A little while ago, Greg Burns and Fred Day both wrote articles describing in 20-something points what it’s like to be autistic:
I think their experiences were—and still are—important to share, as it captures the general experience of so many autistic people. But while a lot of things they describe apply to me as well—or have in the past—I find their lists don’t truly resonate with me anymore.
In my last two posts, I explained why that is, and how I came to adopt a more positive view of myself and of my experience with being autistic. In this post, I want to share my own list of the more positive or wondrous aspects of what it’s like to be autistic. How much of this non-exhaustive list resonates with you?
Your mind is like a walking library. It’s full of fascinating information
about obscure things. Some would regard it as a goldmine of information.
The only problem is that very few people have the key to this library,
so almost no one knows its splendor.
The library is vast, but there is no map, and if you enter this library,
you only occasionally encounter a librarian or guide that can point you
in approximately the right direction. So retrieving information from this library
can take a long time. But if you’re patient, you will encounter many other
gems along the way. I would argue it’s worth the wait.
You are on an alien world, called TP-cal (or ‘Earth’ as some of the natives call it).
You happen to speak their language, but nevertheless, you and the inhabitants
of this world seem to interpret the words differently. But that’s okay. It sometimes
takes a few more words to explain/clarify our differences in interpretations,
but we learn something from each other each time we do.
You tried to act just like those aliens, but it was too exhausting,
because you simply weren’t made for TP-cal behavior. So now you try to
behave like yourself as much as you can, so that TP-cals will like you—or indeed
dislike you—for who you are. But it’s a relief not having to behave
a certain way to be liked, isn’t it?
Nevertheless, it should be said that you were great at it. As intelligent and
capable as TP-cals may be, they couldn’t pull off what you did! Can you imagine
them camouflaging their traits well enough that they blend in among autistics?
Your mind is an alien world unto itself—at least from the perspectives
of others. It makes you harder for others to understand. But those who are
willing to make the effort stand to learn a lot, including the different manifestations
of human nature, specific cognitive styles not common in the general public,
or wonderful ideas and strange humor.
You have a good sense of humor, and can find humor in things that
others wouldn’t.Humor in Autism and Asperger Syndrome (Lyons & Fitzgerald, 2004)Seeing the funny side of things: Humour processing in Autism Spectrum Disorders (Silva et al., 2017) This means you can’t necessarily share everything you find
humorous with others, which is unfortunate. But it also means you experience
joys that elude others. You are able to appreciate the absurdities of life,
and the layers of irony that is life itself.
Your empathy is quite a mystery; due to being high in alexithymia,
you don’t seem to get emotionally affected by the hardships of people
you don’t know,Alexithymia decreases altruism in real social decisions (FeldmannHall, Dalgleish & Mobbs, 2012) yet you have an immense capacity for empathyThe Empathy Imbalance Hypothesis of Autism: A Theoretical Approach to Cognitive and Emotional Empathy in Autistic Development (Smith, 2017)
and compassion for those around you. It can be confusing at times,
but in a sense, it’s the best of both worlds.
TP-cals are a strange species, but you don’t tend to judge. In fact,
sometimes you refrain from judging those who arguably deserve judgment.
The thing is, you are more interested in assessing truth than making moral judgments.
Making moral judgments seems to divorce us from reality or make us refrain
from understanding that which we judge. And if you truly understand
something, is there anything left to judge?
It’s a beautiful mindset, but it does come with a
level of naivety that can make you vulnerable.
Eye for detail
Somehow, you are able to see things that Earthlings—with their
dull eyes—tend to overlook, irrespective of whether or not you
are nearsighted. Your eyes seem to be magically guided towards
minor details that just don’t register for them.The Weak Coherence Account: Detail-focused Cognitive Style in Autism Spectrum Disorders (Happé & Frith, 2006)What aspects of autism predispose to talent? (Happé & Vital, 2009)Talent in autism: hyper-systemizing, hyper-attention to detail and sensory hypersensitivity (Baron-Cohen et al., 2009)Why are savant skills and special talents associated with autism? (Happé, 2018) If only they
knew how much information they are missing out on!
In addition to an eye for detail, you have a great capacity for finding patterns.Pattern Unifies Autism (Crespi, 2021)
This is because you have superior fluid intelligenceSuperior fluid intelligence in children with Asperger’s disorder (Hayashi et al., 2008) (the ability to think logically,
identify patterns, and solve problems independently of acquired knowledge).Pattern Unifies Autism (Crespi, 2021)
Back when I worked at a graphic design studio, my boss asked me to find a few things in a couple of pages of text. Within about
6 seconds, I found all instances of whatever he was looking for.
He couldn’t believe I found them all so quickly. They quickly learned it’s a good idea to let me check texts over before they go to the printer, because I would often find mistakes that others overlooked.
Whether they actually have utility or not, you often find creative
solutions to particular problems. Whether it’s an idea no one else has
thought of, or a solution to a riddle that had a different intended answer.
You see opportunities where others see obstacles.
You have an immensely curious mind, with a thirst for knowledge,
insight, and meaning that cannot be satisfied. But there is a
pleasure to be found in this intellectual thirst.
Your special interests and deep curiosity brings you to fascinating
places, ideas, and facts. You will probably forget a lot of the information
you acquire, but the journey of navigating all this information is a thrill!
You simply love learning for its own sake.Brief Report: Character Strengths in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder Without Intellectual Impairment (Kirchner, Ruch & Dziobek, 2016)
Meaning & intrigue
You tend to see deeper layers of meaning, or just get deeply fascinated
by the inner workings or ontology of things, so you need to know everything
about it. It may even become your entire world. And why wouldn’t it?
Every 0bject of fascination is a world unto itself!
You are a true autodidact. Because you become so engrossed
in your objects of study,Altered states and asset based inclusion (Whelan, 2017)Autistics, Autodidacts and Autonomy (Neville, 2019) this drive often leads to the mastery of
certain skills or the acquisition of a deeper understanding and
appreciation of a particular subject. And with everything you master,
new worlds open up, which brings about new connections,
and new relationships to explore!
The journey 0f learning is joyous, but also endless.
Once you’ve achieved mastery of a particular subject or skill,
you may become bored of it. But since the mastery of one subject
opens up new avenues to other subjects, boredom never truly sets in,
as you move from one subject to the next—expanding your
knowledge and understanding along the way.
For—to you—inexplicable reasons, you seem to gravitate naturally
towards interests that are less commonly pursued.Scientists and autism: When geeks meet (Buchen, 2011) So you often find yourself
engrossed in niche interests and underdeveloped fields, where there is
plenty of opportunity for individualism and innovation, but where you can also
quickly find a sense of connection with the other few mavericks that find
intrigue in and passion for such obscure disciplines as, say,
type design and font engineering.
You are able to stay up long after Sesame Street has ended.
In fact, it seems as if your biological clock is based on 30-hour days
rather than 24 hours. This is called circadian sleep desynchronization.Systematic Review of Sleep Disturbances and Circadian Sleep Desynchronization in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Toward an Integrative Model of a Self-Reinforcing Loop (Carmassi et al., 2019)
What other evidence do you need that you actually hail
from a different planetary system than the Solar system?
Either way, that extended biological clock annoyingly makes it difficult
to stay synchronized with Earthlings around you, but it also means
you can accomplish all kinds of magical things while they are asleep.
Strong work ethic
Not only can you work long days, but you somehow find yourself
doing work even in your spare time. When your colleagues finish work
early to socialize together, you would rather get more work done.
And you’re willing to solve complicated problems for a lesser reward
compared to those lollygagging Earthlings.Adults with autism spectrum disorders exhibit decreased sensitivity to reward parameters when making effort-based decisions Your work ethic is so awesome
you are borderline unfit relationship material. But bosses love you!
On the downside, they don’t know that yet during your job interview,
so you still have to make a good initial expression. That’s why autistic
labor is a hugely untapped market!The autism advantage at work: A critical and systematic review of current evidence (Bury et al., 2020) I’m not even joking.
You are able to hyperfocus on a particular task or project you are interested in.
This state of “being in the zone” improves performance,Hyperfocus: the forgotten frontier of attention (Ashinoff & Abu-Akel, 2019) and allows you to stay
with the task for extended periods of time, making it possible to explore the subject
at hand in a level of depth other people may find difficult to achieve.Mapping the Autistic Advantage from the Accounts of Adults Diagnosed with Autism: A Qualitative Study (Russell et al., 2019)
And although you can also lose a lot of time as you hyperfocus
recreationally on things other than what you’re supposed to do
(see the difference between hyperfocus and flow),
hyperfocus can nevertheless be an awesome ability!
You tend to speak the truth where others lie.Living the categorical imperative: autistic perspectives on lying and truth telling–between Kant and care ethics (Jaarsma, Gelhaus & Welin, 2011) You would think that makes people
like you more, but there are many truths TP-cals don’t like to hear
even when they think they do. And conversely, they often love to hear half-truths
or outright lies even though they think they don’t. But the great thing is that those
who appreciate the truth, can rely on you to give it. And those who don’t appreciate it
as much helped you practice your diplomacy skills over time.
And granted, it can feel lonely and confusing living on a planet where truths seem harsh
and unwanted, and lies seemingly mediate social connections. But once you understand the
impact truth can have and how best to present it, you will find you don’t have to lie or
omit truth to bring joy. Instead, you can share truths constructively rather than confrontationally.
You can speak truths when it helps others grow; and when a truth stings, you can bring it in the
most gentle way possible—provided growth can come from it.
And that’s my list for now. I’m sure there are other positive aspects to my experience of being autistic that I forgot to think of, or are not yet aware of. What are some of the positive things you experience on account of being autistic?