Autism Gives Me Superpowers

Photo: Jed Share/Kaoru Share/Getty Images

AsAs I’m writing this piece, two men are sitting next to me talking about how disabled people should be killed. Seriously. They’re going on and on about how vile it is that as some humans grow older, they begin to need diapers. In graphic detail, one of them is describing how he would shoot or poison himself if he were to become senile or physically incapacitated. His friend says it is a blessing that his mother died right after her stroke.

In the last half hour, they’ve discussed the necessity for mothers to abort disabled infants too. One of them mused that a life with a profound disability is not any kind of life. If you cannot speak, if you cannot go to the toilet by yourself, you must want to die.

These guys normally come to this café to eat sandwiches and stress about global warming. I’ve overheard their loud conversations twice a week, for months. They’re progressive. They usually seem to care about other people and one another. But, apparently, their compassion does not extend to disabled people. For those who need help moving, eating, or using the bathroom, there is no room for accommodation and love. For these folks, murder suddenly seems like mercy.

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.

And it shouldn’t surprise me. This is an exceedingly common view. But it still makes me a little weepy and a lot pissed. I want to yell at them that all life has value — that they do not get to decide when a person should cease to exist. That the inconvenience of changing an adult diaper does not justify execution.

I don’t say a word, of course. I’m a coward. Or I don’t know how to be persuasive in moments like this. Or I’m afraid of them thinking I’m a freak. I don’t know how one is meant to respond in situations like this. So, I just burrow into myself and get writing.

AA lot of folks want Autism — and by extension all Autistic people — eradicated. Autism Speaks (which still is the best-funded and most well-known Autism advocacy org, despite being led by non-autistic people) describes Autism as an epidemic and a disorder to “cure.” The state of Colorado has considered declaring an Autism Epidemic Emergency.

I am Autistic. Apparently, the existence of people like me is that menacing. We must be seen as that incapable of living worthwhile lives. Like a cancer, or a progressive, deadly disease, it seems some folks regard Autism as a malignant thing that no person could ever want.

Some parents, doctors, and psychologists would like to screen for Autism during pregnancy, just like Down’s Syndrome, so that parents could have the choice to systematically remove us from existence.

But Autism (and Down’s Syndrome) are not malignancies. They are not tumors attached to otherwise “normal” people. Autism is a central part of us, inextricably linked with our human being, and there is nothing wrong with it — or with us.

We don’t want to be cured. We don’t want to be subjected to therapies that force us to mask our Autistic symptoms. We don’t want fewer of us to be born, and we certainly don’t look to the increase in Autism diagnosis as a sign of societal blight.

Numerous adult Autistics love, appreciate, and identify with being Autistic, in much the same way that many Deaf people would never want to cease being Deaf. Autism and Deafness are both disabilities that are not inherently negative to have.

You don’t need hearing to have a society, to love, to be creative, to be complex, or to form meaningful bonds. Being Deaf even comes with some distinct advantages, like the ability to not hear distracting noises or the bigoted opinions of men near you in a coffee shop.

Nyle DiMarco, a model and Deaf activist, discusses how hearing parents should adapt to having a Deaf child.

And while some Deaf or Hard of Hearing people do elect to use devices that help them hear, many Deaf people have zero desire to become more like Hearing people. They know that they are perfect just the way they are. The most prominent problem Deaf people face is a refusal of Hearing people to accommodate and accept them. Every major Deaf self-advocacy organization prioritizes education of Hearing people over finding a cure for Deafness.

This is also true of Autism.

Autism is a beautiful neurotype, which comes with many distinct features and advantages. Many of us have learned to embrace and appreciate our Autism, despite years of being abused or berated for seeming a bit “odd.” As I see it, 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. We need neurotypical people to realize that in some instances, it’s actually better to be Autistic than not.

And yet, Autistic people should not have to earn their right to existence by being savants, mathematical geniuses, prolific artists, or obedient worker bees. Celebrating Autism as a catalyst for productivity (and profit, for those who wish to exploit us) is not the goal here. No matter how “functional” or “non-functional” an Autistic person may seem, they are likely to enjoy some of the many distinct advantages of being Autistic — superpowers, as I’m calling them here. What follows is a peek at a few.

Hyperfocus

Autistic people can cognitively latch on to topics and tasks with unrivaled intensity. If the activity or subject is one the Autistic person is passionate about, they can lose themselves in it — devoting hours of concentrated focus and productivity that few allistic people can rival. I’ve written previously about how my Autistic hyperfocus helps me write. I once wrote 300,000 words in a month. I regularly churn out 3,000–5,000 words in a single sitting. It’s not difficult at all, especially if the topic is one I’m passionate about.

Depending on what the Autistic person is interested in, sessions of hyperfocus can yield impressive results: whole songs are written, entire cityscapes are drawn, books are inhaled, years and years of sports statistics are compiled into a well-organized spreadsheet, all in a flash.

Sometimes, though, the hyperfocus is on a task that’s beneficial solely for its own sake: brushing a teddy bear’s fur for hours, completing a video game in one sitting, memorizing the death dates of history’s greatest despots.

This passionate devotion to an enjoyable task is often presented as a negative by anti-Autism organizations. Autistic people are sometimes seen as losing themselves in tasks that non-Autistic people don’t understand or appreciate, such as lining up toy cars in a row, or plucking arm hairs. And it’s true that , hyperfocusing for too long can mean we don’t pause for food or water as often as we should.

These two factors — the oddness of hyperfocus, and its potential for physical neglect — are used, sometimes, to justify conditioning the hyperfocus out of us.

But these two drawbacks are pretty easily accommodated. If your Autistic kid or friend is focusing on something you don’t see the appeal of, leave them alone and let them have that transcendent experience. And, if they tend to hyperfocus so long that they forget to eat, just give them a gentle reminder or help them set an alarm.

One of my passions, for many years, was bats. I used to have many of their scientific names memorized.

Fact absorption

When an Autistic person loves something, they love it hard. Not only are we adept at zoning out on a beloved task or topic, we’re also information sponges. Facts, figures, statistics, and skills are really easy for us to absorb, if the topic at hand is something we’re particularly interested in. And our special interests are many and varied. So many of us become genuine polymaths.

I have an Autistic friend who is passionate about old Hollywood, and writers from the Algonquin Roundtable. They know all about the lives and creative legacies of figures from those eras: formative experiences, random bits of trivia, lists of films and publications, and when they were released. Whenever a modern-day celebrity gets involved in a media fracas, my friend knows a specific parallel from days gone by, and can discuss that parallel with humor and insight. They have tons of memorabilia, rare records, and know all sorts of old songs by heart.

I have another Autistic friend who is devoted to Elizabeth Taylor, David Bowie, David Lynch, and the Beatles. She’s made tons of beautiful hand-painted jackets showcasing images of these celebrities. She knows all about their lives — their tragedies and successes, beloved quotes both obscure and well-known, wrong-headed things that these figures have done. She dresses in beautiful vintage clothing and takes a lot of sartorial and mannerly inspiration from old movies.

There is really no downside to Autistic fact absorption. No Autistic Warrior Mommy or anyone who views autism as a disease can really, in good faith, deride it.

Autistic people are often very adept learners. We can master a subject far faster than our allistic peers, and can genuinely love doing it. But the subjects we love are not necessarily ones that can be used to earn money or generate profit for an employer, and so they can be seen as suspect or mockable. Yet again, this is a social barrier that could be removed through stronger efforts at acceptance. Try listening politely when an Autistic person wants to speak to you about their interests. Let them know, gently, if you’re getting tired of listening. Notice their intense passions and capacity for learning — it’s a beautiful thing.

I was very proud of myself when I memorized the lyrics to this song in fifth grade.

Retention and repetition

A common feature of Autism is echolalia, the repeating of phrases and words. It often strikes non-Autistic people as odd, annoying, and pointless, but it’s actually a useful adaptation and source of one of our other “superpowers.” We Autistic people are excellent at memorizing dialogue and song lyrics quickly. And doing so serves a purpose.

Because communication is hard for a lot of Autistic people, we sometimes repeat pieces of conversation or dialogue from movies as a form of shorthand. We don’t always know what to do or say, and when we’re frustrated, we can become nonverbal. Media provides us with phrases we can use, or examples we can follow, which we typically expect allistic people to understand.

Dialogue from music, movies, and stray bits of conversation gives Autistic people new weapons in our conversational arsenal. Watching interactions on TV or in person, and then reenacting them, can help us learn what “normal” conversational etiquette looks like. We also tend to struggle with correctly conveying emotion in our voices; imitating the voices of other people can help us develop more of a range. I, personally, have learned a lot about comedic timing from imitating, and remixing, the way performers and actors talk. I also learned a lot about how to behave in a professional environment from emulating people on Mad Men (with some 21st-century updates, of course).

I have always been excellent at learning song lyrics. I can hear an ’80s pop ballad or a ’90s R&B hit that I haven’t listened to in years, and the words will appear in my head, fully formed, without prompting. If I fall in love with a new song, it only takes a few listens for me to commit most of it to memory. The few times that I’ve acted in plays, I memorized my lines (and other peoples’ lines) really easily. I often find myself emulating other people’s speech patterns, or repeating phrases from podcasts and TV shows, without meaning to. My sister, who has some Autistic traits, has always been able to recreate scenes from her favorite movies with perfect accuracy — every bit of dialogue recalled and delivered in the exact right tone.

In addition to being useful as conversational practice, memorizing and repeating dialogue is fun. A lot of Autistic people repeat specific words because we like how they feel in our mouths. We may repeat the dialogue of a beloved cartoon character because we adore them, or because we think a moment from the show is funny and we want to share it with other people. Allistic people quote popular media all the time, of course — it’s no different when Autistic people do the same.

Rationality

Despite popular misconception, Autistic people are not robots. We have emotions, and can experience them intensely. We feel compassion and empathy for other people — and for animals and objects. We are complex, biased, and passionate, like all humans of all neurotypes. That said… we tend to be really good at cutting through societal bullshit.

Autistic people infamously struggle with social rules, but a lot of that has to do with our unflinching literality and rationality. We don’t always understand why people would schedule an in-person meeting when a series of short emails would do. We may have trouble enthusiastically engaging in a conversation about the weather, because everybody already knows what it feels like outside, right? And we don’t, as a rule, like being dishonest — if a baby is ugly, we’ll struggle to coo over it lovingly.

Though it often frustrates people, Autistic rationality can be liberating and extremely useful. I’ve always been good at saving money by trimming the fat from my life, for example. Life expenses that strike people as desirable — expensive clothing from “adult-seeming” stores, impractical housewares and furniture, cars — they hold no interest for me. I am always inclined to buy things that are affordable, and I will go to great lengths to get a good deal.

When I saw this article on Slate, I braced myself. But it’s actually really well and responsibly reported.

The stubborn rationality of Autistic people also helps explain, I think, why so many of us are transgender, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming. Gender roles and gender assignment are nonsensical. Every society in existence pins a ton of rigid, arbitrary expectations on people because of their genitals — from the kind of clothing they can wear, to the ways they’re allowed to sit, to the jobs they’re expected to be good at, to how their voice ought to lilt when they speak. Autistic people can see how foolish those rules are, and sometimes outright refuse to follow them. I don’t think a greater percentage of Autistic people are trans, necessarily — I think, though, that we’re far more likely to be out about it.

Having a rational Autistic person in your life can be a real blessing. We can help you find work-arounds and life hacks that might never have occurred to you. If you’re feeling immense social pressure to be polite to a rude neighbor, or to invite a homophobic aunt to a wedding, we can remind you how nonsensical and self-defeating that kind of “polite” behavior can be. We’re good at calling out bullshit, correcting factual errors, and speaking truth to power. So if you’re friends with an extremely rational Autistic person who refuses to be cowed by pointless social conventions, be thankful, not judgmental. Who knows? We just might be helping to bring about social change with our conscientious refusals.

Self-stimulation

Virtually all autistic people engage in self-stimulatory behavior, or “stimming.” Stimming involves giving ourselves pleasant sensory input to help calm ourselves down, focus our attention, or simply feel good. Stimming can involve any of the senses: Rubbing a soft piece of fabric, chewing sour candy, spinning around in an office chair, smelling a scented candle, or staring at a lava lamp can all be ways of stimming. Sometimes, we use “stim toys” — such as fidget cubes, chewable jewelry, or a worry stone — as tools to help us zone out, relax, or focus.

Autism is a way of being, neither inferior nor superior to neurotypical ways of being.

Stimming is pleasurable and soothing. It can help us cope with excessively loud, uncomfortable, or stressful environments. We also use it to decompress at the end of a long day, the way someone else might chill out with a bubble bath and Instagram. Incidentally, splashing around in a warm, sweet-smelling bubble bath and watching interesting videos on Instagram can be forms of stimming themselves.

A lot of stimming activities look stereotypically Autistic, such as hand-flapping, rocking in place, or chewing on fingers or jewelry. To allistic people, this can be a real embarrassment and an annoyance. Our oddness makes others uncomfortable. Teachers may punish the behavior as disruptive. I’m reminded of the Girl Scout troop leader who would lecture me every day, in front of my whole group, about the way that I sat. I craved having pressure on my legs, so I sat in a curled up, “gargoyle” posture that is very common among Autistics. But since it wasn’t “ladylike,” she confronted me about it, and forced me to correct it, constantly.

To some extent, all people stim. Stress balls and fidget spinners enjoyed mainstream popularity because even non-autistics realize it can be pleasant and relaxing to hold objects and fiddle with them. A plethora of research shows that students retain more information when they are permitted to doodle during class lectures. We all delight in lovely textures, stimulating fragrances, and moving our bodies in space.

But Autistic people stim more frequently, and with greater intensity, than allistic people do. Our stims are more obvious. They strike people as more unusual. Sometimes, they can be physically destructive. And when a stim is harmful or seriously disruptive, an Autistic person should be assisted in finding an alternative. The majority of stims, however, are relatively quiet, inobrustive, and immensely beneficial.

Autistic brains come with a built-in cool-down function. With the help of something as small as a feather, a spinning ring, or a phone app, we can deal with the anxiety of being around tons of people, redirect our energy to ward off a meltdown, or just zone out into a little oasis of peace. To be able to control one’s brain like that is a miracle. It’s a superpower.

All autistic traits can be superpowers

I’ve touched on just a few of the many Autistic traits that can bring Autistic people relief, meaning, and joy. When viewed through a receptive, non-judgmental lens, many more Autistic traits can be seen as benefits to the Autistic person. “Shutting down” or becoming nonverbal can be a useful sign that an Autistic person needs space. When an Autistic person refuses to comply with directions, they are expressing autonomy. If an Autistic person avoids eye contact, they are prioritizing their needs above arbitrary social rules. All of these are signs of determination and strength.

Autistic traits can also benefit the allistic people around us. Our extreme sensitivities to light, smell, and sound mean that we can serve as “canaries in the coal mine” — the same accommodations that help make public spaces more tolerable to autistic people can make non-autistic people less anxious as well. Our tendency to communicate in really literal ways can make communication better, not worse. And our empathy for animals can make us excellent advocates for living things that cannot speak for themselves.

No Autistic person should have to prove their worth by putting their Autism to productive use. My point here is not to highlight common Autistic behaviors that employers can seek out and make use of (that is: exploit). My point is to say that Autism is a way of being, neither inferior nor superior to neurotypical ways of being. We’re not victims of an epidemic, we’re not a disease, and no aspect of us needs curing. Instead, it is the intolerance of those who seek to eliminate Autism that needs to be “fixed.”

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