Autistic traits and ability

I have a preference to associate autistic traits with ability rather than disability.*

An autistic trait is a characteristic that tends to be more prevalent in people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (which I will refer to as autism throughout this blogpost). There are a huge range of autistic traits. I mentioned a few autistic traits in my first blog such as a natural sense of fairness, justice and honesty, being creative in several interest areas and a great loyalty to others.

There have been studies in scientific literature about the character of relatives of those with autism. These studies show that relatives of those with autism are more likely to have greater than average autistic traits due to its genetic inheritability**1, 2, 3, 4

Everybody, including but not limited to those people with a diagnosis of autism, have a different combination and expression of autistic traits, it is just that those with autism find that their traits exceed the limit defined by an autism diagnosis and they impact significantly on their ability to meet the expectations of others.

There have been at least two occasions where someone has said to me that “Everyone has autism!” There can be many ways to interpret a comment like that. It could relate to the confusion between autistic traits and an autism diagnosis itself and/or refer to the increasing numbers of people diagnosed with autism.

Firstly, let me state the obvious: Everyone does not have autism! People who do not have autism may have some or a few traits that people with autism also have but not the enough traits to warrant a diagnosis. The prevalence of autism in Australia is estimated to be approximately 1 in 62.55, which certainly doesn’t represent everyone.

With regards to increasing prevalence of autism, no-one can be completely certain why diagnosis of autism is increasing but it is likely to be significantly affected by changes in diagnostic concepts, criteria and improved identification6.

Suggesting a link between autistic traits and ability, is an area of contention for some families. Some people with a diagnosis of autism and their families are faced with greater challenges than I do myself and as a mother to my boys. It may well be that the challenges for a person with autism or their family are so extreme that they personally cannot conceive of such an association to the point that they feel such an association minimizes the extent of their challenges.

I cannot speak for everyone’s experiences and their feelings about those experiences but I am passionate about speaking out about the experiences and feelings of many others that are overshadowed by the rhetoric of disorder and cures. I personally do not feel that challenges and ability are mutually exclusive. I even think that one may sometimes lead to the other.

Although, much of the scientific literature focuses on the ‘impairments’ of people with autism, I have come across several articles that have chosen to focus on the benefits of autism. These benefits include attention to detail and affinity with systems, which can lead to great ability particularly in fields of interest to the person7, 8.

In addition, it is estimated that 10% of people with autism have Savant Syndrome9 and Savant Syndrome appears to be closely linked to autism***10, 11.

‘Savant syndrome is a rare but remarkable condition in which persons with developmental disabilities (including but not limited to autistic disorder), or other central nervous system injuries or diseases, have some spectacular “islands of genius” that stand in stark, jarring contrast to overall limitations’9. Savant abilities appear to exist primarily in five main areas; those of music, art, calendar calculating, lightening calculating and mechanical and spatial skills9.

Autism was not recognized before the 20th Century so we can only make an educated guess that any particular misfit genius of our past actually had autism or other learning differences and there are books written exploring that concept12, 13.

Albert Einstein12, 13, Thomas Jefferson12, Charles Darwin13 and Hans Christian Andersen13 are several of many great achievers from our past considered highly likely to have had autism. I find it interesting that people with a diagnosis of autism often struggle so much with change in their lives yet may be responsible for the greatest changes in the journey of the human species.

Studies that have allowed more liberal definitions of savant syndrome have found higher prevalence of the condition among people with autism11 and that is why I believe that these abilities are distributed in strength in a continuous gradient across the general population with higher incidence in those with autism in much the same way that autistic traits have been shown to be3, 14.

Just like focussing on training the talent of the savant to improve overall outcomes for the savant9, I favour a strong focus on training the talents of those with autism to improve their overall outcomes.

It is always a good idea to always assume competence in someone with autism. In this day and age where augmented communication is possible some of those people with more extreme presentation of autism have finally been able to express themselves such that we can listen to what they have to say and understand their experience of the world around them.

Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay, Carly Fleischmann, Ido Kedar are a few of those people with more extreme presentations of autism that we can learn from, through books that document their thoughts and experiences15, 16, 17.

How would you feel if as a parent, a relative or a teacher that you had been interacting around a child as if they were not present as a competent person, when in fact they are there and they do understand every word you are saying about them but may not be able express themselves in a way that we may feel we need in order to recognize them as equals?

Usually, we assume competence and ability with children; we strive for them to learn and to be capable. As long as we continually encourage, guide and praise our children then we make that assumption of competence a positive experience, which enhances their potential.

There is a popular quote “When you have met one child with autism then you have met one child with autism”. Simply, this quote refers to the fact that all children with autism are different and it also means that we cannot begin to predict what any one child is capable of in the future.

When we take away that assumption of competence we doubt them, we limit their potential and essentially we are saying to them that they are not as capable of achieving something because of their autism. That is essentially a form of stigma and it immediately puts them at a disadvantage compared to other children.

It is our responsibility as parents and professionals to search for different ways for our children to express their competence and participate in this world as respected equals.

*Although, it is important to acknowledge disability. My understanding of disability is informed by the ‘Social Model of Disability’.

**The genetics of autism is very complex, there are a wide range of genes and gene combinations involved and complex environmental factors as yet undetermined may predispose expression of those genes. Nevertheless, it has been established that genetics plays a strong role in the origin of autism4.

***The term ‘Savant Syndrome’ may actually be ableist. Have a read of this interesting blogpost on autism and unique abilities:


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  2. Piven, J. The Broad Autism Phenotype: A complementary strategy for molecular genetic studies of Autism. American Journal of Medical Genetics (Neuropsychiatric Genetics) 2001; 105: 34-35
  3. Constantino, J.N. and Todd, R.D. Autistic traits in the general population: A twin study. Archives of General Psychiatry 2003; 60(5): 524-530
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  8. O’Connor, K and Kirk, I. Brief report: Atypical social cognition and social behaviours in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A different way of processing rather than an impairment. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2008; 38:1989-1997
  9. Treffert, D.A. Islands of genius: the bountiful mind of the autistic, acquired, and sudden savant. London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011
  10. Heaton, P and Wallace, G.L. Annotation: The savant syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2004; 45(5):899-911
  11. Howlin, P. Goode, S. Hutton, J. Rutter, M. Savant skills in autism: Psychometric approaches and parental reports. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B (Biological Sciences) 2009; 364: 1359-1367
  12. Ledgin, N. Asperger’s and self-esteem: Insight and hope through famous role models, Arlington, Future Horizons Incorporated, 2005
  13. Elder, J. Different like me: My book of autism heroes, London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006
  14. Losh, M. Childress, D. Lam, K. Piven, J. Defining key features of the Broad Autism Phenotype: A comparison across parents of multiple- and single-incidence autism families. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics 2008; 147B(4): 424-433
  15. Kedar, I. Ido in autismland: Climbing out of autism’s silent prison, Sharon Kedar, 2012
  16. Mukhopadhyay, T. R. How can I talk if my lips don’t move? Inside my autistic mind, New York, Arcade Publishing, 2008, 2011
  17. Fleischmann, A. Carly’s voice: Breaking through autism, New York, Touchstone, 2012