Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ray of Light

From the darkness known as IMFAR 2009, there appears to have emanated at least one small ray of light. In a poster presentation entitled The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence II: What about Asperger Syndrome? (Mottron, Soulières, Gernsbacher, Dawson, 2009), the Mottron team adds further detail to its previous paper The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence (Dawson, et al., 2007), this time demonstrating that individuals with Asperger Syndrome (defined as individuals diagnosed with some form of autism, but without presentation of various forms of communication difficulties) evince the same pattern of Raven's versus Wechsler intelligence scores as was demonstrated by the autistic population studied in the 2007 paper.

I do not want to make too much of an abstract from a poster presentation, but the findings here are important in at least one respect. Much of the response to the 2007 paper focused on the idea that the Raven's test is essentially non-verbal, with the suggestion being that the better performance of autistic individuals on the Raven's test could be accounted for by the fact that Raven's bypasses autistic language difficulties, whereas Wechsler does not. That suggestion, however, is misleading, and the 2009 poster presentation reveals the flaw, for it demonstrates that in general all autistic individuals—with strong verbal abilities or not—show a similar pattern of test results. This means that something more than just verbal strengths and weaknesses is being captured in the autistic pattern of Raven's/Wechsler intelligence scores.

In my opinion, the differential performance of autistic individuals has far more to do with the question domain of the respective tests than it has to do with whether the tests are “verbal” or not: the question domains of some tests match well to autistic intellectual strengths, the question domains of others do not. Tests like Raven's and the block design subtest of Wechsler contain questions built strongly around pattern recognition and structural manipulation—a type of question that matches well to the non-biological, pattern-oriented focus that is characteristic of autistic perception. The questions of the other Wechsler subtests (comprising quite the hodge-podge) in varying degree are less pattern oriented, and they also tend to contain more culturally derived elements, elements that autistic individuals are perhaps less likely to perceive with ease.

These intelligence studies, spearheaded mostly by Michelle Dawson, are quite simple in scope and design, but they have revealed an unexpected result (at least, unexpected by the autism research community): autistic intelligence is much different in kind than non-autistic intelligence, and autistic intelligence cannot be explained away by assuming it is nearly the same as non-autistic intelligence, with just an assortment of defects tacked on.

This is a good occasion to highlight the unique role Michelle Dawson now occupies within the autism research community. Ms. Dawson is unlike any other researcher in autism's now vastly overcrowded field—for Ms. Dawson does not possess a slew of post-graduate degrees, Ms. Dawson has not patiently worked her way up through the hierarchical ranks, Ms. Dawson has not been shedding pieces of her scientific soul in order to remain part of the gathering throng. Ms. Dawson's presence in the autism research community is due almost entirely to her autism and to her intelligence, and due to the fact that Laurent Mottron has had enough discernment and courage to recognize Ms. Dawson's talent and vision and to incorporate her efforts into his research team's work. The results have been electrifying, for the Mottron team is now the only autism research team to have moved firmly away from the autism-as-disorder orthodoxy and to have provided valuable insights into the nature of autistic individuals as they truly are. The entire Mottron team deserves credit for these many contributions, but it also clear the inclusion of Ms. Dawson has had a catalyzing effect.

When will the rest of the autism community learn the importance of this lesson?

Inclusion of autistic individuals leads to intuitive, hard-to-see-otherwise insights about the nature of autism. Exclusion of autistic individuals leads only to a continuing blindness.


Catana said...

Thank you so much for this post. As a person on the mild end of the Asperger's spectrum, and someone whose analytical and pattern-recognition abilities are very strong, albeit more verbal than visual, the question of autistic intelligence has become one of my major interests. Specifically, there seems to be an unquestioned belief that autistic intelligence is not only different, but superior, and includes traits not available to NTs. This is an area that is not going to be clarified by autism "experts" with no personal experience, so it's good to know that Dawson's work is proceeding. I'd only read about her work with Mottron in Wired and had no idea how to follow up. I appreciate the links you provided

Fleecy said...

Good post. I liked it. I think you made a good point about the non-biological focus (made me think of that study they did recently with the points of light and the clappy sounds)

Alan Griswold said...

Catana - Welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed the post, and even more so I'm glad you're finding some of its links to be informative. I think we are only at the beginning of truly understanding autistic intelligence, but I also think the Mottron team has gotten us off to a good start.

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