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.”