In a recent article in Nature magazine, a Université de Montréal researcher asks us to change how we perceive individuals with autism and to create the conditions that will allow them to succeed.
Laurent Mottron is a professor of psychiatry and the director of the autism program at the Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies. In 10 years, his team has counted four research assistants – three students and one researcher – who are autistic. These individuals have performed as well as, and at times better than, “neurotypical” people, he says.
In an interview, Dr. Mottron criticizes the likening of autism to an illness. “The illness model naturally springs to mind to describe minority populations. But an illness has a beginning and an end, and is in no way beneficial for the ill person. This model does not apply to a neurogenetic variation like autism. When you’re born autistic, you die autistic. What’s more, while the brain function in autistics may be limited in terms of certain communication and organizational abilities, it offers advantages in performing visual tasks and processing written information.”
The researcher continues with a warning. “I’m not saying we need to respect autistics solely because their condition presents certain advantages. Between one and three per cent of the population is autistic. That’s a sizeable group of which the majority is well adapted and only a minority presents adaptation problems, though at times considerable, just like any other human group. Autistics are here to stay; there is no scientifically valid perspective for changing the course of this variation. Not only that, our advanced democratic societies support members with exceptionalities and make it possible for them to contribute to the community. Why wouldn’t we do the same with autistics? Why not develop educational methods aimed at making the most of who they are, rather than seeking to turn them into neurotypical individuals, whom they will never be?”
According to Dr. Mottron, scientists bear an important responsibility in this respect. By emphasizing autistics’ strengths and by identifying conditions that allow them to learn and function optimally, scientists can change the way they are perceived.