Aspie Superpowers I’ve been blessed with (and a few weaknesses)
Aspie Superpowers are a thing of legend, and while being autistic in a society created by and for neurotypicals brings endless challenges, the same traits we find cause us problems can also bring advantages.
But let's be clear: we don't want to romanticise autism and make light of it without acknowledging for some people — autistics, their parents, families, and carers alike — it can be a trial.
It's a conversation for another day, but I don't and won't judge anyone wishing for a cure.
And no one who's walked that proverbial mile in their shoes should do so, either, to my mind. Hell, my own presentation is such that I'm intelligent, articulate, and self-sufficient, but I still wouldn't want me as a husband or house-mate because I'm well aware of how frustrating and infuriating I must be at times.
It's not the the cards you're dealt... it's how you play 'em
But for those of us on the spectrum who perhaps have an easier time of things in some respects (please don't call this "mild autism" unless you like being throat-punched and left to drown in your own blood and vomit), the very traits causing us to struggle in the NT world sometimes give us a big advantage.
These are what we call our Aspie Superpowers.
And while autism is a serious thing and it lasts a lifetime, we don't have to be solemn and po-faced about it. My own traits make me utterly ridiculous at times, and I'm the first one to laugh at myself. And as John Cleese once pointed out, the opposite of fun is solemn, not serious, and we all like to have a bit of fun (although I do have to wonder about those sour-faced Social Justice Warrior types who seem to scowl their way through life looking for things to be offended by).
Besides, I figure we get to choose which we play it: as the victim of neurological circumstances; or as the Autistic Terminator.
And I don't think victimhood suits me.
My Aspie Superpowers
So take all these with a pinch of salt and good humour, and realise my artistic (autistic?) licence is fully-paid and up-to-date, and I really don't care about your opinion.
I'm smart. Like... really smart.
There's no way to say that without it sounding like bragging, so I won't even try. MRI scans show our Aspie brains are more interconnected than neurotypicals' and that's perhaps why we sometimes think so quickly and in seemingly parallel rather than step-by-step like you poor NT sots.
A common Aspie Superpower, common with other autistics, too, is the ability to draw accurate conclusions from apparently disparate data.
It seems much of my time interacting with NTs is spent humouring them while they laboriously explain something I've understood and extrapolated from before they've finished the first couple of sentences. It's highly irritating (for you, that is. I think it's hilarious, if frustrating when I have to wait for you).
I tend to see details, not the big picture
This is one of the stranger Aspie Superpowers and isn't always obvious in its presentation.
Here's an example of how it works for me.
I have an uncanny knack of being able to explain complex subjects fairly simply (I once contributed 50+ entries to an encyclopaedia on computer science aimed at 15 to 18 year olds. The editors were fierce in their validation process, but I had zero edits requested on my drafts because I was so fucking good).
How did and do I continue to do this?
I have an eye for detail — the important detail responsible for the lion's share of the big-picture results. In my current role as a mentor, both life and in business, it means I can easily home in on the one or two important factors you need to pay attention to if you want to improve things.
Thing is, it looks like "big picture" thinking, but it really isn't.
How do I do it?
I have no idea. It's just obvious to me which details are important and which ones aren't.
I can focus for long periods of time and pursue a single aim
Ever seen a greyhound chasing down a rabbit?
There's a certain savage beauty to it. It's much the same when my Jack Russell, Haggis, goes after a rat.
You ain't seen nothing like it. It's one of the common benefits of autism.
True story: when I applied for a place at what was Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) to do my degree, they turned me down. So I did the adult thing and had a meltdown on the phone, wrote a contrite letter of apology, and was then given a "chance".
My apology apparently carried more weight than my academic record. See, my level of education fell way, way short of what they claimed was required for the highly mathematical parts of the course. At that time maths bored me so I never bothered to learn it.
They were entirely right in saying I was unqualified for the course.
But... fast-forward four years...
... and I easily came top of the entire year and walked out with a 1st.
How did I do it?
Relentless focus. Back then I was in my early 20s and could pull 18-hour days indefinitely.
And that's exactly what I did.
Best of all?
It was easy , even the maths, because I was now interested in it and it fell under my implacable Aspie gaze.
I have virtually zero affective empathy and poor cognitive empathy
I've written about this in detail here.
But in short, I don't suffer from the emotional contagion plaguing you Neurotypicals (and I use the word plaguing carefully and deliberately).
In other words, no matter what emotion you're feeling, I won't share it unless I have a reason to on my own account. I may be able to figure out why you feel the way you do, but that's just a clinical and dispassionate observation. And I may even care you're feeling the way you do, but it's unlikely (because I'm not sharing your emotion and might not even understand why you're feeling it).
Here's a real example of how it typically works.
- Sarah's father died and she was upset. We live, we get old (if we're lucky), and we die. Happens to us all (unless we die young). That's my view on life and death and about as far as I care about it.
- Because I don’t have affective empathy I didn’t share in her grief (although I felt a little sad for Charlie, her dad, because he was a lovely bloke). That was nothing to do with Sarah's emotional response, though.
- Since I do have some cognitive empathy, I did understand Sarah's was upset, and why this was.
- And because she is Sarah, I cared because I don’t want her to be upset. That's compassion.
Why is this an Aspie Superpower?
Because there are situations where not becoming emotionally entangled with other people's shit is desirable and advantageous.
- When I'm mentoring clients there's no room for their emotional reaction at their predicament or the actions I suggest they take to get in the way of my advice. I neither know nor care how they feel about raising their prices, firing disobedient clients, or turning crap business away. It's irrelevant. And it makes "tough love" easy and natural.
- When my daughter had serious problems with her mental health and was suicidal, I was detached from a situation most parents would have found harrowing and difficult to deal with. To me it was just a problem to be solved — and to be solved dispassionately and without emotional fanfare.
- When each of my parents died, I felt virtually nothing and it was easy to deal with the details of arranging funerals, cremations, and so on. I don't "do" grief. Sue me.
I realise you might blanche at all this and think I'm some kind of monster.
But, I repeat: it's unreasonable for you to judge me for being born without the neurological machinery to exhibit any of these apparently desirable traits.
In short, it's the way I'm made and I can't be any other way (I don't want to be any other way, either, but that's a different thing).
More to the point it doesn't mean I lack compassion. Your empathy alone doesn't make you a good person. Your actions make you that. And I am quite capable of doing good deeds, even if I have no feelings either way about them or the reasons for doing them.
If you can't get your head around these ideas, that's fine. You don't have to, and it's nothing to me whether you do or not.
I thrive on routine
It's not immediately obvious why this is one of my Aspie Superpowers (and it can also cause problems), but bear with me.
Let's say I want to get a six-pack. It's a remarkably simple process but not easy because it requires rigid self-discipline and for you to follow a programme.
And not everyone is geared up for it.
But I am.
And I can (and do) eat the same thing three or four times a day for months and even years on end. That makes dieting down and getting a 6-pack easy as well as simple.
More: once I get into the cycling routine (one broken only by either training-necessity or mechanical failure), not going out once or twice a day puts me on edge because...
... I need my routine.
And... I cycle the same route in the same direction... every... single... time. If I have to change it because of a diversion or roadworks, say, it's extremely uncomfortable.
It just feels wrong.
The regular walks I take with Sarah are the same: we always walk the same walks in the same direction (but at least we can walk new walks without too much trouble).
It translates to work, too.
Once I get myself into a routine for work, I'm unstoppable (but there's the rub — it's easier said than done because of the nature of my work itself).
I tell the truth... oh, and how
There's a facetious saying in Aspie circles: Never ask an Aspie a question unless you want him to answer it.
Meaning, of course, you'll get the answer as she sees it, not necessarily as you want to hear it.
This often comes across as rude and unfeeling but really it's just rude and unfeeling.
It's rude because you NTs have created this social game where, among other things, you don't tell each other the truth and instead weave elaborate mutual fantasties to protect each other's egos.
Unfortunately for anyone asking an Aspie a question, most of us don't play that game. Most of us can't play that game. Moreover, even if we knew how to play it we'd be baffled because we can't imagine why anyone would want to.
And it's unfeeling because a good proportion have low affective empathy and don't care if our answer upsets you (we'd think "if you don't want the answer, then don't ask the question").
Please understand, we don't do it because we want to upset you. We do it because we don't know any other way to do it.
You ask, we answer.
Is this really one of my Aspie Superpowers?
On balance, I think so, even though it can cause friction.
But if you're the sensitive type, you may not agree.
And my weaknesses (definitely not Aspie Superpowers)
Bright lights, crowds, and noisy, busy places
I've lumped these three together, although they can all cause me problems in isolation. If you do put them all together, they can quickly and easily send me into a shutdown, or a meltdown if I'm being stressed by other people.
I'll say more about meltdowns another time (they're rare), but shutdowns are far more common and less dramatic (for you).
Shutdowns do exactly what they say on the tin: I get so sensorily overloaded I go non-verbal and I can't think or process instructions or information. It's (probably) a kind of panic attack. It certainly feels that way.
The only solution when one comes on is for me to go (or be led) somewhere quiet and left to come out of it.
One way to avoid them is self-medication with alcohol.
It works fabulously but has so many concomitant downsides, it really isn't smart.
So more recently I've taken to wearing earplug in noisy places, and, at Cork airport, and others in the UK which have signed up to the scheme, I wear the Sunflower lanyard.
I used to wear a badge ("This is what autism looks like"), and that worked well, too, although was rather ad hoc (someone once asked me "Why do you wear that and embarrass yourself?", to which I replied, "To be embarrassed I'd have to give a fuck about your opinion of me").
I stopped caring a long time ago what people might think about me and my autistic quirks. What others think of me is none of my business.
I don't have a lot to say about this except to ask why?
Why do neurotypicals find it necessary to have inane and pointless conversations with each other about things I'm sure no one could possibly ever be interested in.
I can't even.
So I won't even try.
Apart from anything else, because I tend to take things literally, a lot of small talk makes no sense to me at all. Telling me the weather's bad, for instance, opens up a whole can of worms, beginning with the question, Bad for whom?
A real weakness of mine is I have no patience for stupid people.
Stupidity comes in three flavours: Congenitally Stupid, Lazy Stupid, and Willfully Stupid.
Now, it might surprise you to discover I don't have anything against Congenitally Stupid people.
No, I don't really want to spend time talking to them or even be in the same room with them, but they're an inevitable and necessary part of the Grand Design. Without happy, ambitionless, and Congenitally Stupid people a whole load of icky but utterly necessary jobs simply wouldn't get done.
In fact, some Stupid people can end up being very successful because often they know they're Stupid and are prepared to follow simple instructions without fiddling with them to improve things.
It's when we get to the other two kinds of Stupid we start to run into problems.
Because beyond Congenitally Stupid we have two more levels.
And the first one we come to is...
Lazy Stupid people are dangerous. They are the kind of people who have very strong opinions on matters they know nothing about and they're not going to let anything so ephemeral as mere knowledge and truth get in the way of this.
People like this often wear their ignorance as a badge of honour and cheerfully tell you they don't need to read books or seek out any source of education because their innate "street smarts" compensate for any lack of ignorance, misinformation, and bigotry. They just magically "know" stuff.
Unfortunately, these Lazy Stupid people aren't possessed of any kinds of smarts at all. They're Stupid, and they're too lazy to do anything about it. They're sometimes also classic examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect, meaning they're they're smart enough to realise being Stupid is A Bad Thing, but too Stupid to realise they're prime examples of Stupid made flesh.
The danger with Lazy Stupid people is they are so sure they're right and they have little more to occupy their time than to attempt to wear everyone else down to their level.
Beyond this there's a third level, a level where Stupidity becomes a genuine art form.
Wilfully Stupid people go on doing and believing what evidence and experience tells them is wrong. Examples of the Wilfully Stupid are people who think homoeopathy is effective, anyone who believes vaccines cause autism and are harmful, and everyone who believes in any of the creation myths propping up the world's religions.
In short, Wilfully Stupid is believing something to be true when all the evidence suggests you're flat wrong.
It's worse than being Lazy Stupid because that's just a case of ignorance; being Wilfully Stupid is having the evidence you need to change your mind freely available and presented to you and simply ignoring it.
I'm clumsy as Mr Clumsy from Clumsyville, Arizona
A typical conversation with my wife, Sarah:
Sarah: "Jon... what the hell have you done to your arm?"
Jon (looking at laceration on his arm): "Dunno... probably walked into something"
No kidding. This is the story of my life.
And it doesn't end there.
Because in general, my manual dexterity is poor. I'm ham-fisted when it comes to DIY, I can't draw to save my life, and my handwriting is appalling.
A teacher once assured me I'd never get far in life because my handwriting was so bad. I think she confused and conflated bad handwriting with laziness and low intelligence.
In fact, another teacher used to bully me mercilessly, forever making me rewrite assignments because they were messy — and he made us use ink pens, just to make things easier, you know (and my being left-handed was the very nadir of the whole sad and sorry situation).
If a teacher behaved like this to one of mine, he'd very quickly come to rue the day he was born.
But back then things were different and autism wasn't a thing — you were just an awkward little shit who needed more discipline).
I have Alexithymia
I've put this down as a weakness, but in truth it can also be considered among my Aspie Superpowers, because it makes it easy for me to remain objective.
I've been aware of this trait for a long time — years — but didn't realise until a few days before writing this alexithymia was both a "thing" and had a word to describe it.
About 10% of the NT population has it, but in the autistic population, that soars to around 50%. So it's not necessarily among the negative Aspie Superpowers, but it's definitely strongly correlated with autism.
There's a full description of alexithymia here, and I'll dedicate a whole post to it anon, but for now suffice it to say it's the inability to identify and describe emotions in the self (if you have it, no explanation will be necessary; if you don't, then I suspect none will be possible).
But let me give you an example.
You'll see in some posts I write about feeling frustrated or irritated.
How do I know I have those feelings if I struggle to identify my emotions?
Simple: I get a physical response and can recognise that. For frustration and irritation it's a restlessness of the legs and a buzzing at the front of my head. It's not a "feeling" in the way an emotion is.
I can correctly feel fear and anxiety without too much trouble, but I'm not sure I know what love feels like (it's nothing like it's described in the classics), and sometimes the first sign I'm angry is when I find myself smashing something up.
And if I try to describe my emotions?
It's hilarious. I've recorded a short video, because no mere description can do it justice (you may get the impression it's upsetting or distressing for me when this happens. It's not, not in the least. My mind is just blank and I start to giggle at the absurdity of it).
It also seems to be linked with executive dysfunction, something else I have (although not too a great degree).
Again, I'll go into this in detail in another post, but, from Wikipedia: Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behaviour: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviours that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.
For me executive dysfunction means, among other things, I find planning difficult — I understand the reasons and methodologies behind planning, but I typically lack in execution.
Left to myself, I’m more than likely to disappear down an irrelevant rabbit hole. The times I’ve done this in work (both in employment and in my own business) are innumerable.
There's a lot more to it than this, but I'll leave it here for now.
My real Aspie Superpowers?
Knowing I have none.
My lack of ego, in other words (no, really).
I'm better at some things than others, and in a few I consider myself among the best in the world (with good reason).
But, you know, I'm no better than any other fairly smart guy who's made the best of what he's been given (and I could undoubtedly have done a lot more). It attracts much wailing and gnashing of teeth but the stereotypical autistic super-genius is just that.
They're rare and from what I've seen most Aspies are just ordinary people wired up a bit differently from the rest. If we happen to stand out, it's only because of others' expectations, a kind of confirmation bias working in two directions.
But, ultimately, we're all just people, each as flawed as the next, and in true Socratic fashion I am the wisest man alive for I know one thing and that is I know nothing.
Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius
Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate