An Unusual Pairing

Laurent Mottron, professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal and Michelle Dawson, a postal worker on an involuntary disability leave, make an unusual research and writing team. Michelle Dawson and Dr. Mottron have co-authored six published papers in journals such as Brain, Neuropsychology and the Journal of Autism and Behavioral Disorders and are causing a stir in both the autism and scientific communities.

What is so unusual about this pairing? Michelle Dawson is autistic. She and Mottron have put forward a new theory on the intelligence of individuals with autism. Traditionally, 75 percent of autistics were considered to have low intelligence but Mottron, Dawson and their team think a more accurate assessment is 25 percent. Mottron stated that autistic intelligence is not measured accurately. The researchers believe that the Wechsler scales, or standard IQ test does not accurately measure the intelligence of autistics. They think the more appropriate test is Raven’s Progressive Matrices.

The Weschler test depends on oral questions, something many autistics struggle to complete while the Raven test involves more abstract reasoning, an area where autistic people can excel.

What are the implications of testing methodology? Mottron says if we classify children as intellectually deficient then they will be treated accordingly and denied a host of opportunities.

Ms. Dawson states that, traditionally, the abilities of autistics, particularly idiot-savants, have been dismissed as a meaningless form of intelligence. Dawson says she can’t what her fellow researchers do with their normal brains but they can’t do what she does with her autistic brain. Does that make her less intelligent?

The unlikely pairing of Mottron and Dawson happened when the two were featured separately in a film about autism. Dr. Mottron felt pity for her and wanted to help her, but she didn’t want his help. She dismissed his research and that of others. Her unconventional way of seeing things has caused a paradigm shift in Dr. Mottron’s research.

Because of Ms. Dawson’s legal battle with Canada Post, she immersed herself in the scientific literature about autism. Dr. Mottron says she knows the scientific literature as well as anyone. Dawson contributes about 20 percent of the final published research papers.

Ms. Dawson has a self- interest in autism research because the knowledge gives her credibility in other battles she has to fight. She is not popular with parents of autistic children support groups. She says they want autism to be a sickness that needs to be cured and they want more money for their lobby groups. Dawson’s abrasive manner spills over to her work with scientists as well. Although she can create brilliant ideas, she cannot manage simple tasks that are essential to the research process.

Dr. Mottron feels Michelle Dawson is changing the way the world views autism and that will have a lasting impact.

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