This post about neurodiversity may seem a bit long, but hopefully you will bare with me for a bit. The reason is that I am talking about something here which I know some people react negatively to before gaining a deeper perspective about what I mean when I say ‘autism gives me superpowers’. There are some who are really struggling with being autistic – it can be a real struggle, there are also some parents of autistic people who see the challenges and struggles every day, who don’t see anything about autism as a superpower or strength, so I want to share a bit from my professional career, before moving on to sharing about myself personally and transitioning to describing some of what I like to think of as my superpowers from being autistic.
No Hope For The Future
Some years ago when I was working directly with families I was teaching a family support course. On that course were a number of parents who had autistic children. The first session of the course involves everyone getting comfortable with each other. We all introduce who we are and the parents say what they would like to get from attending the course.
Although the focus of the course is on what people want, rather than on what they don’t want, at this early stage in the course it is inevitable that people share the challenges they are facing. One parent mentioned that they just want their son to have a future, she started to cry as she explained that her son was diagnosed autistic, that she was told it is a lifelong condition. She said her son couldn’t cope on his own, he struggles around other people, often plays up in school and then gets fixed-term exclusions for this, or gets sent to a ‘naughty room’ in the school, which makes him angry and then due to his anger he gets in more trouble. She explained that he doesn’t seem to have any feelings, doesn’t seem to understand that he is emotionally hurting others. He gets obsessed with his interests. She said she believes he can be really compassionate, he is really good with animals and always wants to help, but then he will hurt people’s feelings, be violent and aggressive towards people and not do as he is supposed to do.
This was the first twenty minutes of this group of parents, myself and another course facilitator meeting each other. I had met a couple of the parents before, the other facilitator had met some of the parents before and there were facilitators supporting the children of these parents in a separate room, those facilitators had each met some of the families as well. Yet, despite no-one really knowing anyone else, the parents quickly opened up and bonded over experiences they could relate to. Many parents agreed they had similar stories to tell as this parent.
This parent’s main concern was that her son was probably going to have to live at home for the rest of her life, she didn’t know how she was going to cope with this and what would happen to him when she is too old to support him. She said he would never be likely to get or hold down a job, he would be unlikely to successfully finish education, he is unlikely to love anyone and have a healthy loving relationship. She had already written off his future and her own future.
She was an incredibly loving parent, but she had taken her son to the GP because she was struggling with his behaviour and the school were struggling with his behaviour, so she wanted to know what was wrong with him. Eventually, he was diagnosed autistic, but, other than being given the diagnosis, there was no support offered. The parent’s interpretation of being told her son is autistic and it is a lifelong condition, was to hear that her son will be the way he is and have the problems he has for life. She wasn’t offered support, wasn’t offered education about autism, wasn’t offered anything helpful.
After the parent relayed their struggles and challenges they have faced and told me about some of the positives of her son, like how caring he could be and seemed to want to be (I often follow up parents telling me about negatives of their child, with asking something like ‘it sounds like it is a real challenge and has been really difficult to cope with. Just so that I don’t think he is all bad, what are some of the things you love about him?’ Parents usually agree that their child isn’t all bad and proceed to tell me positives), I stated that it sounds like he could make an incredible counsellor one day. The mother was taken aback and said that he can’t socialise etc, and so wouldn’t be able to do that.
I shared what she had stated and how many of these can be strengths in counselling. He wants to help people, he is compassionate, he is great at getting absorbed in interests and learning everything there is to know about those interests, he doesn’t get emotional when he hears things that others would find upsetting, he is great at noticing patterns, he is able to move on quickly from things (can be angry one minute and then as if nothing has happened the next minute).
I went through how these traits are great for those interested in being a counsellor and how, if he decided to take a route like that, he can have his strengths nurtured and he can learn ways of managing challenges he faces. It doesn’t mean he won’t face challenges and that some of these won’t be really difficult to overcome or really overwhelming, but how he is as a teenager isn’t how he has to stay as he grows up.
That specific course I was teaching was an eight-week course, he son exceeded all of her expectations in the young people’s group (which took place in the same building and at the same time as parents were with me). She didn’t think he would get on in the group, didn’t think he was make friends, didn’t think he was behave and not get angry and didn’t think he would learn or understand anything being taught to him, or that he would change his behaviour. He dramatically changed his behaviour, learned well and especially loved being taught meditation and a breathing technique for calming himself down and focusing his attention. He became more independent and engaged well in school, his anger significantly reduced. At follow-ups over the next year he continued to progress and do well in school, this allowed the mother to go back to work and meet up with friends etc, and get her own needs met. The mother reported that for the first time in years she believed her son had a future independent of her and that he could achieve things and carve out a path for himself.
Relating to Superman
Growing up, I didn’t really have many people in my life who I felt I could relate to so I turned to fictional characters. Over the years there have been a few characters I have related to. The earliest character is probably Clark Kent/Superman. When I was a child I remember watching the Superman movies and over the years have watched the early versions of Superman, cartoons of Superman, Smallville, Louis and Clark, etc.
As a child, Clark Kent had to deal with his superpowers developing. Suddenly he perceived the world as too bright and all the visual information as overwhelming and his hearing was hypersensitive, everything was too loud, it was all confusing and a jumble of sound and hearing a wide range of sound. He was an alien, he was different to everyone else, he knew he was different to everyone else but tried to fit in and be like everyone else. He tried to hide his superpowers and be as normal as possible.
Clark had to learn how to manage his superpowers, he had to learn to manage all the visual and auditory information and learn to focus on just one thing at a time. He knew he was stronger than everyone else, he knew he could cause harm and so had to learn to keep himself calm and manage his emotions. All of this I could relate to. In Superman having highly sensitive hearing and vision and super-strength are all seen as superpowers. They could just as easily have been seen by Martha and Jonathan Kent (Superman’s adoptive parents here on Earth) as being problems in Clark as he was growing up, as Clark struggling with sensory overload and getting anxious or angry because of this and not knowing what to do to help him and his struggles with keeping himself calm, or managing his focus of attention, of understanding the behaviours of others and fitting in, especially when trying to fit in would mean putting himself in situations of increased sensory overload and having to manage this as well as learning how to fit in and act normal.
I see many of my autistic traits as being like superpowers. I know that having these traits can lead to me experiencing challenges, I get angry and anxious in social situations, in loud situations, in situations where there is a lot of movement or light or colour or chaotic patterns or shapes, etc. I upset people I love by being too blunt with them at times. I make things difficult for myself at times, or miss opportunities because of my black-and-white thinking. I struggle to make and maintain friendships. I can be single-minded and focus obsessively on my own interests. I can put myself first above others and appear selfish at times. I can appear unappreciative when given food or gifts etc. I can shut down and not function, etc… But, the traits which lead to all of these and more, are also strengths which can be nurtured and promoted and worked with.
Neurodiversity is about recognising and respecting that we are all neurologically wired differently. There isn’t a wrong wiring, just different wiring and this different wiring leads to different ways of thinking about things and different ways of behaving, and these ways of thinking and behaving aren’t wrong or broken. The idea is to look at how to respect differences and help people to thrive and promoting self-expression.
All of my professional work has always been to look at strengths and find solutions. This doesn’t mean I ignore struggles people have and how challenging things can be, just that I feel, as far as possible we should all work with neurodiversity, rather than against it. If someone struggles with loud noises, then you support them by trying to find ways of quietening things down. If someone has a natural gift for doing maths in their own way, you support and promote this, rather than telling them they are doing it wrong (or any other skill or way of thinking about the world someone may hold like this). For example, I’ve been told repeatedly while working within the care sector as a one-to-one therapist and as a family worker that I think about things wrong, that my not caring about the families (as people would put it) means I am in the wrong job and shouldn’t be doing this work, yet I always had some of the best results of all staff and liked doing my job. What should have happened is that my different way of thinking about things should have been respected and nurtured. I shouldn’t be told I am in the wrong job (even though I like the job and am good at it) because I think differently to everyone else.
Here I will talk about my personal superpowers. Every autistic person is different, so we will all have our own set of unique superpowers. Some traits are obviously shared by all autistic people, this is the case or else we wouldn’t be diagnosed as autistic. How traits display in every individual will be unique to the individual.
My Autistic Superpowers
There are some autistic superpowers which I seemed to have at younger ages, that I seem to have lost over the years. Some of these I’ve heard from others, especially where formal education is involved. I’ll mention some of these first.
As a young child I used to be able to look at collections of things and be reasonably accurate stating how many items there were in that collection. Some examples include attending a summer fair where there was a ‘guess how many coins are in the jar’ competition, my guess was correct. When I was in primary school I painted a mural with other children of dozens of animals, at the end of painting the mural we were told that there would be a prize for the child who can get the closest guess. I got the closest guess, I was one out.
When I was in my teens I used to be able to induce synaesthesia in myself. When playing manhunt in the woods at nighttime for example I would see sounds as coloured light so that I could see where other children were because any snapping twigs or movement would create a coloured flash of light, giving away their position.
Some traits I have had throughout my life or developed because of being autistic include:
Pattern Recognition – Something I think of as a superpower is my ability to recognise or notice patterns other seem to miss. This has been very helpful as a therapist and within my care work. I have noticed patterns in people’s problems which has allowed me to be able to find simple solutions that others haven’t thought about. I don’t get drawn into the content of problems people talk about, instead I observe for the structure of the problem. This allows me to help people by working purely metaphorically using storytelling if I want to, it also allows me to find solutions which don’t at first glance seem like a logical solution, and it allows me to work without knowing all the content. I can just observe and respond to patterns I see playing out.
Some examples of this include having someone aggressively coming to attack me in an enclosed space (in a building). I instinctively picked up a cricket bat which was next to me and gave them the bat telling them to use that instead. This to me was the logical way to deal with the situation. It made them more predictable and it interrupted their pattern of behaviour. Another example is working with a girl who was skipping a lot of school, when she was in school she was often getting herself excluded, she was hanging around with men in their twenties (she was a young teenager) and was doing inappropriate behaviours with them. The solution was to get her back into playing football, which turned her behaviour around.
Heightened Awareness – I have a heightened sense of awareness. I can notice things in situations which others miss, my wife often jokes about it, about how I can see an insect to photograph long before we are anywhere near it. Once I realised that people have non-verbal behaviour I learned what different non-verbal behaviours people have and can notice this really well, and because I have learned to do this as I have grown up, rather than as a very young child where it becomes instinctive with little conscious awareness of what you are noticing, I can explain what I am noticing and because I am aware of what I am noticing it means I can look for patterns in what I am noticing and then test these patterns (like noticing someone in therapy responds a certain way I think seems like anxiety when they are talking about something, and so I can change the topic, see if they change their behaviour and then change back to that topic again and see if they repeat the same pattern).
I can have heightened awareness when searching for things, so if I am searching for something specific in a book I can tell myself what I am looking for and often quickly find it just from rapidly going through the book and when my brain sees what I am looking for it seems to jump out of the page at me. I can notice different sounds, movement and visual information and also seem to have a heightened sense of physical awareness, for example, I can touch hands with someone, ask them to say three things to themselves in their mind and make one of those things a lie and I can tell them, just from touching their hand, which one of the things is a lie. I actually find it easier to communicate like this, through touch and physical behaviours, rather than verbally.
Threat Perception – I have, and find many other autistic people have, a pronounced threat perception, we can be very anxious. Anxiety is out threat perception survival response. The better this response the more likely you are to survive. What often needs to be developed is the problem-solving part of the process. We can be very good at identifying threats, but need to learn how to follow this up with solutions. This threat perception is perhaps over-sensitive and at times sees threats where there are none, but when something about a pattern is wrong, or when something about the incoming information doesn’t feel right I can notice this as a threat. I know autistic people can be naive and can be taken advantage of in some situations by not noticing certain threats and can be at increased risk of grooming, abuse and domestic abuse, but in other settings the heightened awareness, pattern matching and all-or-nothing black-and-white thinking can identify threats and keep you safe. For example, in my work as a therapist I may be walking up to a clients’ house and something my feel wrong. Other staff may not notice this (and from managing and training staff, I know this is often the case) and may approach the house and enter. I would feel like something is wrong. I wouldn’t immediately know what, but then would suddenly get a flash of what I have noticed. It could be that the curtains are shut, where normally they are open, it could be the way a car was parked on arrival, or that lights are off when normally they would be on, or something about a message sent from the client beforehand and now seeing the house, etc. Because of my black-and-white thinking, at this moment I will make an excuse and leave, I won’t go into the house. Over the years I’ve found out on numerous occasions that this has saved my life (or at least prevented significant injury).
Master of Disguise – Autistic people are often master’s of disguise, they learn how to blend in and appear normal. I found as a child that although I was different in the way I was compared to other children, because i was quiet I blended into the background almost as if I wasn’t there. This is also the case as an adult. I can be at events and I feel like I am invisible, like no-one notices me. I can leave events and no-one realises I’ve gone, and while I am at events I can sometimes play a role so that people don’t notice anything different about me. It is common for people to find out I am autistic and say they never would have suspected. They haven’t noticed I never started a single conversation, or that all the conversations ended up about me and my interests, or that I never asked about them etc., and I am not in the situation so long (usually) that the mask slips, revealing myself and struggles and sensory overload etc. I have learned to hold it together for periods of time. I see this as a superpower, because most people are false around others, but people generally seem to notice, whereas I know many autistic people who no-one notices are autistic until they reveal it.
Hyper-Sensitivity – Tying in with the heightened awareness, hyper-sensitivity allows me to notice difference. This can be helpful in identifying flaws in things. I can run my fingers over something and notice imperfections in things others can’t notice, I can notice which strip light in a office is flickering most and likely to be where a fault is, or notice subtleties in temperature or tension or something which could indicate where something is becoming faulty, etc. I have low-sensitivity as well in some areas, like taste, I generally need a lot of flavour to really feel like I am tasting something and need pure flavours, not mixed flavours. I’m sure this probably has benefits in some contexts as well. My hyper-sensitivity to movement in my peripheral vision allows me to quickly identify and find things, this is really handy for photography and in therapy.
Laser Focus – It can be easy to get distracted and overwhelmed, but at the same time, I can develop a laser focus on a task or topic almost to the point of obsession. This means I can become an expert in a topic by obsessing about it and learning everything there is to know about it. It also means I can get absorbed in a task and not get tired etc, but remain focused until I have completed the task (for example, writing, I have written 27,000 words in a day – back in the days when I used to type very slowly – and to me, it didn’t seem like much time had passed, yet I wrote from about 5am through to about 3am without a break (other than a couple of trips to the toilet and pouring a few glasses of water). It is very common for me to experience time-distortion, where I do something and think a few minutes has passed, and yet many hours have passed.
Compartmentalisation – My brain seems to largely naturally compartmentalise. For example, I can be working with a client who is telling me the most horrific things, or who is suicidal and who may well carry this out, but once the client session (and any involved work) is over I am not thinking about them and so I don’t think about them. I can go home at the end of the day and eat dinner and won’t give my work a second’s thought. Most therapists struggle with this, it is common for therapists to take their work home with them. When I was helping my dying Dad I was able to be with him and as soon as I wasn’t with him, he wasn’t in my mind and so him dying had no impact on my everyday life. This can come across as uncaring at times, but it isn’t, it is just the way my brain works. When my Dad and Granddad died (both over the last few years) I would be sad when thinking about them, but seconds later, I’m fine. For example, when I received the telephone call that Granddad died I was said. Seconds later when I had hung up the phone and was getting on with my day I felt nothing, not because I didn’t care, but because I wasn’t thinking about the thing (my Granddad) which makes me sad.
Honest and Direct (Authoritative) – This may be an odd one to think of as a superpower, but it is surprising how uncommon being honest and direct is, yet it is so helpful. In emergencies for example, you want someone who is direct and authoritative, someone who just says what everyone needs to do. In relationships, people lie to protect each other, but my doing so there are times when people get hurt further down the line instead, like if I told my wife that a dress which looked terrible on her, looked good, because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, and then she wears that dress out and someone else tells her that it looks terrible, or she sees herself when out and suddenly without ‘buying goggles’ on she thinks about how terrible she looks in it and why didn’t I tell her. It is better to have this realisation and discussion sooner.
If I am managing a team, it is better to be able to be direct and honest with staff, than be one of those managers who never makes things clear and never addresses issues because they are don’t want to deal with the fallout from it. There are many situations where being honest and direct as a natural part of being me has been a superpower. Obviously, like with all of these superpowers, there are challenges caused by it, but it is about channeling it and nurturing it and educating how to handle situations where it is best not to be direct and honest.
Loyalty – It is common to hear about the loyalty of autistic people. This is something which can make us great in relationships. We may struggle to get into relationships and may need education around how to get and maintain relationships, but once we are in a relationship we are often very loyal. Many autistic people like consistency and familiarity and routines and structure. Relationships with the right person can give all of this.
Prepared – Because of being autistic I worry about making errors when socialising or in different situations, I want structure, clarity and routines and don’t want uncertainty, so I do a lot of mental rehearsal. I mentally rehearse every possibility that I can think of about how a situation may go. Sometimes I can get paralysed by planning and all the neverending options which seem to be presenting themselves. But, other times it makes things go so well. If there is a fire in a hotel my wife and I are visiting I would have a plan in place for what to do. We often joke that she can handle things I find difficult, that I don’t feel I can plan and be prepared for, like returning an item in a shop or asking for the bill in a restaurant, or socially engaging with people, yet I can handle things she finds difficult, like emergency situations which have a clearly defined plan of action. When I plan for interacting with people, I mentally rehearse what I will do and what different responses the person may give, and then the responses from me to each of their responses etc. Doing this for therapy is much easier as it isn’t a social situation, there are specific paths which people will be taking. It is a controlled environment. It doesn’t mean that things don’t always go to plan, but with experience of doing therapy, and experience of teaching and giving talks etc., I have quite a good idea how things will go. In work situations, especially if someone does a job where emergencies could happen, or being able to plan for situations is likely to be needed, then autistic people can be great in these roles.
Authentic – I think it is a superpower being authentically me. I may do things to fit in and disguise myself, but I never change who I am. If someone asks me a question I answer it directly. I am the same person with my Nan as I am with my Mum and with friends, work colleagues or employers. I don’t see anyone as holding a one-up position in relation to me, or one-down. I see us all on the same level. I don’t see that I should be a different person with one person over another. I try to remember to say what is expected of me to be what people call polite etc, but I don’t try to be someone I’m not. I know people who find this reassuring and describe me like a solid rock in a fast flowing river, that I am the stability that they want and can always rely on. I often point out that the one similarity that all humans share is that we are all different. I strongly believe in self-expression and authenticity and see these as superpowers, as things that make you, you.
Animal Whisperer – From a very early age my mum described me as seeming to have a natural ability with horses. I have always been good at relating with animals. I find it much easier to relate to and understand animals, than I do people, because animals don’t generally have such complex, multi-layered behaviours, they rarely do one thing while meaning another, if an animal is angry, it displays anger, if it is scared, it displays fear. I find it much easier to communicate non-verbally with animals and communicate through touch with animals. I find the same with babies and non-verbal people, that I can then communicate through non-verbal behaviours, breathing, gestures, facial expressions and touch, etc.
This has been a LONG(!) blogpost, but I couldn’t think of how to write it shorter and include the information I wanted to share. I could have written far more traits and skills I think of as superpowers, and I am sure that parents of autistic children can look at traits their children have and how these unique traits to their child can be strengths and superpowers if they are utilised and worked with, and I am sure autistic people themselves can notice and think about their traits and skills and things which might be a problem in one situation and see how it can be perceived from a different perspectives and helpful in other contexts. As the saying goes “nothing is good nor bad, but thinking makes it so”.
(Edit: Update – You can now find some “Autism Gives Me Superpowers” merch here)