I’m sure everyone who’s anyone in the autism world by now has heard about Laurent Mottron passionately advocating for a readjustment of the lens through which we view autism. Dr. Mottron argues that we (that is autistics) contribute to science and the world at large not in spite of our autism, but because of it. Dr. Mottron is not talking about savants here, like the famous Stephen Wiltshire, or Daniel Tammet, or Matt Savage. He’s talking about “ordinary” autistics whose abilities are not in the realm of the savant, but see the world in a unique way and offer the gift of a different perspective. Dr. Mottron, as a researcher, cites examples in the science world which he is intimately familiar with to make his case:
But in my experience, autism can also be an advantage. In certain settings, autistic individuals can fare extremely well. One such setting is scientific research. For the past seven years, I have been a close collaborator of an autistic woman, Michelle Dawson. She has shown me that autism, when combined with extreme intelligence and an interest in science, can be an incredible boon to a research lab.
Dr. Mottron talks a lot about testing assumptions. The core of science is, after all, adjusting itself based on what’s observed. In spite of this simple credo, sometimes scientists can let their own biases get in the way of really thinking about how the autistic brain works and what it is capable of. Mottron says:
Even researchers who study autism can display a negative bias against people with the condition. For instance, researchers performing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans systematically report changes in the activation of some brain regions as deficits in the autistic group — rather than evidence simply of their alternative, yet sometimes successful, brain organization.
Why does it always have to be seen as a deficit, rather than a difference? Dr. Mottron is no stranger to the difficulty of autistic life, and does not shy away from correctly describing it as a disability, while acknowledging that it is also a difference, a diverse-ability. The two are not mutually exclusive, and we should not be forced to choose between taking pride in our differences and being given the assistance we need to have equal participation.
Dr. Mottron tells his story of how he came to view autism this way after living with previously untested assumptions for many years. He cites his partner in research, Michelle Dawson, for helping bring about the change, and of course, the pounds of data showing that with the right tests and an absence of assigning learning patterns and mentalities into “correct” and “incorrect” categories, autistics excel and soar.
It is my hope that we will see more and more scientists, researchers, and doctors doing their job, and discarding their untested assumptions about autism. It is also my hope that the rest of the world will take their cue from the science and research community, reaching teachers, occupational therapists, politicians, school administrators, and parents, so that our ideas about autism shift away from the culturally dominant “tragic child” and “diseased and damned” paradigms in favour of something much more healthy, much closer to the truth.
What would come after that? I think an autism renaissance would follow. Right now, I feel we are experiencing the birth pangs of this, but a shift in the way the world views autism would elevate it to new levels, by kicking away the socially ingrained obstacles which keep autistic people from achieving their very best, by either thinking they are incapable in all areas, or ghettoizing their achievements as being the exception, something to be cooed over and thought of as “inspirational”, but disposable in the end.
The internet has been the greatest enabler of an autism renaissance, by showing that we are not alone, and that our achievements need not be forgotten or put on the pedestal of savant-centrism. There are autistic artists, writers, bloggers, activists, educators, and advocates, and they are forming a community which will not be easily dismissed by the usual suspects of “They’re just high functioning, too high functioning, in fact.” or “They’re the exception, not the rule.” If we can sweep away that language and those ideas of autism, then it would not take a painful journey of wading through damaging rhetoric and ideas for an autistic person to discover their talents and enable themselves to flourish. Think of the possibilities!
Thank you, Dr. Mottron. I am indebted to people like you who are astute enough and humble enough to use the almighty tools of science not to reinforce culturally-correct lies, but to dismantle them, and erect new possibilities and ideas.