Everybody has strengths and weaknesses of course, but with autistic people these can often be a bit extreme — in many cases both our strengths and our weaknesses can seem quite extraordinary. One well-known example of extraordinary strength in an autistic person is London artist Stephen Wiltshire‘s ability to draw an entire city from memory after flying around it in a helicopter for twenty minutes. Another is Temple Grandin‘s ability to visualize machines in operation based only on the machine’s design specifications.
As for weaknesses, these are quite diverse and can include learning disabilities, hyper-reactive senses, anxiety, depression, social isolation, etc., but for the sake of comparison with the prodigious abilities of Wiltshire and Grandin, and if you can pardon the macabre and controversial nature of the example, we might consider the prodigiously tragic and horrific case of Adam Lanza who a few years ago murdered more than twenty young school kids and a number of adults including his own mother. In mentioning Lanza’s case, however, I should emphasize that although various forms of self-directed harm are unfortunately quite common for autistic people, violence toward others is rare indeed. Especially rare is the sort of prodigiously monstrous performance-violence perpetrated by Lanza. Really the vast majority of autistic people are peace-loving and utterly harmless toward others.
As is true with pretty much any biological and/or psychological variable (height, blood pressure, IQ, etc.), when taken over a large enough population, these kinds of measurements tend to form a “bell-curve“, and I think it’s reasonable to guess that the same is true with measurements of abilities like drawing, visualizing and yes, even the horrifying “ability” to kill a group of school children. (If you think most people would measure as a flat zero on that scale, ponder, for example, the fact that the atomic bombs dropped in 1944 by the United States on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima killed upwards of 120 thousand human beings, many of them no doubt children, even babies).
“The combination of great abilities with great disabilities presents an extraordinary paradox: how can such opposites live side by side?”
With respect to such a bell-curve, people like Wiltshire and Grandin are known as “black swans“, or statistical outliers. Their measurements lie way out in the tails of the curve (picture). The measurements associated with most of us — autistic or not — will lie somewhere closer to the middle of the curve — the hump. The idea here is that if you pick some ability, like Grandin’s ability to visualize machines in operation, measure it across a large enough sample of people (autistic or not), then I’m guessing those measurements will probably form a bell curve and Grandin’s measurement will be way out on the tail of the curve’s strong measurements (the other tail will be the weak measurements). Most of the measurements (including my own) will lie somewhere closer to the middle. I would expect something similar for Wiltshire’s ability to draw a complete city from memory, or Lanza’s monstrous “ability” to kill children.
Although I probably have a mostly average ability to visualize, an average memory, and abhor violence both in fact and in principle, I nonetheless have a few fairly extreme strengths and weaknesses of my own. Since receiving my diagnosis last year I’ve taken to describing myself as a “weird mix of smart and stupid”, and in any given moment it’s often not clear to me which is which, even with the benefit of hindsight.
For example, regarding my own mathematics education it took me 18 years to learn how to add fractions and do long division, but less than a year later I was aceing college level calculus courses. I can also speak French and German with almost no accent and I’m getting there with Spanish now too, although it can take me a very long time to learn a language. For example, I’ve been studying German on and off since about 1988, and although my pronunciation is excellent, I still need a dictionary to read it and can only speak it very slowly. For me speaking German feels like I’m assembling a piece of IKEA® furniture: first I lay out all of the sentence components — the verbs, nouns, and modifiers — and then I put them together in my mind piece by piece to form a coherent sentence that I then recite out loud to my listener with something close to perfect pronunciation.
I did manage to achieve speaking and writing fluency in French, and I can read most French-language newspapers, magazines and non-fiction books quite comfortably without a dictionary (literary fiction not so much), but that was only after studying it for 10 years followed by a good 5 years living in Montreal. As much as I enjoy learning languages and work at it with intense focus and persistence (you know, like we autists do) I’m certainly not someone who can just “pick one up” in a few weeks.
But there is one thing in particular that I can do extremely well. Whatever my other strengths, this particular ability far surpasses them in sheer freakishness, and I believe would make me wealthy man indeed, if only I could find some way to monetize it, a goal which so far has eluded my best efforts to attain. If there is anything I have that might qualify as a “super power” it’s this: I am extremely good at destroying relationships. And by “relationship” I’m talking about really any kind of relationship — with friends, family, colleagues (especially bosses), landlords, shop-keepers, sales clerks and even the occasional fellow shopper.
Yeah, I’m like really, really good at botching things up with other people.
Of course, I’m not proud of this ability, and in fact I really don’t like this about myself. I always feel more or less awful when it happens, and ironically in many cases it has been my striving too hard to fix some broken relationship that only made things even worse with the person. One time I actually got fired because I tried too hard to impress my boss. (That’s a far too simple way to tell the story, but basically true).
How I manage to do this and also how “well” I do it varies from situation to situation. I’m also happy to say that I only rarely ever use this “super power”. I think really most people who meet me or even get to know me find me quite friendly, likable, and good natured, and thankfully never come to witness firsthand this unfortunate “ability” of mine. Often when I talk to one of these individuals about this aspect of myself they are quite skeptical and think I must be exaggerating, but I don’t think I am. In any case, over the five or so decades of my life I’ve somehow managed to keep the actual number of destroyed relationships to a tolerable minimum, probably for the most part by avoiding people as much as I can, or by keeping my relationships quite superficial, or in some cases by having relationships with people who are extremely flexible, tolerant and forgiving (I do have family members and friends who actually love me).
But I regret to say that there are more than a handful of people walking around on this planet — and not just ex-bosses and girlfriends — whom I have in diverse and unexpected ways managed to forget, ignore, neglect, irritate, annoy, irk, frustrate, offend, astonish, unpleasantly surprise, on occasion shock, and in some cases “push to the brink” and/or frankly infuriate to the point where, if they ever even think of me at all, when they do they surely wince or maybe do one of these (picture):
I am so very, very good at alienating (some, or maybe certain kinds of) people, that if I were Native American, I’m sure my fellow tribe members would call me “Burns Bridges”, or something like it. I’m actually toying with the idea of using that as a nom de plume by-line on this blog.
Of course, relationship failure of one form or another is perhaps the most important symptom of autism, and since being diagnosed almost a year ago I’m feeling more than a little relieved to have some kind of an explanation for why I am so freakishly good at burning bridges. I wish I could tell you that simply knowing this about myself has somehow magically fixed the problem, but I regret to say that just a few months ago I blew it with yet another boss and got myself sacked again.
On the upside, after months of searching, I finally got lucky the other day and found a new job, and I also have a good psychotherapist now, and a real autism doctor trying to help me figure this all out. And like I said, I do have family members and friends who love me and who are being quite supportive, even if I am the most difficult person they’ve ever met.