The Positive SYmptoms of Autism

by Katy Elphinstone

Bologna University: Drawing by Katy Elphinstone
(paintings and drawings also by Katy Elphinstone)

  • How can there be "positive" symptoms?

    There can't really. It's meant to be ironic and a bit nonsensical. It just struck me that there are just so many lists of the negative ‘symptoms of autism' available, online and elsewhere. But yet… not EVERYTHING about being autistic is bad! In fact, even though undeniably being autistic is challenging – or okay, hard as hell – autistic people have many wonderful qualities too, which can come out in different constellations in different people.

    So I have compiled a list of some of the positive – and often wild and amazing – characteristics you just might possess if you are on the spectrum. Thank you to all those on the Wrong Planet forum who helped with their ideas and feedback!

  • Trees by Katy Elphinstone1. 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.

  • 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 (unusual/additional connections in the brain?) unavailable to others.

  • Bologna University, drawing by Katy Elphinstone3. 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, they might not manage to go to IKEA to buy it).

  • 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 in fact been ‘on the 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. Autistic people show an incredible capacity for perseverance when working on tasks of personal or professional interest. And they do not give up e.g. just because it seems their ideas or opinions may need modifying!

    One thing to add here, is just how much fun autistic people can have while following their interests and passions in this way.

  • Bologna University, drawing by Katy Elphinstone7. Hyperlexia

    The ability to read very fast. Habitually scanning text considerable distance ahead while reading (scanning ahead is a skill all readers have, while we are not aware we do it). Being able to read aloud while simultaneously thinking about something entirely different.

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

  • 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.

  • Bologna University, drawing by Katy Elphinstone9. 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 with autism 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.Questioning and always 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 literally 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. Their mind is probably on other matters, and 'networking' is highly unlikely to be either one of their strengths or priorities. Also a disarming openness about one's own failings and weaknesses can obviously be a big obstacle to success in our increasingly 'sell yourself' world.

  • Bologna University, drawing by Katy Elphinstone13. The 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 often leads to having genuine good people in one’s life, because of understanding their worth and really valuing them.

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

    A capacity for understanding and validating other people’s way of thinking even when disagreeing with them.

  • 14. Compassion and unusual empathy

    For people, animals, and even objects! This empathy is very democratic – it does 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 is apparently lacking, it may be due to traumatic events having led to a shut-down of connection in self defence.

    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.

  • 15. Lack of ‘self-discipline’

    I know it sounds 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’ – 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 them 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 learnt this sort of self-discipline, they can be relied on to impose this self-sacrifice on themselves (with spontaneous joy as a guilty luxury, or even just a distant memory), with rewards 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 inability to being taught this kind of self-discipline. They often seem not just unwilling but actually 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).

  • Bologna University, drawing by Katy Elphinstone16. Resistance to being ‘improved’

    It is a good thing in my opinion to be resistant to being ‘improved’ and changed as a person, and to be aware that it is not always a positive thing to fit in (obviously depending hugely what kind of environment you are ‘fitting in’ to and what kind of compromises it will take to do so).

    Many autistic people at the outer end of the spectrum – especially women – possess an extraordinary ability to become chameleons, succeeding and in fact often excelling in their chosen sphere in the ‘real world’. However even these people retain a life-long feeling of not quite belonging, and they are always aware on some level that they are hiding something important of themselves, often at great cost.

    Could the main difference from neurotypicals in this respect, be due to being aware of a feeling that there is something actually wrong with being obliged to hide your true self? Though it is true that others seem overall to manage more easily to ‘fit in’ (maybe it depends on the proportion of yourself that you have had to hide in order to pass for ‘normal’!)

    I see it as an involuntary and positive rebellion against excessive conformity.

  • 17. Strong reactions against being manipulated by others

    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 that many ‘meltdowns’ are actually directly due to this. Firstly finding yourself in a situation where you are being made to feel ‘wrong’ and badly-behaved, because of the intense pressure on you to conform to something you know instinctively is either meaningless or misguided. Then being manipulated – with disapproval, words, punishments etc. – into behaving ‘better’ and complying (even in something you subtly sense is not right).

    I’ve observed in my son a strong backlash reaction even when anyone is trying to manipulate him just using praise (this is a method we use consistently in our culture to make children do what we want or think is best, or encourage them to continue in behavior we approve of – heavy praise. 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 does leave the adult speechless.

  • Bologna University, drawing by Katy Elphinstone18. 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.

  • 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 a retaining of curiosity about everything.

    There are often 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 autism 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 almost always disconcertingly honest. Many find it literally impossible to tell a downright lie.

    When autistic women on the ‘Spectrum Woman’ 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

  • Trees by Katy Elphinstone21. Being unusually goodlooking!

    I am 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.

     

     

  • If you’re 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 What is Autism, and What Causes it?.

  • 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). Many, many others. Here is a list of just some of them.
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    2. Interestingly, Bessel Van Der Kolk gives this 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. Whereas 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 seeing (e.g. on YouTube) 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 used ubiquitously 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’.
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