Sunday, July 3, 2011

People With Autism Don't Have X-Ray Vision After All

As reported by Neuroskeptic and Cracking the enigma, a new study shows that people with autism don't have any special visual abilities after all.  I don't think I can add anything to the explanation of the initial report and the circumstances of the current follow-up study since both of the other sites have done such a good job of explaining the details.

The only question I do have is why this whole situation arose at all.  How did a study that claimed that -
Individuals with ASC have significantly better visual acuity (20:7) compared with control subjects (20:13)-acuity so superior that it lies in the region reported for birds of prey
ever get published in the first place?  You don't need to be any sort of skeptic to see that the idea is far-fetched on face value without even looking at the details.

Here's a suggestion to future peer-reviewers - if a study compares any facet of autism to a specialized or  enhanced characteristic of an animal, you might want to look very closely at what the research claims to show. Because chances are it is going to be wrong.

I think the larger issue here is what appears to be a general trend among people who deal with autism - from parents to doctors to therapists to researchers - to want to assign some sort of special gift to people who have autism.

Why do people look at the sensory issues in autism and try and prove that the sensory issues are actually a good thing because they can see or hear or touch better than the rest of us?  Is that supposed to make up for the fact that the distortion of the other senses must be almost torture to live with?

Why do people think about the repetitive and restricted interests in autism and decide that it is a blessing because they have strong interests that they can really focus on?  I can really focus on a topic when I want to and can really push myself to become extremely knowledgeable about it.  But I also have the freedom to decide to not to pay attention to it and to focus on something else.  I don't know that people with autism have that same freedom.

Why is it that people who are otherwise very rational take a look at people who have the disability known as autism and decide that they must have some special gift to go along with the autism?  In my experience, people with autism have the exact same proportion of special gifts that the rest of the population does.

Are the gifts commented on more because they stand out because of the stark contrast between the area of gift and the autism effected areas?  Or is it that people in the field want to focus on the gifts to make themselves feel better about the whole autism thing?

Why is there all of this romancing the spectrum and how does this nonsense make its way into the published scientific literature?

I just don't get it.


  1. Good post, and good and important questions. I might do my own post inspired by what you've written, but I'll give myself a couple of days to think through the details first.

    First impressions are that it's a result of a combination of a parental coping strategy, and a misunderstanding of observed behaviours and skills..?

  2. As per the previous comments by others, there are some excellent points raised in this post.
    The view that autism is somehow a single entity, stand-alone, has been perpetuated time and time again, with seemingly very little mention of heterogeneity, individual differences, comorbidities, etc in the research literature.
    Psychology in particular continues in its quest to fit everyone into little diagnostic boxes: one box for each 'condition' where everyone is the same and that is that.
    It is with this in mind that the 'Rainman' view of all autism still exists today.
    Without wishing to be be rude, one could perhaps see this in some of the other papers by the publishing research group and the continued fascination with autism and systemisers, male brain, etc following on from theory of mind. The research, whilst potentially applicable to some, has been contorted and cajoled to force it to be applicable to all with autism, with again little mention of the wide heterogeneity, individual differences and comorbidities that might also account for results (also the fact that many of the findings are just as relevant to conditions outside of autism).

  3. Actually your suggestions would just about kill any research prospectives that Laurent Mottron, Isabelle Souleries and Michelle Dawson have. Autism speaks could have spent half a million dollars on helping autistics find jobs instead of giving it to Mottron.

    Part of the reason, is as you said, people want to make themselves feel better about autism. Also, the Freudian defense mechanism of reaction formation, where you make something you hate subconsciously into something you love comes to the fore.

    As P.T. Barnum, said, there is a sucker born every minute, so some people actually believe Laurent Mottron and autism speaks when they claim this sort of research helps in parenting and autistic persons to find jobs, etc.

    Another reason is that a significant (albeit minority) of autistics have savant skills and certain gifts and that makes good media fodder and helps get grants and funding, etc. So this research is popular.

  4. One day I was riding on public transportation in a large city and rather suddenly and shockingly noticed that my sense of smell was suddenly working really, really well. Unfortunately, one thing you don't want when you are riding on public transportation is an acute sense of smell. Body odor, perfume, someone's groceries and another person's lunch were suddenly bombarding my nose. Misery. I realized later that day that I was coming down with a mild flu which had manifested rather weirdly at the start.

    The point of this odd story? Sensory openness and acuteness is only an advantage if you get something out of it. Dogs benefit from having sensitive noses. Human beings who are professional wine tasters benefit from having sensitive noses. The rest of us...not at all.

    I suspect that any other extreme sensory openness would be equally unpleasant or even painful.

    How could it be an advantage?