What should I ask Michelle Dawson?

I will be having a Conversation with her, here is part of her Ordre de Montréal citation:

Michelle Dawson is an autism researcher who is passionately engaged in promoting the rights of autistic people. Her research has led to important advances in the understanding of autism and its legal status.

Ms. Dawson is autistic and has never attended university as a student. In the early 2000s, faced with the devastating effects of human rights violation based on her diagnosis, she started learning about autism science, ethics, and law.

Since 2004, she has been affiliated with the Université de Montréal’s autism research group. Despite her lack of formal education and the precariousness of her situation, she has collaborated widely with academics here at home and around the world, and made original contributions to autism research in scientific journals, encyclopedias, scholarly books, and conference presentations. She has also used social media to promote better standards in autism research.

Her work has contributed to the advancement of knowledge in several areas, including perception, cognition, learning, and intelligence in autism. She has documented the poverty of scientific and ethical standards in autism intervention research, and the resulting harm to autistic people. Contrary to long-entrenched views, she believes that autistics deserve the same basic rights as the rest of humanity. She also believes that in research, as elsewhere, autistic and non-autistic people should work together as equals.

She tweets at @autismcrisis, and here is her work at scholar.google.com.  I also have a co-authored paper with her, on Alan Turing.  Many of you also will know Michelle as a long time MR correspondent.

So what should I ask her?


Not sure if this is her area of expertise, but I am curious if there is some kind of scientific consensus on why the rates of autism seem to be much higher than before. I am pretty sure that it’s not just due to more accurate diagnosis.

Ms. Dawson has co-authored an article on this subject (although it is from 2005): http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00334.x

The scientific consensus is that the rates are NOT higher than before.

Err... did I miss the memo on that? I’m a pediatrician, and pretty much everything I have read about autism in the medical literature suggests that the incidence of autism has increased, and that we do not have a clear idea why?

Yes, you missed the memo. No, autism not caused by vaccination or low self-esteem. Illusion of more autism created by broader, vaguer diagnostic criteria and more incentives for reporting. That is the scientific consensus. Check google scholar for the references.

I thought it was due to assortative mating patterns. Ask her if it's assortative mating habits, Tyler.

Yes, I had thought this was part of the story as well. Matches my own anecdotal experience in clinical practice.

Another interesting theory I have seen is the idea that the modern "technocratic" economy is a more tolerable work environment for people who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. Having a good job increases social status, marriage prospects, and should lead to more children being born to couples where at least one of them is on the spectrum?

Overall, I definitely agree with Tsai-2 that the majority of the "increase" in autism is likely due to broader diagnostic criteria and increased reporting. But I am less certain that this explains the entirety of the supposed increase!

Ask her if she knows how many people envy her

seriously, ask her that.

I know a lot of people on the spectrum (that is the polite way of speaking about people who have, scientifically speaking, a disorder that is quantifiably and accurately described as autistic)

and they love to hear questions like that.

Look, I do not want to sound mean. But lots of people have bad outcomes in life - years and years of hard to treat physical pain, social loneliness, boredom at their jobs, lack of an ability to have a likable partner.

Lots of non-autistic people look at an autistic person and say, wow, I wish I were like that.

Just saying.

Question request: Can Autism be understood as a certain configuration of the big-5 personality traits? If so, what is that configuration and if not, what does the definition of autism add to a model based on the traits.

I would think autism isn't any more of an arrangement of the "Big 5" than an original Macintosh is just a bad arrangement of my 2016 Intel PC.

Her thoughts on the hypermasculine brain theory of autism and the systemizer/empathic dichotomy as explained by Simon Baron Cohen.

Ask her about the new book by Edith Sheffer, Asperger's Children-The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/18/books/review/aspergers-children-edith-sheffer.html

Are these autism rights any different from being polite and treating people fairly.

Dude, do you have any idea how complicated the concept of fair is?

More prosaic: any suggestions on what treatments or therapies are more or less helpful/harmful, or just useless ? Especially at the toddler stage ?

Related to this: what is the logic behind the gluten free or dairy free dietary restrictions that are have been increasingly recommended. Is this important for younger people with autism or is this something irrelevant?

Does the autism rights community find the idea of treatment offensive? What percentage of the autism rights community would she estimate is actually autistic? Is there such a thing as autism chic?

What are the best methods/techniques to help others relate with what it is like to be Autistic (or anywhere on the spectrum)?

What are her thoughts on deinstitutionalization (and the methods used to accomplish this), particularly for people with intellectual disabilities?

Ask her opinion on the "mirror neuron" hypothesis of autism - I personally am very skeptical of it; I'd like to see more debate. Also, thoughts on how can we further expose the whole "guided communication" scam for lower functioning autistics.

which food feature of Montreal is best: the regularity of the short/long espresso (court/allongé) question in response to ordering "a coffee"? The number and density of bakeries (boulangeries)? easy availability of horse meat? or something else--local raw milk cheese, room temperature cheese curds on gas station counters? (and pose this all better than I have)

Also, great guest selection. I feel like she should be way more famous by now.

Why did they combine Autism and Aspergers as a spectrum?

With the smartest and most creative people I knew in my life having a very strong tendency towards "not suffering fools, gladly" and other less than socially optimal behaviors, they would be classified as autistic in today's world rather than just an odd genius who was socially awkward.

Getting labeled as Autistic can create huge problems for the individual. As many of these "socially awkward" people I have known are also very good at math, science, abstract reasoning, etc. Whereas, the people who make the definitions of things like Autistic are often illiterate in these STEM subject and resented the nerds, could their biases be influencing their definitions and resulting discrimination?

If they can manage in life they're not going to get an autism diagnosis, right? Why would you take your kid to a psychologist if they were doing fine?

Also, do you believe Autism helps or hinders in the appreciation of Poutine?

In the movie The Accountant, the main character apparently manages their Autism by occasionally exposing themselves to extreme sensory inputs - loud music, pain, flashing lights. Is that just complete nonesense or is there something to that?

What kinds of jobs or careers are best for people with autism?

Across a lifespan, does an autistic child fare better with or without a diagnosis?

A recent book, Cognitive Gadgets, by Cecilia Heyes of Cambridge University, argues that many paths to learning, such as reading, language and imitation, once thought genetic, are learned from the environment of peers and adults. Kids grow toward what gets them more rewards. So cultural and extended family differences in what children are taught may be more significant than we thought. Let's apply that to autism. There's a prevalent belief that autism is underreported in groups where its reported incidence is low. But what if some major autistic behaviors are learned? For example, many Asperger children have hyperlexia. Some parents (immigrants, for example) will brag to relatives about kids with hyperlexia, or reward their caregivers more, and so on. Such kids might have more social difficulties with peers, because they're focusing on something more important to them, but their choices aren't genetic. If that's so, is it reasonable to say, for example, that Jews ("people of the book") have more autistic kids than other groups, for environmental, not genetic reasons? Does a theory that lower incidences mean underreporting really hold up? And what does that say for the popularity of genetic explanations for autism generally?

Ask her about 1. neotenous development and 2. the possibility that autism may be triggered (epigenetic-wise) by lack of maternal bonding in infancy and 3. as a first-hand witness and target of anti-vax + pro-ABA hate, I'd like to hear her account of the "autism wars and where she thinks we are at now". BTW, I'm a big fan of Michelle's. <3

To increase the reliability of research in psychology and related areas, one recommendation I often see from statisticians is to utilize more within-subject designs in small-scale studies rather than between-subject designs. However, Michelle Dawson instead criticizes behavioral treatments precisely for overemphasizing within-subject approaches in its evaluative method. In particular, the overwhelming majority of studies of treatment efficacy use multiple baseline designs (referred to as stepped wedge design in medical studies) rather than randomized controlled trials, and Michelle Dawson seems to be dismissive of these studies as meaningful demonstrations of efficacy. Can she explain why?

Brown, C. A., & Lilford, R. J. (2006). The stepped wedge trial design: a systematic review. BMC medical research methodology, 6(1), 54.

Hawkins, N. G., Sanson-Fisher, R. W., Shakeshaft, A., D’Este, C., & Green, L. W. (2007). The multiple baseline design for evaluating population-based research. American journal of preventive medicine, 33(2), 162-168.

In the autism ABA literature, there is a huge quantity single case designs but these are of extremely poor quality. They are unregistered, unrandomized, unblinded, and have no protocols. There is poor or no information about study participants, participant selection, attrition, etc. With rare exceptions, harms are ignored. There may or may not be anything about informed consent. Negative results are rarely reported, they are dismissed as poor quality and uninformative. Conflicts of interest are common but often unreported. And so on.

There is only one N of 1 RCT (i.e., single case design of potentially adequate quality) published in the autism literature so far, but it does not involve behavioral interventions. There are a few cluster RCTs.

Has she ever tried psychedelics? Does she know of any research that involves psychedelic use by autistics for therapeutic purposes?

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