Monday, September 29, 2008

Aspies' and Autists' Gifts to Society


We Aspies and autists sometimes have to ask for accommodations. We shouldn't make a habit of it where we can avoid it, but there's no shame when it is necessary. Remember that accommodations, when they work best, help us contribute more to society and to those we love, work, live and play with.

On the other hand, the way we're wired also gives us unique strengths. Among other things:

  • We can often focus better. Among other things, that helps us become knowledgeable in important subjects, because we take the time and effort to know all about something.

  • We have good eyes for detail.

  • Because of our dedication and focus, we are often the most loyal friends and partners. According to at least one study, Aspies are much less likely to cheat than NTs. Consider this: we tend to be strictly rule-abiding, we tend to say what's on our mind so deception is very difficult for (most of) us, if we have any sense we're very happy and appreciative of our partners, we hate change and we may not be inclined to do the socializing necessary to rack up paramours!

  • We tend to especially make friends with people from or in other countries. For example, a good friend of mine from Washington, DC studies in Rome, partly because she believes that social errors would be minimized because she's an American. I have been a Russophile since high school, and have had multiple pen pals and acquaintances from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Communicating across cultures is not much more difficult for us than communicating within our own culture - and it may be less difficult because social slip-ups can be attributed to cultural differences rather than personal traits. (Also, we may have less to unlearn since we're not as deeply embedded in our own culture. We're used to taking an outsider's eye view of our own society.) Therefore, we tend to have a comparative advantage in global relations. We get to know people from other countries and cultures more easily.

  • Once we learn how to understand people better, we tend to empathize with outsiders and minorities. That flows partly from our intercultural abilities and partly from our own experiences.

  • For closely related reasons, we tend to be more self-aware, and able to ask for what we want in a relationship (of whatever type), and more aware of the other person's needs.

  • More broadly, we tend to be more articulate and have better developed verbal skills, at least in writing. We may be able to translate our skills to oral communication as well.

  • On the other side, we may be able to better take clear, honest, direct, specific but fair criticism. We don't automatically attach hostile undertones which aren't there, and we know the importance of giving the specific facts and telling the unvarnished truth even when it hurts.

  • We can find our own creative solutions to problems, because we're used to looking at things our own way, and we're used to persevering in the face of social disapproval and worse.

  • On the other hand, certain environments call on people to accept routines and be willing to do the same thing day in and day out. We thrive in such settings.

Of course, we should never discriminate against or scorn NTs simply because they tend to be less likely to do these things as well as we do. Everyone has different talents, and there are some things that NTs do especially well, too.

Indeed, it will help our efforts to adapt to an NT-dominated world if we think of what we're doing as accommodating them and their unique strengths and weaknesses, just as we ask they do for us. That approach may help us better understand their needs. As Stephen Covey points out in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we need to seek first to understand, then to be understood.

One Aspie I know, Eric, sees society as like a chessboard:

Pawns are Aspies, which move forward but attack diagonally, one square at a time (except for their first move when they can move two squares). As a result, they are stymied by obstacles that other pieces can brush aside (capture), but they offer unique solutions and "think outside the box".

The King is an Aspie with extensive social skills and other training and adapts well to NT society. It can move and capture pieces in any direction, but only one square at a time.

Rooks are NTs. They can move all around the board and capture pieces, but only along predetermined lines - ranks and files. They can be blindsided by diagonal approaches - including from pawns.

Bishops are autists. They can move all around the board and capture pieces too, but only in their own direction - diagonally. They add their own unique approaches, but have difficulty dealing well with conventional approaches - vertical and horizontal.

Knights are dogs and other pets. They don't have to conform to societal expectations on how to move, so they move in L-shaped patterns and jump over other pieces. Since knights are often first brought into play (or "developed") with pawns guarding them, it can be said that Aspies can have a rapport with animals in ways that others find more difficult.

That's certainly true in my case. Literally from the day I was born I've had dogs. I was the first child in my house, but from Day One I had to coexist with a big dog. That probably has much to do with why I'm very confident around dogs, understand their body language well - and make sure to act around them so they understand me well - and as a result have rarely been bitten.

Sometimes I wonder if to some extent AS is species-specific, so I'm an Aspie with humans but much more like an NT with dogs. Certainly many of us know folks who get along much better with animals than with people. Emily is exactly the reverse.

The Queen, which can move in all directions throughout the board, is God or any other higher power you may believe in.

What do you think?

1 comment:

Tanya @ TeenAutism said...

Hi Jeff,

I love the chess analogy! I think it's quite accurate. I also like your idea about being NT in how you relate to dogs. Nigel is like that with dogs and especially cats; he has a good rapport with them and they respond to him so well.

You presented some truly wonderful strengths and gifts in this post, but I think that the best one of all is loyalty. It's a trait that I see in Nigel, and I am so blessed to have him, just as Emily and your other loved ones are blessed to have you.

Best wishes,
Tanya Savko