I just got back to my hotel after an all day event for Yellow Ladybugs (one of my favourite organisations), talking about mental health, autism and women and girls. One of the other speakers, Clem, related how her autism is at the heart of her strengths. This seems like it should be an obvious concept but I think it is one that people do not always keep in mind when in interacting with autistic people, yet it is close to the heart of neurodiversity.
While it isn’t possible to sort the autistic ‘bits’ from an autistic person and identify which of them result in their skills, autistic people do have a lot of skills that they almost certainly have as part of being autistic and that this is a world-changing notion.
Imagine a small child who has just been diagnosed as autistic. Their life might all of a sudden because quite medicalised and pathologised. Words like ‘’resistant’’, ‘obsessive’, ‘fixated’ and ‘atypical’ might be used. If that child has prodigious skills in area – as autistic people often do – the skills may well be dismissed as obsessive interests and things or something that isn’t much use to the child. The idea of ‘so what’ skills might be evoked – skills which are apparently ‘meaningless’ despite the fact that they are extremely meaningful for the autistic individual. In fact these skills may be extremely useful for the wider world but when someone is seen only or mostly through the lens of deficits, their skills are much more likely to be discounted,
If you look at autistic adults who have done things that the wider world considers impressive, these ‘impressive’ skills are so frequently based in autism. There is a whole world of autistic experience based in strengths and talents, often based in passions and interests.
My areas of great skill are in the area of creativity – which is quite common for autistics. My autobiography was the first serious piece of writing I ever did. It took me four weeks to draft, two weeks and edit and was taken up by the first publisher I sent it to. I have never been to a class or read an article on how to write a book. I simply decided to write one and did it. Visual art is another skill of mine. I can pick up any art medium and make a meaningful, heartfelt picture using it. I have some strong musical ability – although in the talented rather than prodigious range – and anyone who has seen me on stage might think that public speaking is another of my skills. I have not really done much training in public speaking but it comes naturally to me. I also have some skills in caring and supporting others. All my skills are related to my autism – largely because I am autistic and they are my skills!
Skills and strengths can come along as part of our experience, but they can be squashed or discouraged. Kids and young people with a great love or passion for a topic my be discouraged from talking about it and be shut down. This can in some cases lead to people giving up their passion despite the fact that their passion may encourage their deepest and most valuable skills. In some cases autistic people have only negative expectations placed on them meaning they often they internalise self-hate and negativity. They may not even feel able to do things they enjoy, and their strengths may be hidden. The attitudes of others around our skills and strengths can determine how we approach them – if we are encouraged then we are likely to keep on developing that strength but if we are shut down we might feel unable to engage in our strength and the world may lose the opportunity to benefit from it.
One of the most important things is fostering a sense of self-worth and pride in the strengths of autistics people and for people to view them as useful for the world. Instead of viewing skills as a ‘so what’ or ‘useless’ skill, make connections with areas where that skill is valuable. It doesn’t need to be hard. You don’t have to think too laterally to see the value of writing skills or coding, for example. I see it as requiring a tweak of thinking on the part of allistic people more than anything else and that tweak is the very important tweak which says ‘different not less.’ If people viewed the strengths and skills of autism and autistic people as a bonus and not an obsession or a useless skill then autistic people would almost certainly have more opportunity to share and appreciate our what we can do. This is a great way for us too feel good about ourselves too.
To me our strengths are a fulfilment of my message and the message of so many others talk gin about autistic pride and empowerment. For if autism were all deficits and disability then our skills and strengths would not be possible. Just look at the value autistic people can bring to the workplace where their different perspectives and approaches make such a difference. Many companies now seek out autistic talent for this reason. Neurodiversity presents a world where skills are not subject to negative judgement, and where autistic people’s skills are seen for the immense value they bring for us and everyone else.
Me doing my thing this afternoon.