Four of the Many Strengths Associated with Autism

Here is a question we received from a reader of our blog: “Why is there still little or no focus on literally thousands of strengths associated with autism? Not profitable?”

I can’t pretend to speak to why the rest of the autism community focuses on the difficulties associated with autism, but I can speak to why it may appear that we at CARD, and other people in the applied behavior analysis (ABA) community, focus on areas of difficulty. Put simply, it’s because these are the areas that people ask us for help with. No one goes to a treatment provider and asks for help dealing with what’s great about their child— they don’t need to, they simply appreciate it every day. But it’s quite true that there are thousands of strengths associated with autism. Any attempt at a list is going to sound like I am stereotyping people, which would be ridiculous. But here are a couple strengths that come to mind.

Focus. Many individuals on the spectrum that I have had the privilege of knowing have an absolutely uncanny ability to focus. Sometimes this manifests in inconvenient ways, like a child focusing only on the irrelevant details of a learning situation, and therefore having difficulty with learning the big picture. But just as often, this manifests in an ability to solve problems that would stymie the rest of us “mere mortals.” For example, a man I worked with helped engineer the dependent relations between hundreds of different components of a software system we were building. The problem was that, not only did it require a huge amount of focus, but a huge amount of focus over a long period of time, because every detail that was changed in the system caused hundreds of other small changes in the ways all the other components of the system depended on one another. This guy accomplished in a few days what we expected to take a few months.

Humor. Many individuals on the spectrum I have known have a hilarious sense of humor that demonstrates a truly unique way of looking at the world. Whether it’s the hilarity found in someone making the same mistake over and over, or the humor found in seemingly irrelevant details of social situations (e.g., the sound of a door hinge squeaking), I have learned a lot about how to appreciate details in life that I never would have noticed without learning from my friends on the spectrum.

Intelligence. I suppose it’s a cliché by now to say that some folks on the spectrum have higher than average intelligence, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I have known some individuals who are downright smarter than just about everyone else out there. In fact, some of these “clients” are quite aware of it and they aren’t afraid of telling their therapist how much smarter they are!

Honesty. What I really appreciate about a lot of folks on the spectrum is that they are going to tell the truth about something, whether you like it or not. Perhaps they have something figured out that you don’t and they aren’t afraid to tell you. Perhaps the answer to a problem is obvious to them and it’s annoying how slow the rest of us are to figure it out, and they aren’t going to hide that annoyance. Maybe it’s a case of just being honest when your new haircut looks stupid or when the present you just gave was a dud. But the honesty that a lot of folks on the spectrum possess is refreshing. In this pretend world of political correctness, unbelievably contrived so-called “reality television,” and unbridled commercialism that we all live in on a daily basis, it’s pretty awesome to have someone just tell it like it is every now and then.

So these are just a few major strengths I see in folks with autism, but I think they are pretty important. We could all use a little more focus, humor, intelligence, and honesty. In the meantime, I’m going to go back to doing what I do for a living: helping families put out fires. Not because I don’t appreciate the good stuff, but because that’s what families ask for help with, and I’m simply glad I can help out from time to time.

Comments

  1. “Intelligence. I suppose it’s a cliché by now to say that folks on the spectrum have higher than average intelligence, but that doesn’t make it any less true.”

    This is a myth. There are many children with autism who have intellectual disability to go along with their autism. According to the CDC, this number could be as high as 50% of children with autism –

    “A report published by CDC in 2009, shows that 30-51% (41% on average) of the children who had an ASD also had an Intellectual Disability….”

    http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html

    While it might be nice to focus exclusively on the higher functioning individuals with autism, it really sets up unrealistic expectations for the individuals who aren’t as fortunate.

    • Yes, of course a large number of folks on the spectrum have intellectual disabilities, and no one is trying to deny that. In fact, those are the kids who are getting the majority of our services. But the subject of the blog post was strengths. It’s not a myth that some people on the spectrum have incredibly high intelligence. Some of the kids we work with are scoring one or two standard deviations above the mean on intelligence tests. Acknowledging this doesn’t take anything away from the other half of the kids who suffer from intellectual disabilities. It’s simply a matter of appreciating some of the good aspects of a spectrum that can be a source of so much difficulty for so many families. I refuse to believe that, in ASDs, we have to choose between appreciating the positive and addressing the challenges we face with 100% dedication and perseverance. I choose both.

      • If you had only said that “some” people on the spectrum have higher intelligence I wouldn’t have commented. But you didn’t, you said that intelligence was a strength of autism and that “folks on the spectrum have higher than average intelligence”.

        Maybe I am misreading what you wrote, but I interpreted that phrase to mean that higher than average intelligence is something that happens frequently in people with autism.

        But I have never seen anything that shows that higher intelligence is more common in people with autism than people without autism. There is no question that people with autism can be intelligent but there is a very large question of whether autism plays a role in causing higher intelligence.

        As for whether this type of statement takes something away from the lower functioning, I believe that it does. Especially for the children that are neither gifted nor intellectually disabled.

        It creates the false impression that everyone with autism is intellectually gifted or (my other favorite) that everyone with autism has some sort of special gift that makes up for the autism.

        When people realize that neither is true of the lower or mid functioning individual, they tend to think that the individual is very disabled and almost a lost cause when nothing can be further from the truth.

        • “Some” is definitely the meaning that I intended and that I assumed would be clear – but better to just be clear than to make assumptions. Post edited.

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