Wednesday, November 23, 2011

When is autism an advantage?

Changing perceptions: The power of autism is an interesting piece in the online Nov. 2 issue of Nature magazine which has produced a lot of blogger discussion.

Author Laurent Mottron, a University of Montreal researcher in the cognitive neuroscience of autism, has eight people on his research team who have autism.

"As a clinician, I...know all too well that autism is a disability that can make daily activities difficult," Mottron writes. "One out of ten autistics cannot speak, nine out of ten have no regular job and four out of five autistic adults are still dependent on their parents. Most face the harsh consequences of living in a world that has not been constructed around their priorities and interests.

"But in my experience, autism can also be an advantage. In certain settings, autistic individuals can fare extremely well. One such setting is scientific research. For the past seven years, I have been a close collaborator of an autistic woman, Michelle Dawson. She has shown me that autism, when combined with extreme intelligence and an interest in science, can be an incredible boon to a research lab.

"...Autism's many advantages are not part of the diagnostic criteria. Most educational programmes for autistic toddlers aim to suppress autistic behaviours, and to make children follow a typical developmental trajectory. None is grounded in the unique ways autistics learn.

"In cases where autistic manifestations are harmful — when children bang their heads on the walls for hours, for example — it is unquestionably appropriate to intervene. But often, autistic behaviours, although atypical, are still adaptive."

Facing Autism in New Brunswick has written a piece in response to the Nature article: Autism advantage? No! Connor Advantage? Yes!

"It is my deeply rooted belief that it is important to speak honestly about autism and the challenges it presents, particularly for those persons who are severely affected by autism. I do not believe that autism, a mental disorder, is an advantage and my commentaries reflect that belief.

"That does not, however, mean I agree with the flimsy argument that describing autism challenges honestly means that I am not recognizing the rights of autism persons or recognizing that an autistic person has any intrinsic value as a human being. That argument is based on nothing more than ideological rhetoric."

What do you think?


"Clarity, as well as action, requires reason and compassion." Therefore, "Ideological rhetoric," so to speak, "Is just not good enough."

Those who wish to help, should first, "Grant the basic right of citizenship and recognize the intrinsic value of personhood."

Matt Kamaratakis