Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Upside of Autism: Diagnoses with Super Powers

Although it's been obvious to anyone who's spent time in the statistic's department or IT lab, there's an upside to having autism. 

We typically think of an autism diagnosis as indicative of deficits, but it can also be seen as a different way of perceiving the world and one with benefits like the ability to process more information more efficiently - i.e. high perceptual capacity.

A new study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found autistic adults outperformed neuro-normals  on a visual perception test (flashing letters/shapes on a computer screen).  Basically those with autism were better at picking out the relevant characters.  There were only 32 subjects total so not the largest study but certainly a start at explaining not only the explosion of autism in Silicon Valley but also the awesome abilities of of autistic savants.  This unusual perceptual capacity also might explain why children (and adults) on the spectrum seem to be particularly distracted or irritated by random stimuli, like certain sounds or sights (e.g., flashing neon signs). It's not due to an attention deficit but rather perceptual advantage (taking in more information). 

Speaking of attention deficits, do other diagnoses come with super powers?

Yes according to an article in this weekend's Wall Street Journal by Jonah Lehrer who reports people with attention-deficits excel in creative endeavors and those with dyslexia, visual pursuits like graphic design.

Certainly there are other diagnoses which bestow gifts, take bi-polar disorder and other affective disorders (schizophrenia) that have long been linked at least in the popular imagine to creative prowess and achievement.  We hear about artists like Virginia Wolf, Jackson Pollock, Vincent Van Gogh (insert crazy artist). The actual empirical evidence seems shaky.

People who are depressed perceive reality more accurately supposedly.  There's some evidence they don't suffer the positive biases that afflict so many others and that probably make it possible for the rest of us to get up in the morning and soldier on without too much critical self-reflection.   

Late-talkers (who couldn't talk vs. selective mutism) seem to include some gigantic minds like Albert Einstein and physicist Richard Feyman.  Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker reported the autopsy of Albert Einstein's unusual brain suggested his scientific abilities came at the expense of verbal ones:
The neuroscientists speculated that Einstein's parietal lobes expanded early in prenatal development, giving him larger, undivided lobules that accommodated richer and more tightly integrated circuits for mathematical and spatial reasoning. This may help explain Einstein's other famous cognitive trait: he did not speak until he was 3 years old. Many late-talking children grow up to be engineers, mathematicians and scientists, including the physicists Richard Feynman and Edward Teller. Perhaps this is because different mental functions compete for real estate as they develop in the cerebral cortex.  New York Times via Harvard University Archives, 1999.
How about the social anxiety? What about other phobias?  What's the upside to agoraphobia? A math learning disability.  Distorted body image. Hhhmmm.  

In any even it's refreshing to speak to the super powers of kids on the spectrum.  Let me know if you have any more powers or special kids to add.       
Anna M. Remington, John G. Swettenham, Nilli Lavie. Lightening the Load: Perceptual Load Impairs Visual Detection in Typical Adults but Not in Autism.. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 2012; DOI: 10.1037/a0027670

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