Monday, May 11, 2009

Autistic strengths at IMFAR 2009

The International Meeting for Autism Research was held in Chicago this year, from May 7-9. This was the biggest IMFAR to date, with more than 1350 attendees. IMFAR is organized by the International Society for Autism Research; the main purpose is to provide an opportunity for researchers across all autism-related fields and from around the world to meet once a year and exchange information.

You can find the IMFAR 2009 program and abstracts, in different formats, via this page. Archives of abstracts from previous years can be found here.

This year I was involved in two abstracts. You can find them here and here. The first is below; the information in this abstract was updated, and therefore was slightly different, in the IMFAR poster we presented.


Where Autistics Excel: Compiling An Inventory of Autistic Cognitive Strengths

M. Dawson & L. Mottron, Centre d'excellence en troubles envahissants du développement de l'Université de Montréal (CETEDUM), Montréal, QC, Canada

Background: Until recently, there has been little interest in autistic cognitive strengths. Instead, autistic strengths revealed through comparisons between the performance of autistic and nonautistic individuals on various tasks have been largely reported or interpreted as evidence for autistic cognitive deficits (Baron-Cohen, 2005; Gernsbacher et al., 2006; Mottron et al., 2008). Also, there is currently no compilation of empirically documented autistic cognitive strengths as reported in the existing literature. Accordingly, little is known about the full range and quantity of autistic cognitive strengths or the variety and number of autistic individuals in which these strengths have been found.

Objectives: Our aim was to further understanding of cognitive strengths in the autistic population by identifying, quantifying and characterizing existing studies reporting these strengths.

Methods: We located and characterized papers published in peer-reviewed journals which reported autistic cognitive strengths. In order to be included, studies had to compare the performance of autistics to the performance of nonautistics on a task, and autistics had to be reported to perform better than their controls on the task. Studies specific to autistic savants and hyperlexics were excluded, as were probable but unclear reports of autistic strengths, and accidental findings arising from matching strategies. Autistic cognitive strengths originally reported and/or interpreted as deficits were included.

Results: In total, 52 distinct types of autistic cognitive strengths were found, reported in 71 papers (12 reporting two or more strength types) spanning from the 1970s to the present. Only 13 papers published prior to 2000 reported strengths, but at least five papers reporting strengths have been published every year starting in 2000, with the highest number per year in 2008 (N=13). Twelve of the 52 strength types were reported in at least two, and up to 10, papers, with the most replicated finding being superior performance in embedded figures tasks. While most strengths (N=36) were found via tasks using nonsocial information, several strengths involving social information (N=8) and language (N=7) were reported. Sample size for autistic groups ranged from 3 to 40, with a mean of 16, while mean age of autistic participants within samples ranged from 2 to 39 years. Total number of autistics, encompassing 81 different samples, was 1351, of whom 885 had the specific diagnosis of autism, while 130 were diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and 336 were in the general “ASD” category. Of the 71 papers, 25 included autistic individuals judged to be intellectually disabled according to commonly used instruments, and 29 reported or interpreted one or more findings of autistic cognitive strengths as one or more deficits.

Conclusions: Numerous distinct autistic cognitive strengths, some of them highly replicated, in a wide range of areas, and displayed by a large number and great variety of autistic individuals, have been reported in the literature. Failing to acknowledge the importance of autistic cognitive strengths may impede efforts to understand autistic differences and assist autistic individuals. We recommend more consistent and transparent reporting and interpretation of autistic cognitive strengths and more attention to their importance.


Anonymous said...
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Michelle Dawson said...

The comment from Anonymous was (very lengthy) spam...

daedalus2u said...

This work is so important.

It is so necessary to get everyone off the dead-end that autism is caused by any kind of "damage".

Sufficient damage will degrade any and all cognitive abilities.

The differences in social abilities of ASDs occurs with no demonstrable "damage" or infarct or lesion of any sort.

Why do reviewers allow autism to be characterized as "damage" when it has never been demonstrated? (that is a rhetorical question, not one that I expect an answer for. It is not an answer that can be reached by looking at ASD behaviors/symptoms/properties).

Michelle Dawson said...

In a textbook chapter (Mottron et al., 2008) we provide many examples of how unparsimonious and unproductive it has been, in autism research, to presume that autistics are defective (or damaged) nonautistics.

At IMFAR one attendee commented, re my poster, that it was good to see something "positive" for a change. My response was that I did not think of it as "positive" but as "accurate."

Joseph said...

The other day I found out about a strength I had not read about previously: enhanced logical consistency (De Martino et al., 2008) and hyper-rationality (Harrison et al., 2008).

Does your review include this one? Just checking how thorough it was :)

Michelle Dawson said...

My review included De Martino et al. (2008), a study I am very aware of.

Harrison et al. (2008) is the same study as it was presented at IMFAR 2008 (I saw this presentation).

I only included findings from the peer-reviewed literature. This meant excluding findings that had been presented (e.g., at IMFAR) but not published.

Michelle Dawson said...

Also in response to Joseph I forgot to link to this post, re De Martino et al. (2008).

nerkul said...

I think I understand why this happens and why it won't stop soon. Nonautistics interpret information (all information?) through the veneer, the story of the social hierarchy. In-groups and out-groups. If you regularly make eye contact you can actually see the stories blurring the vision of most of them; they mostly don't look out of their eyes honestly or widely. That means new scientific information, or unheard-of ideas that are amenable to logical methods, can't be processed unless it comes to them correctly via the hierarchy. The objective validity of the new information is irrelevant.

I.e., they aren't clutching onto a notion of superiority for the sake of their egos. They aren't doing it *for* any reason at all. Rather, it's more like why there are more people hunting whales than transcribing whalesong.

The more aware I become, the more fascinating I find nonautistics.