MJ of Autism Jabberwokcky yesterday wrote about the autism spectrum dichotomy. As is apparent from the title, MJ aims to distinguish different subtypes of autism, and he once again chooses to draw the line based on “functioning level”. He illustrates his point with two examples, one of a textbook case Aspie and their difficulty finding a job, and one of a few low-functioning autistic children learning to say “I don’t understand”. Triumphantly, MJ informs us that, yes, there are autistics who don’t know how to respond to an unknown question. Well, duh!
What strikes me as astonishing in all these autism dichotomies, you-are-not-like-my-child posts, etc., is that no-one ever actually draws a line somewhere. If autism is a dichotomy, then where, exactly, is the line between high and low functioning? How many points on an autism questionnaire does one need? How many words must one be able to say? How often must one bite one’s hands? What IQ must one have? What household chore must one be able to perform? There is no objective measure to draw the line, and that is precisely the problem with any similar dichotomy.
To draw somewhat of an anlogy, do you know how valid the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test is? You know, the one with the INFJ, ESTP, etc. personality types? Well, people switch personality type on average every month. And why? Because the MBTI uses a dichotomous system to classify people: you are either introverted or extraverted, either judging or perceiving, etc. This doesn’t work. Personality tests that use a sliding scale for the traits they measure – such as tests based on the Big Five -, are much more valid.
Now I am not aware of anyone doing a factor analysis on autism traits, although I’d love to see one. But it appears that autism consists of a few different traits, each of which a person can function better or worse on. More importantly, even if autisticness were a single factor, a ten-point or hundred-point scale would make much more sense to measure it than a dichotomous approach.
Admittedly, MJ acknowledges that there is something inbetween high-functioning and low-functioning, but he refuses to reject the labels on this basis. Can’t we, instead of saying HF and LF, just say that some autistics are better at skill X than others and some autistics are worse at skill Y?