My superpower

This discussion is paired with my discussion of intellectual giftedness, which can be read here.

Perhaps the only matter on which I am destined to agree with Greta Thunberg is her description of Asperger’s syndrome as a superpower. Despite some undoubted deficits, it is overall an extraordinary benefit to the human condition.

There is much misunderstanding about Asperger’s syndrome and indeed some degree of confusion about autism in general (of which condition Asperger’s syndrome is a subtype). It is important to state at the outset that Asperger’s syndrome is not a physical or mental illness, is not something to be “cured” and is not necessarily a disability in all circumstances. It has been described as a “disorder of high intelligence” and research indicates that it correlates strongly with high IQ.

Asperger’s syndrome is now considered part of the wider diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, but it retains a number of distinct characteristics. It is not the same as High Functioning Autism (HFA). HFA requires a significant delay in the development of early speech and language skills, before the age of three years. By contrast, the diagnostic criteria of Asperger’s syndrome exclude a general language delay.

During my childhood and young adulthood, Asperger’s syndrome effectively did not exist as a diagnosis; there was no awareness or support for it within educational settings and those who exhibited its qualities, including myself, were generally misunderstood and disadvantaged as a result. It was not until I was in my twenties that it became an established diagnosis in England, and I first became aware of it when I started to teach students who had themselves been diagnosed.

Some years later, a series of life events caused me to seek out a private diagnosis from a clinical psychotherapist. This confirmed that I had Asperger’s syndrome. Indeed, I am extremely high on the autistic spectrum. It has become customary within the autistic community to share scores on the various standardised diagnostic tests; some of mine are as follows:

  • AQ: 44
  • RAADS-R: 179
  • Aspie quiz: Aspie 182/200 – Neurotypical 36/200
  • EQ: 20
  • CAT-Q: 161
  • SQ-R: 136

In my view, Asperger’s syndrome is a manifestation of neurodiversity that makes one different, but certainly not invariably in a negative way. The way in which our society accommodates such differences is essential to the success or failure which people with Asperger’s syndrome will experience in engaging with the wider world. It is unfortunate that far too often I have encountered educational and employment settings that are not at all accommodating and at times have been actively hostile. However, I have found that it is possible to find and create more receptive alternatives outside the mainstream. A number of aspects of my work, particularly in education, have sought to provide a more receptive setting for the neurodiverse, who are often well suited to nontraditional and individualised learning and assessment strategies.

My experience has been that many of the negative aspects of Asperger’s syndrome can be overcome through the application of high intelligence. Some social aspects that the neurotypical take for granted, being instinctive to them, can be learned by the neurodiverse through study and close observation; they may consequently not feel natural to us, but they can at least be mastered to a level of functional proficiency. These things also improve with age.

The superpower of Asperger’s syndrome is the intense focus that it imparts, along with a great attention to detail. It can also be seen as an extreme version of the male brain, generating significant creative drive. In addition, it aids pattern recognition, which is a remarkably useful skill, particularly for the executant musician. When combined with intellectual giftedness, it can also lead to unconventional and original perspectives that produce innovation and insight. In particular, Asperger’s syndrome and very high intelligence can bring about a viewpoint that is determinedly independent, individual and non-conformist, in contrast with those of median high intelligence who are generally conformist.

There are many controversies concerning autism in general, not least among those members of the establishment who believe it should be cured and even eliminated through a form of eugenics. I am strongly opposed to the medicalization of autism, since it is not an illness but rather a description of a human type. I support efforts for autistic rights and for the acceptance of the neurodiversity paradigm rather than a pathology paradigm of autism.

It is notable that a majority of the literature on autism, and particularly its scientific literature, is written not by autistic people but by neurotypicals who assume a right to judge the neurodiverse by neurotypical standards. This is an injustice that should be addressed. Increasingly, autistic people are making their own voices heard and promoting a better understanding of their neurodiversity. One particularly useful example of this is the website Embrace Autism, which has many informative resources and is written from a standpoint of empathy and acceptance.

Ultimately, those with Asperger’s syndrome have much to offer to society in general, provided they are given the opportunities and context in which they can flourish.