Is Autism a Superpower? | Psychology Today

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There are many narratives with regards to autism. Some people view it as a disease to be cured. Some view it as a childhood disorder that should be treated away. Autism advocates and many autistic people prefer to look at it as a superpower; we dislike narratives that paint us as diseased or disordered. Greta Thunberg famously said, “Being different is a superpower.”

But what does autism as a superpower actually mean? Autism is as complex and diverse as all the humans who are autistic. According to Devon Price (2018), “The main struggle for Autistic people is the refusal of neurotypical people to see us as fully formed, complex, beautiful, interesting, and worthwhile. We need acceptance, not a cure.” I love this narrative because it succinctly explains that autism is like humanity: complex, difficult, wonderful, tragic, magical—and sometimes it can be a superpower.

Autism can be a superpower. Uddin et al (2022) did a deep dive into the idea of autism as a superpower in their research. They describe a small subset of autistic people as “twice-exceptional.” These individuals have higher cognitive functioning and special isolated skills that are far above the norm. According to Uddin et al. (2022), “a small but significant portion of individuals diagnosed with ASD exhibit exceptional cognitive abilities in one or more domains. These twice-exceptional individuals often have unique skills that potentially enable them to make significant contributions to the workforce, but at the same time face unique challenges during the transition to independent living because of lack of services and broad public misperceptions regarding their condition.”

Meilleur et al (2015) found that as many as 60 percent of people with autism have special isolated skills. These skills are diverse but usually far exceed those of the normal population. Some people have special skills in math, science, memory, reading, puzzles, music, or art. People with these skills are sometimes referred to as “savants.” I have a few special skills and they can be a distinct advantage to me in some areas of my life. For example, I have an ability to remember things I care about with exceptional detail. These special abilities are predictive of our ability to function in neurotypical society, but they aren’t predictive of our disability in general. This is largely because the concept of autistic superpowers is far more complex than the rhetoric would make you think. For example, in Uddin et al’s research, they broke the “superpowers” down into subgroups. They describe people who are twice-exceptional. People who are twice-exceptional have above-average intelligence and cognitive functioning and savant-type special abilities. These are the people popular culture holds up as emblematic of the superpowers of autism. However, there are other subgroups of autistic people that have special abilities but have profound deficits in other areas that create great difficulties in their daily lives. Meilleur et al. also describe “savant syndrome,” in which an individual has an island of ability in a sea of deficits. It is also important to note that according to this research, 40 percent of autistic people have no special isolated skill, lower cognitive functioning, and multiple deficits. So, although autism can be a superpower, it is far more complex than can be summed up by the term “superpower” and research shows that even those of us who are twice-exceptional have to struggle with the other hardships that come with autism, like social and communication difficulties.

So, we should be careful when we call autism a superpower. Although I love this narrative and love that autism advocates are fighting the narrative that autism is a disease or a disability that destroys lives, it can be problematic to only focus on the superpower aspect of autism. I am lucky: I am twice-exceptional. I have the best-case scenario as far as autistic people go, but I still struggle, and failing to acknowledge these struggles and the different struggles of other autistic adults can create difficulties for people who need help and need to access disability services in neurotypical society.

The narrative of autism as a superpower is a double-edged sword. Research shows that as more people embrace this mantra the less likely neurotypicals are to acknowledge their support needs. Many autism advocates argue for a balanced approach. They believe that autistics must seek supports and accommodations from people outside the disability community. Because autistics need to seek support within the neurotypical world, we can’t fully embrace the superpower narrative. We may have superpowers, but we still need support.

It is also not fair to the many people who don’t have any “special abilities” to call autism itself a superpower. Many people only struggle, and it is hard for them to see the superpower aspect of autism. I consider myself lucky, but I work with many people who only get the hardship that comes with autism, and accepting the label of disability allows them to reach out for the help they so desperately need.

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