Researchers are Finding Out Why Autism Can Bring Extra Abilities
We have been looking at autism all wrong, says Anna Remington. Our understanding of the condition has been skewed by an overly medical focus that classes any differences as impairments, she says, when in fact they could just represent diversity.
Remington is head of the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at University College London, which tries to involve autistic people at every level in directing research and interpreting the results. “We ask autistic people ‘what should we be researching?'” she says. “Maybe surprisingly, it’s not the genetic research, it’s more about practical solutions like how do we improve employment rates?” Her own work focuses on autistic strengths, and her team is starting to uncover what underpins some of these abilities with a view to increasing employment opportunities for autistic people.
What kinds of abilities do autistic people have?
First of all, I just want to give a disclaimer that there’s so much diversity within the autism community. We have to remember that every autistic person is an individual.
Having said that, a lot of autistic people are good at digesting a lot of information, or learning a lot of information about a certain topic. They are very focused. Also, autistic people are often really creative and can provide a solution that has not been thought of before.
Do we know what’s behind any of these abilities?
One clue comes from looking at attention and perception. Autistic people often do better than non-autistic people on auditory and visual tasks, such as picking out items from other items around them, discriminating pitch or identifying musical notes.
We started looking at how to reconcile this with another observation: that autistic people often also have difficulties related to hearing and vision. So they might find being in a room with fluorescent lights difficult because of the hum, or being in a shopping centre tricky because of the loud noise.
We found that the key to both was in how much information someone can process at any given time. Autistic people can process more information than non-autistic people – we call this a higher perceptual capacity.
What determines whether this extra capacity is a help or a hindrance?
If you’re doing a task with lots of information, then you can process more at any given time, so you’re going to do better. But if it is a task that doesn’t fill up your capacity, all that spare capacity has to do something, so it ends up processing irrelevant items, like background noise. Temple Grandin, a famous autistic professor, talks about her ears being like microphones – indiscriminately picking up every sound. That’s going to take you away from the task.
So we can’t choose how much of our capacity to use?
No, you have to assign your full capacity. If the task that you’re doing doesn’t fill it, other things will. So what you actually need to stay on task is to have more information. If you ignore that and you assume that an autistic person must just be bad at focusing, then you might make a task simpler by taking away information. But then you’re probably making things worse, because you’re leaving all of that capacity available for distraction or irrelevant processing. Autistic people have said that our work makes a lot of sense because they find it helps to listen to music or to use a fidget toy. I think we all do this to some extent.
Is there growing recognition of autistic advantages?
There is definitely a more mainstream understanding of the skills and abilities that autistic people have. I think it coincided with the autism self-advocacy movements. There is also a push to consider both directions, what autistic scholar Damian Milton calls the double empathy problem. This is the idea that everyone is talking about autistic people lacking empathy – which is not true anyway – but no one is considering the fact that the non-autistic community is demonstrating a lack of empathy if they’re not able to put themselves in the shoes of the autistic people. So it goes both ways.
Could the focus on advantages jeopardise support for autistic people who are not so able?
I think we can embrace the strengths without ignoring the weaknesses. It is a very dangerous suggestion that all autistic people have skills and abilities, or that they should only be valued for those skills and abilities.
Most of our work has been with autistic people who have an IQ within the typical range. I’m very aware that the research cannot speak for every autistic person and it is often those who are most vocal who are talking about their experiences of strengths and abilities.
“You can’t be a bit autistic. It’s like being pregnant, you either are or you aren’t”
On the other hand, some parents of children who cannot speak are sure that their children have abilities. We know that those who cannot speak are often underestimated. I think we will see increased capacity in those who are less able, but we need to find a way of showing it.
We often think of autism as a spectrum, so sometimes people say, oh, so-and-so is a little bit autistic. Is there any truth in that?
I think that sometimes people feel affinity for certain traits, but the idea that people are a little bit autistic isn’t helpful. If you speak to autistic people, they will say you can’t be a little bit autistic. It’s like being pregnant, you either are or you aren’t.
Being autistic is about the impact that it has on daily life and by saying you’re a little bit autistic, it undermines the difficulties that an autistic person has. So someone who finds it tricky to go out and socialise is very different from someone who needs a week to recover after going to a party because so much energy and anxiety is expended in doing that.
There is a debate as to whether autism is one step further along a line from neurotypical to neurodivergent, or whether it is a qualitative difference. I don’t think we know the answer to that yet.