There are many people, autistic and nonautistic, who have superior intelligence, but still have much difficulty in life and suffer for it.

"There are many people, autistic and nonautistic, who have superior intelligence but still have much difficulty in life and suffer for it. Unfortunately, vocal language is the medium with which most humans interact, so deficits in one's ability to vocally communicate are going to create barriers for people."

Dr. Mottron also states that no education programs are tailored to the unique ways that people with autism learn.

However, Dr. Tarbox noted that there are "many tens of thousands of special education teachers, speech and language pathologists, and applied behavior analysts working to change what they do to help individuals with autism learn."

The aim of behavioral interventions, he added, is not to try to teach individuals with autism to adopt typical learning and behavior but, rather, to teach skills that help increase independence.

Such programs, he said, "teach skills that open doors for individuals with autism, but they do not dictate which door to take."

First-Hand Experience

I think what Dr. Mottron was getting 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.

"I think what Dr. Mottron was getting 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," said Stephen M. Shore, EdD, assistant professor at Adelphi University in Long Island, New York, in an interview with Medscape Medical News, citing the well-known accomplishments of Temple Grandin, PhD.

"At the same time, there are many challenges that come with being on the autistic spectrum, such as sensory issues, communication, interacting with others. These things are challenges, and we do have to address them," Dr. Shore noted.

Dr. Stephen M. Shore

Diagnosed himself with autism at age 2 and a half years, and nonverbal until age 4 years, Dr. Shore was originally recommended for institutionalization. With the help of family and others, he completed a doctoral dissertation at Boston University in Massachusetts that was focused on matching best practice to the needs of people on the autism spectrum. He now spends his time researching, teaching, writing books, and conducting autism workshops around the world.

According to Dr. Shore, the best way to address those issues is to find a way to use a person's strengths to overcome their challenges.

"There is a point in time when you have to get off the remediation and start moving on to finding a way the person can be successful in communication," he said. Methods may include use of a computer keyboard, rather than a pen, to write, or pointing at pictures to communicate, he said.

Adjusting the environment also plays a vital role and often benefits people without autism.

"Many autistics have sensory issues and perceive fluorescent lights as most people strobe lights, which will really affect productivity at work and school," Dr. Shore said. "Research shows that everybody's productivity is affected by fluorescent lamps, so everyone benefits by using alternate lighting."

With respect to the plethora of methodologies used to address autism in children, Dr. Shore notes that the wide variety of diversity within the autism spectrum disorders necessitates a tailored approach.

Parents and educators are encouraged to pick one or more approaches that best suits the child's needs and abilities. This may include use of Applied Behavioral Analysis, Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-Handicapped Children, Daily Life Therapy, the Miller Method, the Developmental/Individual Difference/Relationship-based method, relationship development intervention, and social communication/emotional regulation.

"You can have a right or wrong approach on an individual basis, but not on a generic basis," he said.

Nature. Published online November 2, 2011. Full text


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.