Autism's Hidden Gifts

There’s a popular misconception that autistic people are either anti-social tech geniuses or Rain Man-like savants. But research is increasingly showing that even “low-functioning” autistic people might be smarter than neurotypical people in certain ways.

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Oliver Sacks describes meeting a pair of 26-year-old twins, John and Michael, in a state hospital. The two men had been institutionalized since childhood and written off as mentally disabled.

One day when Sacks was with them, a box of matches fell off the table, spilling its contents onto the floor. Almost immediately, the twins cried out, “111!” and then, “37, 37, 37, 111.”

John and Michael couldn’t explain how they counted the matches so quickly or why they broke the figure into thirds spontaneously:

John made a gesture with two outstretched fingers and his thumb, which seemed to suggest that they had spontaneously trisected the number, or that it “came apart” of its own accord, into these three equal parts, by a sort of spontaneous, numerical “fission” ... They seemed surprised at my surprise—as if I were somehow blind.

Even people who don’t know much about autism might be familiar with “autistic savants” like John and Michael, mostly thanks to the work of Sacks, a handful of savant autobiographies, and most of all, the 1988 film Rain Man. (However, the real-life savant on which Dustin Hoffman’s character was based, a man named Kim Peek, was not actually autistic.)

Those accounts have contributed to a popular misconception: that when autistic people are unusually skilled, those skills are impractical and not connected to “real” intellect.

Other autistic people are known to possess extraordinary abilities, yet function at a high level. In the memoir Born on a Blue Day, Daniel Tammet, who has Asperger syndrome, described a childhood filled with social stumbles, but also his delight in mastering 10 different languages. Similarly, some tech geniuses on “the spectrum” might have better luck wooing venture capitalists than romantic partners, yet they still manage to live independently and make bank.

Increasingly, researchers are finding that even autistic people who seem, at first glance, to be profoundly disabled might actually be gifted in surprising ways. And these talents are not limited to quirky party tricks, like knowing whether January 5, 1956 was a Tuesday. Scientists believe they are signs of true intelligence that might be superior to that of non-autistic people.

Laurent Mottron, a psychiatrist at the University of Montreal who has studied autism for decades, led an analysis last year which suggested that the autistic brain seeks out the kinds of information it “prefers” to process while ignoring materials—like verbal and social cues, for example—that it doesn’t like. Just as many blind people have heightened hearing, Mottron says, the brains of autistic people might be better able to understand numbers or patterns.

In 2011, Mottron found that people with autism concentrate more of their brain’s resources on visual processing and less on tasks like planning and impulse control. That’s why, as he showed in 2009, autistic people are up to 40 percent faster at problem-solving.

For his autistic subjects, Mottron used a test called Raven's Standard Progressive Matrices, which relies on visual pattern recognition. At the time, he and others faced critics who thought autistic people would fare abysmally on such a complex test. In the mid-2000s, non-verbal people with autism were presumed by some to be mentally retarded. But as it turned out, “autistics are perceptual experts,” Mottron told me. “They are superior to us in processing complex patterns.”

Mottron has also found that people with autism have excellent memories—both when it comes to remembering long-ago events and in remembering details that neurotypical people would gloss over. That’s one reason why he closely collaborates with an autistic researcher, Michelle Dawson, in his lab. “Whereas the methodologies used in studies of face-perception in autism are for me terribly similar,” Mottron wrote in a Nature editorial in 2011, “Dawson can instantaneously recall them.”

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One of The Onion’s parody news videos is about an “autistic reporter” sent to cover a train accident that killed a man. “Luckily there was not structural damage caused to the train,” the actor says, before rattling off the train’s fascinating (to him) particulars, like its “Westinghouse E-CAM XCA448F propulsion.” That’s the cliche, of course: that an autistic person would memorize a locomotive-traction system but overlook the real, human story behind it.

Unlike when Mottron was first starting his research, it’s now more widely accepted that autistic people can be precocious at technical and visual tasks. But it’s not like they’d be great poets or artists... right?

In fact, newer studies suggest that the autism advantage might extend even to domains that are thought to be the stronghold of neurotypical people, like creativity. A paper published last month in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders sought to measure the output of creative ideas in a sample of autistic and neurotypical people.

The participants were asked to think of as many non-obvious uses for a brick and a paper clip as possible. Highly autistic people in the experiment didn’t produce very many responses, but the answers they did give were highly unusual—a strong sign of creative thinking.

Neurotypical participants would think of all the easy answers—like using the paperclip to reset their iPhones—and only then move on to more innovative uses. But the autistic people jumped straight to the ingenious responses, saying they would use the paperclip as a weight for the front of a paper airplane, for example, or for heating up in order to suture a wound.

“Most people focus on one property of the object and do associations with that,” Catherine Best, health researcher at the University of Stirling and a co-author of the study, told me. “They might say, ‘Oh, it's like a piece of wire. What else can you do with wire?’ People with autistic traits skip to the more difficult stuff.”

The idea that autistic brains are intrinsically deficient is one of the many myths Steve Silberman debunks in his recent book, Neurotribes. Think of the brain as an operating system, he writes: “Just because a computer is not running Windows doesn’t mean that it’s broken. Not all the features of atypical human operating systems are bugs.”

Silberman said he avoids using terms like “high-functioning” and “low-functioning.” “People who are classified as high-functioning are often struggling in ways that are not obvious,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross recently, “whereas science has shown that people who are classified as low-functioning often have talents and skills that are not obvious.”

Or to borrow another famous operating-system slogan, many autistic people simply “think different,” not worse.

This isn’t to suggest that the parents of severely autistic children—some of whom are prone to tantrums and violence—don’t face real challenges. There’s only so far someone who can’t speak can go with pattern recognition, creativity, and detail orientation.

But this and other research might signal that it’s time to rethink the way educators help young autistic children prepare for the broader world. Early childhood interventions should focus on harnessing strengths, Mottron says, rather than erasing the differences between autistic children and neurotypical kids.

“I no longer believe that intellectual disability is intrinsic to autism,” Mottron has said. And because of that, he believes, “The limits of autistics should constantly be pushed and their educational materials should never be simplified.”