[Author’s note: I’m kind of less happy with this article the more I reflect upon its subject matter. I fully acknowledge it’s not entirely credible from an ‘academic’ standpoint – I kind of didn’t get what “gifted” meant in technical/clinical terms. I’ve had a few conversations with folks more tapped into the research behind, and personal experience of, “giftedness”/asynchronous development/twice-exceptionality and so on, and I realise things aren’t as clearcut as I thought (and actually, there are ways in which I, myself, DO fit this profile). Still, this piece is mostly about emotional response. And in that respect, most of it still stands.]
[Trigger warning: discussion of ableism, and mention of applied behavioural analysis (ABA). Also a hefty dollop of snark, because, well, this topic brings that sort of thing out in me.]
A few weeks ago, a friend shared on Twitter a very annoying graphic she’d come across in a parenting group, featuring an acrostic using each letter of the word “Aspergers”. Now, I could write a whole series of posts about all the separate problems I have with this image, but my fellow autistic Tweeps have those things pretty well-covered, so I’ll just focus on one.
I’m not gifted. I’m bloody clever, certainly. I’ve always managed to succeed academically – for many years with comparably little effort, until it got harder in secondary school as I got older and life made things a little too complicated for me to easily focus and apply myself.
I’m not gifted. I am, however, bloody good at some stuff. Some of it is natural ability – I was drawing far more accurate depictions of human beings at the age of three than pretty much any other preschoolers I, my parents, or anyone in their extended familial and friendship network knew of. Even so, with anything I’m good at that I was naturally able at, I’ve worked hard to shape, hone, and nurture through conscious effort. Hard graft, if you will.
(Not always willingly. I had some natural talent at playing the trumpet but only got properly good at it through playing very regularly and frequently in orchestras and bands. Intentions to diligently practice at home fell victim to my procrastination demons. And as for the visual arts, well, my lifelong – until the age of sixteen – intention to pursue a career in such a field got thoroughly shat upon by a terrible GCSE Art experience that forever tainted that particular special interest of mine. You never forget a good teacher. Or a bad one.)
I’m not gifted. And neither am I a superhero.
I don’t actually mind using the notion of super powers to encourage autistic and other disabled or otherwise neurodivergent children to value, own, and be proud of the strengths that might come with their particular way of being. But for me, it’s not logical to call those strengths “super powers”.
Yes, I have awe-inspiring pattern-finding abilities, super-acute visual and auditory processing capabilities, and sensitivity to even the slightest touch. I can detect many things that others around me cannot see. My capacities for imagination and longterm memory are vivid, multisensory, and three-dimensional. These things feed into my attention to detail and research abilities, my capacity for creativity and ideas generation, and – when I’m not tired – make my view of the world an utterly beautiful one.
My reality would seem, to someone who isn’t autistic, an augmented reality.
But none of these things are super powers. They are just a simple fact that comes of having a brain with vastly more synaptic connections in some key areas, at the expense of “underdevelopment” in others. They just…are.
So when, on the very rare occasion that someone, in a condescending tone, tells me I’m “brave”, “inspiring”, or, indeed (and yes, it has actually happened), a “superhero”, I get pretty riled.
But back to giftedness.
This usually just means “being really good at something”. And one beef I have with the word “gifted” is that it implies that any strengths or abilities that we have are simply freakish aberrations; artifacts in a stream of codified disorder, deficit and deficiency. They can never simply be thought of as things we got good at through hard work, dedicated learning and application, or just natural strengths associated with our particular character, personality, or neurotype. Oh no. They’re “gifts”.
But another problem I have with the word, especially as it appears to be used on the image shared on Twitter but also more generally, is that it implies that unless an autistic person is “gifted” – blessed with some extraordinary “super powers” – they aren’t valid, and there’s no real point in their existing. (See also savant abilities.)
This is dangerous. Autistic people, in descriptions, are often reduced to a list of “symptoms” (I’ve bemoaned this before), and the narrative leads towards an implication that that’s all there is to us. Let’s not forget that Ivar Lovaas, the founder of that aversion-therapy-for-autistics that is applied behavioural analysis (ABA), considered autistic children not even to be fully-formed people. They had to be moulded into such.
But yeah, it’s okay for Aspies, because they’re “gifted”.
Neurotypicals get away with being ordinary or unremarkable. They are the default. And whilst there’s increasing pressure on so many people in post-industrial societies to strive for the best, and continually excel (a paradox if ever there was one), it’s still a darn sight easier to be average if you’re of the predominant neurotype.
But what if we framed it the other way round? Dr Luke Beardon does this very neatly. Neurotypicals have their impairments too, you know.
And just like we amazing, inspiring, courageous autistic and neurodivergent superheroes, neurotypicals have their very own “super powers”.
Look at you, with your ability to read and respond to a social situation within conscious effort! Aren’t you amazing! Your ability to cope with interruptions is so inspiring! I’m totally in awe of how you continue to be so unerringly polite in the face of awkward or even infuriating interactions with others! Your ability to multitask, and also to sit still, are utterly astounding!
You’re my hero!
The truth is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. It’s just that some combinations of these tend to be pathologised; others do not.
And another truth is that someone of any neurotype can be unremarkable. Ordinary. Average. And that really is okay.
None of us should need to be “gifted” to be permitted to be ourselves…or even to exist.
[Featured image description: a bright green Moleskine notebook with elasticated strap, and ribbon bookmark just visible, laid flat against a black background. A pair of glasses is folded and laid on top of the book.]