Understanding assets and deficits in autism - Why success is more

Francesca Happé gave the Spearman Medal Lecture at the Society’s London Conference in December 1998. She argued that we can discover more about autism through examples of task success than of failure — and that it involves a distinct cognitive style, rather than deficit.
AUTISM is a devastating developmental disorder, affecting at least one in a thousand children and adults. Although biologically based, with a strong genetic component, diagnosis of autism is still based on behavioural criteria: qualitative impairments in social and communicative development, with restricted and repetitive activities and interests. The manifestations of autism cover a wide spectrum. These range from the child with severe impairments who may be silent, aloof, of low IQ and locked into rocking and hand flapping, to the high-functioning individual with pedantic and verbose communication, an active but odd social approach, and rarefied special interests (e.g. registration numbers on lamp posts). It is not hard to identify things that people with autism find problematic — indeed, most people with autism also have general learning difficulties and low IQ. However, I would like to argue that progress in understanding this disorder, and its implications for normal development, has come chiefly through exploration of what people with autism are good at.

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