Celebrating Superpowers Is Damaging Diversity & Inclusion
8th July 2022
With the rise in popularity of the American science fiction TV series Stranger Things, and the recent release of Season 4 Volume 2, now is the perfect time to raise awareness of the danger of glorifying superpowers.
Eleven, the star character of the series, is not neurotypical. Neurodiversity refers to ‘variations in the human brain and cognition, for instance in sociability, learning, and other mental functions’.[i] When we first meet Eleven, she is a young girl who has been raised in a laboratory and has the ability to move things with her mind – she’s the hero-figure in Stranger Things as her superpower literally saves the world.
But being a neurodiverse person with a superpower is not a positive association to make for many neurodiverse people. The term 'autism is a superpower' is now commonly used to celebrate some traits of autism. In this sense, the ‘superpower’ normally means an 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. But it actually backfires and puts many autistic people at an even greater disadvantage.
The idea that autism confers superpowers is a myth. Autistic people are often assumed to have super-human traits that make them great at memorising, identifying patterns, logical thinking, and much more. While it is true that some autistic people do have unusual abilities, these are actually comparatively rare.
There are many autistic people who don’t have any ‘superpowers’ and have a normal cognitive profile. For those autistic people who do have perceived 'superpowers' it is often not clear whether this ability is innate or whether the 'superpower' is a very developed compensation strategy - an existing aptitude that has been highly developed due to the need to create coping strategies to get by in the world.
At Aspiedent CIC, we are working to increase understanding of neurodiversity and dispel the many mistruths that are commonly assumed by society. Perpetuating the superpower myth can be damaging to a lot of autistic people - if autistic people are made to feel like they need to have an exceptional 'super-human' trait to be valued in the workplace, how does that make the many autistic people without these ‘superpowers’ feel? If we are to truly embrace neurodiversity, we need to accept autistic people without the expectation that they will bring something 'extra' to the table.
Working with a wide spectrum of neurodiverse individuals and training employers in how to be truly inclusive and support a neurodiverse workforce, we have years of experience in this field and we can assure you that the people we support do not have superpowers! Many of the people we work with have found it impossible to hold down jobs because of their autism and because they have no ‘superpower’ that makes an employer do all they can to keep them.
The people we support are normal people with normal skillsets. They have nothing to show a potential employer to make them stand out and therefore tend to lose out to someone with a similar skillset who does not have autism. There are also many autistic people with severe issues and/or extremely challenging symptoms. These people are understandably extremely concerned about autism being classified as some sort of neurodevelopmental superiority. To classify autism as a ‘superpower’ could trivialise the difficulties some autistic people and families face, and it implies that people with autism are not in need of support.
Most children grow up watching superhero movies and dreaming about which superpower they’d choose, if they could have one. To be able to climb buildings like Spiderman? To fly like Superman? To have super strength like The Hulk?
But is a superpower always super?
We’d argue they’re not. If you travel everywhere at 200 miles an hour, that’s only a superpower when travelling fast is an advantage. In a different situation, ‘super’ speed could be a problem – such as when wanting to go for a stroll along a river with someone. It’s the same with autism.
Is Eleven’s superpower a blessing or a curse? Her obvious differences to her peers cause her many difficulties – she’s bullied at school and struggles to fit in. When her ‘superpower’ of psychokinesis is revealed, she becomes valuable in the rescue mission of missing school kids lost in another dimension, but her abilities also make many people fear her and they become a burden when she is triggered and her unleashed powers cause chaos.
As someone with autism herself, our Aspiedent director Dr. Guest speaks from experience. “My autism can be a double-edged sword,” she explains. “Despite my clear abilities in certain areas - I have achieved a PhD and been a university lecturer - I also have severe sensory issues and poor social communication skills, which cause many difficulties navigating everyday life. My autism is not a superpower, it’s a disability.”
At Aspiedent CIC, we have an autism profiling service that helps people understand their autistic intelligence and, in particular, any processing, thinking, or other issues they may have. Autism Profiles are generally life-changing for the better because they help the both the person and those around them to understand their individual autistic difficulties.
 Armstrong, Thomas (2011). The power of neurodiversity: unleashing the advantages of your differently wired brain