If a perfectly intelligent American were to find themselves catapulted into a foreign world with its own traditions, customs, culture and language, all totally unfamiliar to the person transported there, it would not be surprising for the people of this world to consider their visitor unintelligent, viewing intellect through the narrow lens of their own experiences.
Not only would our American visitor be unable to communicate verbally, but he or she also would not be particularly adept socially, unfamiliar as they would be with the cultural norms of this utterly alien place.
There is a certain analogy here with individuals along the autism spectrum. In my recent interview with Dr. Sue Fletcher-Watson, a developmental psychologist at the University of Edinburgh, she noted we often evaluate intelligence via a test that measures only very specific functions that don’t play to the strengths of those on the spectrum. But how would we view people with autism differently if we employed autistic-centric criteria?
Fletcher-Watson and her team of researchers conducted experiments using a familiar tool – the game of telephone, where a story is passed orally from one person to another down a chain of people until it hardly resembles the original story. This is called a diffusion chain and the rate of degradation in the story is fairly predictable.
The researchers conducted this experiment with a group of neurotypical subjects and with a group of autistic subjects and the rate of message degradation was the same for the two groups. But something very different occurred when the neurotypical and autistic individuals were mixed. The story degraded at a much faster rate.
For autistic individuals, “the issue is not that they don’t have social skills. It’s more that there’s a mismatch between their style of sociality, and the style of the kind of neurotypical majority,” Fletcher-Watson told me.
Another issue that those with autism face is the inadequacy of average. A neurotypical person with average intelligence is simply viewed as average, just an ordinary person with friends and loved ones, weaknesses and strengths.
Because people with autism are often stigmatized as anti-social savants, those lacking the savant element are simply stigmatized as anti-social, when in fact, they have much more in common with ordinary people of average intelligence.
In fact, high-functioning, highly-verbal autistic individuals are in some ways the most debilitated. Autistic individuals who can navigate the intellectual world but come unglued in overwhelming sensory environments might score high on an IQ test but would have difficulty navigating life without support. Indeed, highly verbal adults with autism have a suicide rate eight times the average for neuro-typical adults.
When we take an asset-based approach and focus on the strengths of autistic people and their ability to function on their terms, we give them a much greater opportunity to succeed.
“I know a man who doesn’t speak. He’s in his 30s. He doesn’t read or write, but he owns his own sandwich-making business,” Fletcher-Watson told me. “Everyone buys those sandwiches from him for lunch, and he makes a good living, and obviously he has someone to help him with the paperwork.”
“But, you know… he passes his hygiene inspections because he’s very good at following rules.”