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Why would autism speaks give Laurent Mottron half a million dollars?

Posted Jun 02 2009 3:54pm
I see that by looking at autism speaks' website that the good Dr. Laurent Mottron has received a grant in 2008 for three years for $448,827. That is nearly half a million dollars. It is just about $150,000 a year. Seems like a lot of money to me. I realize that some of the good doctor's research involves fMRI brain scans which I know are quite expensive. However, one wonders if this is money well spent on the part of autism speaks. How consistent is this funding with the stated goals of autism speaks considering what Dr. Mottron has said in the past?

A look at the home page of AS' web page gives their stated goals:

We are dedicated to funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatments, and cure for autism;

Looking at an old post from Harold Doherty's blog we see that it would appear that Dr. Mottron feels that one of the main goals of an organization from which he has received nearly half a million dollars is nonsensical. One wonders why he was given this money if that is the case. One wonders what many people who went on walks for autism speaks with autistic children, thinking that the dollars they raised for research would go to help finding a cure for autism would think if they knew this man received so much of their money.

AS goes further in stating some of their goals:

Autism Speaks aims to bring the autism community together as one strong voice to urge the government and private sector to listen to our concerns and take action to addressthis urgent global health crisis (emphasis added). They seem to think that autism is an urgent health crisis.

What does Laurent Mottron think of autism?:

I think that autism is an example of a variation that has to be respected, first at an ethical level, but which does not have scientifically the status of a disease.

From wired magazine on Dr. Mottron:

From that day forward, he decided to challenge the disease model underlying most autism research. "I wanted to go as far as I could to show that their perception — their brains — are totally different." Not damaged. Not dysfunctional. Just different.

It would certainly appear that Dr. Mottron does not believe that autism is a global health crisis, that autism is not a disorder disease or possibly even disability but merely "a difference".

Again it seems strange to me that an organization would give someone who had such different beliefs from their own a half a million dollars or close to it. One possible explanation is that autism speaks was somehow compelled to believe that Mottron's work could have some practical applications at some point in time as we see from the description of the last paragraph that discusses his funding:

A more complete understanding of autistic individuals' strength in perception and visual reasoning may have important implications with respect to selecting and creating parenting, teaching, and workplace strategies that leverage these abilities.

If this statement is accurate then perhaps the persons who donated this money to autism speaks believing that all of the research went to finding a cure, prevention and people who like them believe autism is an urgent global health crisis might be getting some bang for the half million bucks they gave to this man. However, one wonders how the fact that at least some autistics do well on the block design subtest on the Wechsler, do well on certain other perceptual tests or memory tasks would help make parenting the child less challenging, would make it easier for a child to be taught academics and would make it easier for an autistic person to obtain and keep employment. I am very skeptical about this.

One of the problems with Mottron's research is the subject pool is limited in that they are high functioning autistics rather than lower functioning. He also uses a more proportionate amount of male autism research subjects versus females than are found in the general population of autistics. Therefore, assuming any of his work had any practical applications he would have to acknowledge these limitations. I realize, of course that this problem is not unique to Dr. Mottron but to a lot of autism research in general. Research involving EEGs and functional MRI scanning necessitate a cooperative subject who will not make movements during the study and create artifacts that would interfere with obtaining legitimate data. In Lindsay Oberman's mu wave suppression studies all the autistic subjects were high functioning males and this was likely the reason. Dr. Oberman did acknowledge the limitations of her work in the body of the study. Lower functioning autistics would likely not be compliant or be suitable research subjects for many of the autism studies that are currently funded.

Assuming the statements from Mottron and AS that his work could have these practical applications one must wonder if there is not a trade off between autistic strengths and weaknesses. For example, even if autistics do well on the block design test of the Wechsler they do poorly on the comprehension subtest. This probably reflects a lack of social skills deficit that might be the result of mirror neuron damage. This would certainly impair someone in the workplace who might throw a tantrum or tell the boss to fuck off. This would get them into trouble with peers and social relationships or with teachers and impede the ability to learn in school just as much as Mottron's potential application of the enhanced perceptional abilities could potentially enhance these abilities. Therefore rather than the research of the Mottron group being used to enhance strengths in these settings, the concomitant weakness of the autistic could in actuality produce a zero sum result.

Dr. Mottron and his sidekick Michelle Dawson are now the darlings of the neurodiversity movement for the above stated reasons. This is in spite of the fact that neurodiversity proponents have consistently maligned autism speaks claiming they are deliberately trying to find a test to abort autistic fetuses. They have urged a boycott of Lindt Chocolates and possibly other organizations that help raise money for autism speaks. However, they are not bothered by the fact that their idols are not above accepting half a million dollars from this organization they detest so much. One of the main tenets of neurodiversity is that the brain of the autistic is not damaged or defective just different. They even seem to believe that societal accommodations could solve a lot of autistics problems. However, if Mottron had even a single example of an autistic person who was able to perform as well in school as a typical child, be parented as easily as a typical child or be as competitive in employment as a typical child without curing the brain difference they would be shouting about it from the rooftops. There would be one post after another in the autism hub about it. I have yet to see these posts, ergo, one must conclude that Mottron's work has not yet yielded any practical applications. I am a cynic and will only believe it when I see it.

I emailed autism speaks, asking them why they would award such large funding to a man like this, whose goals are so clearly different from their own expressed goals; A man whose goals I must surmise are very different from people who donate money to AS and participate in their walks, the majority I would suspect have not even heard of the good Dr. Mottron. They only replied that they had a formal review process in which each researcher's proposal was viewed on its merit. One wonders what the merit is of Dr. Mottron's proposals given these statements, but I guess I will have to be mystified. I will also await and see if any of the practical applications Mottron claims his work has will come to fruition. I won't hold my breath too long though.
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