In the discussion section of “The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence II: What about Asperger Syndrome?” (Soulières 2011), you will find the following paragraph:
“We have proposed that autistics' cognitive processes function in an atypically independent way, leading to “parallel, non-strategic integration of patterns across multiple levels and scales” and to versatility in cognitive processing. Such “independent thinking” suggests ways in which apparently specific or isolated abilities can co-exist with atypical but flexible, creative, and complex achievements. Across a wide range of tasks, including or perhaps especially in complex tasks, autistics do not experience to the same extent the typical loss or distortion of information that characterizes non-autistics' mandatory hierarchies of processing. Therefore, autistics can maintain more veridical representations (e.g. representations closer to the actual information present in the environment) when performing high level, complex tasks. The current results suggest that such a mechanism is also present in Asperger syndrome and therefore represents a commonality across the autistic spectrum. Given the opportunity, different subgroups of autistics may advantageously apply more independent thinking to different available aspects of information: verbal information, by persons whose specific diagnosis is Asperger's, and perceptual information, by persons whose specific diagnosis is autism.”
That's a lovely paragraph in many respects, highlighting several of the strengths in these authors' approach to describing (affirmatively) the characteristics of autistic perception and cognition. It's practically all there: atypical information processing, independent thinking, patterns, versatility, creativity, veridical representations of complex stimuli, specfic/isolated abilities, and so on. With nary a reference to a neural construct, this paragraph manages nonetheless to capture a broad, descriptive range of autistic cognitive concepts, all translating well into observable and distinctive autistic behaviors. While the rest of the autism research community continues to focus on describing autistic perception and cognition as deficient relative to their non-autistic counterparts, the authors of (Soulières 2011) make an informative rebuttal simply by providing consistent evidence and detailed descriptions outlining what autistic perception and cognition actually are, as opposed to obsessing on what they are not.
On the other hand, the above paragraph also highlights the glaring weakness in these authors' approach. Here we have yet one more time from these authors an instance of an extremely detailed, extremely descriptive, extremely compelling description of autistic perception and cognition that goes entirely unaccompanied by a corresponding description for non-autistic perception and cognition.
In the above paragraph, the description of non-autistic perception and cognition is reduced to a single phrase: “non-autistics' mandatory hierarchies of processing.” It's bad enough that this description is so sparse, but what makes it worse is that there is no clear indication of what that particular phrase is supposed to mean—it actually sounds empty to me. When I read it, the questions that pop into my head are: What is the nature of these hierarchies? Are there examples? What's at their root? What's at their leaves? What is it about these mysterious hierarchies that make them mandatory? And above all else, how does any of this shed light on non-autistic perception, cognition, and behavior? Listen, I may be a very poor reader, but I honestly can't find an adequate answer to those questions in any of these authors' work.
If you follow the reference that is attached to the phrase “non-autistics' mandatory hierarchies of processing,” you'll be taken to (Soulières 2009). Unfortunately that doesn't help very much, because (Soulières 2009) simply repeats the terminology, not explaining it in any greater detail than does (Soulières 2011). I suppose a subtle interpretation that could be made from this reference to (Soulières 2009) is that the authors are intending the phrase to be taken neuronally: that is, “mandatory hierarchies of processing” is meant to invoke a particular form of non-autistic brain structure and organization. I would note, however, that even if this interpretation is valid, it would only be a theory, not an observation or a description. I would also note it wouldn't let the authors off the hook: these authors have provided similar theories about autistic brain structure and organization, but that has never stopped them from augmenting such theories with a broad array of non-neuronal depictions of autistic perception and cognition—precisely the type of supplementary explanation that is conspicuously absent on the non-autistic side of the equation.
Perhaps a more helpful reference for the phrase would have been (Mottron 2006), which actually does discuss global hierarchical processing in some detail (albeit a bit haphazardly). There you'll find an assortment of loose explanations for the term, including some of which are more neuronal in nature (as was perhaps being suggested through the reference to (Soulières 2009)). But more commonly in (Mottron 2006), global hierarchical processing is discussed in terms of relative autistic/non-autistic performances on various laboratory tasks, with the conclusion from this analysis being summed up succinctly in the statement of Principle 5: higher-order processing is optional in autism and mandatory in non-autistics. Which is to say, the authors are suggesting that autistics can process all the information that non-autistics can, and on top of that autistics can process more. Which is to say, the authors are suggesting non-autistics can process less. Which is to say, the authors are suggesting non-autistic cognition is deficient relative to autistic cognitive processing. Which is to say, the apparent purpose of using the phrase “non-autistics' mandatory hierarchies of processing” is to lead the reader back to what must undoubtedly be these authors' greatest autism research discovery so far, namely the deficit-based model of non-autism! (Maybe they'll win a Nobel Prize for that.)
Well really, what am I supposed to think? Look at the above quoted paragraph and consider what it must imply, in the absence of other information, about non-autistic perception and cognition. Autistic thinking is independent. So non-autistic thinking is not? Autistic thinking is flexible. So non-autistic thinking is not? Autistic thinking is creative. So non-autistic thinking is not? Autistic thinking is veridical. So non-autistic thinking is not? After having convincingly rebutted the research community's nonstop reliance on deficit-based models of autism through their use of informative, detailed, affirmative descriptions of autistic perception and cognition, these authors then make the tragic mistake of turning right around and presenting non-autistic perception and cognition as nothing more than a series of unflattering comparisons to autistic perception and cognition. Heck, if I were to rely on what these authors have implied so far about non-autistic cognitive abilities, I would have to conclude early intervention wouldn't even be worth the bother for this population, we might as well just dispatch the poor non-autistic souls straight off to the institutions.
Or on the other hand, we could just go back to assuming I'm a very poor reader. Here is what I would propose to set me straight:
Start with a clean sheet of paper. Head one column with “Autistic Perception and Cognition.” Head the other with “Non-autistic Perception and Cognition.” Fill in the columns with the descriptions and observations from the authors of (Soulières 2011). I could do the autistic column myself—the material for it is impressively abundant. The above quoted paragraph would be a good start and (Mottron 2009) is practically an entire tone poem in description of autistic perception and cognition. Throw in a couple dubious sentences about local processing and related neuronal theories, and the column is done. But for me, the non-autistic column continues to look mostly blank. Outside some hypothetical musings about non-autistic brain structure and organization, all I can think of to add would be the phrases “global processing” and “non-autistics' mandatory hierarchies of processing,” and of course I would have to put an asterisk next to those terms, because I really don't have a clue as to what they're supposed to mean. Now if someone—the authors, anyone—wants to come along and fill in the rest of the column for me, show me what I've been missing, I would be happy to give them thanks, apologize for the trouble, and go on about my sheepish way. But if on the other hand the non-autistic column can't be adequately filled in—not in the same way that the autistic column can—then my complaint remains legitimate and unaddressed, and I will continue to be vocal about it.
As much as I like and generally agree with the authors' descriptions of autistic perception and cognition, I also believe those descriptions fall flat when there is nothing to contrast them against. And on top of that, I'm also of the firm belief that non-autistic perception and cognition has an affirmative, distinctive richness all its own, a richness that possesses deep inner logic, a richness that has been biologically essential, and a richness that provides ongoing and immense value to the entire human population. It's long past time for that richness to be acknowledged and described.
(Soulières 2011): Soulières I, Dawson M, Gernsbacher MA, Mottron L, 2011 The Level and Nature of Autistic Intelligence II: What about Asperger Syndrome? PLoS ONE 6(9): e25372. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025372
(Soulières 2009): Soulières I, Dawson M, Samson F, Barbeau EB, Sahyoun CP, et al. (2009) Enhanced visual processing contributes to matrix reasoning in autism. Human Brain Mapping 30: 4082–4107.
(Mottron 2009): Mottron L, Dawson M, Soulières I (2009) Enhanced perception in savant syndrome: patterns, structure and creativity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364: 1385–1391.
(Mottron 2006): Mottron L, Dawson M, Soulières I, Hubert B, Burack J (2006) Enhanced perceptual functioning in autism: an update, and eight principles of autistic perception. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 36: 27–43.