Because of these obvious shortcomings—humans are supposed to be social animals, after all—most people regard autism as a disease, a straightforward example of an impaired mind. But there's compelling evidence that autism is not merely a list of deficits. Rather, it represents an alternate way of making sense of the world, a cognitive difference that, in many instances, comes with unexpected benefits.
That's the lesson, at least, of a new study from the lab of Nilli Lavie at University College London. A few dozen adults, both with and without autism, were given a difficult perceptual task, in which they had to keep track of letters quickly flashed on a computer screen. At the same time, they also had to watch out for a small gray shape that occasionally appeared on the edge of the monitor.
When only a few letters appeared on the screen, both autistic and normal subjects could handle the task. However, when the number of letters was increased, subjects without autism—so-called neurotypicals—could no longer keep up. They were overwhelmed by the surplus of information.
Those adults with autism didn't have this problem. Even when the task became maddeningly difficult, their performance never flagged.
What explains this result? According to the scientists, autism confers a perceptual edge, allowing people with the disorder to process more information in a short amount of time. While scientists have long assumed that autistics are more vulnerable to distraction—an errant sound or conversation can steal their attention—that's not the case. As Prof. Lavie notes, "Our research suggests autism does not involve a distractibility deficit but rather an information-processing advantage."
These perceptual perks have real-world benefits. The scientists argue, for instance, that the ability to process vast amounts of data helps to explain the prevalence of savant-like talents among autistic subjects. Some savants perform difficult mathematical calculations in their head, others draw exquisitely detailed pictures at a young age. These skills have long remained a mystery, but they appear to be rooted in a distinct cognitive style shared by all autistics. Because they can process details that elude the rest of us, they can perform tasks that seem impossible, at least for the normal mind.
The larger lesson is that, according to the latest research, these "deficits" are actually trade-offs. What seems, at first glance, like a straightforward liability turns out to be a complex mixture of blessings and burdens.
Of course you would never see an article in the Wall Street Journal titled "The Upside of Sociopathy" and for that it's a little hard for me to take the neurodiversity movement seriously. But I like this idea of one sense being gone so your other senses fill the gap. It reminds me of this classic tale of blindness and talent... you're welcome!