People with autism have advantages, in some ways, over people without the condition, and scientists need to stop viewing the traits of autism as flaws that need to be corrected, one autism researcher argues.
By seeing autism's differences as defects, researchers may fail to fully understand the condition, said Dr. Laurent Mottron, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal.
"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," Mottron wrote in a commentary published today (Nov. 2) in the journal Nature.
For instance, when researchers see activation in regions of autistic people's brains that differ from others' brains, they report these differences as deficits, "rather than evidence simply of their alternative, yet sometimes successful, brain organization," Mottron said.
By emphasizing the strengths of people with autism, deciphering how people with autism learn and avoiding language that frames autism as a defect, researchers can shape the discussion of autism in society, Mottron said.
Mottron said he does not want to minimize the challenges of autism. "One out of 10 autistics cannot speak, nine out of 10 have no regular job and four out of five autistic adults are still dependent on their parents," Mottron said.
But people with autism can make significant contributions to society in the right environment, he said.
The research setting is one of those environments. Several people with autism work in Mottron's lab, and one researcher in particular, Michelle Dawson, has made major contributions to the lab's understanding of the condition through her work and insight.
People with autism often have exceptional memories, and can remember information they read weeks ago. They are also less likely to misremember something, which comes in handy in a science lab. Dawson can instantly recall the methods used to study face-perception in autism, Mottron said.
Recent research has shown people with autism often outperform others in auditory and visual tasks, and also do better on non-verbal tests of intelligence. In one study by Mottron, on a test that involved completing a visual pattern, people with autism finished 40 percent faster than those without the condition.
In fact, intellectual disability may be over-estimated among people with autism, because researchers use inappropriate tests, Mottron said. "In measuring the intelligence of a person with a hearing impairment, we wouldn't hesitate to eliminate components of the test that can’t be explained using sign language; why shouldn’t we do the same for autistics?" Mottron said.
"I no longer believe that intellectual disability is intrinsic to autism," Mottron said. "To estimate the true rate, scientists should use only those tests that require no verbal explanation."
Still a disorder
Rajesh Kana, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, agreed that researchers shouldn't solely focus on the deficits of autism. However, autism should still be thought of as a disorder, and not merely a difference, Kana said.
People with severe autism have problems functioning in their day-to-day lives, and even people with less severe autism can fall victim to deception, because of their limited abilityto understand when someone is lying. Proper interventions can improve the lives of these people.
"A comprehensive account of autism should take into consideration the strengths and weaknesses" of the condition, Kana said.
While it may have been true in the past that researchers concentrated mainly on deficits in autism, the field is now taking a broader and deeper view of the disorder.
Understanding autism's strengths is important for providing support for those with the condition, Kana said. For instance, if a child has minimal verbal ability, then you probablywant to find a visual routeto help him.
"Your intervention should target the deficits, but work with the strengths," Kana said.
Pass it on: Autistic traits can allow these individuals to excel in certain areas, and should not always be viewed as problems.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.