Rather than focus on autism as a series of deficits that need to be treated, one researcher argues that people with the disorder have advantages over those who are typically developing.
In a commentary published this week in the journal Nature, Laurent Mottron, a professor at the University of Montreal, argues that autism should be seen as a strength, even among those on the spectrum who are not savants.
“Recent data and my own personal experience suggest it’s time to start thinking of autism as an advantage in some spheres, not a cross to bear,” says Mottron, who studies autism and employs several people with the disorder on his research team.
In his commentary, Mottron points to skills such as identifying patterns and memory recall that people with autism tend to excel at. Such skills can be a boon in the sciences and other career fields.
“Too often, employers don’t realize what autistics are capable of, and assign them repetitive, almost menial tasks,” Mottron writes. “But I believe that most are willing and capable of making sophisticated contributions to society, if they have the right environment.”
“In many instances, people with autism need opportunities and support more than they need treatment,” he continues.
Even scientists studying autism have a tendency to emphasize the negative, Mottron says. Often discoveries of unique brain characteristics among people with autism are unfairly talked about as deficits rather than differences, he argues.
At the same time, Mottron says he’s not naive to the challenges that are faced by many on the autism spectrum.
“As a clinician, I also know all too well that autism is a disability that can make daily activities difficult. One out of ten autistics cannot speak, nine out of ten have no regular job and four out of five autistic adults are still dependent on their parents. Most face the harsh consequences of living in a world that has not been constructed around their priorities and interests,” Mottron wrote. “But in my experience, autism can also be an advantage.”
Peter Bell, executive vice president at Autism Speaks, said that Mottron’s argument offers a “healthy perspective.”
“We do know there are certainly strengths and benefits that many people with autism have,” Bell said. “I’m happy to see that he also recognizes that there are some very debilitating aspects of autism.”
Bell cautioned, however, against discounting the value of treatment.
“We have a lot of examples of where treatment has been a really important factor in helping people with autism become more functional and be more independent,” Bell said.