Enhanced Rationality in Autism Spectrum Disorder
by Scott McLeod, PhD
Executive Director, Aspire
Every once in a while, a journal article presents itself in a way that elegantly captures a piece of what we do at Aspire. Strength based articles are too few in our medical journals. An exception is a paper that was published in 2021 called “Enhanced Rationality in Autism Spectrum Disorder”.
Psychology has long known that humans do not always make judgments in the most rational or efficient manner. Algorithms often outperform human decision making. There are limits to our abilities to hold information in our working memory. Our brains have limited processing speed. To make decisions, we often rely on shortcuts called “heuristics”. Heuristics can be adaptive. They are often sensitive to context and emotions.
One such heuristic is the “framing effect”. The “average” (neurotypical) person is more likely to be irrationally attracted to awards as well as to being irrationally averse to negative information. In this manner, people irrationally prefer to keep $30 of $50 rather than to lose $20 of $50 even though mathematically the amount kept is the same in either scenario.
The authors offer example after example of how neurotypical people often make less rational choices by relying on heuristics.
By comparison, folks who have been assessed to be on the Autism Spectrum, rely less on these heuristics. They are less affected by many of these cognitive distortions. In essence, they process information more rationally.
I remember Stephen Shore, self-proclaimed to be on the Spectrum, talk about his experience with magicians. Magicians do many things to “trick” their audience with their sleight of hand. One “trick” is to use their knowledge of how humans process information. They know that the audience for example, might track the face of the magician to guess about the intentions of the magician. Knowing this, the magician manipulates the audience to look away from the “real” actions that are hiding, let’s say, a ball. Stephen reported that he could never read people’s expressions, so he never looked at the face of the magician. He could keep his eyes on their hands. The magician was often sorely disappointed when Stephen knew where the ball actually was and not where all the rest of the kids thought it was!
This strength can be an invaluable asset in the workplace. Imagine an employee with this enhanced rational ability. They might well be able to problem solve more efficiently and effectively without falling prey to many of these cognitive biases. To make a metaphor about the example with the magician: If a company needs to find the ball, it wants someone like Stephen to get the job done.
See: “Enhanced Rationality in Autism Spectrum Disorder”, by Rozenkrantz, D’Mello and Gabrielli in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, August 2021, V 25 N 8.