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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

An Upside to Autism?

As many in 1 in 88 children are now diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, and as many as 1 in 54 boys.  That's up 23% since 2009, and 78% since 2007.  Autistics tend to be less social, and less communicative, than their peers.  But they also seem to find it easier to focus: they have a perceptual edge.

In new a study at University College London, adults with and without autism were asked to keep track of letters flashed on a computer screen.  When there were only a few letters, both autistic and normal subjects could keep up; but as the number of letters increased, the normals fell behind.  Autistics could process more information in a short amount of time.

Most of us have heard stories about autistic savants, who solve multivariate math problems in their heads, or draw detailed pictures at young ages.  And apparently, higher than average numbers of people with ASD work in the IT industry.  They seem to see the details that most of us miss.

Other "upsides" characterize people with a variety of disorders.  People with ADD often turn out to be creative writers, or win prizes at science fairs.  And dyslexics are often better at peripheral perception, making them successful as artists or designers.

Of course, none of this diminishes the fact that autism, or any other disorder, imposes hardships on affected children and their families.  Nor does it lessen the need to provide treatment and other resources.  The take-home message is that "deficits" can be trade-offs.  There are different kinds of minds, and that's not all bad.