Monday, July 28, 2008

More added to Janet Frame post

Today I've added to my posting from last year that gave information and references and links regarding the renowned NZ author Janet Frame, and the controversy last year that was triggered by a posthumous diagnosis of Frame with "high-functioning autism".

Was Frame somewhere on the autistic spectrum? I believe the answer to that question lies within the semi-autobiographical magical-realism style novel by Frame that was published posthumously last year, titled "Towards Another Summer".

Friday, July 11, 2008

Concrete and Abstract; two words with meanings that have always appeared to be very much open to creative interpretation, especially with regard to autism

I believe it is an accepted fact that autistic people tend to do comparatively well on the intelligence test known as the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Last year Newsweek did a story about this discovery and its important implications (Begley 2007). One of my own kids has done extremely well on the Raven’s test; their score left me stunned. I guess this is just an example of the Flynn Effect in action; it’s all about having kids who make you look dumb by comparison. I have been informed by a noted psychologist that autists tend to complete the Raven’s test considerably more quickly than is the norm. If this is true, I think it would be an interesting difference that is not explained by any theorising that I have read.

After perusing a review of research on the IQ test performances of autistic people, I would conclude that autistic people also tend to do well on the following Wechsler IQ test subtests: Block Design, Similarities and Digit Span.

“Previous studies (e.g, Ehlers et al., 1997) revealed that the highest Verbal scores for individuals with ASD were obtained on Similarities or Digit Span.” (Barnhill et al 2000)

“Results from the current study indicated that the Verbal subtests with the highest mean scores were Information, Similarities, and Vocabulary.” (Barnhill et al 2000)

According to a world authority on intelligence and intelligence testing, performance on the Similarities test correlates well with performance on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices (Flynn 2007). That makes sense to me, considering that these are two tests that autistic people, as a group, appear to do especially well at. These two tests must have something important in common.

“The same sort of person will do well on both tests [Raven’s and Similarities], namely, someone who’s mind has been liberated from the concrete.” (Flynn 2007, page 35).

Well, don’t we already know what kind of person will probably do well on both tests?; an autistic person! But when have you ever read autistic people being described as people who’s minds are “liberated from the concrete”? Someone (or some group) has made a mistake somewhere, I’d say.

I have so often read that autistic people can only think in literal, visual or concrete ways, while being unable to think abstractly. This is the established stereotype of autistic cognition. Now I find that a professor who is a world authority on the psychology of intelligence appears to have expressed a view that logically leads to a direct contradiction of old school thinking about the cognition of autistic people.

After reading about the aforementioned research on the performance of autistics on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test, I discover that these research findings were also a serious challenge to the idea of autism as a disability in abstract thinking. Apparently the Raven’s was considered to be a great test of abstract, “fluid” thinking ability, but then some researchers came along and showed that autists do well at this test, which is the opposite of what those holding established views of autism would have predicted.

Can anything be found in Flynn’s book that might hint at a better, alternative way of thinking about autistic cognition? “… minds influenced by the scientific ethos find both tests congenial.” (Flynn 2007, p. 35). Baron-Cohen’s stereotype of the autist as a systemizer and natural-born scientist springs to mind. If any type of mind is especially open to the influence of the scientific ethos of our modern world, it’s got to be the mind of a bright autistic child (or adult or senior). The autistic person can offer objectivity rather than connection. The autist is more interested in the truth than consensus. These traits are very compatible with a scientific way of thinking.


Barnhill, G, Hagiwara, T, Myles, B S, & Simpson, R L (2000) Asperger Syndrome: A Study of the Cognitive Profiles of 37 Children and Adolescents. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. Fall 2000. Vol. 15, Issue 3, p.146-153.

Begley, Sharon (2007) The puzzle of hidden ability. Newsweek. August 20-27, 2007.

Flynn, James R. (2007) What is intelligence?: beyond the Flynn Effect. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Review of this book at New Scientist:

Wikipedia contributors (accessed July 11, 2008) Controversies in autism. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.

Copyright Lili Marlene 2008.