Is autism really a “problem?”

Filed Under (Acceptance, Adam, autism, Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Communication) by Estee on 20-02-2010

-1 We’ve had some encouraging messages lately, haven’t we? The HBO production of Temple Grandin played by Claire Danes shows that while (and many of us have read Temple’s books already) the world caused her anxiety, she could “see details other people are blind to,” she says. “I have a gift.”

Certainly the idea of giftedness, which happens in non autistic and autistic persons, can be yet another stereotype in assessing autistic people. Perception, on the other hand, is something to think about deeply.

When Adam was very young, we had these water blocks that were dyed different colours. Adam was mesmerized by these blocks watching the water swish and swoosh. Then all of a sudden, my wobbly toddler took them up to the window and peered through them. Ah, I thought. If only we could all stare at the world through coloured water blocks. How beautiful it would be. I know was also in part a cooing mother of a young autistic boy, so anything he did like this made me hyper-aware. But still.

When he got his “legs” and we began walking around the neighbourhood, Adam memorized his routes. To this day, if we take him to his old house and walk from there or the park nearby, he will remember how to get to that park or get back through the old “secret pathway” to the old house — which has even since been torn down and rebuilt! Remember, that was his two-three year old brain. In April, he will be eight-years-old.

Coming out soon will be a new version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton. Many people suspect that Carrol was himself autistic with his different perceptual abilities. He is often cited as a person who “suffered” from micropsia and macropsia, which is a neurological condition that changes the way the brain perceives the size of objects. When Alice falls down that rabbit hole, we get a look into Carroll’s mind.

Scientific American Mind published Extraordinary Perception by Wray Herbert this month. It discusses how psychologists at University College London “think that it might be a mistake to consider [autistic] distractability as simply a deficit. To the contrary, Anna Remington and John Swettenham and their colleagues speculate that people with ASD might have greater than normal capacity for perception, so that what appears as irrelevant distraction is really a cognitive bonus.” I added autistic to distractability as many therapies for autism as well as medications are geared at lessening it.


The test, the article shows, was for subjects to “rapidly determine if the letters N or X were present in the ring” on a computer screen. Participants had to then “hit the corresponding key on the keyboard. Some of the circles — those with more letters — were more difficult to process than others. There were also other letters floating outside the circle, but the subjects were specifically instructed to ignore those letters. Those floating letters were the laboratory equivalent of an irrelevant distraction in the real world.” In measuring perceptual capacity, researchers saw that “everyone was slower at the task when the ring contained more letters. The researchers were also measuring distractibility. When a letter outside the ring was one of the target letters (N or X), the subjects often took a longer time finding the N or X in the ring — indicating they were distracted by the presence of a target letter in the location that they were supposed to ignore.”

The researchers reasoned “that as long as the subjects’ total perceptual capacity was not exhausted, they would also process the irrelevant, distracting letters within their visual field. Once they had surpassed their perceptual capacity — once the ring of letters was sufficiently complex — irrelevant processing would stop [bold mine]. So if ASD subjects in fact have greater processing capacity, then they should process more distracting information even as the main task becomes increasingly complex.”

In conclusion, “although there was no difference among subjects in either reaction time or accuracy on the main task, those with ASD processed the irrelevant letters while solving much more complex problems...Put another way, they weren’t ignoring the main task, nor were they distracted away from it. Instead they were completing their work and moving on, using their untapped capacity” [bold mine].

This article also concludes that while this is a benefit, it also does have “real-life consequences.” They begin and end the article citing Tim Page, an author with Aspergers from his book, Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s. Page recounts his time in school who failed an essay about his field trip which was quite detailed in terms of his way of perceiving it, and how he was scolded for writing in that particular way. “I had noticed the wrong things,” he writes.

As a parent of an autistic child who has difficulties with verbal communication, I have to ask the question: “whose problem is this anyway?” Certainly I have been dealing with issues, at least issues for me as Adam cannot comment here yet, so I am fully aware that I need to be fair. He has very real sensory and perceptual differences, so I set up a basement full of equipment for him to self-soothe. He has even learned to “self-regulate” by going to read his own books, and I never had to teach him that. His body will completely quiet as he flips through pages of encyclopedias, dictionaries, cookbooks, among many other subjects. He may even appear to layperson as not really paying attention and just flipping pages, but I know it’s more than that. His body-jerking almost always stops, which is how I conclude that he is soothed by his books. I am imagining him looking at those books over and over again, and what he may be gleaning from them. Still, when it comes to getting the responses WE need, he using a “special” reading program at school. Indeed it is really helping with his expressive reading ability, and maybe even with his vocabulary. So I need to let him do both. He needs to learn to respond in a world that doesn’t yet understand the way he learns. He also needs to flip through pages and pages on his own. I can sit beside him sometimes also and talk about the books he is reading. We can type about what he is reading, we can draw stories and make more conclusions or assumptions about what he is reading. When we do things together calmly, we are having lots of fun.

When we teach him a new communication device, it may appear to the person who is teaching that Adam is not focused enough — indeed he appears to be “highly distracted.” On an AAC device (we are still awaiting one from a service-provider here in Toronto) his finger will go to the right picture, letter, or answer, and then he will quickly go to another one to check out what it will do. A keyguard helps him direct his finger more quickly to the correct response. He may have trouble finishing sentences (when he types) and then be reminded to “stay on task.” This is in large part what Facilitated Communication attempts to assist with if done correctly — to remind and assist with the focus. To a person who cannot detect that Adam was about to give the “right” answer (or rather the answer that was requested of him), he would receive a failing grade. Adam is very young and I believe he is not given the benefit of the doubt enough, although his team members are good with this.

It is only fair to say that we do not KNOW everything he knows. We do not fully understand how he takes all this knowledge in and we are the ones that deem his versions of knowledge as irrelevant. We have not developed sufficient ways to measure his responses or his way of learning and seeing, except for the ways we measure responses and knowledge from people who are not autistic. This brings me back to the old ABA adage, “if we can measure it, we can deal with it.” Unfortunately, the way we have historically dealt with autism is by eliminating the behaviours and learning patterns that are essential to an autistic person’s existence. Perhaps continuing to fund this research more heavily is important because as we understand how autistic people learn, we can not only develop better learning tools, but come to better appreciate our children.

Trying to understand this is a first step. As Adam’s parent, I see many of the so-called “issues” being mine, and yes, I become just as frustrated as many other parents out there. It’s really hard to see Adam in distress and it’s even harder to always be guessing what may be causing anxiety or body-jerking (Lack of calcium? Trouble at school? New self-awareness of difference? Trouble with transitioning from task to task? Lack of sleep? Seizures? A very long winter? Lack of exercise? Another neurological issue?…The guess work list is too long). Since Adam appears to be in discomfort since late last fall, I am really working hard at figuring this out (wait-lists are long here in Toronto). Sleep issues, anxiety issues — I know when I have a level head, there is more that I can do for him to ease the situation. We need science now to figure out many of our questions.

Sometimes it feels that makeshift solutions only lead to more issues. Sure, we all want things to be a little easier, but Adam requires more consideration in order to achieve that balance between helping him through discomfort as well as accommodating his needs. As I have been through a difficult year, like many of you out there, I completely understand the reasoning, but I have to keep a level head and look at what Adam has also gone through with a “broken” family. I have needed my sleep, but if Adam cannot, I have to find safe ways of letting him stay up until his body will sleep naturally. I know what I’m saying isn’t easy and there are still days I will resort to the Melatonin, even though, because of the guesswork involved, it pains me to do so. Yet I also know it’s important to stop and slow down and think about how Adam feels and perceives. When I do, everything seems a little easier. As a parent, I can even become proud of myself (it’s important) that I’ve not only managed well, but have helped Adam out too. We are still on that path to finding out if we can help Adam, but I am always wondering excessively about how I perceive the “problem.”

I’m interested in what people in science think about this Perception study. I think we have to spend a lot more time imagining what it feels like to be in Wonderland.


Excerpts from:

“Extraordinary Perception” by Wray Herbert in March/April 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind, pp. 68-69.

Further Reading:

Selective Attention and Perceptual Load in Autism Spectrum Disorder, Anna Remington, John Swettenham, Ruth Campbell and Mike Coleman in Psychological Science (in press). Published online October 14, 2009.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.