The Awesome Symptoms of Autism

by Katy Elphinstone

Peach Tree

paintings and drawings also by Katy Elphinstone

  • How can there be 'awesome' symptoms?

    There can't really. The title is ironic. It struck me there are many, many lists of the negative symptoms of autism available. But yet, surprisingly, there can be some good things about being autistic too.

    Here is a list of some of the awesome characteristics you just might possess if you are autistic or otherwise neurodivergent. Thank you to all those on the Wrong Planet forum who helped with their ideas and feedback.


    1. Hyper-sensory experiences

    Hyper-receptivity to sensory input can obviously be a very challenging quality in life, as it means that the chances of frequent sensory overload are high.

    However, if strategies are found to deal with or avoid overload, and support and acceptance are at hand in order to build up resilience to the more difficult aspects, it can also become a great gift. It brings with it the capacity to be very aware of ambient nuances, beauty and subtlety. It can also mean things like noticing in time if the house is burning down (autistic people are usually very sensitive to smell).

    Hyper sensory experiences are often unpleasant but can be positive, when I walk through a forest the sounds, smells, textures, colours and wind moving through the leaves has such a pleasant effect on my mind, I see beauty in the small details.
    (Amity, Wrong Planet forum)

    It is true that autistic people are often lovers of nature and the universe; appreciators of beautiful environments. On the flip side, they have low tolerance levels for ugliness, pollution, strip lighting and noisy artificial environments.

    Trees by Katy Elphinstone

  • 2. Heightened and unusual perception

    Differences in methods used for processing information combined with heightened levels of perception very often lead to high levels of creativity, and unusual talents.

    Many of the greatest mathematicians have shown marked autistic tendencies, and some are known to have used spatial/colour/shape visualizations during calculations (there is an unusually high prevalence of synesthesia in autistic people) or have appeared to do them as if by magic and with incredible speed, clearly drawing on resources unavailable to others.

  • 3. Strong visual-spatial skills

    Temple Grandin is famous for 'Thinking in Pictures'. She combines theoretical skills fluidly with construction and architectural ones, and explains the ways in which she processes information imaginatively using visualization, and how that has made her work possible.

    Strong visual-spatial skills mean that autistic people can be unusually good at making and fixing things. For example putting together IKEA furniture (even if, ahem, I might not manage to go to IKEA to buy it).

    Bologna University, drawing by Katy Elphinstone

  • 4. Hyper-memory

    The ability to remember a vast amount of information on a topic of interest. This capacity to intensely concentrate one's brainpower in an area means that a specialization may be developed to advanced levels.

    A lot has been written on the savant abilities of autistics. In modern times it becomes apparent that a disproportionate number of people through history who were specifically known for their extraordinary discoveries, talents or visionary powers (in many and diverse fields), may well have been on the autistic spectrum(1).

  • 5. Hyper-focus and concentration

    The capacity to focus on a single topic with all of one's mind/attention, and be practically un-distractable from it! This ability to hyper-concentrate leads to a high level of productivity, and often to new discoveries being made.

  • 6. Perseverance

    The ability to keep on at a specific task for extended periods of time without losing focus. Autistic people often show an incredible capacity for perseverance when working on tasks of personal or professional interest. And generally, we do not give up e.g. just because of needing to modify or adapt our ideas.

    One thing to add here, is just how much FUN autistic people can have while following our interests and passions in this way. Though these periods of hyper-activity generally need to be alternated with some proper down-time; something I call 'vegetation'.

  • 7. Hyperlexia

    Some autistics possess the ability to read very fast. This involves habitually scanning text considerable distance ahead while reading (scanning ahead is a skill all readers have, while we are not aware we do it). Personally, I find I am able to read aloud while simultaneously thinking about something entirely different.

    Mirror writing and reading/writing upside down are also among the unusual skills that can be sometimes seen in people on the autistic spectrum.

    Child holding up a sign in the mirror which reads, 'This is mirror language. Do you understand?'

  • 8. Attention to detail

    Autistic people famously pay a lot of attention to details - sometimes to the point of not seeing the whole at all, or at least not in the same way as others. While this can bring its difficulties, it can also mean unusual observational powers combined with a high level of precision.

    Noticing things other people don't: autistic people might notice and remember completely different aspects of a scene or event from others, and this information can serve as an invaluable contribution.

    Sant'Ivo della Sapienza

  • 9. Analytical skills

    The ability to grasp abstract concepts quickly and see patterns in things.

    Making sense of and connections between subjects encompassing a broad spectrum. Unusual thinking and non-standard ways of seeing things. The ability to make correlations between data sets and come to a 'new idea'.

    It has been said of people who are autistic or ADHD that it doesn't seem to be so much about thinking outside the box... as apparently not even being aware there IS a box!

  • 10. Looking for the 'why' of things

    There is a strong tendency among autistic people to use their intellectual and analytical capacities for trying to figure out why things might be as they are(2). And add to this: the propensity to creatively imagine how they could be changed.

    Autistic adults (and often young people too) are often very into social justice and questioning of the system, and are upset at seeing exploitation of the vulnerable... also cruelty e.g. to animals.

  • 11. Non-conformism

    "Conformity is the jailor of freedom and the enemy of growth." (John F Kennedy)

    To an autistic person, 'because everyone else is doing it' is not a good reason for doing something! Autistic people seem to almost completely lack any form of herd mentality . I see this as a positive: a safeguard against bullying and hooligan behaviors, as well as an avenue for creativity, positive risk-taking and celebrating our differences.

    Matt Friedman's cartoon the blob expresses beautifully how 'group mentality' appears from the point of view of an autistic person. It shows the group of people he's hanging out with turning iterally into a blob, with him observing the phenomenon in a bemused way.

  • 12. Doing things because they're important, and not to look good

    Not feeling a need to adhere to group code, or striving just to be popular and successful in life (having other values instead). A lack of care for social norms provides truthful/insightful answers where others fear treading as they see that their social status will be jeopardized.

    On the downside, it seems that autistic people do not very often achieve success and recognition for what they do. Our mind is probably on other matters, and 'networking' is highly unlikely to be either one of our strengths or priorities. Also, a disarming openness about one's own failings and weaknesses can obviously be a big obstacle to success in an increasingly 'sell yourself' world.

  • 13. a capacity for real/loyal friendships

    An ability to take people as they are, and are not as what the societal hierarchy/social norms, popularity or economic status, deem them to be. This can lead to having genuine good people in one's life, because of understanding their worth and really valuing them.

    Kindness, honesty, and the ability to sense true kindness in others.

    Often, there is a capacity for understanding and validating other people's way of thinking even when disagreeing with them. Although, there is a tendency to avoid things we find difficult emotionally, or hurtful - so if we find another's views unkind or upsetting, we may stay away (not to be confused with holding a grudge).

    Back massage

  • 14. Compassion and unusual empathy

    For people, animals, and even objects! This empathy is very democratic, and would not exclude e.g. anyone or any creature who doesn't appear useful; who perhaps hasn't succeeded well in life and who society would usually judge and write off.

    Until recently it was thought that one of the main indicators for autism was a lack of empathy (ref. Theory of Mind). It is now hypothesized that in cases where empathy seems to be lacking, it may be due to traumatic events having led to a shut-down of connection as a defense mechanism.

    Brain scans have in fact shown that autistic people, in response to seeing others in distress, have strong empathetic reactions in the areas of the brain connecting with compassion and fellow feeling, even when their outward behavior does not show any sympathy (3).

    Affinity with animals, often to a marked degree. This is extremely common among autistic people, and it is often the case that their family and friends think of them as a sort of 'animal-whisperer'.

    There have been many recorded incidents of apparently telepathic phenomena(4) between autistic people and others. This is particularly evident in close relationships e.g. mother/child.

  • Polar bear mother with baby

  • 15. failure to take on others' ideas about 'duty'

    It may sound odd to call this a positive. However, in our world self-discipline is (counter-intuitively) something we like to impose on children 'for their own good'. This is usually for the purpose of making them do things they would not naturally want to, and occasionally to take the fun out of activities that previously they had spontaneously wanted to do.

    It s a way of bending people to the standing rules and norms of our society; getting them used to habitual self-denial, and putting them firmly on the treadmill of 'real life'. Once our children have properly learnt this sort of self-discipline, they can be relied on to impose it upon themselves. Spontaneous joy becomes a guilty luxury, or even just a distant memory, and rewards are deferred to a misty future. No wonder we lookback so wistfully to childhood(5).

    Autistic children, while showing remarkable dedication when applying themselves to tasks and activities of interest to them, generally show strong resistance or even total inability to being taught this kind of self-discipline. They often seem not just unwilling but unable to harness themselves in this way. This might be why many therapies and programs for autistic children allow for some quite drastic measures which are no longer considered acceptable in the education of normal kids(6).

  • 16. Resistance to being moulded

    It is a good thing, in my opinion, to be resistant to being 'improved' and changed as a person. It is not always a positive thing to fit in - obviously depending hugely what kind of environment you are fitting into and what sorts of compromises it will take to do so.

    Many people who are on the autistic spectrum, especially women, possess an extraordinary ability to become chameleons. They may succeed and even excel in their chosen sphere, out in the 'real world'. However, even these people retain a life-long feeling of not quite belonging - they are always aware on some level that they are hiding something important of themselves, often at great cost.

    I see this intrinsic resistance as an involuntary and positive rebellion against excessive conformity.

  • 17. Strong reactions against being manipulated

    The reactions vary: the gist is the same. Autistic people, even though they often consciously feel ashamed and self-hating because of it, tend to strenuously resent and resist attempts by other people to manipulate them.

    I believe some meltdowns may be due to this. You might be made to feel 'wrong' and badly-behaved, because of the intense pressure on you to conform combined with your inability to do so. You hear the disapproval and censure, and you feel both betrayed and manipulated. And then, after the anger, comes the shame - as you are brought gently to understand how you, and only you, were at fault.

    I've observed in my son a strong backlash reaction even when anyone is trying to affect him or his behavioiur just through using praise (this is a method we use consistently, though usually unwittingly, in our culture. We use praise to either direct children into doing what we want or think is best, or else encourage them to continue in behavior we approve of. It has been shown in studies to actually reduce self-motivation and genuine kindness, while it increases conformiity and superficial people-pleasing behaviours(7)). If an adult effusively praises his work, my son might say politely without looking up, "Please can you stop talking". Which usually quite effectively leaves the adult speechless.

  • 18. Creativity and a rich inner world

    Incredible powers of imagination. Creative talents such as music, art, writing. Autistic people often have the ability to enter into an imaginary world almost to exclusion of everything else around them, which can lead to astonishing flights of fantasy and detail.

    Flying horse

  • 19. Childlike demeanor

    A childlike playfulness can often be found in autistic adults (not to be confused with immaturity). There seems to be an amazing ability to enjoy the moment and derive pleasure out of small things, and, very often, a retaining of curiosity about everything.

    We tend to have immediate, genuine and heartfelt reactions to experiences (whether positive or negative), as well as a capacity to be easily amused.

    One quite common aspect of being autistic seems to be a natural trust/innocence, which is often retained into adulthood. Unfortunately, this can all too easily be exploited, but on the other side it can trigger protective, loving and tolerant reactions from others.

  • 20. Honesty

    Autistic people are often disconcertingly honest. Many find it literally impossible to tell a downright lie.

    When autistic women on the Spectrum Women forum were asked, 'Do you ever lie?', the overall answer was yes, occasionally... but only very unwillingly and always because of having to be socially acceptable and/or not wanting to hurt other people s feelings.

    This lack of ability to pretend to others that either you believe something you don't or you feel a way you don't, means that many autistic people learn to keep quiet rather than make any attempts to either pretend, or risk telling the truth.

    We hate lies and injustice - unless someone leans on lying as a coping mechanism/masking tool.
    StampySquiddyFan on Wrong Planet

  • 21. Being unusually goodlooking!

    I'm actually serious. Hans Asperger talked of the children he worked with often looking like angels, unusually clear-complexioned, fine featured and with large and beautiful eyes.

    Twin girls, Cambodia


  • If you are interested in reading further on this site about the more difficult symptoms of autism: take a look at the Symptoms list on the Trauma and Autism page, and at the article Do Trauma and autism go hand in hand?

  • Footnotes

    1. Henry Cavendish (who made huge innovations and discoveries in the scientific world, but was so reclusive that most of his discoveries were later 'discovered' by, and accredited to, others). The mathematician John Nash (featured in the film A Beautiful Mind). Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who showed many autistic and ADHD traits - the combination is not at all uncommon). And many, many others. Here is a list of just some of them.
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    2. Interestingly, Bessel Van Der Kolk gives 'questioning things and having a heightened sense of moral justice' also as a post-trauma symptom! Here is a list of autism and post-trauma symptoms for those interested in more details.
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    3. On the other hand, psychopaths have a full display of sympathetic reactions, or 'cognitive empathy' (body language, words, facial expressions) while lacking the emotional empathetic reactions in the brain. Ralph Savarese talks about this in his presentation 'I object: Autism, Empathy and the Trope of Personification'.
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    4. The true meaning of 'telepathy' is 'empathy at a distance'.
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    5. Charles Eisenstein, in 'The Ascent of Humanity': "The mess we now collectively find ourselves in is not in fact due to human nature, but rather to human nature denied.
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    6. I have been horrified almost beyond words by reading about some of the methods currently used by e.g. parents and therapists. To me these show varying levels of coercion and disrespect... all of which are totally unacceptable to me. An obvious example is ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis), a therapy which is still used in our schools, by therapists and psychologists, and in the home. We are so used to the idea of coercion and extrinsic rewarding that we don't even notice or question that there may be something wrong with it... and when our instincts rebel, we hush them - after all let s face it, it s not that there are many alternatives right now (at least not e.g. in the world of medical insurance). On the Wrong Planet forum I've come across some quite interesting threads with titles such as 'Who else out there survived ABA therapy?'
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    7. Ref. Alfie Kohn, 'Punished by Rewards'. If you're interested in reading more on the topic of praising children, see my article 'Should I praise my child?'
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