Saturday, May 02, 2009

Autism and talent: Why?
Last year, the British Academy and Royal Society held a two-day discussion meeting called "Autism and Talent" which became the basis for a recently published wide-ranging special issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions B.

Francesca Happé and Uta Frith, who organized the discussion meeting, write in the special issue's editorial that although "the association of autism with special talent, sometimes at the highest level, cannot be denied" it remains true that "special talents are still less researched and less well understood than other features of autism."

The long-standing lack of interest in what autistics do well is understated. For example, the commonly reported estimate that 10% of autistics have savant abilities dates back to a book chapter, involving an informal parent survey, published more than 30 years ago. If anything, the "Autism and Talent" special issue highlights the current, ongoing state of ignorance about the strong abilities that have been noted in autistics from the outset (Kanner, 1943; Asperger, 1944/1991; Scheerer et al., 1945).

In their special issue paper, Pat Howlin and her colleagues use very conservative methods to find exceptional skills in about one-third of a group of autistics originally diagnosed between 1950 and 1985. While noting this is "likely to be an underestimate," the authors can only ask, about the "particularly high" "rate of such unusual talents or skills" in autism,

Sixty-some years after unusual autistic abilities were first highlighted in the literature, their extent, nature, and importance remain strikingly neglected as subjects of research. This neglect and consequent ignorance is evident in the special issue. Throughout questions are raised that have long been deemed unimportant or irrelevant and so have largely gone unasked never mind unanswered.

In her paper, Pamela Heaton illuminates the price autistics pay for this long history of willful neglect and ignorance. She points to fascinating new evidence about autistics' advantage in perceiving musical timbre, adding to a wide body of work showing enhanced auditory pitch processing in autism. She shows that autistics "who do not meet criteria for savant skills... nevertheless possess considerable, but often unexploited, musical potential." And she concludes that autistics are being denied opportunities to develop their strong interests and abilities.

Our paper in the special issue (Mottron et al., 2009) proposes ways in which autistics' measurably atypical cognitive processes may--given the opportunity--lead to the development of savant abilities, which we see as autistic expertise. Again we have to note the fall-out from researchers' long-standing indifference to how autistics learn well:

However, it must also be acknowledged that the information autistics require in order to choose and generalize any given interest is likely to be atypical in many respects (in that this may not be the information that non-autistics would require), and may not be freely or at all available. In addition, the atypical ways in which autistics and savants learn well have attracted little interest and are as yet poorly studied and understood, such that we remain ignorant as to the best ways in which to teach these individuals (Dawson et al. 2008). Therefore, a failure to provide autistics or savants with the kinds of information and opportunities from which they can learn well must also be considered as explaining apparent limitations in the interests and abilities of savant and non-savant autistics
This account is in keeping with the failure of researchers to find consistent predictors of outcome among the characteristics of autistic individuals on which researchers have concentrated their attention (Howlin, 2005).

Kate Plaisted Grant and her colleague Greg Davis highlight in their paper, as we do in ours, how profoundly atypical autistic minds are. They conclude there is much to gain, for autistics and nonautistics, in acknowledging, understanding and encouraging autistics' strong abilities:

Research such as that described here makes this important point: savant abilities are relatively rare, but the skills observed in individuals with ASCs [autistic spectrum conditions] in many studies are common among the population with ASCs. These skills need as much training and encouragement as is given to any individual with talent in detailed processing, mathematics, engineering, design and so on. With such dedicated training, society, business and industry will reap the great benefits of the unusual minds of individuals with ASCs.
The "Autism and Talent" discussion meeting and special issue, as well as a more recent British Academy and Royal Society panel discussion on the same subject, are small steps in the right direction. For much too long, autistics' strong abilities have been prejudicially regarded and treated as aberrant and dysfunctional excesses and deficits, which only impede the acquisition of socially-valued typical behaviours. Sixty-some years on, long overdue recognition of the importance of autistics' strong abilities is finally emerging. So is interest in how these abilities might be encouraged--rather than eliminated.


Asperger, H. (1944/1991). 'Autistic psychopathology' in childhood (Frith, U., Trans.). In: Frith, U.(Ed.), Autism and Asperger Syndrome (pp. 37-92). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dawson, M., Mottron, L., & Gernsbacher, M. A. (2008). Learning in autism. In J. H. Byrne (Series Ed.) & H. Roediger (Vol. Ed.), Learning and memory: A comprehensive reference: Cognitive Psychology (pp. 759-772). New York: Elsevier.

Heaton, P. (2009). Assessing musical skills in autistic children who are not savants Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364 (1522), 1443-1447 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0327

Howlin, P. (2005). Outcomes in autism spectrum disorders. In: Volkmar, F.R., Paul, R., Klin, A.,Cohen, D. (Eds.), Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders (pp. 201-220). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Howlin, P., Goode, S., Hutton, J., & Rutter, M. (2009). Savant skills in autism: psychometric approaches and parental reports Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364 (1522), 1359-1367 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0328

Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217-250.

Mottron, L., Dawson, M., & Soulières, I. (2009). Enhanced perception in savant syndrome: Patterns, structure and creativity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364, 1385-1391.

Plaisted-Grant, K., & Davis, G. (2009). Perception and apperception in autism: rejecting the inverse assumption. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364, 1393-1389.

Scheerer, M., Rothmann, E., & Goldstein, K. (1945). A case of “idiot-savant”: An experimental study of personality organization. Psychological Monographs, 58, 1-63.