Thursday, June 12, 2014

Autistic superiority on embedded figures test and resultant employability: fact or fiction?

Autistics have superior skills that can help them find jobs!  Headlines such as these have become  frequent fodder in the popular media.  Persons on the autism spectrum are said to have superior "attention to detail".  This makes them superior candidates for jobs such as TSA screeners and software testers.  Companies such as SAP, Specialisterne and Aspiritech are training high functioning autistics to be software testers and debuggers.  A statistic cited in a lot of these articles is that 85% of autistics are unemployed (I have no notion of where this statistic comes from)If we can only tap all of the superior skills autistics have where they outperform typical people the problem will be solved.  These people will find their niche and the lack of social skills or other deficits that people on the spectrum have will be immaterial to their occupational success. 

Where does this nebulous term "attention to details" come from?  At least one of the sources is the commonly held belief that autistic people outperform non-autistic people on the Embedded Figures Test-a test where a person has to find a hidden triangle in a larger image or a Where's Waldo type of picture.  Simon Baron-Cohen has said that this shows that autistic people have "attention to details".  Laurent Mottron and Michelle Dawson have cited various studies showing that autistics outperform non-autistics on this test.  They apparently believe that this superiority will enable autistics to be better educated and help them get jobs and even get along better with their parents.  This was the rationale that Autism Speaks gave when awarding them a research grant totaling nearly half a million dollars.

Probably the first study of autistics' performance on the Embedded Figures test was done by Uta Frith and Neil Shah.  They found that the autistics outperformed the non-autistics in both speed and accuracy.  The reason they gave for the superior performance was something called weak central coherence, meaning that autistics have a poor ability to see the large general picture of things and therefore have difficulty understanding context.  But the upside is that they might think about things in the smallest parts and therefore might be more attentive to minute details than a typical person.  This could give them a superior ability in math and engineering for instance, even if they had resultant deficits in other areas.  In other words, though the autistic may miss the forest for the trees, they are superior at seeing the trees in the forest.

Have Frith and Shah's findings been uniformly replicated by independent investigators or is this superior attention to detail (as measured by the Embedded Figures Test) an urban legend?  According to a paper by British cognitive scientist Sarah White, the latter may be true rather than the former.

She cites the sixteen studies published subsequent to Shah and Frith's work that had group designs in which autistic person's performances were compared to controls on the Embedded figures test.    Only two of these studies replicated the accuracy difference between autistics and typical controls.  Of the remaining fourteen studies, half (seven) showed that autistics were able to find the embedded figures more quickly than controls but were either no more accurate or accuracy rates were not cited in the papers.  One of the papers showed differences in accuracy only between low functioning autistics and matched controls but no differences in the higher functioning autistics.  One paper showed the autistics were less accurate than matched controls on the test. I'll discuss later what this means in terms of suitability for jobs such as software tester or airport screener.  There were a variety of possible reasons for the discrepancy in studies such as differences in the way the test was administered, different groups of controls vs. autistics.

In White's study, she used a very large sample of  high-functioning (as measured by IQs) autistics vs. intellectually matched controls and found no differences in accuracies on the EFT between the two groups.  The autistic group performed the task slightly more quickly, but the difference was not statistically significant.  

One salient difference that stands out is that the group differences in accuracy were generally detected with more severely autistic persons rather than persons with milder forms of the condition.  This is particularly relevant to Frith and Shah's work in that it was published in the early 1980s when the definition of autism was different from that of today and it is unlikely their findings would have applicability to people more mildly autistic that would not have been diagnosed as such at that time.

Most of the persons who would be candidates for the above-cited jobs based on an "exceptional attention to detail" would be considered at the milder end of the spectrum.  Assuming Frith and Shah's weak central coherence theory of autism has any validity, it is unlikely that it would be applicable to these people whose central coherence would most likely be closer to that of a typical person's.  Therefore, it is less likely, according to the actual science, they would have these alleged assets that would help them in these professions.

According to some, the seven out of seventeen studies that showed superior speed on the test would be demonstrative of an autistic superiority.  I don't agree, particularly if you are applying the research to enable autistics to perform jobs or stating this research shows they are suited for these occupations.  I know from personal experience accuracy does matter.  In the days when I was still a medical transcriptionist, my production levels were on par with that of the non-autistic transcriptionists.  However, I made more mistakes and this cost me a variety of jobs.  This was also true in the other professions I worked in before I retired.  In the business world, you could be the fastest employee in the world, but if you're not more accurate, you're kaput. 

Though I've read White's article, I have not read the other studies and I will admit to that.  If there is something White gets wrong or something else I am not understanding, I guess people can let me know in the comments section.  Also, there may be other tests given to autistics that allegedly measure attention to detail that I don't know about.  I believe the embedded figures test is the main one though.

I want to sum up to say to anyone reading this article, don't get me wrong.  I think it's great that people would want to train persons on the spectrum for various jobs and I hope they succeed in the jobs, regardless of whether they have good attention to detail or not.  Whatever will enable a person with autism to succeed, I'm all for it and if they can be a success in a job, all the power to them.   I hope that SAP, specialistirne and others can help autistics.  Though, I've been very critical of John Robison in the past, I do applaud his efforts to train people on the spectrum in the automotive profession.   However, I don't think it's helpful to promote what are likely urban legends based on a lack of demonstrated science or science now made obsolete by a different definition of autism where more high functioning autistic people are identified.


Unknown said...

I am the mom to two boyz on opposite ends of the spectrum. All I can say is that in my anecdotal experience is that both are very focused on details (like you said -- excellent at seeing the trees within the forest) but neither of them is particularly employable. I am still hoping, lobbying and actively looking for employment for the older (higher functioning) one but all the attention to detail of my younger son won't help to employ someone that is essentially non-verbal. I also get frustrated with these gimmicky tag lines. Thanks for continuing to write.

Shanti said...

Interesting analysis. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. Like Julie, I get tired of the Gimmicky taglines that make autism out to be an asset.

lurker said...

I'm glad you're calling this into question. I don't like when these stories get hopes up. Even if it's possible I'm detail oriented, it's likely I have just a proclivity or tendency to consider details. I don't think I can have attention to all the details or consistently the right ones, particularly for a task. I've been at jobs, and didn't only have problems interacting as those articles imply. I was often overwhelmed by what I had to do before I realized it, including missing things I was supposed to do, and even sometimes recalling the wrong procedures for handling certain cases of work. Those I worked with/under only could afford to be so patient, and sometimes seemed pissed at me. The last job I had was slowly replacing me for someone else as they cut my hours.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a well-written and interesting blog. I have two sons with profound developmental disabilities (not autism) who have to live with the "everyone can do everything" ideology of the disability advocacy organizations. The skepticism about the neurodiversity movement is well-deserved. Keep up the good work.