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Autistics Faster at Problem Solving? Low Functioning Autism Subjects Excluded from Soulières Mottron Dawson Study

Posted Jun 22 2009 11:13am
The mainstream media is buzzing about a study by lead author Isabelle Soulières, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University who completed an experiment at the Université de Montréal which, according to a U de M press release, purports to find that " autistics are up to 40 percent faster at problem-solving than non-autistics".

The press release states that the study participants " were asked to complete patterns in the Raven's Standard Progressive Matrices (RSPM) – a test that measures hypothesis-testing, problem-solving and learning skills". An image from the test is provided in the U de M press release:

The U de M press release, which by definition is intended for consumption by media outlets, for dissemination to the general public, refers to "autistics" and "autism" but not once to the specific diagnoses of the participants or to their functioning level. The study report itself, which requires purchase by non-subscribers and takes more effort to locate than the press release, also refers generally to autism and autistics. The study even uses those terms to refer to footnoted articles which in their titles specify that the subject of the article is high functioning "autistics".

The study report, and the press release, insist on referring to "autistics " and "autism" as though the study referred to all persons with autism disorders. It is clear from the characteristics of the participants as identified in the study itself however that they were all High Functioning Autistics. Low Functioning Autistics were excluded from the study:

TABLE I. Participant characteristics

Based on the IQ information provided in the study report there were no persons with Low Functioning Autistic Disorder included in this study. It seems strange that a study which includes Dr. Laurent Mottron as a co-author would not specify their functioning level -Low Functioning Autism or High Functioning Autism. Dr. Mottron has published many study reports over the years in which he took great care to identify the participants as Low Functioning or High Functioning, Autistic Disorder, Aspergers and, in some cases, Autistic Savants. His studies focused almost exclusively on persons with Aspergers and High Functioning Autism as any check on Google Scholar can confirm. This paper does make it clear that persons with Aspergers were excluded from the study but offers no mention of the exclusion of persons with Low Functioning Autistic Disorder below the 100 IQ range. (The paper does not actually refer to the specific diagnosis of Autistic Disorder referring instead to "autism").

Dr. Mottron has tended to exclude low functioning autism subjects from his studies but he has in the past made it clear that his study participants were high functioning. This study by Dr. Mottron and his colleagues again focuses on high functioning autistic persons but obscures that fact for general media and public consumption.

Perhaps someday Dr. Mottron will cease excluding low functioning autistic subjects from his studies.

In the meantime it is difficult to see why a study which excludes low functioning autism subjects should be used to make broad statements about the abilities of autistic persons on all points of the autism spectrum of disorders.

In the meantime I humbly suggest that the U de M press release be modified to read:

" high functioning autistics are up to 40 percent faster at Raven's Standard Progressive Matrices (RSPM) problem-solving than non-autistics".


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