Monday, November 21, 2011

Autism Expert Psychologist Dissects Mottron's "Misleading" "Mischief"

The mainstream media (MSM) has embraced with open arms activist/researcher Dr. Laurent Mottron's "autism advantage" piece in Nature.  In that article Mottron downplays the serious challenges faced by those like my son with severe autistic disorder and recasts autism disorders in the image of his mentor Michelle Dawson and several other high functioning persons with autism who work in his lab. Almost without exception the MSM has regurgitated Mottron's beliefs and opinions without serious examination of the scientific basis, if any, for those beliefs, and without offering differing views of credible autism experts. An autism expert who offers a critique of Mottron's opinion piece is Dr. Travis Thompson who describes the piece as "mischief" and "misleading". 

Dr. Laurent Mottron, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Faculty of Medicine of the Université de Montréal, at Hopital Riviere-des-Prairies, recently wrote in the journal Nature, that his research team has published articles indicating some people with autism have “superior capabilites in multiple cognitive operations such as perception and reasoning.” Exaggerating positive characteristics of some individuals with autism is not necessary to accord them the respect they deserve."


Mottron’s research team has published articles indicating that some people with autism have “superior capabilites in multiple cognitive operations such as perception and reasoning”. Dr. Mottron is referring to his numerous laboratory cognitive neuroscience studies or psychological test investigations he has published showing on average, some samples of some people with ASDs score higher on some measures or some subtests than some comparison neurotypical samples. I have found no studies by Dr. Mottron showing that the “superior capabilities” which he has measured in the laboratory in autism manifest themselves in advantages in daily life. As unlikely as it may seem, I have found no articles by Dr. Mottron indicating there are any measurable disadvantages of having autism, which seems odd in light of the fact that many thousands of articles indicating that such differences exist.


While I have respect for strong advocacy on behalf of individuals with autism, misrepresentation of an enormous body of scientific evidence is not helpful to individuals with autism or their families. [Nature. 2011 Nov 2;479(7371):33-5. doi: 10.1038/479033a]"

Dr. Thompson also authors a blog, Oughtism, where he commented further on Mottron's autism advantage article. In Autism: Visual Memory, Intelligence, and According Respect Dr. Thompson describes the skill used in the tests on which much of the Mottron opinions are based as being essentially that, a specific skill which can not be equated more generally with intelligence. He  makes the point that autistic persons are deserving of respect ... period ... without the need to demonstrate an alleged "superiority" in a specific area. Dr. Thompson also questions the appropriateness of using a term like "superior" in a scientific article.

"It is not my purpose at all to diminish the importance of unique cognitive abilities of many individuals with autism, but to suggest that the ability to perform complex visual configural search tasks with short latencies, as is involved in Mottron’s and his colleagues laboratory and clinical testing tasks, likely has a limited amount to do with what is usually meant by intelligence. Intelligence is distinguished by ability to use abstract symbols for functional communication in attaching meaning to one’s experiences and in solving problems. Most people with autism display such skills, some to extraordinary degrees. Visual memory for configurations is not central to intelligence, though it is indeed a unique skill, very beneficial in the visual arts, as shown here with Stephen Wiltshire, and mathematics and computer science."


Moreover, as I pointed out recently on my website, Autism Treatment, to suggest that any group of people must meet some measurable criterion on a test, like shorter latencies on a visual search task, in order to be accorded respect by the rest of society and our world community is inherently offensive. People with autism deserve equal treatment and rights as everyone else because they are members of the human family. They do not need to prove themselves. “When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everybody will respect you,” Lao Tzu."

I have never been a fan of Dr. Laurent Mottron's brand of autism activism and have said so on many occasions.  I am a lawyer who has represented a number of persons with autism and Asperger's without receiving any compensation, even from Legal Aid for doing so. I have also been an advocate for evidence based early intervention, autism specific training and accommodation for teachers and aides working with autistic children in our schools and for adult autism specific residential care and treatment facilities. As an autism advocate I have visited the psychiatric hospital facilities where some severely autistic adults live out their lives after parents grow old, feeble and eventually die.

Still, my opinions are not those of an autism health professional. My experience over almost 16 years as a parent of a severely autistic child are of no weight whatsoever in the minds of government, courts, the mainstream media or an activist/researcher like Dr. Mottron.  I am after all just another hysterical, ignorant, ill informed and biased parent.

Dr. Travis Thompson, however, is a psychologist with academic and clinical experience over many decades and his views are harder to dismiss.  Or they would be if the MSM bothered to research and read his opinions. Hopefully someday the MSM will grow up and  consult the opinions of experts like Dr. Thompson who, very professionally and politely, show that the Mottron brand of autism activism can be mischievous and misleading.

Dr. Travis Thompson's biography as published on the Autism Spectrum Disorders: Diagnosis Treatment website:


Dr. Travis Thompson is Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) where he is affiliated with the Department of Pediatrics Autism Clinic and the Center for Neurobehavioral Development. He received his doctorate in Psychology at the University of Minnesota and did postdoctoral training at the University of Maryland and advanced behavioral science training at Cambridge University (UK). He spent several years as the Executive Program Director of a community-based behavior therapy program for young children with autism spectrum disorders in Minneapolis, MN where he directly supervised services to a large number of children with ASD. He has served as a consultant to public school autism programs in Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN and Nashville TN. He is a licensed psychologist (Minnesota).

Travis Thompson has worked in the field of developmental disabilities as a researcher, teacher and clinician for over 35 years. He was previously Director of the John F. Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development at Vanderbilt University, and the Institute for Child Development (University of Kansas Medical Center). He was co-editor of one of the first books concerned with behavior therapy methods for individuals with developmental disabilities. He has published over 240 articles and chapters and 27 books, including Self-Injurious Behavior: Genes-Brain and Behavior (with Schroeder and Oster-Granite) published in 2001 and International Handbook of Applied Research in Intellectual Disability (with Emerson, Hatton and Parmenter, 2004). He has been an invited speaker in 13 countries and 40 states within the U.S. He has held numerous offices and received awards for his work in developmental disabilities including serving as President of the Division on Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities (33) of the American Psychological Association. He was recipient of the Don Hake Award of Division 25 of the American Psychological Association for "Exceptional Contributions to Basic Behavioral Research and its Applications”. Thompson was recipient of the American Association for Mental Retardation Research Award (1995), the Arc USA Distinguished Research Award (1996), and the Academy on Mental Retardation Career Research Award (1998). He has served on numerous national committees, including the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Committee of the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development as well as other federal agencies and the American Psychological Association. He has previously served as a member of professional advisory committees to autism parent advocacy organizations in Minnesota and Kansas.

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