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The postie and the prof dispute perceptions of autism Add to ...

If you wanted to create a surreal, academic version of The Odd Couple, these two could be the stars.

He is the highly respected university professor, a quintessentially French gentleman of a certain age, glasses perched on his nose, with literary allusions and scientific theories rolling off his tongue with equal alacrity.

She is a middle-aged woman, eyes darting about the room constantly, arms bearing the marks of well-practised self-mutilation and tossing out her inflammatory opinions in staccato fashion.

Yet, like the classic TV pair, Felix and Oscar, behind their glaringly obvious differences, lie mutual respect, admiration and complicity.

He is Laurent Mottron, distinguished professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal and world-renowned autism researcher.

She is Michelle Dawson, a postal worker on disability leave (involuntarily), an outspoken activist and herself autistic.

Theirs is not a doctor-patient relationship.

Rather, Dr. Mottron and Ms. Dawson are colleagues, having co-authored six (and counting) papers published in specialized journals such as Brain, Neuropsychology and the Journal of Autism and Behavioral Disorders, research that is making waves in both the scientific and autism communities.

Their latest collaboration, a study presented yesterday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in St. Louis, is the most controversial yet: That people with autism -- most of whom are classified as of low intelligence or mentally retarded -- are a lot smarter than anyone ever imagined.

Autism is a brain disorder that begins in early childhood and persists throughout adulthood; it affects three crucial areas of development: communication, social interaction and creativity. While, traditionally, up to 75 per cent of autistics are considered to have low intelligence, the new theory put forward by Dr. Mottron, Ms. Dawson and their team suggests a more accurate estimate is 25 per cent.

"The problem is that autistic intelligence is not measured accurately," Dr. Mottron said.

Simply put, the researchers believe that the standard IQ test -- formally known as the Wechsler scales -- does not accurately measure the intelligence of autistics. They think a more appropriate measure of intelligence is another accepted test, Raven's Progressive Matrices.

The principal difference between the Wechsler test depends much more heavily on oral questions, which many autistics struggle to complete; the Raven test, on the other hand, involves much more abstract reasoning, where autistics can excel.

While this may appear to be merely an obtuse academic debate about testing methodology, Dr. Mottron argues that it has enormous practical implications at a time when as many as one in every 200 children are considered autistic.

"If we classify children as intellectually deficient then that is how they will be treated. They will be denied a host of opportunities," he said.

Dr. Mottron cites the example of one of the research subjects who scored so poorly on the Wechsler that he was deemed mentally retarded (IQ of less than 70), but on his Raven test he scored in the 94th percentile range -- the intelligence level of a university student.

"What do we do with that intelligence? How do we let that person achieve his potential?" he asked.

Ms. Dawson says that, traditionally, the abilities of autistics, particularly those of idiot-savants, a classification both researchers dislike, have been dismissed as a meaningless form of intelligence, little more than mechanical trickery.

But all her research has challenged that idea, postulating that there are different forms of intelligence and that tests are skewed toward only one kind.

"It seems to me that intelligence should be about getting things done, not being like other people," Ms. Dawson said.

She points to her fellow researchers as a case in point. "I can't do what they do with their 'normal' brains. But they can't do what I do with my autistic brain. Does that make me less intelligent?"

The unusual partnership between Dr. Mottron and Ms. Dawson came about serendipitously, after the two were featured separately in a film about autism -- he as the brilliant psychiatrist and she as an autistic woman struggling in the world. (She had just been fired from her job as a letter carrier, the start of a long legal saga and a whole other story.) After seeing the film, Dr. Mottron felt pity for Ms. Dawson: "I said to myself: 'If I can't help this poor woman, I'm useless.' "

But Ms. Dawson didn't want his help. Not only that, she dismissed his research and that of others, in particular a paper about how autistics perceive faces, one that was considered seminal at the time.

"Michelle was able to deconstruct and critique a major scientific paper, right down to the methodology. I was amazed," Dr. Mottron said. He asked her to look at his own research, and was again floored by the analysis.

"Because she sees things 'upside down,' not in a conventional way, she has caused a paradigm shift in my research," Dr. Mottron said.

In response to her legal battles with Canada Post, Ms. Dawson immersed herself in the scientific literature about autism. When he first met her, Dr. Mottron was floored by the extent of her knowledge.

He said that Ms. Dawson knows the scientific literature as well as anyone, that she is a library in the field of autism and cognitive sciences.

But her inclusion on the research team -- because of her legal situation she is an unpaid volunteer -- is controversial.

"I put my career in jeopardy, my respectability," Dr. Mottron said. "It was perilous. But her intellectual contribution has been invaluable."

Dr. Mottron estimates that Ms. Dawson contributes about 20 per cent of the final published research papers -- a significant chunk, particularly for a high-school graduate working alongside PhDs. Her role is principally to critique study design and conclusions. While Ms. Dawson's approach can be unorthodox and her manner brusque (at best), Dr. Mottron said scientists tend to be tolerant.

Ms. Dawson is a lot less effusive in her praise. "I didn't become any less angry just because he suggested I might be useful," she said.

She makes no secret of the fact that her participation in the research is guided by self-interest, that it gives her more credibility when she is fighting other battles -- of which there are many.

In much of the autistic community -- support groups dominated by parents of autistic children -- Ms. Dawson is public enemy number one.

"They want autism to be a sickness that needs to be cured," she said. "They say horrible disgusting things so they can get more money for their lobby groups. They make me sick," Ms. Dawson said.

She can be equally abrasive with scientists. Like many autistics, Ms. Dawson has reduced social skills and, while she can put forward brilliant ideas, she is incapable of managing simple tasks that are essential to the research process.

"I have some spectacular deficits," Ms. Dawson said matter-of-factly.

Nevertheless, Dr. Mottron said "she is changing the way the world views autism and that will have a lasting impact."

 

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