A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology suggests that people who suffer from autism have a higher capacity for processing and perceving information. The information can be presented to them at a higher speed than non-Autistic people and are also able to identify information deemed as “critical” to the topic.
Autism is a disorder of neurological development that manifests as impaired communicative and social skills as well as restricted and repetitive behaviour. Autism disrupts the transmission of neural messages in the brain by altering synapses between neurons, however the full mechanism is not yet fully understood.
Autism is categorized as being part of the Autism Disorder Spectrum (ASD) which also includes Aspergers’ syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS).
The researchers explicitly found that:
under higher levels of load, perceptual sensitivity was reduced in typical adults but not in adults with ASD
This directly implies that people who suffer from Autism have a higher capacity to interpret information even when presented with a large volume of new information.
This is evidenced by the numerous cases in the past of people suffering from Autism showing high levels of proficiency for certain tasks. A very famous example is Kim Peek – the man who the film Rain Man was based on – who had an eidetic memory and was known as a savant. He had impaired communication and social skills but excelled at remembering facts.
Another example is Daniel Tammet, a British writer and mathematical savant. He is able to calculate any mathematical problem in his mind claiming that the numbers appear in his mind as colours and shapes. He was able to recite Pi to 22,514 digits.
Stephen Wiltshire is also able to create extremely detailed drawings of scenes that he may have seen for a few seconds.
These people are known as Savants and possess profound capacity or abilities far beyond what would be considered normal. It usually occurs as a result of developmental delays of the brain or from brain damage.
The actual research was carried by Professor Lavie from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL. The research involved flashing letters on a screen to two groups – people suffering from autism and people who did not. When only two letters were flashed both groups were able to perceive them both, however, when the number of letters were increased the typical adults were unable to register all of the letters and were outperformed by the autistic group.
“Our study clearly shows that people with autism can do better than typical adults in tasks involving rapid presentations of a lot of information…there are clearly careers, such as in IT, that can benefit from employing people with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders.” Professor Lavie
The hope is that this information will enable doctors to help people with autism by capitalizing on their strengths and exploit their increased perceptual capacity. A prime example of this is the documentary Autistic Superstars which brought together a group of autistic teenagers with musical talent and helped them create their own band.
Hopefully, this new research will increase the ease with which autistic people can become functioning members of society. Currently, the disorder has a stigma attached to it, but if clinicians and doctors can aid their autistic patients in capitalizing on their increased perceptual capacity we may see the day when discrimination stops.