Why are all autistic people considered smart

Autism: Gifted Weirdos

"Autism is a devastating disorder," is how most research proposals and media reports on the subject begin. My autistic people are different. "My" autistic people are four research assistants, three students and a postdoc who are investigating the neuronal cause of autism in our laboratory. These eight people in my team are not responsible for giving personal impressions or simply entering any data into software. With their intellectual and character peculiarities, they enrich our work - not in spite of, but rather because of her autism.

  1. Autism is a hereditary brain development disorder that comes in many forms.

  2. Less severely affected people sometimes show a high level of intelligence when they take non-language IQ tests.

  3. In the right environment, such "highly functional autistic people" can also be professionally successful - for example in research.

Everyone knows the spectacular reports about talented islanders. So-called savants can, for example, memorize entire landscapes in great detail during a sightseeing flight in a helicopter or learn books by heart. None of my employees are savants. They are "normal" autistic people who are nevertheless superior to many non-autistic people in a number of tasks.

As a doctor, I know all too well that autism is often a serious handicap. This hereditary brain development disorder makes many everyday activities difficult or even completely impossible. Eight out of ten people with this diagnosis are so limited in their communication and social interaction that even as adults they are still dependent on their parents or have to be looked after by others. Most of them do not have a regular job, and some cannot even speak at all. Those affected struggle to cope with a world that does not match their priorities and interests.

But in the right environment, autistic people can cope with milder forms of the syndrome surprisingly well. For example in research. For the past several years I've worked closely with Michelle Dawson, an autistic woman. Our team benefits enormously from their intelligence and tenacity.

Impressive eagerness to learn

I first met Michelle in a joint television interview. When her employer found out about her diagnosis, she ran into problems at the post office where she was employed at the time. Then she read all tangible knowledge about the legal situation of employees with disabilities. Impressed by her eagerness to learn, I invited her to assist in my laboratory. As she went through manuscripts, she made valuable comments that showed me that she had gone through all of the references. The more she read, the more she learned about the subject. I offered her a research position eleven years ago. Since then, we've written more than a dozen professional articles and book chapters together.

Michelle encourages us to question traditional views and approaches to autism - not least the idea that autism is inevitably a problem that needs to be solved. Autism is defined by a number of negative symptoms such as language disorders, social restrictions or stereotypes in behavior. However, possible benefits are not among the diagnostic criteria. Most support and therapy programs aim to put an end to autistic behavior and, for example, prescribe a very specific development process for children. The way that autistic people tick has no place in it.