Michelle Dawson, a neuroscientist, maintains that people with autism gets a bad rap. Dawson knows from whence she speaks as she herself has autism.
Medicine looks upon autism as essentially a three-pronged impairment — in communicative, imaginative and social skills. In fact, three-quarters of people with autism are classed as mentally retarded.
Dawson’s line is that far from being retarded or impaired, ‘auties’ process stimuli differently – in fact, in a way that probably renders them open to information received beyond the five senses. In fact, they are far better than the rest of us at processing all sorts of things.
Scientists believe that all of the rest of us ‘neurotypicals’ have an unconscious screening process – what they term latent inhibition – of constant stream of sensations and stimuli to which we are exposed every day to prevent sensory overload.
Most of us process and lump all the sensory data about a particular thing — into a generalized whole.
The forebrain sees a portion of something and, in a sense, ‘fills in’ the conceptual details to produce a whole. Hence why, when we see a familiar scene, or we’re concentrating on something, we become blind to the details of it.
People with autism, much like animals, learn to perceive their world differently – up close and in greater detail – and to observe hidden connections. This allows in the flow of all information, with greater attention to detail and subtle connection.
Rather than seeing an entire object, people with autism see what Temple Grandin, an animal trainer with a history of autism, terms a ‘slide show’ of the object, with“privileged access to lower levels of raw information”.
Instead of processing these raw data into a whole, persons with autism and animals attend to each tiny, separate piece of sound, sight and smell. This type of hyper-specificity develops extreme perception.
This is why children with autism are able to demonstrate extreme feats of memory or an extraordinary talent for discovering ‘hidden figures’ or patterns, such as shapes, within a complicated picture.
The central deficiency with autism was thought to be weak central ‘coherence’ – an ability to pull separate facts into a generalized whole. However, as the New Scientist article points out: ‘The flip side of an inability to see the wood for the trees is being very, very good at seeing the trees.’
The typical IQ test invariably renders an autistic person ‘mentally retarded’. However, Dawson’s studies showed that an autistic person’s IQ score depends on which kind of test is used. Those given another kind of IQ test, which places less emphasis on social knowledge, mostly hit ‘normal’.
Other studies demonstrate that people with autism have better musical pitch recognition, superior visuospatial skills and advantages in sentence comprehension. In fact, the evidence shows that people with autism use the visual side of their brain for processing most tasks. This accords with Grandin’s claim that she thinks in pictures, not words.
Not long ago, I read that, like auties, children with dyslexia have a different relationship between left and right hemispheres, making different and far greater use of visual information. This accords with what I’ve noticed about one of my daughters, who was initially diagnosed as mildly dyslexic.
Over time, I realized that she is not dyslexic in any sense. She simply processes in a highly visual way, and probably thinks largely in pictures, too. Over the years, she’s begun to use this to her advantage. She has an instinctive and pitch-perfect spatial relationship to the world, and she best understands things and concepts in concrete form: things in relation to other things.
What this all suggests to me is that we have to allow for major differences in the manner in which different people see the world and process what they see. Perhaps children with autism can be reached more easily and children with dyslexia learn more easily if we stop insisting that there is only one right way to think.