Autistic superiority

A blog posting by Michelle Dawson, in which she lists researchers who publish data on people with autism who are superior to neurotypicals on some task, reminded me of a quote I’d saved from a BBS commentary paper by Gernsbacker, Dawson, and Mottron (2006):

“Quite compellingly, each of these statistically significant demonstrations of autistic superiority is labeled by its authors as a harmful dysfunction. Autistics’ superior block-design performance is labeled “weak central coherence,” symptomatic of dysfunctional “information processing in autism” (Shah & Frith 1993, p. 1351). Autistics’ superior performance on embedded figures tests is considered “consistent with the cognitive-deficit theory proposed by Hermelin and O’Connor (1970) … due to a central deficiency in information processing” (Shah & Frith 1983, p. 618). Autistics’ superior recognition memory performance is attributed to deleteriously “enhanced attention to shallow aspects of perceived materials” (Toichi et al. 2002, p. 1424); their superior sentence comprehension is described as being “less proficient at semantically and syntactically integrating the words of a sentence” (Just et al. 2004, p. 1816); their superior imperviousness to memory distortions is explained by “representations in the semantic network [that] may be associated in an aberrant manner” (Beversdorf et al. 2000, p. 8736); and their superior resistance to misleading prior context is attributed to their perception being “less conceptual” (Ropar & Mitchell 2002, p. 652).”

Gernsbacker, M.A., Dawson, M., and Mottron. L. (2006). Autism: Common, heritable, but not harmful. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29, 413-414.

Edited to add: hadn’t clicked that the Dawson in the author list is the blog’s author! (She is.)



  1. Andy

    My posting was a quote about the biased language used by some academics when discussing the cognitive advantages some autistic people have. I’m not well enough informed to enter into the broader debate :-( Thanks for the link.

  2. Michelle Dawson

    As I wrote in response to Mr Doherty on my own blog, of the six studies we cite in that paragraph, three report data from autistics whose measured intelligence was, on a specific instrument at a specific time, in the “low-functioning” range.

    Given the opportunity, these supposedly “low-functioning” autistics were able to outperform their non-autistic peers, which leads to the cautious conclusion that–so long as they are not written off by powerful leaders like Mr Doherty–these autistics are not invisible. Indeed, they are all over the literature, performing remarkably well.

    That is, the supposedly “low-functioning” autistics who Mr Doherty writes off are, given the opportunity, capable of performing not only at a level equal to non-autistics, but also at a level exceeding this.

    It is true that institutionalizing autistics ensures that our outcomes are terrible, no matter what our abilities are (yes, there is published science about this). But this is true of most people confined to institutions. Insisting that autistics are write-offs who just naturally belong in institutions, as Mr Doherty forcefully does, ensures that autistics have poor outcomes, regardless of our measured abilities.

  3. Pingback: EPS/Psychonomics, Edinburgh, 2007 « Figural Effect

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