Updated: Jul 28
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me.’’ -Issac Newton
Friday, June 18, is Autistic Pride Day, a day to celebrate being autistic and all the wonderful things that autistic people have to contribute to the world. For that reason, I would like to explore one aspect of autism that we have probably all seen but struggled to understand or put into words, that thing that sometimes makes autistic children seem a little more special than their peers.
If you are a parent or teacher of autistic children at some point you may have found yourself thinking “that kid is clever.” Maybe they have just figured out how to access their favourite website without being able to read and write or waited for the perfect moment to grab the candy you have told them they cannot have. They might be the child who never falls in the playground despite testing your nerves with their death-defying feats or the one who finds a way to tell you exactly what they want even though they do not have right words.
Yet when the professionals arrive with their swaths of tests, they often conclude that the same child has an extremely low IQ and is functioning at an age much younger than their years. So, what is going on? Are we deluding ourselves? Have we been living in this autism bubble for so long that we see talents where there are none? I would say not, I would say what we are witnessing is a different, special kind of intelligence, one that is not always captured by standardised tests.
Elon Musk recently ‘came out’ as having Asperger’s syndrome on Saturday Night Live. For those of us in the know it probably came as no surprise that the inventor of electric cars and spaceships is autistic, he has that special kind of intelligence too. Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Andy Warhol, Wolfgang Mozart, Hans Christian Anderson, and Bill Gates are just some examples of the innovative thinkers who, it has been suggested, might have autism or at the very least have autistic-like traits. Not every child with autism is destined to become Albert Einstein but that does not mean that do not have the same raw ingredients, so what are they?
Sensory differences are now a defining feature of autism as described in the DSM V. Sensory sensitivities can be painful and lead to sensory overload which can cause autistic people to meltdown or shutdown in response. Conversely, they can also lead to a heightened awareness of the sensory world which can lead to great talents. Mozart for example began composing music at 6 years and had such sensitive hearing, that loud noises could make him physically ill. Autistic people are more likely than the general population to have perfect pitch and spot patterns in images. However, whilst an ability to remember and reproduce sounds and images might be enough to recreate some nice music or artwork it is not enough to be truly innovative, there must be more.
The Science Stuff
The autistic researcher Simon Baron Cohen in his latest book ‘The Pattern Finders’ proposes that what separates us from other animals and the reason for our rapid evolution was our ability to invent. To invent something new your mind needs to pass through a process well known to any scientist.
Firstly, you need to observe what is happening, then be curious about why it is happening before coming up with a hypothesis and testing to see if your predictions were correct. A famous example of this is Isaac Newton and his apple. Isaac Newton (who by the way many also thought was autistic) was sitting under an apple tree when suddenly an apple fell from the tree. On observing the apple falling he questioned why the apple always fell directly down from the tree and thus had his ‘eureka’ moment that spawned much of our modern day understanding of gravity. Now clearly Newton was not the first person to observe an apple falling from a tree, but he had the right kind of mind to notice the pattern in the way apples fall from trees.
According to Simon Baron Cohen the autistic mind is particularly good at the systematic thinking required to make these types of observations and in harnessing this information to invent and create. If you have a systematic brain, you will look at the world logically and have a propensity for observing the patterns and rules in systems. It is by noticing patterns and rules that we begin to understand how the world works and the ability to create new systems. Baron Cohen believes autistic people enhanced ability to notice patterns is why they are so overrepresented in the worlds of science and engineering. We now know that autistic people have a greater sensitivity for observation and minds designed for interpreting what they observe in intelligent and creative ways but there is still one more piece that is missing in the making of a creative genius, persistence.
If at First you don’t Succeed …
If it was me instead of Newton sitting under that tree, I may have been curious in what I had observed, and I may have even of gone so far as to conduct a few experiments to try and figure out what was happening but the chances are I would never have had the persistence to keep going to the extent that I could discover the laws of gravity.
Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb supposably tried 10,000 times before he successfully invented the light bulb and yes you guessed it, it is likely he was also autistic!
It has long been known that autistic people have an ability to hyper focus on things that interest them. Often this hyper focus is channelled into ‘special interests’ and with that focus and interest comes a unique ability to persevere where others might give up. As Edison was quoted as saying ‘success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.’ Meaning that the effort you put into something is far more important then any natural talent you may have.
When we put this all together, we can see that autistic people are more likely to have natural talents than the average Joe, minds suited for invention and creation and the ability to preserver where others might give up. So why are these skills and talents often missed on standardised tests?
Well firstly the tests might not be looking in the right places, for example a budding Andy Warhol might not shine when completing a math test. It is also often the case that an all-consuming passion in one area often comes with a healthy dose of ‘hell no’ when it comes to an area that is not of interest.
I mentioned earlier in this article that not every autistic person is destined to become a creative genius and that is because any of the above blessings, like most things in life, when taken to extreme can become a curse and make it harder to function in the world.
For example, sensitivity to noises or any sensory input can become overwhelming. A leaning towards patterns and rules can lead to inflexible routines, and hyperfocus can mean basic needs can be forgotten. It might also be that the subject of one’s desires and passions is just not something that is ever going to change the world. We cannot all be interested in lightbulbs!
However, whatever an autistic child’s functioning or passion is, it is worth remembering that the passion that leads them to endlessly spin things or the thinking style that makes them want to listen to the same two lines of a song on repeat, are the same qualities that led Mozart to write the ‘Requiem in D Minor.”