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Last Updated: Friday, 24 February 2006, 10:15 GMT
Autistic ability 'underestimated'
By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter, St Louis

The intelligence of people diagnosed with autism is being underestimated, a science conference in St Louis, US, has been told.

Research by scientists in Montreal suggests current ways of measuring their intelligence are inaccurate.

Giving autistic people the right stimulation can help draw out innate skills, the study's authors said.

This might help them play a greater part in the job market and in wider society, the researchers argued.

Dr Laurent Mottron draws a distinction between people with "autistic spectrum" disorders - those with normal or above average intelligence - and those with "real autism", which he says is characterised by mental impairment.

The Wechsler scale is one of the most widely used ways of measuring autistic intelligence. People diagnosed with the disorder typically score very low on the verbal comprehension part of the test.

Different scores

But research by Dr Mottron, from the University of Montreal, and colleagues found overall that autistic subjects performed much better on a different test called Raven's Progressive Matrices, with some mute autistics performing exceptionally well.

He said this test might provide "a window for the accurate assessment of autistic intelligence".

The Montreal researcher explained that many people diagnosed with autism could potentially play a greater role in society, particularly through employment in certain jobs that other people found difficult.

He added that some current teaching methods for autistic children provided them with simple educational material to try to stimulate their abilities.

Cultural exposure

Instead, Dr Mottron believes that exposing autistic people to more advanced information can bring out their innate skills.

"If you provide them with much more sophisticated material like letters, printed material, music, or any kind of very highly structured material, you realise that their peaks of ability come out," said Dr Mottron.

"If you provide them with sophisticated material as soon as they are two or three years of age you realise that they integrate it."

He said that autistic people could be suited to highly structured jobs, such as certain areas of law and science.

"In addition to how autistic intelligence is measured, there is the question of when it is measured," said Dr Mottron.

Data on autistic intelligence was often gathered during childhood, at about four or five years of age. This was well short of the age when autistics reached their maximum intellectual potential, he explained.

The University of Montreal researcher was speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in St Louis, US.

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