College & Workforce Readiness

Autism in Academia

By Christina A. Samuels — July 17, 2009 1 min read

Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., prolific blogger, and gourmand, has a written a thoughtful essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education stating that autism should be seen as an academic benefit in many cases, not a handicap:

The relevance of the autism spectrum for higher education isn't just about particular individuals on the autistic spectrum. The very nature of higher education shows how much we, often without knowing it, hold up autistic cognitive profiles as a partial educational ideal. In "special needs" education, there is plenty of effort to teach the skills of the nonautistic to the autistic, but in the regular classroom we are often doing the opposite. I view higher (and lower) education as teaching people to be more autistic in many of their basic cognitive skills. Again, some key cognitive features of autism are the ability, and desire, to process lots of information across widely different scales, from tiny details to overarching structures; focus and the mental ordering of that information; a relatively high degree of scientific objectivity; and the presence of some highly specialized cognitive strengths, even if they are accompanied by some areas of poor performance. To an educator a lot of that list ought to sound pretty good. Another way of putting it is to note that all students are special-needs students requiring lots of help. The nonautistic students do not represent some ideal point that everyone is striving to attain, but rather both autistic and nonautistic students are trying to learn the specialized skills of the other group, as well as perfecting their own skills.

Thanks to Boing-Boing for the tip.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.