Sunday, April 8, 2012

Autism and complex information processing

I’ve written a couple of posts (here, and here) on the common misconception that autistic individuals are deficient in abstract thinking. Some of what I’ve written may put me at odds with a highly-reputed autism researcher, Nancy Minshew at the University of Pittsburgh, who has run a number of studies suggesting that autism is a disorder of what she calls “higher-level thinking” skills--or, more precisely, of complex information processing.

More precisely, Minshew finds that autistic individuals with normal IQ scores are worse than typical control subjects at tasks that require people to impose an organizational structure on highly complex information. For example, normal IQ autistics, playing a Twenty Questions-like game, are more likely to guess at random rather than organizing the possibilities into a systematic hierarchy that yields questions that increasingly narrow down the possible answers. Normal IQ autistics are also worse than typical control subjects at remembering complex figures, where it would help to chunk the abstract lines, squiggles and shapes into some sort of hierarchical organization. And they are perform worse when asked to come up with their own criteria for sorting cards that vary along multiple possible dimensions.

I’m not sure what to make of these results. The underlying studies appear to be rigorous, and they appear strongly supportive of Minshew’s conclusions. But a recent study by Nilli Lavie at University College in London (reported on by Jonah Lehrer in this past weekend's Wall Street Journal) finds that handling complex information is an area of strength in autism. And Minshew’s results don’t ring true for the autistic individual I know best. I’ve played 20 questions with J; he’s highly systematic. He’s also good at Set, which involves rapidly sorting cards by various criteria--trying different criteria on your own. I know anecdotally that numerous kids are excluded from Minshew’s studies because their IQ scores are too high, too low, or perhaps too much all over the map. Perhaps kids like J don’t make her cut? But if so, she’s missing out on whole subgroups of high functioning autistics who collectively might wash out her results.

On the other hand, there’s one underlying theme in Minshew’s work that does rings true to me--a theme picked up by other autism researchers, for example, Tony Attwood--and that is the idea that autistic children, perhaps more than others, don’t do well when presented with lots of information at a time whose organization is only implicit. More than others, they depend on things being presented in an incremental, explicitly organized fashion. I see this all the time with J: he flails when material is distributed across many different sources, and thrives when it’s all contained within one structured textbook. He flails when asked to come up with an organizing principle for an open-ended project, and does much better with a series of discrete tasks that someone else comes up with.

But, speaking from personal experience, I don’t think you have to be autistic to have these cognitive preferences/deficits. In my book I propose that they characterize what I call “left brainers” in general. Nor do I think they are particularly debilitating, especially because they seem often to be accompanied by significant strengths in the more systematic of subjects.

Whether or not Minshew is on to something, I’m concerned that her use of “higher level” thinking skills will further entrench the already widespread misconception that children with autism are deficient in abstract thinking--when, in fact, this is for many of them an area of great potential.

1 comment:

Daniel Ethier said...

Just the next day, the following article was in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Sounds a lot of the same themes you've mentioned in this and other posts and in your book: