We are finally beginning to learn that different doesn’t mean deficient. In fact, different can become an asset — a growing topic in conversations about autism.
April is Autism Awareness Month. Rather than reproduce a list of signs, FAQs, and FYIs, let’s focus on strengths. And let’s keep it Super Simple.
Super Simple Learning is a nationally acclaimed children’s educational program, the brainchild of Devon Thagard (whose proud mom is Hayden resident Shirley Thagard). Beyond the basics, Supersimple.com has a lot to say about autism spectrum disorders.
One article contributed by pediatric autism specialist Andi Putt emphasized how frequently misunderstood it is, and too often feared. The concept of neurodiversity reaches beyond merely accepting those who are different, showing us how to value these differences.
Yes, autism has its challenges — many of them really about how the rest of us respond to those with ASD. Less understood are its common strengths.
Autism, writes Pitt, is not a disease or something to be cured. It’s part of who that person is. Just like anyone else, characteristics include good and bad. Autism is intertwined in their personality and in the way they think and process information.
As adults, people on the autism spectrum offer beneficial assets to work teams. Examples of those strengths include:
Excellent memories: Many have a so-called photographic memory, a sponge for information. Young autistic children commonly learn to read as early as age 2. Such memories benefit a variety of abilities and jobs, such as learning math concepts, retaining difficult information, and technical positions. Those with autism often have difficulty expressing certain thoughts and feelings, but they are often carefully listening and understanding what’s being said. They can develop expertise in preferred topics at amazing rates and high levels, and focus on these for extended periods.
Attention to detail: Sometimes focusing on details misses the big picture. But the benefits can be huge. Many companies are looking to hire those on the spectrum specifically for this purpose — they can look at code and quickly find errors, design and build safer structures, and typically require fewer revisions and corrections than those of us with neurotypical minds.
Honest and direct communication: First, the rest of us must keep in mind social “signals” don’t make sense to most people with autism. So when someone says “fine” with that certain emphasis, it’s taken literally — as fine. Those on the spectrum tend to hear and speak literally, without hints or hidden meanings that keep you guessing. Sometimes mistaken as “rude” by the neurotypical population, it isn’t meant to be.
Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone said what they meant, and meant what they said — with absolute clarity?
Punctual, thrive with routine: Whether it’s school, work, or social, being on time and on target is efficient and reliable. Not to mention considerate. Yet because of this tendency and a difficulty with unplanned schedule changes, those with autism are often viewed as rigid and inflexible. The solution is super simple: Just give advance notice of changes, and be sure to use visual, written, updated schedules.
Visual learners: ASD brains are wired differently with heightened sensory perceptions (good and bad, so stimulation overload is something to avoid). They tend to be visual learners, so using visuals and writing down examples and instructions is useful, rather than just abstract learning. Expect careful and reliable adherence.
Logic and independent thinking: Another common misunderstanding is that people with autism lack emotion or empathy. Rather, they just process emotions differently and have more difficulty expressing them, or express them differently. They also tend to be better than neurotypical people at pulling the logic out of emotional thinking, which makes tough decisions easier to process. Those on the spectrum can really “think outside the box,” providing fresh perspectives and solutions to problems.
This is neither an exhaustive nor a universal list. But it can go a long way in supporting the neurodiversity movement. If we can be more open-minded, not expect others to think the same way but instead embrace our differences, we might find that “different” can be an instructive advantage to society as a whole.
If we let it.
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email: Sholeh@cdapress.com