Sigma Xi Lecture: A Different Approach to Understanding Autism

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Sigma Xi, Swarthmore’s scientific research society, welcomed Dr. Greg Wallace of George Washington University and the Children’s Medical Center in DC to campus this past Wednesday to speak on “The Cognitive Assets in Autism Spectrum Disorders.” The talk focused on numerous old and new emerging theories and approaches to examining the neurobiological origins of autism.

Wallace first introduced two established psychological theories, which explained different behavioral aspects of autism, before presenting new angles behind his own research. The “theory of mind”, for instance, refers to particular cognitive abilities involving “general empathy” in social situations, that is, the capacity to ascribe different outside mental states to oneself or others. Studies testing the theory of mind found autistic children and adolescents were unable or much more reluctant to associate social feelings or emotionality with animations of inanimate objects mimicking social behavior. The theory largely fails to include non-social features of autism and is complemented or more completed by the theory of executive dysfunction.

This more comprehensive conjecture accounts for more types of autistic behavior, hypothesizing that autism results from frontal lobe dysfunction. The premise loosely builds upon similarities between patients with frontal lobe injuries and autistics; both, for example, have consistent deficiencies in cognitive flexibility. This means that children or adults with autism often take longer to become accustomed to, say, rules of a newly-invented card game and react unfavorably to any change in the rules. This non-social deficit-based account, of course, cannot explain the various assets and superior abilities often observed in persons with autism or developmental disabilities.

Wallace’s research incorporates cognitive assets associated with autistic disorders in what Wallace defines as a model of “weak central coherence” or the failure to integrate smaller details into the overarching context. This new approach to examining cognitive style can explain deficits as well as assets, “allowing for the development of novel interventions emphasizing the abilities rather than disabilities” of autistic individuals.

Wallace gave several examples of young and old savants with autism demonstrating “striking abilities standing in stark contrast to other disabilities.” Autistic children are often much quicker in finding embedded figures (a Where’s Waldo: shape edition) and other IQ-type puzzles when compared to other kids. The cases presented ranged from the “so-called splinter-skill savants who often have a preoccupation with a mild expertise such as memorization of sports trivia” to the sensational prodigies whose abilities, absolute pitch, amazing mathematical and/or artistic abilities, etc…, are seemingly supernatural. Wallace cites that “of known savants, at least half are autistic and the remainder has some other kind of developmental disorder.”

Wallace believes individuals with autism often process details well at the expense of global meaning. This new perspective can lead to both assets and deficits. Wallace ultimately hopes examining cognitive and neurobiological patterns among savants will reveal more about the largely mysterious syndrome of autism. He closed the talk with a quote fitting to his line of work from Hans Asperger, the first doctor to diagnose Asperger’s Syndrome: “It seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.”


  1. I believe and others have proven that there is a gut brain connection. Looking at it the way the article looks at autism , is like me finding two cars, a chevy with brand new tires, and a Bmw with worn out bald tires. I must conclude that BMW all have worn out tires and it must be the way the car is made that the tires are worn out. Research Needs to be in the 21st century not in the dark ages. I dont know but maybe wallace was one that entertained the “refrigerator mom” ideas.

    Time to think outside the box

  2. It is time to put 2 and 2 together and urge men to father their babies in their 20s or early 30s to avoid the non-familial paternal age schizophrenia and autism which results from later father. Some men’s sperm making cells are especially vulnerable to these multiple rare mutations. By limiting fathering babies to ones twenties and very early 30s the genetic underpinning of de novo Alzheimer’s, prostate cancer, breast cancer, type 1 diabetes, MS, and ALL could be avoided. For the next generation there would less muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, fragile x, tuberous sclerosis etc. etc. The Male Biological Clock – Advancing Paternal Age- Human Genetic Disease. We owe it to the future to study the scientific literature of over 50 years which points the way toward some solid prevention of autism etc.

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