MAY 15, 2006


Rebels debunk autism weird science

Scientific mavericks rethink their 'neurocentric' attitudes about diagnosis and treatment

In our April 30 issue, the article "We 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 to despair."

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 autism.

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 smaller blocks.

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 evidence."

The team also concludes that the results provide evidence of "an enhanced functioning and role of the primary visual cortex in autism."

This can start to sound like an autistic ´┐Żbermensch 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 — her way.

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 Dr Mottron.

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?"



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