Intelligence In Autism: Superpowers?

A bird, a monkey, a penguin, an elephant, a fish in a bowl, a seal and a dog are all lined up in front of a man behind a desk, with a tree behind them. The man says "for a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree."

There is a persistent myth being pushed all over the internet that autism is a superpower. This is often pushed at employers to convince them to employ autistic people. While, it is true that some autistic people do have unusual abilities, which make them more employable, these are actually comparatively rare.

The superpowers often cited for autistic adults include:

  • Very good attention to detail

  • Having excellent long term memories

  • Memorising and learning information quickly

  • Being very good at identifying and working with patterns

  • Logical thinking

  • Seeing things in a way that others do not see them and therefore being good at creative problem solving

  • Sustained concentration

  • The ability to handle complexity

  • Faster problem solving (connected to sustained concentration and ability to handle complexity)

Some people say that wanting to get on with their work and not ‘waste time’ on social chit chat is a superpower.

First we need to establish what a ‘superpower’ is because even this is confusing. The meaning of the word appears to be changing to mean that it is just an individual strength that is not particularly unusual. For an example of this see this LinkedIn post.​ It is popular with nearly 2000 positive reactions and more than 100 comments. This appears to render the meaning of the word ‘superpower’ to simply be an individual strength that someone has harnessed to their advantage.

But when applied to autism, the term ‘autism is a superpower’ normally means exceptional ability in a particular area. An ability that goes beyond what people who are not autistic are able to do. It is seen as important to make autistic people attractive to employers. The value an employee brings to the business has to significantly outweigh the cost of employing them.

Examples of autistic people who really have superpowers

Some examples are:

  1. The person who is a self-employed proof reader. He can proof read for hours at a time and does not miss a thing.
  2. The person who remembers where everything is in a stock room and how much there is. The information is stored in a computer, but it is quicker to ask him.
  3. The person who can spot patterns of fraud in data. He has much improved the efficiency of the fraud department in his organisation.
  4. The person who can go round a car park and identify which cars have arrived and which were there the last time he looked even if they have moved.

But these kinds of examples are rare in the autistic population. Even rarer in women than in men.

The superpower myth

It is a myth that all autistic people have superpowers. There are plenty of autistic people who don’t have any of the above superpowers and can’t emulate the above examples. Many autistic people have a normal cognitive profile. For these people a cognitive test gives a reasonably accurate measure of IQ (and some register with a high IQ). This is because the variation in the scores across the different tests for verbal abilities, spatial reasoning abilities, patterns, and reasoning with numbers is small enough that an average makes sense. If the variation is large, describing the person’s intelligence in autism via a single number (the average) is misleading. For example, if someone excels in spatial reasoning to the point of being far above average, but is below average in verbal reasoning, the average will be in the normal range and their abilities will be hidden.

For those autistic people who do have ‘superpowers’ it is often not clear whether this ability is innate or whether the ‘superpower’ is a very developed compensation strategy. By this, we mean that an existing aptitude has been highly developed due to the need to create coping strategies to get by in the world - including to enter the world of employment.

Let’s take our director of Aspiedent, Dr Elizabeth Guest (PhD, BSc, PGCHE) as an example:

  1. Her ability to analyse numbers and graphs seems to be innate and not developed through practice. At school, she found geography trivial when it became about analysing graphs and tables of numbers. Essentially it is about identifying patterns. She could not understand why other children in her year found this aspect difficult.
  2. Her research ability is not innate. It stems from developing a coping strategy to deal with the world. The aptitude was there, but it was not fully developed until she started to work towards her PhD.
  3. Her ability to handle complexity is innate. She discovered that she could do this when working towards her PhD. This has proven to be an extremely valuable asset for developing a framework of autism and for doing autism profiles.

To Dr Elizabeth Guest, her autism is a disability, not a superpower - despite her clear abilities in certain areas. When she attempts a cognitive test, she shines in certain areas, but in other areas her abilities are below average and even meet the definition of a cognitive impairment. Elizabeth has a very uneven ability profile! She does not see her strengths as ‘superpowers’. She is just thankful that she has useful skills which can be used to help people.

There are many autistic people who do not do well on cognitive tests because of an uneven, or unusual ability profile (note some of the below may apply to people who are not autistic too).

Uneven Ability Profiles

An uneven ability profile can make it difficult if not impossible to measure the intelligence of an autistic individual. A classic example is Temple Grandin who thinks in pictures. Temple is extremely intelligent and is a professor at Colorado University.

Temple’s thinking style of pictures has made her very successful in her chosen career, but she had an uphill struggle because of her uneven ability profile. Temple’s autism is mainly caused by her visual thinking. She is extremely good at visual design. The side effect of this is that her thinking is very concrete and she can’t handle abstract concepts. In Maths she could do trigonometry because it is visual (you draw a picture), but she could not do algebra at all because this cannot be translated into pictures.

Temple was lucky in that she had a high school teacher who recognised her talents and encouraged her to develop them.

There are many other ways that thinking styles can create uneven ability profiles. For example, some autistic people are very logical in their thinking and cannot get their heads around fiction of any kind. They like to know ‘what is’ or ‘what was’ and have no interest at all in made up stories that never happened. They live fully in the real world. This will cause difficulty in any exam which does not reflect the real world.

For example, one boy was very confused by an instruction in an exam to write a letter to the council to report a streetlight that had stopped working. Unfortunately for him, he knew that to report a broken streetlight, all he had to do was to read the number on the post and enter that number into the appropriate place on the council website. Writing a letter about the matter just didn’t make any sense to him! But I wonder how many people know that you can report broken streetlights on the council website. The person who wrote the exam question certainly didn’t know that!

He failed his exam because of this and other questions like it. Examiners should perhaps research their questions more carefully.

The result is that this young man was labelled as stupid because he could not pass his exams and he accepted that label because the only measure of his intelligence in Autism available to him was performance in exams. But arguably, the exams were not designed to measure his abilities.

Does this young man have superpowers? Well no. Would he be suitable for employment? Well yes, if given the right support to find the right kind of job with a sympathetic employer who is willing to ‘carve’ out a job for him that takes advantage of what he can do and not expect him to perform well at some other tasks.

An uneven ability profile can lead to good, but not necessarily exceptional, performance in some areas, but poor performance in other areas.

We repeat that not all autistic people have an uneven ability profile. It is not at all uncommon to find a balanced cognitive profile. In these cases, autistic difficulties are explained via other difficulties such as processing issues. In a previous blog post, ​Intelligence in Autism: how someone who scores in the learning disability range on an IQ test can go on to get a PhD, we discussed the impact of processing difficulties on intelligence in autism.

An uneven ability profile and processing Issues

A combination of an uneven ability profile and processing difficulties leads to cognitive tests producing an IQ value (or set of values) that does not all reflect the abilities of the individual.

If a processing difficulties can cause problems, and idiosyncratic ways of thinking cause other problems, then it should be clear that a combination of both issues is likely to create even more challenging (and interesting) problems.

We have a profile of a person on our website whose processing issues and thinking styles do not match. This has caused her all kinds of problems with her study and career choices. She is good at design, but only if she can create a physical design. She tried to study design at university, but her visual processing difficulties meant there was no way she could cope with 3D virtual design in a computer. For more details you can read Helen’s profile.

We need a different approach so that the abilities and difficulties of autistic children and adults are measured accurately. This is important so that they are not written off because they have failed to perform well on an inappropriate IQ test. This applies to both processing difficulties and to those who have an uneven cognitive ability profile.

Aspiedent can Help

Aspiedent has a service that helps people understand their autistic intelligence and in particular any processing, thinking or other issues they may have. This is part of an autism profile. Example autism profiles can be found on our website. Autism Profiles are potentially life changing for the better because they help the both the person and those around them to understand their individual autistic difficulties.

An Autism profile can assess whether potential study choices are likely to work out or not. Similarly, they can help with careers advice. They can be very beneficial for children

If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, get in touch.