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.


farmwifetwo said...

I think that is something that needs to be addressed at the childhood stage. It is extremely difficult to find someone to teach your child to play an instrument, build an engine, do.... whatever. Even those that claim (like TVCC) to teach autistics they do not have programs to work on these "savant" or not but still special skills.

As for "atypical" learning. I've learned that when I introduce a new DS game, Leapster game or a new Jumpstart (educational game), with my youngest to walk away. He'll sort it out, master it, but not in the manner I would...

Now, about the ability to call 911 he was taught at school this past week and showed us and the cop at my door his mastery of it..... UGH!!!

Never teach a child that, who may not talk much, may flap, but can master a mechanical skill in 30sec flat something you don't want them to know - yet.


Alan Griswold said...

I have written here my own thoughts about your team's excellent paper in the Autism and Talent issue of Philosophical Transactions B. I hope your team can continue to make headway in getting the autism research community to turn more of its attention towards autistic strengths and abilities, and away from its worn-out discussions around so-called deficits and defects. Thank you for all your work in this area!

Larry Arnold PhD FRSA said...

However this is not very good research, one needs a wide basis of controls, for such things as good pitch discrimination.

Go to any music school and you will find that these skills exist in a higher ratio to the average. Indeed if they did not, just who and on what basis are the music schools recruiting? Pitch can be trained, and there is just so much false logic in this autistic focused gaze, Frith, Happe and the usual suspects are too blind to see that they are starting with the stereotypes, the schemas, and seeing what fits, never mind looking at the true spread of talent as a human diversity independant of any correlation with autism.

I guess some if it will correlate with rainfall, sunspots, and there being an r in the month as well...

As for me, I play by ear, because I am too dyslexic to sight read music. Nothing to do with autism, is an adaptation to a particular deficit if you look at it one way, if you look at it another, it is just natural selection, in that if I didn't have good pitch I would have given up trying to play an instrument by now.

David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. said...

"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."

Well, they won't be developed by any of the cure mob who basically think we shouldn't exist!

Michelle Dawson said...

Thanks to Alan G for reminding me to point out that papers published in Philosophical Transactions B should become open access a year after being published.

You should be able to get these free pdfs both via the journal site (last I looked...) and via PubMed Central.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but if you are in communication with the Autism Diva, would you ask her to send me an e-mail? I have not heard from her for a somewhat long while. I am Justthisguy on the internet, I think she'll know who I am.

Anonymous said...

With the rise in autism over the last 20 years the number of savants is probably about 1 in a million.
You can't teach anyone to be a savant.

konnie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...


justthisguy... I can't find your email address... do you still have my address?


Anonymous said...

Oh, and Hi, to Michelle and everyone else. I am fine. I hope you are all well.


Michelle Dawson said...

Hi Camille, good to hear from you.

We're just struggling along, trying in vain to fill your (totally cool, totally unfillable) shoes.

Michelle Dawson said...

The deleted comment is "Konnie," rudely striking again with (very badly placed) service-provider spam.

CP said...

Hi Michelle

We met briefly at IMFAR 08 (I presented the poster on severe autism and unexpected competencies).

I attended the autism and talent conference and Francesca Happe said something there that I felt was very important. She pointed out that talent could be unexpected, so a severely autistic child for example might demonstrate talent by noticing when a particular pattern was messed up (these were not the exact words, but the gist).

This is the sort of talent my very severely autistic son shows day in day out. He does 'stuff' visually and has a visual memory that far surpasses mine, yet his severe autism/non-verbal/severely learning disabled background makes these talents hard to recognise.

I should be receiving a copy of the Autism and Talent issue of the proceedings soon - I look forward to it.


Michelle Dawson said...

Hi CP, nice to see you here. I'm at IMFAR 2009 with limited online time (and brain busy with newly absorbed data), so I'm just going to address a few points re autism "severity."

On the CARS, an autistic who has one or more very high abilities (that is, has a highly uneven profile of apparent abilities) will score as more "severe" than an autistic whose apparent abilities are uniformly low.

So Pat Howlin's autistics with "exceptional skills" would be regarded as less "severe" if they lost those skills. If the ADI-R worked like a scale (it doesn't), it would work in the same way as the CARS: exceptional skills in autism are considered to increase "severity" (that is, atypicality), not decrease it.

Also, "severity" of autism (which is the attempt to quantify the obviousness of autistic traits and abilities) has, when measured in various ways, been a poor predictor of later outcomes in autism. We have found that autistics who scored higher on pieces of the ADI-R (and would therefore commonly be assumed to be "more severe") had a wide range of better visual skills than autistics who scored lower on these measures (Caron et al., 2006).

Also the relation between speech or lack thereof and presumed autism "severity" is hardly straighforward--this is a big issue in itself.

And in fact, there is not yet a good measure of the entity that gets called "autism severity," possibly due to ignorance about what dimension to assay, possibly coupled with just plain poor (too coarse-grained, e.g.) observation. This is something I've presented about recently and some day [sigh] I will try to get round to blogging.

Anonymous said...

With the rise in autism over the last 20 years the number of savants is probably about 1 in a million.

@Anon: That makes no sense. Even at a prevalence of 4.5 in 10,000 (Lotter, 1966) there would be 4.5 in 100,000 savants, based on Rimland's old estimate. It would be more like 1.5 in 10,000 using Howlin's new estimate. In reality, there might be 20 in 10,000 autistic savants.

Anonymous said...

The problems I see with the ADI-R is it does not evaluate the reading and writing deficits of autism -- a huge gap. Also, until the psychologists stop assuming everyone communicates best in paper print and stop making paper print intruments and start making computer formats people with autism tend to use, the scoring will remain inaccurate.

There is already so much ignorance about autism so prevalant among so many, it is long past time for research focus on the autism talents.

Just see the vast waste the America legal profession has made of probably one of the only prodigious autistic savants to have graduated law school and passed a bar exam -- they refuse to license her in any state in the U.S. or give court access. Her savant abilities in the law are even greater than in her artwork (she adds new pieces from time to time).

The focus on autism deficits and not the talents needs to change.

Anonymous said...

not sure why it trucated

Anonymous said...

one more try ?


Jonathan said...

Laurentius Rex,

While, as you say, there is much more to being good at music than whether one has absolute pitch, you are also suggesting that absolute pitch does not give you any sort of advantage in being able to learn music.

As an autistic person with absolute pitch who graduated with a piano degree from a prestigious music school, I can assure you that absolute pitch gives you a significant learning advantage. Granted, further research could help clarify this, but the notion that absolute pitch has no bearing on musical skill set is absurd. People even go so far to claim that it can be a disadvantage. Where are the studies that suggest that this is true?

Michelle Dawson said...

In response to Jonathan, according to what has been found so far, all autistic musical savants have absolute pitch. This is not the case for all (or even most or many) nonautistic musical experts.

There is some research showing that absolute pitch can interfere with relative pitch in nonautistics. See Miyazaki and Rakowski (2002), which is mentioned in Zatorre (2003) (that's a free pdf...).

In contrast there is evidence that absolute pitch does not interfere with relative pitch in an autistic musical savant (Mottron et al., 1999).

There is also a recent case study of an autistic who has exceptional absolute pitch for speech, and who (after a marked delay in speech production) is fluent in numerous languages (Heaton et al., 2008, see brief description here).

Barbara said...

"Anonymous said...

Oh, and Hi, to Michelle and everyone else. I am fine. I hope you are all well.


Ms Clark, I miss your emails, your sound incisive intelligence, and your inspiration for what I'm doing, now.

You and the intellectual acuity of Michelle Dawson pushed me along this road. I can't thank you enough. But I'm exhausted by the effort and I'm recently having far too much epileptic interference. Only 3 months to go, now. I hope I can see it out, and finance it.I'm down to the wire.

Good to hear from you, albeit at this third remove. I hope my PhD does justice to everything you inspired me to study.

Thank you. Take care.

Hope you're OK?

Ophidian said...

Sorry to notice that your new article published in Philosophical Transactions is not yet for public access and one has to wait for a year to receive the honor. I wonder why neither you nor your colleague Mr. Morton make your own research freely available for everyone?

And, BTW, just reading your CV, it seems true for most of your articles, except for those in collaboration with Gernsbacher, which were made freely accessible solely thanks to her efforts.

IMO, not such a great service on your part to public knowledge.

Michelle Dawson said...

For anyone who believes autistics are worth the bother of a quick online search, almost all the papers (those that have online versions) I have been involved in are freely available online somewhere.

Some are there because they are used in various university courses or training programs. This has been true for many, many years.

But if you are not interested in looking, of course you will not find them.

Ophidian said...

While some authors honestly care that their research is readily available for anyone to read (examples include Gernsbacher, Baron-Cohen etc), some others only pretend to care and readily send the public to search their articles "somewhere" instead of collecting their own articles at their own websites, which for them should the easiest thing on earth.

Ophidian said...

Just to make a point, Ophidian challenges the owner of this blog as well as its readers to perform the so-called "quick search" and "easily" find "somewhere" the following articles.
These three were chosen randomly from this CVt :

Wang, L., Mottron, L., Peng, D., Berthiaume, C., & Dawson, M. (2007). Local bias and local-to-global interference without global deficit: A robust finding in autism under various conditions of attention, exposure time and visual angle. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 24, 550-574.

Mottron, L., Dawson, M., Bertone, A., & Wang, L. (2007). Cognitive versatility in autism cannot be reduced to a deficit. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 24, 578-580.

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.

It should be mentioned that Ophidian himself has access to most academic journals and is not terribly affected by the imposed limits.
He, therefore, is not too desperate to search high and low in order to find free PDFs randomly scattered on the web.
Yet, he finds it irritating when certain authors pretend to enlighten the public on the subject they are working on
and at the same time almost deliberatly limit access to information they could so easily provide.

Michelle Dawson said...

Simon Baron-Cohen provides pdfs online of many, but not all, of his published papers. In fact he does not even list some of his published papers, even though they have online versions.

Same with Morton Gernsbacher, even just with respect to autism-related papers; she does not currently list all of them, and does not currently provide pdfs for all of them.

Same with many if not most other researchers who put papers online.

Does this mean they are "deliberatly limit[ing] access to information they could so easily provide"? Of course not.

And researchers who put papers online do so on their own academic websites. I do not have such a website and never will.

Also, I have no webspace of my own.

What I have online is in other people's webspace. I can just about blog (though I needed help setting up the blog, and have needed help since with a few things), and I tweet now and then, but I cannot otherwise put anything online without the volunteering of somone else's webspace and webmastership.

So I link to papers posted by other researchers on their academic websites or papers that we have arranged to be open access (e.g., Caron et al., 2006). And I can only do this linking via a webmaster, who is a volunteer, who also volunteers his webspace. And so far I have stuck with linking to papers with a good chance of staying where they are.

I continue to be amazed that it is considered a huge amount of trouble to take the few seconds necessary to search for a paper.

Ophidian said...

If Ophidian were to choose between the author who provides easy access to most of his research (such as Gernsbacher or Baron-Cohen) and the one who provides none and does not even attempt to fix the problem, the choice is easily made.
Neither Gernsbacher nor Baron-Cohen writes a public blog on the research and if they did, Ophidian would anticipate them
to provide the complete sources, considering they have most of it ready.
It is truly amazing that the author of this blog, who spends significant time on writing blog entries on the subject of autism and seemingly wants to illuminate the public is not even willing to to perform the so-called "quick search" and provide links to the original sources.
Ophidian believes it would benefit the readers of this blog much more than the perpetual discussion on how easy it is to find the sources if one only tried or cared.
And the challenge, BTW, still stands.

Michelle Dawson said...

According to Ophidian, I do not, and nor do any of my colleagues, provide any access whatsoever to any of the papers I'm involved in. This is false.

Also, according to Ophidian, every author of every paper must separately and individually post pdfs of all their papers freely online on individual (one for each author) websites dedicated for this purpose.

That is, all of Prof Baron-Cohen's co-authors and all of Morton Gernsbacher's co-authors should each and individually have websites on which they provide free pdfs of any papers they are in the authorship of. Otherwise they are doing a very bad thing, like me.


Also, I haven't made any claim that all the papers I'm involved in are freely available online at this moment. I have pointed out that this is also the case with the autism-related work of most researchers, including those Ophidian approves of.

Ophidian said...

Quote: "According to Ophidian, I do not, and nor do any of my colleagues, provide any access whatsoever to any of the papers I'm involved in. This is false."

Quite on the contrary:
According to Ophidian, the author of this blog makes good use of the
efforts of her colleague Morton Gernsbacher to present her own research to the public (links to PDFs provided in this CV ).
Providing links to websites of other people is perfectly fine by Ophidian. At the same time the author of this blog is not willing to make any independent effort to provide access to her other research for the public. This is odd, considering this blog seems to exist to illuminate the public on the recent research in autism, which also includes studies of the blog's owner.
Ophidian believes that finding webspace for PDFs (even free webspace, such as Google Sites) is no rocket science. The author of this blog should be able to handle this task in some way or convince her colleagues, such as Laurent Mottron, to help her out. This would dramatically improve the quality of this blog and help those people who, unlike the author of the blog or Ophidian, have no access to the academic journals but may still be eager
to read the original articles.

It just so happens that correcting the trivial problem with links to the sources within claimed "few seconds" ("quick online search", remember?) to help the general audience is too trivial to be even considered. Instead the author of this blog makes every effort to misrepresent Ophidian's point of view and is prepared to spend infinite amount of time on doing so.
Ophidian also wonders how much joy there is in blaming the public for
being either too lazy or careless in locating the complete sources
which, according to the author of this blog, must be so "easy to
find". The challenge on locating the above three articles free on the web still stands. (This is just a test, which proves the point.)

Michelle Dawson said...

I continue to disagree with Ophidian's insistence that every author of every paper must separately and individually post pdfs of all their papers freely online on individual (one for each author) websites dedicated for this purpose.

In fact I find this demand amazing. So is Ophidian's glaringly false repeated contention that I and necessarily my colleagues (because Ophidian has no way of knowing who has done what) have made no effort whatsoever to make any of our work available in any way.

The researchers Ophidian praises do not provide free pdfs of all their autism-related work, and do not even list all their current papers. As I have written, this is totally understandable and also true of many if not most (or virtually all) researchers who put papers online.

Yet, Ophidian demands that all my papers must be freely available online as pdfs all the time, and if some of them aren't then I am a lousy person (or something). And Ophidian demands that I post these pdfs on an academic website of my own. And if I don't immediately snap to it and follow these orders, Ophidian will emit a tedious stream of personal insults.

Of course, Ophidian can do what Ophidian wants. But Ophidian is grossly off topic, and those personal insults are boring, uniformative (except about Ophidian's standards, values, etc.), unproductive, and in other ways rude to readers here.

If Ophidian wishes to continue to be off-topic and emit personal insults and so on, I suggest Ophidian do this on Ophidian's own blog/website.