Many people probably remember the well-known television commercial that aired regularly in 1984 for Wendy's hamburgers where the old woman asks, "where's the beef?" This expression certainly rings true in 2011 where we see that rogue autism researcher Laurent Mottron is at it again, claiming that being autistic is an advantage and not a flaw that needs to be corrected. He claims that autistics can make significant contributions to society in "the right environment" but largely fails to elaborate on what this could be, except alluding to Michelle Dawson and others with autism who work in his lab.
Dr. Mottron's research has focused on differences between autistics and typicals in detecting sounds, embedded figures, superiority in such things as musical pitch and ability to perform on the block design test on the Wechsler IQ test. How these skills could possibly relate to being able to perform in a scientific milieu is unclear to me. This hits hard with me personally as I wished to be an autism brain researcher in the hopes of finding what in the brain causes autism but was too impaired to do it.
The rationale given by autism speaks for awarding nearly half a million bucks in funding to this man stated that these strengths he studied could be applied to employment and other issues. In fact Dr. Mottron states:
Too often, employers don’t realize what autistics are capable of, and assign them repetitive, almost menial tasks,” said Mottron. “But I believe that most are willing and capable of making sophisticated contributions to society, if they have the right environment.”
I believe if an autistic person is capable of doing well in any field of endeavor, whether it be medical transcription, computer programming or plumbing, they could demonstrate this capability and the employer would be happy to employ them and not assign them menial tasks. Dr. Mottron also does not account for the behavioral problems of autism which would certainly be a weakness. If an autistic person lost their temper or groped women in the workplace (two reasons I know of for two others on the spectrum besides myself to have been terminated from jobs), they would not care what this person was capable of. Whatever strengths Dr. Mottron alleges autistics have would be cancelled out by the weaknesses in behavior or social skills, resulting in a zero sum or negative outcome in terms of job capability.
Of course, Dr. Mottron, in the media reported articles on his recent commentary in the medical journal, Nature, neglects to mention that a lot of his research mainly focuses on extremely high functioning autistic individuals and not on nonverbal lower functioning autistic individuals who have behavioral problems that might preclude them from being research subjects in an fMRI scanner.
Another problem is that we must question the interpretations of some of the data of Dr. Mottron and his colleagues. In fact as recently pointed out by MJ of the autism jabberwocky blog Dr. Mottron and his colleagues may either be ignorant of even the most rudimentary skills of interpreting statistical data or disingenuously represent data from at least one of their studies into something that it is not.
So when the second paper says this in the results section -"The Asperger adults demonstrated an advantage of RPM over Wechsler FSIQ that was significantly greater than that of the non-Asperger adult controls, Mann-Whitney U=366.5, p<.01"That statement is completely unsupported by the data. In pure numerical terms, the difference might seem to be larger, but in terms of actual increased of intelligence that statement is very much in doubt.Another quibble with the results is the use of averages (means) to represent the group rather than a median. If you have a set of non-linear values such as these percentiles, if really isn't valid to take an average because it is going to misrepresent where the middle of the group is. That goes double when the data is badly skewed, as is the case of the Asperger adults' Raven's test in the second paper. In that case the "average" was 74 but the standard deviation is 50(!). For that to happen, the bulk of the data has to be well below the 74th percentile which means the median value would be significantly lower.
So, in the Mottron group's recent paper on superiority of those with Asperger's syndrome on the Raven's matrices test we see that the mean score was 74th percentile but the standard deviation was nearly 50 (not quite 50 as MJ stated but very close). This means the data did not follow a normally distributed bell curve but were rather heavily skewed to one side or were bimodally distributed making the mean value of 74th percentile meaningless.
A simpler explanation may be in order. To use an analogy, let's say there were 100 people on an island. if 45 of them were 8 feet tall, 45 of them were 4 feet tall and 10 of them were 6 feet tall, you would be technically correct in stating that the average height of the islanders was six feet. But it would certainly be misleading to say that the islanders were typically 6 feet tall.
I have to wonder if other data from the Mottron group is interpreted in a similar fashion. Perhaps there is a much smaller sub group of autistics that has extremely superior skills in embedded figures, detecting pitch, etc. and another sub group that has greatly inferior skills with a few just in the middle. I admit I don't know the answer to that, but knowing about how different autistics can be from one another and the way the Mottron group interpreted their data in at least one study we can't really rule that out as a possibility.
So to date, there is questionable evidence that all or even a large subset of autistics has these superior skills that will allegedly help them achieve educational goals and job placement. To the best of my knowledge, Mottron has never given any evidence of correlations or relationships to these skills enabling success or answered why the negatives of behavioral and poor social skills would not cancel these out. Again I must ask you, Dr. Mottron, where's the beef?