Sometimes I have seen stickers on cars, or memes on Facebook that say: ‘Autism is my superpower’. This is not strictly true, autism is not a superpower, but it definitely has its amazing positives and strengths. Sometimes these strengths are not necessarily appreciated by the world around us, as it has been designed by and for neurotypical brains, but we have many positives:
A different perspective
Often we do not view a problem or task in the same way that neurotypical people might. This could be through noticing a more efficient way of doing things, or following a different process to that of our peers. It could sometimes be through spotting tiny details that others have missed when looking at the wider picture, or through asking questions for clarification where others would have simply made assumptions instead of checking they had understood what was being asked.
Sometimes we can be misinterpreted as being difficult, pedantic or trying to point out the flaws of others. This is not that case, but our brains lead us to notice things that others may have missed. We also like to make sure that we have really understood instructions, which sometimes becomes misunderstood as being challenging or difficult when it is really trying to make sure that we will get it right first time.
But being able to notice tiny details can be a real strength. One of the jobs I did as a temp just before my daughter was born was merging two different databases (one on a spreadsheet, one on a bespoke system) and ensuring that the bespoke one included all of the information contained from the spreadsheet. It was tedious and there were a lot of data sets to compare. But my ability to spot details came in extremely handy. One of my favourite hobbies is doing jigsaw puzzles. I love 1000 piece puzzles with lots of tiny details as it means I can really immerse myself in it and spot all of the details in the picture. My current favourite is one which depicts the most beautiful bookshop. But enough on my jigsaw hobby...!
As well as being able to approach a task in a different way, we are also often able to be creative in different ways as well. One of the biggest fallacies out there is that autistic people are not imaginative or creative. This is totally inaccurate – as anyone who has spent any amount of time with my daughter could tell you. The amount of role-playing games she has involved me and my husband in since she was tiny is astounding, and she writes the most amazing stories as well. I am also very creative in my own way. I play the piano by ear, which I much prefer to playing from sheet music. I love to cook and to bake, but I hate to follow others’ recipes and often make things myself through trial and error or instinct. I taught myself to crochet and have over the years made many toys and various other items. I have followed patterns from time to time (with difficulty), but my biggest achievement to date is the pinafore I crocheted for myself, made to measure, with no pattern. It took five months and I am wearing it as I type this. I also taught myself to use a sewing machine and made a duvet cover, and various patchwork quilted bags for family and friends, again without using a pattern.
I have already written about how our hobbies and interests make us feel in an earlier blog post. Even where these do not directly transfer into a job or career, they can become incredibly useful and interesting. For example, during the first lockdown in 2020, I was able to use my knowledge and interest in medieval history to spend a day teaching my daughter all of the things she needed to cover themed around different aspects of the medieval period. We found castle-themed resources on Twinkl for Maths and English, found out about what people wore and what they ate, and even had a go at making some illuminated manuscripts as an art session. Other themed days we did included space (an interest of mine and my daughter’s), the ocean, and the Polynesian islands (thanks to Disney’s Moana). Lockdown education was definitely a challenge, but my various interests and those of my daughter served us very well during that time.
Planning and organisation
On a day to day level, I may not appear amazingly organised, but give me a target to work towards to such as a party or a holiday, and my brain shifts into razor-sharp mega-planning mode! This has its challenges, as I often find my brain trying to plan all eventualities at silly times of day or night, but the flip side of this is that I am able to plan all eventualities well ahead of the event itself.
An example of this is the birthday parties I organised for my daughter pre-Covid. R would come up with a theme months ahead – sometimes as early as eight months ahead. I would not book anything quite that early, but we always held arty-crafty birthday parties. So I would start thinking about how we could use the theme to come up with age-appropriate activities that would appeal to the children. I would scour the internet to find cheap resources that I could use for the activities or for party bags. I would also start to think about how we could put these ideas into practice in a fun way. So one year we had a space-themed party in a hall, with a colour and construct rocket ship activity on one table, glittery home-made playdough on another, scratch art rocket bookmarks, and various other activities. We had star-shaped fairy lights hanging across the hall, and had a relay race to relocate ‘asteroids’ (ball pit balls) from one tub to another. Another year we had a superheroes and scientists themed party, with the children being superheroes to rescue teddies from the evil Doctor Henry (played by my husband) as he performed various science experiments for them. They were amazing and fun parties, although I was exhausted for days afterwards! My planning skills have not been put to the test to quite that extent since, but I can still achieve a lot if it is something that I put my mind to.
In writing this, I do not wish to dismiss the fact that at times, autism can cause real and genuine struggles and difficulties. I am not saying that it makes life easy – far from it – the sensory sensitivities which can bring us benefits can also cause enormous issues which can make life feel a battle. I am thinking of my own struggles in the extremely large local supermarket, where I have to employ many strategies to help me to get to the end of my shop without sensory overwhelm leading to shutdown and difficulty driving home safely. For more details on the strategies I use, please see my other blog posts. But there are many aspects of my autism which I consider to be enormous strengths and which I would never want to be taken away.
Laura Webb is a director of NeonDaisy