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15 - The paradox of autism: why does disability sometimes give rise to talent?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2011

Simon Baron-Cohen
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
Emma Ashwin
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
Chris Ashwin
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
Teresa Tavassoli
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
Bhismadev Chakrabarti
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
Narinder Kapur
Affiliation:
University College London
Alvaro Pascual-Leone
Affiliation:
Harvard Medical School
Vilayanur Ramachandran
Affiliation:
University of California, San Diego
Jonathan Cole
Affiliation:
University of Bournemouth
Sergio Della Sala
Affiliation:
University of Edinburgh
Tom Manly
Affiliation:
MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit
Andrew Mayes
Affiliation:
University of Manchester
Oliver Sacks
Affiliation:
Columbia University Medical Center
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Summary

Summary

We explore why people with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) not only show deficits but also areas of intact or even superior skill. The deficits are primarily social; the areas of intact or superior skill involve attention to detail and systemizing. Systemizing is the drive to analyse or build a system. We review the evidence related to systemizing in ASC and discuss its association with sensory hypersensitivity. We close by considering the evolution and adaptive features of systemizing and how – taken to an extreme – this can also give rise to disability.

Introduction

Paradoxes emanating from human brain functioning have long been noted – patients with amnesia who cannot explicitly recall information but who nevertheless reveal implicitly that they do recall information; patients with reported blindness who nevertheless demonstrate some ‘unconscious’ vision (‘blindsight’); Brazilian street children who fail academic mathematics tests but who are lightening quick in performing calculations in the market place; and individuals who experience perceptions in one sensory modality when a different sensory modality is stimulated (‘synaesthesia’). In some sense, paradoxes in brain functioning should perhaps not be so surprising given the number of different ‘modules’ and pathways in the brain, such that some functions may be impaired whilst others may simultaneously be either intact or even superior.

Whilst we are familiar with syndromes where most, if not all, cognitive functions are impaired (such as in certain forms of learning disability or dementia), this chapter focuses on what can be learnt from syndromes displaying uneven cognitive profiles.

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Chapter
Information
The Paradoxical Brain , pp. 274 - 288
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2011

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