Autistic Skill Sets: A Spiky Profile of Peaks and Troughs

Photograph of person on a mossy mountain by themselves in a red jacket and backpack with clouds in the background. below the mountain.

Splinter skills and spiky profiles

One of the primary things I wish people knew about autism is that autistic people tend to have ‘spiky skills profiles:’ we are good at some things, bad at other things, and the difference between the two tends to be much greater than it is for most other people.

Because we are bad at some things, people often expect us to be bad at other things; for example, they see someone failing to conform with social expectations, and assume that person has impaired intelligence.  But because we are good at some things, people are often impatient when we’re not as skilled or need support in other areas.

We are often taken to be “lazy” because we seem to master some things easily, but fail at things many find “simple.” Autistic kids suffer a lot in school because when they struggle with certain tasks or subjects, teachers often assume that it’s from a lack of effort.

In the workplace, we might be highly competent in certain areas– hopefully the ones central to getting the job done– but bad at networking, bad at office politics, and bad at completing tasks that nobody actually told us we should be doing.

Smooth and discontinuous spectra

If you think of skills as lying on a spectrum, some people have moderately high levels across the board. An autistic spectrum of skills is more like a series of bright peaks with dark troughs in between them. I accept that this is not quite the common description of the ‘autistic spectrum,’ but I stand by it.

Sometimes people talk about these islands of ability as ‘splinter skills’ — often autistic people are really very good at things we’re good at. Mostly the skills are the result of putting a lot of work in because we’re interested in it, not that we always have much control over where our interest takes us.

So-called autistic savants have caused much excitement in pop culture, but the savant narrative often talks about splinter skills in almost mystical terms– as if they were acquired effortlessly, when in many cases the opposite is true.

Having said that, I do find that I and other autistic people I know seem to pick up some skills much faster than most people. When things build on our existing interests, perhaps the deep-linking style of the monotropic mind lends itself to rapid progress within an area, often at the cost of poorer generalisation between areas of skill.

This is something like what people mean when they talk about autistic people being bad at ‘big picture’ thinking, but we’re perfectly good at seeing the big picture if we can make logical sense of it. Most things in life obey rules of some kind, even if inconsistently.

Being determined to find overarching patterns allows us to make sense of many of the things around us, although people are frustratingly hard to predict, especially when their brains work differently from yours.

On the other hand, thinking differently often allows people to make sense of things from perspectives that other people completely miss. If you don’t start with the same assumptions as other people, you are likely to miss what seems obvious to most; however, you are also more likely to find your way to answers that pass the majority by.

We all benefit from being around people who are not like us, as well as from people who are. The diversity of human thinking is one of our species’ great assets, and communities do best when they make the most of everybody’s strengths and support them with their difficulties. The first step in doing that is to recognise what those strengths and support-needs are.

People can change and learn, but sometimes it takes a lot of time and effort, and sometimes that effort has the opposite effect. Shutdowns and burnout can lead to massive losses of ability and motivation, often across multiple areas and sometimes lasting for months (or longer).

Never assume that because something is easy for you, it must be easy for everybody else — but don’t be too quick to decide anything is impossible, either.

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