When the latest edition of Nature was released, Dr. Laurent Mottron’s piece “Changing Perceptions: The Power of Autism,” caused quite a national stir. Media outlets across the country picked up the story and it was quite a bold statement: autism has advantages.
What can one (me being the one in question) make of that? Mottron’s point, that autism is too often defined by its deficiencies and not its strengths, struck me to the core. I’ve felt that Nate’s strengths have always been evident. He needed advocates: first his parents, then his teachers, peers, aides, etc., to help him advance his skills while managing his weaknesses. Now on the verge of college graduation, slated for Spring 2012, Nate’s abilities are stronger than ever, his disabilities a bit less overbearing than in his youth.
But Nate’s inherent visual acumen, instant and near total recall, and happiness in repetitive tasks, though suited for certain careers in product testing, scientific research, design, computer work, spring from his disability. It’s simply so. That’s not to say that it’s a terrible thing, to have autism or any of the many possible things that veer from the “normal,” but focusing on the strengths has its pitfalls. Nate will most likely always need help and mentoring. At 21, it seems unlikely that his positive attributes, that come from having hyperlexia, can lead him to an independent life.
Balancing that idea, that his strengths come from his autism, has always been difficult. Nate is loved, unequivocally, for who he is and what he brings to our family and his world, but we would certainly trade his particular powers for a non-autistic brain. That sounds horrible, I know, but it’s so nonetheless. Think of Django Reinhardt, whose mangled hand allowed him to play a uniquely magnificent guitar, or Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown, Cubs’ legend whose similar manual disfiguring allowed him to hurl a ball with odd spin. Would either men have chosen their disability as a career move? Not likely.
Back to Mottron. He is right to shift the focus, urging scientists to look beyond the deficits of the autistic. As kids like Nate become adults like Nate, the world is going to have to figure out a way to take in so many of these children, who do bring amazing abilities with them. It’s awfully hard to do if the prevailing perception is overwhelmingly negative. That has changed in the last few years, and Mottron’s article moves that progress along a little bit faster.