Thursday, May 13, 2010

Original, talented, different: autism can be a gift

The latest scientific research and the “autistic pride” movement are saying that the condition can be advantageous

Sarah Hewitt has an enviable list of skills for her job as a senior IT consultant: incredible attention to detail, rapid analysis of complex information, an amazing memory and a laser-sharp focus that can, she admits, border on the obsessive.

She believes her talents are in part down to her autism; six years ago she was found to have Asperger’s syndrome — a high-functioning form of autism. “It’s difficult to know what’s a result of the Asperger’s and what’s me,” says Hewitt, 32, the only female technical consultant for BT Business. “Blue-sky thinking and role-play exercises are a nightmare for me. But I am very technically savvy, and my Asperger’s gives me an honest, blunt approach that customers like, even though it can cause problems with colleagues.”

Sarah is representative of a growing “autistic pride” movement — people who see autism as an advantage rather than a debilitating illness that needs to be “cured”. Their brains, they say, are simply wired differently. The latest New Scientist magazine reveals how research is uncovering the cognitive benefits of the autistic brain — ranging from the ability to process complex information incredibly quickly to the kind of talent shown by the autistic artist Stephen Wiltshire, who draws cityscapes from memory and has a West End gallery.

In the past couple of years, autism websites and blogs have sprung up to trumpet the achievements of “auties” and there’s an annual UK conference, Autscape, organised by and for autistic people. This year the US version, Autreat, is entitled “Living Life the Autly Way”. “Neuro-typicals”, non-autistic people, are accepted, but it’s made clear that the conference is not really for them.

Businesses are also realising that it’s worthwhile hiring autistic employees, especially in IT. A prominent autistic professor was cheered at a recent conference when she said that Silicon Valley wouldn’t exist without the condition.

As a result of Hewitt’s experience, BT offers placements to potential employees with Asperger’s and has a factsheet for those working with them. One Danish software company employs primarily those with Asperger’s to test mobile phone applications and games software; it has an error rate of just 0.5 per cent, compared with 5 per cent for other testers. In March, the company, Specialisterne, was awarded lottery funding to set up an arm in Glasgow. “This is not about offering cheap labour or occupational therapy,” said its founder, Thorkil Sonne. “We charge market rates, our consultants receive a market salary.”

That autistic people have talents is hardly new, but until now attention has tended to focus on the bizarre, savant-type abilities made famous by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man. Now radical scientists — some of them autistic — are examining how the autistic brain works better.

The work is welcomed by campaigners such as Virginia Bovell, the former wife of the author Nick Hornby and mother of their autistic son, Danny, 16; she is doing a PhD on the ethics of wanting to “cure” autism. “It is absolutely right to stop portraying autism as a ghastly, negative thing,” she says. “Some in the US portray it as a disease to be eradicated, which I find offensive as well as inaccurate, and this work is crucial to counter that perception.”

She praises the work of the self-taught autistic scientist Michelle Dawson at the University of Montreal. Dawson and Professor Laurent Mottron challenged the link between autism and low IQ by publishing a study that shows that it all depends which IQ test you use. With the most popular test, 75 per cent of autistic people scored 70 or lower, which put them in the mentally retarded range. But an alternative test removed most from that category.

The pair have also proved that when given non-verbal reasoning tasks, autistic people work out the answer 20 to 40 per cent quicker than the rest of us — probably because they don’t need to translate the visual problem into a verbal one first. Other research suggests that autistic brains are better at visual searches, can process facts faster and are better at focusing intently on one topic. Autistic people can build up a huge factual knowledge because of this preoccupation with detail. They also tend to have very good memories, which may be linked to their visual capabilities.

And more autistic people may have savant skills than was previously thought, according to a study by King’s College London in 2008, which concluded that 29 per cent of participants had “exceptional skills”, the most common of which was an outstanding memory.

Richard Mills, director of research for the UK charity Research Autism, welcomes the scientific focus on autism’s benefits. “People often take it as read that people with autism lack a ‘theory of mind’ — the ability to consider the mental states of others. It’s recognised as one of the key deficits of the autistic brain — but the more you work with individuals with autism, the more you realise that they don’t lack it,” he says. “Their solutions are often quite novel — they think outside the box,” he says. “They are not seduced by media and they are very direct and straightforward.”

But he and Bovell worry that the relentless focus on autism’s benefits may prevent access to help and support, which is vital, particularly for those with lower IQs who are more severely autistic. “What concerns me is if people start saying, right then, autistic people don’t need help or support,” Bovell says. “That would be a disaster, because even those with higher IQs working in IT may still have major difficulties going to the shops or negotiating the Underground system.”