The paper Enhanced Perceptual Functioning in Autism: An Update, and Eight Principles of Autistic Perception (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, Hubert, Burack, 2006) is one of the few autism research articles that attempts to get at the heart of what autism is, so I heartily recommend it as reading.
Perhaps I should begin by confessing I am only lukewarm about the paper’s model as a whole—too much reliance upon speculative brain dynamics and citation politics for my own taste. Plus although the paper does provide a plausible hypothesis for explaining autistic cognitive strengths, it remains too eerily silent on how enhanced perceptual functioning can also account for autistic cognitive weaknesses (i.e., why should I not expect an enhanced perceptual processer to remain at least passably average in social and biological skills?). These difficulties aside, the paper does take an intriguing turn starting around principle 5, and by principle 7, it enters boldly into the land of brilliance.
The discussion’s emphasis on savant skills and on the constrained, pattern-rich domains of such skills brings into focus a cognitive process engaged primarily by spatial, temporal and structural features to be found in an individual’s perceptual environment. The laying out of a savant-specific brain-behavior cycle, including its appeal to a “stoppage rule,” demonstrates how cognitively hungry such individuals must be to form cohesiveness out of their sensory experience—highlighting how for some, once they have latched onto any organizing perceptual influence, they pursue it with a relish and determination unprecedented within the realms of psychology. Now if it were me writing this paper, while pointing out the particular perceptual elements that autistic savants do focus intensely on, I would also be pointing out the conspicuously absent elements they as a group do not so readily perceive, namely any biological or species-based influences that for the population at large would be considered the perceptual focus of norm. But that one quibble aside, Enhanced Perceptual Functioning’s inventive use of savant skills as an entryway into a description of the autistic cognitive process must be applauded for being both original and productive.
And the fresh insights do not end there. After this promising introduction into the nature and form of savant cognitive skills, principle 7 notes how all types of autistic cognition can be described and classified through a similar approach, the only essential difference being the diminished degree with which non-savant autistic individuals burrow into any particular domain or skill. Autistic subtypes are to be determined not by assumptive genetic or neural differences, but instead by a classification of the general perceptual influences that appeal to and engage various autistic individuals. At this point, the authors are coming daringly close to asserting—even if they may ultimately wish to deny it—that autistic cognition is formed almost entirely out of the spatial, temporal and structural environment to which each autistic individual is exposed, a process almost random by its nature, but also creative by definition. Furthermore, a hint of a claim is being made that positive outcomes in autistic individuals can be enhanced by providing more such exposure to non-social, non-biological influences, not by limiting such exposure.
These ideas are bold and inventive—they point the way to a paradigm shift that the autism research community stands badly in need of. The marvelous discussions around principles 5, 6, and especially 7—sparked by an innovative use of the features of savant skills and built up into an affirmative description of an autistic cognitive process—are far more illuminating than the long-in-the-tooth hypotheses hashed together around assumptions of brain deficits and genetic defects. Here, at long last, we have some visionary insight into the true nature of autistic perception, and to the Mottron team, I say, Bravo! Bravo! Many, many bravos!