Autistic Intelligence, Part 2


In his excellent book Neurotribes, Steve Silberman has described in detail the development of autism research in England, especially at the Medical Research Council in London, during the 1970s and 1980s. Members of the MRC were familiar with the disorder Leo Kanner had described back in the 1940s. They occasionally observed cases of “infantile autism,” “childhood schizophrenia,” or what they often simply called “Kanner’s Syndrome” when they visited institutions for the insane or “feeble-minded.” However, the MRC also conducted field work, primarily within London, and this made MRC researchers aware of a larger number of children attending ordinary schools and adults living more or less independently, who appeared to share many of the characteristics of institutionalized autistics. It was difficult to know how to diagnose these children and adults, but if they had no diagnosis, they would also have no access to public services which might have helped them.

The re-discovery of the writings of Hans Asperger gave the MRC researchers the tools with which to understand what they had seen in the field. In Vienna before World War II, Asperger and his colleagues had studied a large group of children who suffered from what they called “autistic psychopathy.” Unlike Leo Kanner, Asperger did not consider this condition to be very rare—in fact, he argued that some traces of autism could be found in most creative thinkers. Moreover, he included children with a fairly wide variety of symptoms and skills within the group he labeled “autistic.” Asperger had given lectures, but had published nothing on his research before the Nazis murdered most of his patients. Later in the war, Asperger managed to re-establish a small school, and began to publish some of his findings, but the school, along with most of his research records, were destroyed by Allied bombers in 1944. What little of his work had appeared in print was in German-language publications little known among English speakers. As a result, Asperger’s ideas had virtually no influence in the United States and Great Britain in the decades immediately after the war.

But in 1971, a Dutch researcher published (in English) a comparison of Kanner’s syndrome (still identified as a mental illness) and Asperger’s “autistic psychopathy” (which the researcher considered a personality type).  Through this article, the MRC researchers finally became aware of Asperger’s ideas, and they soon realized that his broad definition of autism might help resolve some of their diagnostic problems. In particular, psychiatrists Lorna Wing and Judith Gould, working with data from the Camberwell district in London, found the expected tiny number of children with “Kanner’s syndrome,” but also a much larger group who had significant problems with communication and social interactions, and who exhibited some of the same “repetitive” behaviors as autistics, but nevertheless did not fit Leo Kanner’s strict criteria for “autism.” Some members of this larger group did, however, fit Asperger’s description of “little professors,” who could talk learnedly about subjects that interested them, but still struggled in everyday interactions. (Still others fit into no existing diagnostic category.) Their findings led Wing and Gould to suggest that there might actually be not a single form of autism, but rather a “continuum” of conditions involving what they considered to be a characteristic autistic “triad of impairments” (communication, social interaction, repetitive behaviors). Wing later replaced the word “continuum” with “spectrum”—and this has become the standard way of referring to autistic disorders.

When Wing wrote about what she christened “Asperger’s syndrome” in 1981, she introduced to the English-speaking world a group of autistic people who were highly—often overwhelmingly–verbal. Nevertheless, in keeping with the standard expectations of all autism researchers in both England and America at the time, Wing belittled the intelligence of her subjects:
Asperger described people with his syndrome as capable of originality and creativity in their chosen field. It would be more true to say that their thought processes are confined to a narrow, pedantic, literal, but logical, chain of reasoning. The unusual quality of their approach arises from the tendency to select, as the starting point for the logical chain, some aspect of a subject that would be unlikely to occur to a normal person . . . Usually the result is inappropriate, but once in a while it gives new insight into a problem. Asperger also believed that people with his syndrome were of high intelligence, but he did not quote the results of standardized intellectual tests to support this. As will be seen from the case histories in the Appendix, the special abilities are based mainly on rote memory, while comprehension of the underlying meaning is poor. Those with the syndrome are conspicuously lacking in common sense.
This condescending statement almost certainly does not do justice to the real intelligence of those Wing studied. It does, however, recognize (for the first time in the English-speaking world) that some people on the autism spectrum had the capacity for logical thought. They may have been “lacking in common sense,” but they were clearly not “mentally retarded.” Wing and Gould’s research thus opened the door for further investigation of autistic intelligence–and in particular for critiques of the value of “standardized intellectual tests” for evaluating that intelligence. Those critiques will be the subject of the next post.



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