​Neurodiverse Intelligence? An Examination of Culturally Specific Social Intelligence among People on the Autism Spectrum
TWCF Number
Project Duration
September 1 / 2017
- September 30 / 2019
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Big Questions
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Grant DOI*

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Sue Fletcher-Watson
Institution University of Edinburgh

How can autism illuminate our understanding of social intelligence?

Intelligence is often boiled down to a simple test score that represents core learning skills such as pattern detection and verbal fluency. Other forms of intelligence, however, are just as essential for human behavior. One such form is social intelligence: the repertoire of skills needed to engage effectively with others in a way that is appropriate to the context. These skills are often referred to in psychology by the umbrella term “social cognition.” This encompasses abilities such as emotion recognition, effective interpersonal communication, and theory of mind. The second aspect of social intelligence is appreciation of the social context. Examples of social contexts include the cultural context (e.g., Japan vs. the UK), the relationship context (e.g., friend vs. stranger), and the environmental context (e.g., school versus home).

This project presents a bold re-conceptualization of intelligence within a framework of neurodiversity, challenging the notion that there is only one legitimate form of human intelligence. Specifically, we will explore social intelligence in autism, drawing together diverse findings to build a hypothesis that autistic social skills may be enhanced in an autism-specific cultural context: i.e., when interacting with other people on the autism spectrum. We will rigorously test this hypothesis using experimental, quantitative descriptive, and qualitative methods. In particular, we will adapt a cultural learning paradigm to explore transmission of information between autistic pairs compared with mixed and control pairs. The project will contribute key scientific evidence to a radical socio-political shift in the conceptualization of autism (and other states of neurodiversity) as difference rather than disability. Outputs will include recommendations to policymakers and public communications, as well as high-impact journal papers. We expect this innovative line of inquiry to inspire further academic investigation of neurodiverse intelligences.

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