Objectives: Our aim was to further understanding of cognitive strengths in the autistic population by identifying, quantifying and characterizing existing studies reporting these strengths.
Methods: We located and characterized papers published in peer-reviewed journals which reported autistic cognitive strengths. In order to be included, studies had to compare the performance of autistics to the performance of nonautistics on a task, and autistics had to be reported to perform better than their controls on the task. Studies specific to autistic savants and hyperlexics were excluded, as were probable but unclear reports of autistic strengths, and accidental findings arising from matching strategies. Autistic cognitive strengths originally reported and/or interpreted as deficits were included.
Results: In total, 52 distinct types of autistic cognitive strengths were found, reported in 71 papers (12 reporting two or more strength types) spanning from the 1970s to the present. Only 13 papers published prior to 2000 reported strengths, but at least five papers reporting strengths have been published every year starting in 2000, with the highest number per year in 2008 (N=13). Twelve of the 52 strength types were reported in at least two, and up to 10, papers, with the most replicated finding being superior performance in embedded figures tasks. While most strengths (N=36) were found via tasks using nonsocial information, several strengths involving social information (N=8) and language (N=7) were reported. Sample size for autistic groups ranged from 3 to 40, with a mean of 16, while mean age of autistic participants within samples ranged from 2 to 39 years. Total number of autistics, encompassing 81 different samples, was 1351, of whom 885 had the specific diagnosis of autism, while 130 were diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and 336 were in the general “ASD” category. Of the 71 papers, 25 included autistic individuals judged to be intellectually disabled according to commonly used instruments, and 29 reported or interpreted one or more findings of autistic cognitive strengths as one or more deficits.
Conclusions: Numerous distinct autistic cognitive strengths, some of them highly replicated, in a wide range of areas, and displayed by a large number and great variety of autistic individuals, have been reported in the literature. Failing to acknowledge the importance of autistic cognitive strengths may impede efforts to understand autistic differences and assist autistic individuals. We recommend more consistent and transparent reporting and interpretation of autistic cognitive strengths and more attention to their importance.