In our April 30 issue, the article
don't need to be cured" explored the autistic rights,
or neurodiversity, movement. This issue we look at the
science backing their claims that autism isn't a disease.
"Shoddy standards have invaded
autism research and treatments," laments Michelle Dawson,
a 45-year- old autistic from Montreal. "It's hard not
For the last few years Ms Dawson
has been doing something about it. Since the former
Canada Post mail carrier joined the research team of
University of Montreal psychiatrist Dr Laurent Mottron
she's worked on some groundbreaking studies that are
part of a seismic shift in research shaking the foundations
of what cognitive and behaviour scientists believe about
A breakthrough occurred when Ms Dawson helped Dr Mottron
and his team realize that a simple IQ test bias was
skewing real intelligence scores for all autistics.
"At first this research was absolutely peripheral,"
recalls Dr Mottron. "We just wanted instruments that
give you a level of intelligence in order to match patients
in our studies."
He and his team were pretty pleased
with some findings they'd published in 2004 recommending
autism researchers use the Wechsler IQ test because
it didn't overestimate intelligence in autistics like
other available tests. They had observed that the two
main IQ tests, Wechsler and Raven's Progressive Matrices,
were producing wildly different results in autistics,
between 30 and 95 percentiles, in certain 'peaks of
ability,' where autistics do extremely well at a specific
task. These peaks have traditionally been treated as
anomalies and not as evidence of intelligence.
When Ms Dawson had a look at their
research her verdict was swift: they had it all wrong.
The problem was they were favouring a test, the Wechsler,
which depended on verbal instruction, which autistics
don't do well at, she pointed out. As usual, they were
looking at things from their own 'normalcentric' perspective.
"Then Michelle Dawson began to
study everything about the Raven IQ test," explains
Dr Mottron. "She found that it's the one that's considered
for non-autistics the most representative of real intelligence
which is not true of the Wechsler test."
The superiority of the Raven test
for measuring real intelligence has been known for 20
years. "But nobody works on intelligence anymore," says
Dr Mottron, "because the last people who did research
on intelligence were trying to say black people are
less intelligent than whites. So nobody wanted to do
research on it it's dangerous. But Michelle has
no care for things that are fashionable. She's not interested
in money or glory she's just interested in saying
things that are true."
After this initial eureka moment,
Dr Mottron decided to rethink his earlier endorsement
of the Weschler test. "We looked at our database and
found that we had nearly 30 subjects who had these large
variations in IQ scores. Then we asked the big question:
'Could this be true for any autistics?' It's a bit too
early to say exactly, but we strongly question the classical
assumption that 75% of autistics are mentally retarded."
With their tool for measuring intelligence sorted out,
the team returned to its first love: cognitive research.
Their latest study, published online as open access
in Brain in April, compares autistics with peaks
of ability with three other groups: autistics without
peaks, gifted non-autistics, and non-autistics of average
intellect. The four groups were tested using a block
design task, in which the subject is shown coloured
blocks then ask to reproduce them using a number of
It's well-known that autistics
do well on some of these tasks, but their superiority
vanishes when the block they're asked to reproduce is
segmented (ie, divided into smaller blocks and separated)
. This finding has been taken as evidence of their locally-oriented
(as opposed to globally-oriented) processing, and used
to formulate the influential Weak Central Coherence
(WCC) theory, which holds that "locally-oriented processing
is derived from a deficit in the tendency to integrate
local elements into a coherence whole," explains Dr
Mottron in his study.
The Brain study used a modified
block test consisting of both segmented and unsegmented
designs to figure out what was going on. The scores
on the various tests showed the autistic group to be
versatile in handling different tasks, whether locally-
or globally-oriented; in fact they were often more versatile
than the non-autistics. "WCC is dismantled by this study,"
says a triumphant Ms Dawson. "The notion of autistics
as being rigid and inflexible is not supported by the
The team also concludes that the
results provide evidence of "an enhanced functioning
and role of the primary visual cortex in autism."
ON ITS HEAD
This can start to sound like an autistic bermensch
complex Dr Mottron cautioned against in our earlier
article, but it really represents an overall shift in
attitude that the group has undergone from thinking
in terms of deficits to developing a new non-judgmental
language of comparison to describe something different.
"Working with Michelle has helped
us suppress the 'normalcentrism' of the researcher,"
explains Dr Mottron. "We've completely changed our frame
of comparison. I can tell you that most cognitive research
is done by measuring if people are superior or inferior
to paradigmatic typical people." Dr Mottron uses a simple
example to explain why this method doesn't make sense:
"You don't say a dog is ill or dumb because it cannot
climb a tree. You'd only say that if your vocabulary
of description is that of a cat."
The implications for the team and
others working this vein (Dr Mottron was part of a panel
at the American Association for the Advancement of Science
meeting in February that challenged unfounded beliefs
about autism both by the public and in science) is that
it's time to view the world from where their subjects
are sitting, as much as possible.
"We realized and we say
this respectfully that autistics are like another
species," says Dr Mottron. "People are afraid of this
because they don't want to seem to be rejecting autistics
as not human, but we have to overcome this fear and
say that humanity is composed of heterogeneous people.
Autistics have a different brain the cells are
different, the cell organization is different, allocation
for certain tasks in the brain is different."
Dr Mottron and Ms Dawson insist
we owe it to autistics to come up with tools and methods
that make sense to their brains. "Things are set up
for non-autistic brains," notes Ms Dawson, listing cooking,
cleaning, tying shoe-laces, taking care of a cat as
tasks she can't manage well but would like to do
Science is a safe haven for autistics,
and it's a mutually beneficial relationship. "We were
not the first group to work with an autistic person,
but I think we were perhaps the first to consider not
only the scientific power of autistics, which is quite
well known, but to take seriously the way she sees the
world and to consider it may influence science," says
As for Ms Dawson, she's the first
to admit that the merit-based, truth-driven world of
science has been her salvation. "Where are we welcome?"
she asks. "I found research isn't that amazing?"