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Researcher Danny Nguyen measures the head of research assistant Carl Tremblay-Cadorette, who has Asperger's syndrome, at a Montreal hospital on Wednesday. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Researcher Danny Nguyen measures the head of research assistant Carl Tremblay-Cadorette, who has Asperger's syndrome, at a Montreal hospital on Wednesday. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Research

The autistic advantage: Montreal team taps researchers' potential Add to ...

A University of Montreal scientist who studies the power of the autistic brain says it is time to start thinking of the disorder as an advantage in some settings – including in academic research.

Over the past seven years, eight people with autism have been associated with Laurent Mottron’s research group, including Michelle Dawson, who has become a close collaborator. Some of the team members have exceptional memories, while others have an ability to see patterns in data, or other skills, and contribute because of their autism, not despite it, Dr. Mottron said.

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This week, in an article in the prestigious British journal Nature, he makes the case that employers should capitalize on the special mental abilities of people with autism.

“As a clinician, I also know all too well that autism is a disability that can make daily activities difficult. One out of 10 autistics cannot speak, nine out of 10 have no regular job, and four out of five are still dependent on their parents. … But in my experience, autism can also be an advantage,” he said.

Ms. Dawson, for example, can remember vast amounts of data from hundreds of research papers.

“She is absolutely exceptional. It is combination of huge intelligence and autism. The fact that she is autistic gives her intelligence a specific aspect,” Dr. Mottron said in an interview. Ms. Dawson frequently challenges and disagrees with him. Sometimes, her criticisms are discouraging, but he admits she is nearly always accurate.

Ms. Dawson says that the strengths she brings to the lab are extreme versions of what are usually called autistic deficits.

But she also knows her weaknesses.

“I'm very aware of my own shortcomings and failings as a researcher, and how much better I could have done and how much better I should be doing.”

Autism and related conditions, known under the catch-all term autism spectrum disorders, have become increasingly common in recent years and affect communication and social interaction. The brain disorder starts in early childhood and persists into adulthood; research suggests that only about 5 per cent of adults with autism are self-supporting. Traditionally, three-quarters of people with autism have been classified, after testing, as having low intelligence.

Dr. Mottron and his colleagues have found that the type of intelligence test that is used to assess someone with the disorder makes a huge difference.

Individuals with autism tend to fare poorly on a standard IQ tests that require verbal instructions, but can do much better on non-verbal tests that measure reasoning and creative problem-solving. They are faster on these kinds of tests than normal volunteers and use a different part of the brain to solve the problems.

Other studies suggest people with autism are also better in a wide range of perception tasks, such as spotting a pattern in a distracting environment or mentally manipulating complex three-dimensional shapes.

Dr. Mottron, who is also director of the autism program at Hospital Rivière-des-Prairies in Montreal, wants to find effective new teaching strategies that build on these strengths.

He said that people with autism in the workplace may need mediators to help settle situations that trigger anxiety, giving occasions when Ms. Dawson’s computer crashes as an example.

Sometimes autistic team members don’t see the importance of deadlines, Dr. Mottron said, but their contributions are important.

He said the members of his lab with autism are “ordinary’ autistics, not savants like the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man.

Suzanne Lanthier, executive director of Autism Speaks Canada, said the needs of the adult community, including employment opportunities, have long been overlooked.

“The one in 110 children that are now being diagnosed with autism will grow – are growing – to be one in 110 adults with autism, and their needs, skills and abilities must be taken very seriously by the research community, government, education settings and employers.”

It is important to remember that autism looks different in every individual, she said.

“A person with an autism spectrum disorder can be highly verbal but have significant sensory issues or social communication issues or cognitive impairments,” she said. Others with autism have no spoken language.

These individuals may have normal intelligence, Dr. Mottron said, but it is important to differentiate intelligence and adaptation. Many autistic individuals depend on non-autistics for their regular life.

“We know that. But if we have intelligence, we should use it.”

A number of organizations have been formed to help people with autism find meaningful work, including a non-profit group in Illinois called Aspiritech and The Specialist People Foundation in Denmark.

Dr. Mottron sees people with autism as especially suited for academic science.

“From a young age, they may be interested in information and structures, such as numbers, letters, mechanisms and geographical patterns – the basis of scientific thinking. Their intense focus can lead them to become self-taught experts in scientific subjects.”

THE AUTISTIC ADVANTAGE

Michelle Dawson has autism and has been collaborating with researcher Laurent Mottron for seven years. In an e-mail exchange, she responded to a question about the strengths she brings to the research team.

“Mostly I'm useful because I have extreme versions of what are usually called autistic deficits. One example: My responses to anomalies are extreme and impossible to deflect. Until I resolve the anomaly, I can be hugely disruptive (there are witnesses!). I really can't help it, and there's the problem of others being oblivious to the anomalies I perceive, which should make things even worse. So this sounds severely dysfunctional and just plain bad. But I've been given opportunities to be in contexts where spotting anomalies at multiple scales, and pursuing them no matter what, has been sort of productive, at least so far. If I were less extreme in this respect, less “severe,” I wouldn't be useful in research in any way.”

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