Michelle Dawson is in the news in Autistes: l’intelligence autrement. That’s my favorite of the newspaper articles currently circulating about this research, but it’s in French. The autotranslators were seriously mangling it in places. I found myself in the odd position of being able to read it just fine in French, but having a good deal of trouble rewriting it in English. (I wanted to be able to show it to a few people who didn’t speak French.) So this is a translation, and yes, I’m aware there are parts I could’ve translated differently.
By the way, I haven’t had that much formal exposure to French (and could not have read an article like this when I did), but I read a lot of French and watch French-language TV and understand a fair bit. I think this falls under the category of the kind of learning that Michelle describes in the article. (By the way, I could also produce French sounds at a much later age than people are supposed to be able to produce them if they are not exposed to them at a young age. I can also produce and differentiate sounds in many other languages that I was exposed to even later. Michelle once pointed out to me that the neurotypical loss of this ability to hear and produce sounds is somehow never regarded as a “regression”, yet when autistic people lose abilities, it is considered a regression.)
Autistics: Intelligence Differently
A team from the University of Montreal demonstrates that the current methods employed to evaluate the intelligence of autistics are inadequate.
All is false. The majority of scientists are biased. The measurements they took until now are not representative and contribute to the myth that the majority of autistics are intellectually impaired, or, exceptionally, “idiot” savants.
The team of Laurent Mottron, professor at the department of psychiatry at the University of Montreal, threw a stone in the pond of this consensus, maintained too long, yesterday, within the framework of the congress of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Saint Louis, Missouri. In collaboration with Michelle Dawson, an autistic researcher, Dr. Mottron has demonstrated that current methods for evaluating the intelligence of autistics are inadequate and don’t permit the revelation of the true level of intelligence of these people, who are sometimes mute and whose bizarre behavior in certain areas has often led to an underestimation of their intellectual capacity.
To adequately appreciate the intelligence of autistics, Dr. Mottron also emphasizes the fact that they are often evaluated at the age of four or five years, well before an autistic child reaches his full intellectual potential, which often appears only around six years. However, this early estimate would most of the time involve an underestimation of their level of intelligence. “Such an erroneous judgment will have disastrous consequences for the child who will be diagnosed with low-functioning autism, because the material and the occasions he needs in order to learn and develop will not be offered to him,” says Michelle Dawson, who emphasizes the fact that there was a time in her life when she presented the appearance of a low-functioning autistic.
In most research centers and clinics in the world, the IQ of autistics is measured with the Weschler scales which are made up of 11 supposed sub-scales to create a representative sample of different characteristics of human cognition. Autistic people who master oral language are rather mediocre at verbal subtests, in particular those known as comprehension, but they literally excel on tests of block design, in contrast to non-autistic people who invariably present the same mean level at this last task. “Autistics clearly have a peak of ability on that particular subtest which consists of reproducing a geometric design with the faces of cubes,” emphasizes Dr. Mottron, who directs the autism specialist clinic at l’Hôpital Rivière des Prairies. “However for about thirty years, a dominant hypothesis in the scientific world has said that if autistics were good at making designs with blocks, this was inevitably because they had a deficit in the processing of global forms. On the basis of an absolutely uncontested dogma that autism is a disease, scientists look for what does not function in autistics. They seek deficits that they dream of pairing with genetic or cerebral anomalies.”
“There was, however, no evidence that this peak of ability in block design was caused by a weakness, it was only a presumption, and we demonstrated this in a previous publication,” adds the cosignatory of the article presented at the AAAS, Michelle Dawson, who forcefully deplores this too often negative vision of autism.
A Different Brain
On the basis of the idea that autistics, with a different brain than that of the majority of us – whom Michelle Dawson designates as the “typicals” –, can succeed at certain tasks better than we can, the researchers at the University of Montreal endeavored to seek these strengths that most autistics have. Because indeed, almost all autistics present peaks of ability: Some are prodigious musicians, others are equipped with exceptional spatial orientation, a certain proportion are calendar calculators, they manage to find the name of the day corresponding to a date given from the future correctly by looking at a calendar of the current year, a prowess which requires a very powerful algorithm.
In this way, the researchers discovered that these same verbal autistics did much better (30 percentile points higher than with the Weschler) on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test, a test of problem resolution that implies a high level of abstract reasoning, but which does not require verbal instructions. What is more, certain mute autistics who had been categorized as mentally retarded because of their very poor performance on the Weschler scales, attained exceptional scores (sometimes the 95th percentile) on the Raven test, whereas certain proofs of the test require linguistic logic to solve in typical or non-autistic subjects. “That thus proves that autistics do not function like us, that they don’t solve problems by the same trajectory that we do,” affirms Laurent Mottron. And nevertheless, non-autistic people obtain equivalent results on the two tests (Weschler and Raven).
John Raven made this test to measure the ability to learn, and to evaluate intelligence independently of the level of culture, emphasized Dr. Mottron. Armies around the world use it to find out the “understanding” of volunteers, given that recruitment is often carried out in underprivileged sociocultural milieus. As it is completely free of verbal instructions, the Raven test has also been useful for anti-racist purposes, to show that populations who had little access to written language had the same level of intelligence as others with more education.
A Strength Interpreted As a Deficit
A number of scientists associate the peaks of ability in autistics with a strictly perceptual intelligence, which they often consider a not-very-advanced cognitive faculty. Yet, certain tasks on the Raven test seem to require a cognitive processing more complex than simple perception, notes Laurent Mottron. However, autistics, use perception in a different way than we use it, and this, to solve tasks known as intellectual. “Perception is superfunctional in autistics who discriminate better than we do on the visual and auditory planes. It probably plays a more important and more effective role in the resolution of tasks that call upon the intellect, than among the typicals,” he emphasizes.
When they look at an object, autistics categorize and generalize much less than typicals. Still, they meticulously explore the appearance of the object, its brightness, its shape, and make of it a very thorough, deep processing that opens many doors for them, explains the researcher. Autistics seem to learn many more things than us by simple exposure. “We assimilate information without making an intellectual effort, in a fashion less voluntary than the typicals, and without really knowing what we are doing,” specifies the autistic Michelle Dawson. “This knowledge sits in my brain without doing anything until I find myself in front of a task in which this information is integrated and is used to solve the problem.”
By contrast, when Laurent Mottron reads a scientific article, it’s to seek certain information that will confirm or invalidate his starting hypothesis. “I don’t memorize everything, I cut off all unrelated information, to not let it distract me. And if I later need other information that can be found in the same article, I read it again,” specifies in his turn the psychiatrist who does not stop emphasizing the incredible contribution of Michelle Dawson who became his colleague at work nearly three years ago. However, one can question Michelle after she has made a reading of an article, in the same fashion that one can question a database, because Michelle doesn’t have preferences in what she memorizes. She assimilates many pieces of information even if she doesn’t know if they will be useful to her. But then, she connects this information with what she hears or sees and that gives her many new and unforeseen ideas for apprehending a problem. What is more, her thought is never partial whereas ours is constantly because we seek for years to defend the assumptions we have developed.”
For Michelle Dawson and Laurent Mottron, the perceptual intelligence of autistics is without contest a true intelligence. The autistic researcher believes “It is necessary to evaluate intelligence by an individual’s capacity to carry out or not carry out a task, rather than by the fact that he arrives there by typical or atypical means.”