Of all the famed names in autism, Temple Grandin is perhaps one of the quickest to come to mind.
Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism in 1950, didn’t speak until she was about 4 years old. At the time, the definition of autism seemed clearer cut than it is today. Looking back, many experts would say she exhibited classic signs of the disorder. But the spectrum of the disorder has grown wider since then. Grandin has arguably landed so far on one end of the spectrum that it could be hard to see what the other side of autism looks like.
About 1 in 110 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, characterized by problems in social interaction and communication, and delayed and repetitive behavior. Unlike Grandin, many will not be able to develop the necessary skills to speak, or hold a stable job. Many remain dependent on caregivers for the rest of their lives.
These stark differences have prompted many researchers to suggest that autism should not be grouped under one diagnosis, but in fact, should be labeled as different conditions.
“Research is starting to show us that there is not just one pathway that makes it necessary for the condition to be called autism,” said Dr. Lori Warner, director for the HOPE Center for Autism at Beaumont Children’s Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.
“The core features are still there. How it’s manifested is different,” said Warner.
And because of this, Warner said the seemingly different way the condition is displayed is better off staying grouped as ‘autism.’
In fact, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) seems to be moving away from differentiating autism any further. Some experts say that for those who function well, autism should not be considered a disability or a disorder.
Instead, in some cases, the condition could serve as an advantage. Grandin went on to earn a doctoral degree and her redesign of livestock handling equipment became the standard for many cattle plants across the U.S. and Canada. Grandin then became a best-selling author and speaker.
In fact, Laurent Mottron, who holds the Marcel and Rolande Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Autism at the University of Montreal, directs eight members of his lab who are considered autistic.
“In certain settings, autistic individuals can fare extremely well,” wrote Mottron. “One such setting is scientific research.”
Mottron doesn’t consider his lab members to be extraordinary workers, or savants, he wrote in an editorial published November in the journal Nature. But their strength in research has been a huge asset to his lab, he said.
“Without question, autistic brains operate differently,” Mottron wrote in his editorial. He added that most autistics are better at detecting changing sounds, detecting visual structures, and manipulating 3D shapes. But, Warner cautioned against minimizing the limitations of their conditions.
“If you put anyone in an environment where they can display their strengths, then of course they’ll thrive,” said Warner, who called for a “bigger picture” look at strengthening other life situations beyond the work environment.
“Just because they do well in one environment doesn’t mean their condition is not necessarily a disorder,” she said.
While autism, by definition, is marked by impaired communication, social and physical behavior, Mottron said research so far is hyper focused on the deficits of a person with autism, and how to treat them. Instead, the focus should be on developing their strengths and abilities, he said.
“Too often, employers don’t realize what autistics are capable of, and assign them repetitive, almost menial tasks,” said Mottron. “But I believe that most are willing and capable of making sophisticated contributions to society, if they have the right environment.”