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Positive Information about Asperger Syndrome and autism


The advantages arising from autism


Contemporary literature is increasingly coming around to the idea that autism may confer a different rather than a damaged way of thinking.  For example, recent psychological research suggests that autism may be characterised by a heightened attention to detail that contrasts somewhat with the usual focusing on gist or ‘wider picture’ (e.g. Frith and Happé, 1994).  On the whole, it seems that this bias may be related to the tendency toward intense and narrow foci of interests and unusually good rote memory* that often feature in autism and Asperger Syndrome. Interestingly, autism also tends to be characterized by a strong bias toward the visual rather tha n the verbal mode of information processing, though this in itself may be one area of difference between high functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome.

The strengths in autism combine in a triad of impairments to make some areas of endeavour generally more attractive and accessible to individuals on the spectrum than others.  It is widely accepted by those involved in education and healthcare for people on the spectrum that autism appears with disproportionate frequency in families of certain professions – most notably, those related to engineering, science and information technology.  Although research in this area has proved somewhat inconclusive, anecdotal evidence suggests that people on the spectrum may often have a natural affinity for computers, tasks involving facts and figures (as in mathematics and the sciences), and visually based skills such as those involved in technical drawing.  In a very general sense it may be that these aptitudes are reflected in students’ choice of courses, with an increased incidence in associated areas of study.  This is not to say of course, that any students on the spectrum are exempt from any programme of study – here as elsewhere in matters related to autism, one does not have to look far to find exceptions to the rule.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the possibility that academia might be attractive to individuals on the spectrum in and of itself.  On a web site dedicated to ‘University students with autism and Asperger Syndrome’, Sainsbury (2001) suggests that, in many ways, university life and autism may be eminently suited.  Anyone who works in higher education will be familiar with members of academic staff who seem more at home among their books then in the company of people.  As Sainsbury notes, it may be that the stereotype of the ‘absent minded professor’ is in itself a tell-tale sign of the prevalence of (undiagnosed) Asperger Syndrome at work in higher education.  Certainly, the high levels of tolerance for people who don’t ‘fit in’ (with society at large) that may be seen to permeate the higher education ethos is a feature of university life that many students with high functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome find attractive.

The particular strengths that characterize autism mean that, given the appropriate support, students on the spectrum may well excel in their chosen field.  Indeed, as one student with Asperger Syndrome recently pointed out, individuals on the spectrum may need to be extremely gifted if they are to overcome the non-academic difficulties at primary and secondary levels in order to gain access to university in the first place!  Furthermore, such natural aptitude may be further enabled by the difficulties with, and/ or lack of interest in, social mores that typify autism and Asperger Syndrome.  Given the relative absence of socially based distractions, students on the spectrum may well be more apt at spending their time studying than would be the case with their fellow students.



* Rote memory refers to the ability to learn certain information as a habit pattern. Examples of information held in rote memory the alphabet, the number system, multiplication tables, spelling rules, grammatical rules, etc.


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