Super Powers

An illustration of a superhero shield with the initials ‘SA’ for Super Autistic.
Did you know that autistic people have abilities
beyond the range experienced by neurotypicals?

Our Super Powers (by which we mean unusual talents, skills, qualities,
and advantages—often beyond the normal range of human experience)
can set autistic people apart in positive ways that allow us to make unique contributions to society.

While not every autistic person will have all the strengths listed below, scientific research has found these traits to be common.

The reason we find it useful to keep a list like this is that—like us—you may very well discover some strengths you didn’t even know you had. And getting to know our strengths can be both validating and empowering!


Sensory Strengths

Visual hypersensitivity

Autistic people can have extraordinary vision; on average they can see from 6 m / 20 ft what a non-autistic can see at 2 m / 7 ft. They are also better at pattern recognition, and see visual details that non-autistics don’t tend to register. Read more

Tunnel vision

The focus of attention in autistics was found to be sharper than in matched controls, and a sharper spatial gradient of attention was observed. Essentially they experience tunnel vision, with great clarity of detail at the end of the tunnel. Read more

Greater intensity of colors

Researchers have found changes in the rods and cones in autistic children’s eyes; 85% saw colors with greater intensity than neurotypical children. For these children, red appears nearly fluorescent—vibrating with intensity. Read more

High prevalence of synesthesia

Synesthesia is a condition in which multiple senses are perceived simultaneously. A study from 2013 indicated that synesthesia occurs in 18.9% of autistic people, compared to 7.22% in the control group. Read more

Acute hearing

Autistic people were found to have an increased auditory perceptual capacity relative to non-autistic people. This increased capacity may offer an explanation for the auditory superiorities seen in autism, such as heightened pitch detection.

Superior auditory discrimination

Autistic people tend to be better at detecting a target sound within a group of sounds, and notice (irrelevant) background information more readily. About 1 in 5 autistic individuals show ‘exceptional’ frequency discrimination skills.

Heightened pitch detection

Some autistic people show superiority in memorizing picture–pitch associations and in detecting pitch changes in melodies. A subset of autistic individuals—known as “musical savants”—is also known to possess absolute pitch.

Enhanced olfactory detection

Autistic people show enhanced connectivity between the thalamus (a brain area responsible for relaying sensory information) and insula, which is thought to be the cause of heightened sensitivity to smell, sound, and taste.

Cognitive Strengths

Correlation with giftedness

Some researchers regard autism as a “disorder of high intelligence”, as estimated rates of intellectual giftedness and autistic children is 0.7–2%, compared to up to 1% in the general population. Read more

Savant syndrome

Savant syndrome is characterized by a stark contrast between disability and profound abilities (in music, art, mathematics or mechanical domains) and occurs in 10–28.5% of autistic people, compared to 1% in the general population. Read more

Powerful memory system

Autistic people can have enhanced or even savant-like memory. This is due to our greater declarative memory. It is this memory that allows us to memorize many things, including thousands of social scripts.

Encyclopedic knowledge

Due to their special interests and fixations, people with high-functioning autism tend to be autodidacts, and can have encyclopedic knowledge in a particular area, and are often considered experts in particular subjects.

Superior problem-solving

Autistic people are up to 40% faster at problem-solving, and appear to use perceptual regions of the brain to accelerate problem-solving. Autistics have been found to be superior in processing complex patterns.

Rational decision-making

Research indicates autistic people are less likely to make irrational decisions, and are less influenced by gut instincts. Consistency in pattern of choices and attention to detail helps them avoid being swayed by their emotions.

Hyperfocus

Autistic people are able to exert an intense form of mental concentration or visualization (called hyperfocus) that focuses consciousness on a subject, topic, or task; and are significantly more able to focus for extended periods of times.

Hyper-systemizing

Autistic people tend to have a high drive to analyze or construct systems (called systemization). As such, they tend to be great at pattern recognition of systems, and often show talent in systemizable domains. Read more

Pattern recognition

The autistic brain excels at recognizing patterns. In fact, brain regions associated with recognizing patterns (temporal and occipital areas) light up more in autistic people’s than in the general population’s.

Increased adaptive coding

Research found that women—in contrast with men—showed increased adaptive coding of face identity in correlation with the levels of autistic traits related to social interaction, making them better at discriminating between many faces.

Lateral thinking

Research shows a link between autistic traits and unusual & novel ideas, which occurs due to their strong ability to think outside the box. In studies autistic people were far more likely to generate creative ideas than non-autistics.

Behavioral Strengths

Strong work ethic

Autistic people make a lot of hard task choices despite small rewards, and the brain continues to reward intrinsically for doing hard work—regardless of repetition. The lack of need for novelty can sustain our joy in both work and relationships. Read more

Kryptonites

Every superhero has their Kryptonite; and
some of our abilities have drawbacks, too.

Just as every super hero has unique weaknesses (Kryptonites)
which they need to face head-on to reach their full potential,
autistic people also face certain unique challenges.

Some of these challenges are inherent to autism, while other
challenges emerge out of social issues such as interpersonal mismatches (see the dialectical misattunement hypothesis) and the double empathy problem, or societal issues such as a lack of accommodations.

Once again, not every autistic person will encounter all of these
struggles, but this list may help you recognize yours, and learn
to improve or better manage your challenges.


Different Responses

Reduced affect display

Autistic people often show flat affect, which is a reduction in emotional expressiveness due to an apparent lack of facial expressions or vocal inflection. As such, autistic individuals can be hard to read, which can make some people uncomfortable.

Fear response to calm chemicals

When afraid, people release chemicals that act as a contagion of fear. Autistic people, however, relax from smelling fear sweat, and become anxious from smelling calm chemicals. No wonder social gatherings cause anxiety… Read more

Cognitive Issues

Low theory of mind

Theory of mind is undermined in autistic people, leading to difficulties with attributing mental states. This may cause one to make wrong assumptions in social situations, or misread or fail to read emotions, intentions, or cues from others.

Rigid/inflexible thinking

As a result of a high systemizing mechanism in autistic people, they do not tend to cope well with systems of high variance or change (including the “social world of other minds”), and tend to be change-resistant.

High prevalence of PTSD

Autism may serve as a vulnerability marker for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by increasing the risk for exposure to traumatic events, and may exacerbate autism symptoms through maladaptive coping strategies & reduced help-seeking. Read more

Alexithymia co-occurrence

40–65% of autistic people have alexithymia—an inability to identify or describe emotions. Several cognitive issues usually ascribed to autism (e.g. face-perception deficits and fluctuating empathy) actually stem from alexithymia. Read more

Identifying facial expressions

On account of alexithymia, autistic people often have challenges identifying emotional facial expressions due to difficulties interpreting intact sensory descriptions. This can lead to social friction.

Forgetting faces

Research indicates autistic children seem to have a remarkably smooth fusiform gyrus—the part of the brain that helps us recognise faces. Additionally, autistic adults often report not being able to recognize or memorize faces.

Diminished adaptive coding

Research found that men—but not women—showed reduced adaptive coding of face identity in correlation with the levels of autistic traits related to social interaction, making it harder to discriminate between many faces.

Reduced face after-effects

Part of this adaptive coding relates to face–identity after-effects, which is an opposite afterimage of what is being perceived, which aids in differentiating faces. Autistic children were found to experience the amount of after-effects as controls.

Excessive daydreaming

Autistic people are sensitive, making them prone to trauma, which can result in maladaptive daydreaming in order to escape from reality as a way of alleviating stress and emotional pain, or to seek internal companionship to alleviate loneliness.

Active resting network

The resting network of autistic people does not fire up or switch off like it does for non-autistics. A clear correlation was found between low levels of activity in the resting network during rest and difficulties in social behaviours.

Sensory Differences

Sensory overload

Autistic people filter out less sensory information, meaning more information has to be processed. This makes us prone to sensory overload, which may result in a shutdown unless one can withdraw to a secluded place to wind down. Read more

Meltdowns

When an autistic person is triggered by social stress and/or sensory overload, a meltdown can ensue, which resembles a tantrum. It may involve yelling, aggression, self-harm, and repetition, and can result in a shutdown. Read more

Shutdowns

A shutdown is a response to social stress or sensory overload, after which the person becomes unresponsive or even immobile. A shutdown can result in extreme exhaustion, and may be followed up by a nap in order to recharge. Read more

Hyperacusis

Some autistic people have hyperacusis, which is a debilitating hearing disorder characterized by an increased sensitivity to certain frequencies and volume ranges of sound, resulting in an inability to tolerate usual environmental sound.

Habitual Behaviors

Prone to addiction

The majority of autistic people who have intellectual disability do not use substances; however, autistic people without intellectual disability have a much higher rate of substance abuse—about twice as high! Read more

Deficit of prediction

Autistic people show a deficit of prediction, which is thought to be due to altered processing of social signalling errors, and the degree to which these signals were altered correlated with the extent of social deficits. Read more