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Michelle Dawson on Autism and Atypicality (Ep. 46)

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Mercatus Center
Aug 1, 2018 · 34 min read
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What autistic brains do with information is atypical. How it’s atypical, in my view, involves what I’ve called cognitive versatility and less mandatory hierarchies in how the brain works, such that, for example, an autistic brain will consider more possibilities, will nonstrategically combine information across levels and scales without losing large parts of it, and so on. And that applies to all information.

That is strictly my view. I’m not sure anyone would agree with me.

COWEN: Do you think it’s true that autistic brains somehow take in or process more information?

On hyperlexia and other autistic strengths

COWEN: What’s an example of something an autistic person might be better at doing than a nonautistic person? Again, with a lot of variation across autistics.

On biases affecting autistics

COWEN: One thing, if I think about your work in general, one thing it’s caused me to do is to see a new bias in how humans make judgment, and that is a bias to underrate atypical kinds of intelligence. I view this as a common thread running through your work. Maybe this is what I’m reading in, rather than anything you’ve said explicitly.

I hope we don’t look at a blind person who is a successful lawyer and assume that he is only very mildly blind or barely blind at all, and then look at a blind person who has a very bad outcome and assume that they must be very severely blind.

We do make those kinds of judgments in autism, saying, “The more atypical the person is, the worse they must be in some sense.” That kind of bias has not only harmed a lot of autistic people, it really has impeded research.

We do not have a definition for autism severity, but it gets at that idea, that bias — very unhelpful and harmful bias that the more atypical an individual is, the more there must be wrong with them. And autism is almost the paradigmatic case of that happening, so if you want to make a case for that, autism would be where to do it.

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A Penrose triangle. Credit: illusionsindex.org

On social intelligence

COWEN: There are a variety of claims that autistics either have difficulties processing social information or lack certain kinds of social intelligence — why they’re awkward in particular social situations. In your framework, how do you make sense of these claims? And how would you describe or redescribe the phenomena people are talking about?

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Smiles of frustration or delight? Credit: Hoque et al.

On chord disembedding and other cognitive skills

COWEN: Let me mention a few cognitive skills, and we’ll just run through them briefly, but tell me what you think we know about autistics and nonautistics. Chord disaggregation: you hear a chord and you want to figure out what are the notes inside the chord. What do we know?

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On measuring IQ

COWEN: There are at least two kinds of IQ tests, and autistics do better on one than on the other. And some of your best-known research is in this area. Tell us the basic finding.

On how autistics process information

COWEN: Before, you offered an understanding or conception of what autism is, a definition. But if we get to the nitty-gritty question of what’s the core mechanism or the core difference in autistic brains, some people have suggested there’s some kind of weaker or disabled or maybe more optional form of top-down processing. So there’s maybe more direct access to smaller bits of information or greater optionality, as to the level at which information is accessed.

DSM should not be segregation, DSM-5 autism, DSM autism is segregation. Why? Because the diagnosis segregates autistic people into lower standards of science and ethics than would be acceptable for anybody else. That’s what your diagnosis does.

Now, you may be lucky anyway. You may encounter extraordinary individuals who know you’re autistic and who will apply good standards of science and ethics to you. That certainly happens, but you must be lucky.

Now, you may be lucky anyway. You may encounter extraordinary individuals who know you’re autistic and who will apply good standards of science and ethics to you. That certainly happens, but you must be lucky. It will not be the more taken for granted, where the exception is that you’ll be denied these standards, and if you are, there will be recourse. In autism, that is not the case. So, to me, that is a segregation.

On autistics in the workforce

COWEN: As you know, there’s a Danish firm called Specialisterne, right? And they make a point of hiring autistic people to do things such as programming. Is that, in your view, an instance of possibly unjust or harmful segregation?

On the Michelle Dawson production function

COWEN: Michelle and I have a coauthored piece on Alan Turing. Maybe we’ll get to that next time. My last question is on what I call the Michelle Dawson production function. You know a great deal about autism. How is it that, given your history — you were not trained as an autism researcher in the formal sense — but how is it that you learn about autism?

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages…

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

Mercatus Center

Written by

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas.

Conversations with Tyler

A podcast in which esteemed economist Tyler Cowen engages with today's most underrated thinkers in wide-ranging explorations of their work, the world, and everything in between.

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