The power of autism

The power of autism

A new test reveals untapped reading abilities in some autistic people
March 24, 2010

(Courtesy of Le Devoir)

Montréal researchers have uncovered previously unsuspected intellectual potential in many people with autism, a discovery that opens doors to new approaches for education.

A new approach to research, which looks at the neural disorder not in terms deficits, but in terms of abilities and strengths, is gaining support within the scientific community.

“Some experts agree that people with autism may be good at perception, but they are quick to add that they likely have other disabilities,” says Isabelle Soulières, researcher and clinician at the Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies. “At first, Laurent Mottron, who holds the Marcel and Rolande Gosselin Chair in Autism Cognitive Neuroscience of the Université de Montréal, was the ‘odd man out’ in his field, yet increasingly, people are realizing that people with autism do have real strengths and we should take advantage of them. Mottron’s vision is beginning to gain recognition as one of the major models for understanding autism.”

Mottron’s team first discovered that certain non-verbal people with autism performed poorly on standard IQ tests but had exceptional results on Raven’s progressive matrices, another intelligence test that more specifically measures non-verbal reasoning. Raven tests involve, for example, finding the missing element in a series of shapes that differ to varying degrees, depending on the test’s level of complexity.

The scores of people with autism quite often corresponded to superior intelligence. In addition to succeeding on the test’s most difficult sections, people with autism were often able to find the solution much faster than those without the disorder, according to Soulières. “The harder the test was, the greater the advantage they had in their response time,” she says.

Soulières also wanted to find out whether people with autism use different areas of their brain to perform the test. To do this, she had people with autism and volunteers serving as control groups complete the Raven test while their brain was being scanned. Magnetic resonance imaging showed that people with autism more actively used the visual perception areas of the occipital lobe (which processes visual information) than the control subjects. Control subjects used their frontal lobes more, which contain the areas where the brain consciously tests hypotheses.

Because language-based reasoning poses problems for people with autism, they are often less successful at standard IQ tests, which, unlike the Raven matrices, rely on language for both the questions and answers, Mottron says. Generally, people without autism achieve equivalent results on both types of test.

“The Raven test better demonstrates the intellectual potential of people with autism,” Soulières says. “In clinical situations, it allows us to assess the true intellectual capabilities of a person with autism. It allows us to adjust our expectations, and, in many cases, not to give up, because the person has potential, and we just have to figure out how to tap into it.”

For researchers, the results clearly indicate that people with autism do things differently. “While people without autism solve the Raven matrices by talking to themselves in their heads, people with autism use perception for their reasoning,” Soulières says. “This tells us that they have ‘intelligent perception.’”

Perception among people with autism is in fact very sharp. They have superior aptitudes in one-dimensional discrimination, the lowest cortical level, which is executed by the primary auditory and visual areas. For example, they can discriminate pitch, a dimension involved in many auditory cognitive processes, such as processing music, language and sound. “People with autism are also better at detecting patterns (visual and sound figures), which involves a higher level of perception and intelligence,” Mottron points out, specifying that people with autism can more easily detect “the rules that govern the co-occurrence of certain elements of these patterns, provided of course there is enough regularity.” In music in particular, they find it easier than the average person to recognize a recurring theme that is reproduced with certain variations.

People with autism also have a particular aptitude for even more complex processing of transpositions that involve recognizing isomorphisms (or similarities between different substrata), such as the structural rules of baroque or jazz music.

“An example of being able to detect patterns — or recognizing complex forms — is the ability for a child with autism to recognize and learn letters and numbers very early on, even before a child without autism,” Mottron says. “If you make written material available to children with autism, a certain number of them learn to read two years earlier than children without it.”

The team at the Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies is trying to understand how people with autism will be attracted to a certain type of information, detect the regularities and make them work. “Our goal is to use this discovery to promote literacy among children with autism. Having access to written language would change the life of a non-verbal person with autism,” Mottron says. For example, people with autism can detect co-occurrences of letters and make the connection between written text and what they hear when they read aloud. “They detect these regularities independent of meaning, unlike people without autism who are unable to do so. This aptitude, a deep understanding of the regularities of a code that we don’t understand, is specific to people with autism, and they apply it in reading when they are exposed to written material, without understanding the meaning.”

“We have never claimed that our discoveries apply to all people with autism,” Mottron says. “But we have learned that there are a larger number of non-verbal people with autism than we thought who know how to read. We think that the potential to learn to read must exist among all people with autism who have not sustained brain damage before they learn oral language.”

He believes that this characteristic is very important given that now we have equipment that can convert written to spoken language. “A person with autism could easily type text on a computer keyboard, thereby producing oral language that is perfectly understandable to those around him or her,” he says. Communication would finally be possible for certain people with autism who up until this point had been confined to a bubble.