Friday, March 23, 2012

Jabberwocky of the Day : Autism Gives "Higher Perceptual Capacity"

From the I-can-see-for-miles-and-miles department comes a wonderful new study on visual processing capacity in autism.  This study claims to show that people with autism don't have sensory issues, they have processing gifts.  According to Science Daily -
... people with autism show an increased ability to focus attention on certain tasks. Yet clinical reports backed up by some laboratory research show that these individuals can be more sensitive to the distracting effects of irrelevant stimuli, such as flashing lights or particular sounds, which can be easily ignored by people without the disorder.
Professor Nilli Lavie, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL, hypothesises that this combination of the ability to focus and a susceptibility to distraction might be caused by a higher than normal information processing capacity.
"Our work on perceptual capacity in the typical adult brain suggests a clear explanation for the unique cognitive profile that people with autism show," she says. "People who have higher perceptual capacity are able to process more information from a scene, but this may also include some irrelevant information which they may find harder to ignore. Our research suggests autism does not involve a distractibility deficit but rather an information processing advantage."
Or in short, people with autism only appear to have sensory issues but in reality their problems are caused because they are too good at processing information....

Never mind the enormous amount of existing research that shows hyper- and hypo- sensory responses across all of the senses in people with autism.  Never mind first hand descriptions of sensory issues in people with autism.  Never mind all the parental accounts of the sensory issues that their children have.

Never mind that sensory issues are being included as one of the features of autism in the upcoming revision to the "official" definition of autism -
Hyper-or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of environment; (such as apparent indifference to pain/heat/cold, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, fascination with lights or spinning objects).
Never mind that the reason that a human brain can process information and reach conclusions based on that information faster than any computer out there is precisely because the brain is extremely good at filtering out the unimportant details and focusing only on what is important.

Lets throw out all of that and pretend that, based on 16 adult volunteers with autism, the whole sensory thing is a red herring and that having autism really gives you a processing advantage.

Uhm, yeah, remember when the theory was that people with autism had eagle-eyed vision and that later turned out to be completely wrong?  I would be willing to bet that this is going to be exactly the same thing again.

There was one paragraph in the Science Daily that was truly hilarious and, I think, demonstrates just how far some people will go to make their theories true -
Professor Lavie believes that the finding may help explain why people with autism spectrum disorders, such as Asperger's syndrome, may excel in some careers such as IT, which can require intense concentration and the ability to process a great deal of information from a computer screen.
While I guess the ability to "process a great deal of information from a computer screen" sounds like it could be related to being good in IT, the reality is that that only helps with the version of IT portrayed in movies.

In the real world, the visual component of a typical IT person's job is rather small.  There are some rather boring images and then text, lots and lots of text.  The trick to being a good IT worker is to be able to understand the abstract concepts and nuances represented by the images and text and to be able to act based on the concepts.  You have to be able to filter out the noise and focus only on the part you need to.

Or look at it another way, when you look at one window on a computer screen, you have to be able to ignore what is going on in the other windows and focus on the task at hand.  But if this new little bit of research is correct, that is precisely what people with autism would not be be able to do.  So instead of autism being an advantage in this scenario, it would actually be a hindrance.

Although, to be honest, I don't find results like this as funny as I used to.  Back when I was just getting used to the world of autism, I would run across a result like this and have a little chuckle over it.  But now I just know that a few months from now I am going to be running into aspies who firmly believe that they have super human processing abilities based on this research.  And that is perhaps the saddest part of all of this.

People with autism are people like everybody else, and like every other person out there they are going to have their own gifts, strengths, and weaknesses.  But there is a large difference between recognizing that and all of the theories that try and attribute all sorts of special abilities to people with autism.  The former is acknowledging the reality that people with autism are just like everybody else while the later causes quite a bit of harm.


Anna M. Remington, John G. Swettenham, Nilli Lavie. Lightening the Load: Perceptual Load Impairs Visual Detection in Typical Adults but Not in Autism.. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 2012; DOI: 10.1037/a0027670


  1. Publish or Perish principle at work: if you put ASD in your RFP response: BINGO. Bad science is irrelevant, peer review is via us mere mortals, not the "professional" community, it would appear. Sad.

  2. I think you've misunderstood. They aren't saying that autistics don't have heightened sensitivity; they're saying a more useful way of thinking about it is having increased perception. The associated difficulties are obviously very noticeable in a lot of domains, but in a sufficiently controlled environment the advantages can come to the fore. I think that's useful to know. We can create work environments where autistics can excel.

    The reason autistics are good at computer programming is surely because most other people aren't.

    1. No, they seem to be saying the sensory problems aren't because of a disruptions in filtering on the senses but rather because of heightened processing. But that idea flies in the face of almost everything that we know about sensory processing disruption is autism.

      It might make you feel better to think of it that way, but the theory does not conform to reality. If nothing else, it completely ignores the hypo-sensitive side of the equation where the senses don't function as well as they should.

      Let me give you an example, when my twin daughters were younger they appeared to be almost deaf. Not only would they not respond to sound, they wouldn't even startle or flinch if you snuck up behind them and shouted at the top of your voice. They failed so many hearing tests that we had to take them for a procedure called an acoustic brainstem response to establish that they could physically hear.

      This behavior can not be explained by heightened processing.

      And this -

      "The reason autistics are good at computer programming is surely because most other people aren't."

      is just plain wrong. Programming is like every other field in that there are some people who can't do it, some people who are ok at it, and a select few who are very good at it. And programing is all about properly structured and well articulated language, so if anything the disruptions in functional communication that are common in autism would make a person worse at programming, not better.

    2. Ostensible deafness in autistic children is very common. Has anyone actually claimed this to be hyposensitivity? They grow out of it, their brains obviously developing.

    3. In the case of my twin daughters, yes, it was hypo-sensitivity. Their inattention to sound when far beyond what could have been a conscious thing and interfered with what are typically involuntary responses. An adult who is actively trying to suppress an involuntary response would have a shot at doing so - an eighteen month old wouldn't have that ability.

      And the other point is that children with autism don't "grow out of it" - it isn't something that is always there from birth and many times requires hours and hours of therapy to reteach the skill.

      In the case of my children, they had a typical response to sound up until about a year and then they lost that ability for about a year or so. Over the following years, they slowly regained the ability to pay attention to sound and to understand spoken language but that is because they were in therapy all day, every day for years.

      They had to be taught that is what you need to do to respond to sounds and that the random sounds coming out of a person's mouth is actually communication. So they didn't "grow out of it", they worked hard to regain the skill.

  3. This type of research is nothing new. Laurent Mottron and company have been doing it for years. There are probably sever other studies. I am curious how many persons with a legitimate diagnosis of an ASD, actually have IT jobs. I suspect there are a few, but they are not terribly common.

    In my own case, an ASD has greatly impaired my ability to concentrate, so i make excessive errors at jobs and get fired. I also have trouble getting much done during the day because of the desire to twiddle (self-stim), so, though I haven't read the study, I doubt the results are true in my case.

    1. One of the authors, Swettenham, has been a co-author on past papers with Simon Baron-Cohen, so you aren't that far off the mark. The good Baron-Cohen loves to come up with shall we say interesting theories of autism.

  4. Its one those studies that propagate that "Whats his gift?" question. I have decided to pick a new one every year. This year its going to be, He can fly and we will put a pair of red underpants on the outside of his trousers.

    1. You know, that would actually be a good response to that annoying "what's their gift" question.

      I've tried to answer that question honestly in the past and explain that autism doesn't normally have special gifts to go with it but I like your approach better.

      Its like when people ask me if my two older daughters are twins, which is the twin version of the gift question, I tell then that they are just seeing double.

  5. Absolutely agree with the 'everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses' sentiment.

    Regarding the IT issue. A couple of friends of mine run a company which employs people with autism not specifically for working in IT but more for the software testing angle (no advert intended)

    A recent article about the ethos behind using people with autism as software testers is here:

    I can't profess to be an expert in this area but I always tend to think back to the whole central coherence stuff - seeing the details but missing the 'wood for the trees'. I agree that such theories are not universally applicable but more generally speaking, there may be some connection to the discussions here.

    A final point about research such as this relates to the difference between experiment and real-life. You can certainly have an eye for detail or hyper-focused attention, but if you also have significant issues with anxiety and your ability to 'cope' in the working world, such assets might not necessarily be always put to good use.

    1. Employing people with autism do so some types of software testing (QA) isn't a bad idea. It is a highly structured, highly repetitive process that is a good fit with some types of autism. But this type of QA work only makes up a part of the QA world and the other types have different demands. And QA itself only makes up a small part of the IT world and is quite different from other types of IT such as support, networking, or development.

      As for central coherence, you have something of a point but I am not sure how applicable it is here. The model of the paper would seem to be that a person with autism misses the forest but sees each and every tree in full detail. The fact that there is a forest there would get lost because there were so many trees.

      But it has been my understanding that coherence model suggest that people with autism don't necessarily focus on identifying details and that, even when they do, they have a hard time grasping the the detail can be part of a larger whole.

      So even if we assume that the person sees each and every tree clearly, it still seems that the problem would be one of filtering and selecting the appropriate facts to focus on.

  6. I saw the news release about this article too, and tried to find the actual article to see if the participants were matched for IQ. If not then it is just idiotic.

  7. Can I swap all my Superpowers (including crippling anxiety) for a plain beige, middle of the road, mediocre brain?

    This fetishization of autism is perverted.

    1. I thought your special ability was coaxing the old-school neurodiversity camp into imploding?

    2. Ah, yea, that *blush*.

      btw - my Superpowers just got me an all expenses paid week-long vacation in a place staffed by nice young men, in clean white coats.

      Oh, we did the basket weaving and painting and the walks in the country.

      Lots of nice white pills as well, to stop me smashing my head on the walls and throwing furniture around and getting frisked every few hours for sharp objects.

      I liked it a lot, actually.

      I cried when doctor crossed out Asperger's and wrote Autism.

      I cried some more when they told me I had to leave and go home.

      I'm crying now actually, not just for me, but for people like you, and your girls. For all the parents that live with the lead weight of anxiety for the future.

      Can I have the Cure Pill, yet? It's just I'm getting old now, my family are almost all gone and soon there will be no-one left to help pay my rent, to help keep me fed, and I just wont survive being homeless again.

      I've a new slogan for Neurodiversity "Autism - It's a Living Nightmare".


    3. Interesting. I'm autistic and doing very well. It takes all sorts, I suppose.

    4. “doing very well” - does not form part of the diagnostic criteria and would seem to suggest you may not have the serious impairments necessary for a diagnosis.

  8. Well, I was diagnosed a long time ago. There are areas I have huge blind spots in. So does everyone though, in different ways.

  9. I think the thing you have to understand here is more that a lot of researchers are not really interested in autism, but in the wider spectrum of cognitive profiles which is continuous with it.

    Autism, as diagnosed, as such is probably a combination of an overall cognitive deficit, which is what gets people sent for a diagnosis and is just generally bad, with an advantage in sensory processing, which is what gets them diagnosed as autistic and which all else equal can be an advantage.

    Amongst people diagnosed with autism, in general, the general deficit is quite large and the sensory processing advantage either small or quite large. That's not good.