OBITUARY Steve Jobs and his
aesthetic vision for the
computing industry p.42
PHYSICS The outsiders
who imagine alternative
ideas of the Universe p.40
LITERATURE Lewis Carroll’s
experiments with time in the
Alice books p.38
STATISTICS Global standards
are needed for weighing
evidence in court p.36
disorder”. Mine do not.
I am a researcher, clinician and lab
director concentrating on the cognitive
neuroscience of autism. Eight autistic
people have been associated with my group:
four research assistants, three students and
Their roles have not been limited
to sharing their life experiences or
performing mindless data entry. They
are there because of their intellectual and
ost grant proposals, research
papers and reviews on autism
open with, “Autism is a devastating
The power of autism
Recent data — and personal experience — suggest that autism is an
advantage in some spheres, including science, says Laurent Mottron.
Working with autistic scientist Michelle Dawson (right) has helped Laurent Mottron (left) change his entire perception of the condition.
personal qualities. I believe that they con-
tribute to science because of their autism,
not in spite of it.
Everyone knows stories of autistics with
extraordinary savant abilities, such as
Stephen Wiltshire, who can draw exqui-
sitely detailed urban landscapes from
memory after a helicopter tour. None of my
lab members is a savant. They are ‘ordinary’
THE AUTISM ENIGMA
Sorting fact from fiction
autistics, who as a group, on average, often
outperform non-autistics in a range of tasks,
including measures of intelligence.
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,
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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.
I first met Dawson when we were inter-
viewed together for a television documen-
tary about autism. Some time later, after
disclosing to her employers that she was
autistic, she experienced problems in her job
as a postal worker and so had learned every-
thing about how the legal system deals with
employees with disabilities. I recognized her
skill for learning and asked her to become a
research assistant in my lab. When she edited
some of my papers, she gave exceptional
feedback and it was clear that she had read
the entire bibliography. The more she read,
the more she learned about the field. Almost
ten years ago, I offered her an affiliation to
the lab. We’ve now co-authored 13 papers
and several book chapters.
Since joining the lab, Dawson has helped
the research team question many of our
assumptions about and approaches to autism
— including the perception that it is always
a problem to be solved. Autism is defined
by a suite of negative characteristics, such
as language impairment, reduced interper-
sonal relationships, repetitive behaviours
and restricted interests. Autism’s many
advantages are not part of the diagnostic
criteria. Most educational programmes for
autistic toddlers aim to suppress autistic
behaviours, and to make children follow a
typical developmental trajectory. None is
grounded in the unique ways autistics learn.
In cases where autistic manifestations are
harmful — when children bang their heads
on the walls for hours, for example — it is
unquestionably appropriate to intervene.
But often, autistic behaviours, although
atypical, are still adaptive.
For instance, one sign of autism is using
another person’s hand to ask for something,
such as when a child places her mother’s
hand on the refrigerator to ask for food, or
on the door knob to ask to go outside. This
behaviour is unusual, but it lets children
communicate without language.
Even researchers who study autism can
display a negative bias against people with
the condition. For instance, researchers
performing funcional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI) scans systematically report
changes in the activation of some brain
regions as deficits in the autistic group
— rather than evidence simply of their
alternative, yet sometimes successful, brain
Similarly, variations in cortical volume
have been ascribed to a deficit when they
appear in autism, regardless of whether the
cortex is thicker or thinner than expected1.
outperform others in
certain tasks, their
strengths are fre-
quently viewed as
compensatory of other
deficits, even when
no such deficit has
tion, autistic brains
operate differently. Most notably, they
rely less on their verbal centres. When
non-autistic people look at an image of a
saw, for example, their brains are activated in
regions that process both visual information
In autistics, there is comparatively more
activity in the visual-processing network
than in the speech-processing one2, and
this seems to be a robust characteristic
of autism, across a wide array of tasks3.
This redistribution of brain function may
nonetheless be associated with superior
performance4 (see fMRI images below).
These differences may also have down-
sides, such as difficulties with spoken
language. But they can confer some advan-
tages. A growing body of research is show-
ing that autistics outperform neurologically
typical children and adults in a wide range of
perception tasks, such as spotting a pattern
in a distracting environment5.
Other studies have shown that most autistic
people outperform other individuals in
auditory tasks (such as discriminating sound
pitches6), detecting visual structures7 and
mentally manipulating complex three-
dimensional shapes. They also do better
in Raven’s Matrices, a classic intelligence
test in which subjects use analytical skills
to complete an ongoing visual pattern. In
one of my group’s experiments, autistics
completed this test an average of 40% faster
than did non-autistics4.
A CHANGED MIND
A few years ago, my colleagues and I decided
to compare how well autistic and non-autistic
adults and children performed in two
different types of intelligence test: non-verbal
ones, such as Raven’s Matrices, that need no
verbal instructions to complete, and tests that
rely on verbal instructions and answers. We
found that non-autistics as a group performed
consistently in both types of test — if they
scored in the 50th percentile in one, they
tended to score around the 50th percentile in
the other. However, autistics tended to score
much higher in the non-verbal test than in
the verbal one (see ‘Autistic intelligence’) — in
some cases, as many as 90 percentile points
Despite autistics’ success in Raven’s
Matrices, I, too, used to believe that verbal
tests were the best measures of intelligence.
It was Dawson who opened my eyes to this
‘normocentric’ attitude. She asked me: if
autistics excel in a task that is used to measure
intelligence in non-autistics, why is this not
considered a sign of intelligence in autistics?
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 frag-
ile-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
For certain tasks, autistics use their brains differently: these fMRI images depict the perceptual regions
of the brain activated more among autistics than non-autistics during a non-verbal intelligence test.
SOURCE: REF. 4
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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 High-
land Park, Illinois, places people who have
autism (mainly Asperger’s syndrome) in
jobs testing software (www.aspiritech.org).
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 mil-
lion autistic people with meaningful work
Many autistics, I believe, are suited for
academic science. From a young age, they
may be interested in information and struc-
tures, such as numbers, letters, mechanisms
and geometrical patterns — the basis of
scientific thinking9. Their intense focus can
lead them to become self-taught experts
in scientific topics. Dawson, for example,
does not have a scientific degree, but she has
learned and produced enough in a few years
of reading neuroscience papers to conduct
certain types of research. At this point, she
deserves a PhD.
Research has consistently shown that, on
average, autistics present strengths that
can be directly useful in research. They
can simultaneously process large pieces of
perceptual information, such as large data
sets, better than non-autistics can10. They
often have exceptional memories: most non-
autistic people can’t remember what they
read ten days ago; for some autistics, that’s
an effortless task. Autistic people are also less
likely to misremember data. This comes in
handy in science: whereas the methodologies
used in studies of face-perception in autism
are for me terribly similar, Dawson can
instantaneously recall them.
Many autistics are good at spotting recur-
rent patterns in large amounts of data, and
instances in which those patterns have been
broken. In my lab, Dawson noticed a dis-
crepancy in the standards applied to various
types of treatments: to develop a drug,
researchers must conduct elaborate studies
including randomized controlled trials, but
this is not a requirement for behavioural
interventions for autistics, despite the huge
costs of such interventions (up to US$60,000
a year for each indi-
vidual) and their
It is thus worrying
that some countries,
including France, have proposed mandatory
interventions that aim to get autistics to adopt
‘typical’ learning and social behaviours, which
have not been tested using the standards
applied to other areas in science.
Dawson’s keen viewpoint also keeps the
lab focused on the most important aspect of
science: data. She has a bottom-up heuristic,
in which ideas come from the available
facts, and from them only. As a result, her
models never over-reach, and are almost
infallibly accurate, but she does need a very
large amount of data to draw conclusions.
By contrast, I have a top-down approach:
I grasp and manipulate general ideas from
fewer sources, and, after expressing them
in a model, go back to facts supporting or
falsifying this model. Combining the two
types of brains in the same research group
is amazingly productive.
Because data and facts are paramount to
autistic people, they tend not to get bogged
down by the career politics that can sidetrack
even the best scientists. They prefer not to
seek popularity, promotions or vast numbers
of papers; they may post their best ideas on
the web rather than publish them.
In 2004, Dawson gained recognition
within the autistic community and among
autism researchers and clinicians after
posting online an essay detailing the ethical
shortcomings of the intensive behavioural
therapies used with autistic children.
Of course, autistics will not thrive in all
careers. Given their social differences, they
will often struggle in people-oriented fields,
such as retail or customer service. Ideally,
autistic individuals would have mediators
who could help settle situations that trigger
anxiety in them — typically anything
unscheduled or hostile, such as changes
to an existing plan, computer problems or
Despite these caveats, Dawson and other
autistic individuals have convinced me that,
in many instances, people with autism need
opportunities and support more than they
need treatment. As a result, my research
group and others believe that autism should
be described and investigated as a variant
within the human species. These variations
in gene sequence or expression may have
adaptive or maladaptive consequences, but
they cannot be reduced to an error of nature
that should be corrected.
The hallmark of an enlightened society is
its inclusion of non-dominant behaviours and
phenotypes, such as homosexuality, ethnic
differences and disabilities. Governments
have spent time and money to accommodate
people with visual and hearing impairments,
helping them to navigate public places and
find employment, for instance — we should
take the same steps for autistics.
Scientists, too, should do more than sim-
ply study autistic deficits. By emphasizing the
abilities and strengths of people with autism,
deciphering how autistics learn and suc-
ceed in natural settings, and avoiding
language that frames autism as a defect to
be corrected, they can help shape the entire
Laurent Mottron is professor of psychiatry
and holds the Marcel & Rolande Gosselin
Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience
of Autism at the University of Montreal. He
is also director of the autism programme
at the Hospital Rivière-des-Prairies, 7070
boul. Perras, Montreal H1E 1A4, Quebec,
1. Gernsbacher, M. A. Observer 20, 43–45 (2007).
2. Gaffrey, M. S. et al. Neuropsychologia 45,
3. Samson, F., Mottron, L., Soulières, I. & Zeffiro, T.
A. Hum. Brain Mapp. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1002/
4. Soulières, I. et al. Hum. Brain Mapp. 30,
5. Pellicano, E., Maybery, M., Durkin, K. & Maley, A.
Dev. Psychopathol. 18, 77–98 (2006).
6. Heaton, P. J. Child Psychol. Psyc. 44, 543–551
7. Perreault, A., Gurnsey, R., Dawson, M., Mottron, L.
& Bertone, A. PLoS ONE 6, e19519 (2011).
8. Dawson, M., Soulières, I., Gernsbacher, M. A. &
Mottron, L. Psychol. Sci. 18, 657–662 (2007).
9. Mottron, L., Dawson, M. & Soulières, I. Phil. Trans
R. Soc. Lond. B 364, 1385–1391 (2009).
10. Plaisted, K., O’Riordan, M. & Baron-Cohen, S.
J. Child Psychol. Psyc. 39, 765–775 (1998).
Non-autistics typically perform equally well in
tests of verbal and non-verbal intelligence.
Autistics, however, score much higher in
non-verbal tests, such as Raven’s Matrices,
than in verbal ones, such as Wechsler’s Scales.
SOURCE: REF. 8
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essay on behavioural
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