Search This Blog

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Autism and Assets

Autism impairs communication, thus making it harder to gauge the abilities of a person on the spectrum. New technologies have helped open the doors of communication for some. And recent scientific research confirms that ASD people have strengths as well as challenges. In Nature, Laurent Mottron writes:

As a clinician, I also know all too well that autism is a disability that can make daily activities difficult. 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.


It is now amazing to me that scientists continue to use, as they have for decades, inappropriate tests to evaluate intellectual disability among autistics,which is routinely estimated to be about 75%. Only 10% of autistics have an accompanying neurological disease that affects intelligence, such as fragile-X syndrome, which renders them more likely to have an intellectual disability.

I no longer believe that intellectual disability is intrinsic to autism. To estimate the true rate, scientists should use only those tests that require no verbal explanation. 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?

Of course, autism affects other functions, such as communication, social behaviour and motor abilities. These differences can render autistics more dependent on others, and make everyday life much more difficult. None of my arguments above is intended to minimize that.

Too often, employers don't realize what autistics are capable of, and assign them repetitive, almost menial tasks. But I believe that most are willing and capable of making sophisticated contributions to society, if they have the right environment. Sometimes the hardest part is finding the right job — but organizations are now arising to address this problem. For example, Aspiritech, a non-profit organization based in Highland Park, Illinois, places people who have autism (mainly Asperger's syndrome) in jobs testing software ( The Danish company Specialisterne has helped more than 170 autistics obtain jobs since 2004. Its parent company, the Specialist People Foundation, aims to connect one million autistic people with meaningful work (