Talent Isn’t Enough: Ableism & “Gifted” Autistics

About Talent And Autistic People:

While most Autistic people aren’t savants (though many are), we do usually have a spiky skill profile. This simply means that when we are good at something, we are often very good at it, and when we are behind, we are often very behind.

For instance, not all Autistic people are good at math, but there are a lot of us who are far above average with numbers. Not all Autistic people are good with words, but many of us are prolific writers.

Non-Autistic (Allistic or Neurotypical) people often fail to recognize that, while we often do have highly specific areas of talent, we often also have areas in which our skills are behind those of our peers or for which we need support. These may be skills related to executive functioning, sequencing, or other ways in which our brains uniquely process information.

Further, Autistic people may not have any specific innate talent, but their intense passion and ability to hyperfocus can mean that they have invested in one or a few related areas of skill or expertise that are far more developed than others.

Basically, if a non-Autistic person sees that we are a prolific writer, a brilliant composer, or a skilled mathematician, they put us in the “smart” or “talented” category and expect us to be as good at everything, without giving us room to need supports.

That Being Said…

Things I am fed up with: people assuming I am capable of succeeding and have fewer obstacles and barriers in the way of success simply because I have talents.

If just being talented was enough, I would have forged a secure material existence beginning when I was 14 and was invited to join a dance troupe, or when I was 16 and wrote an entire novel long-hand and played drums on the weekends for a jazz and swing band, or when I was 17 and sold my first paintings, or when I was 21 and sang backup on an album, or…

I could go on and on about what I am capable of and sound like an egotistical brat…

My point is that all of my life, people have seen my gifts without acknowledging my limitations or the obstacles which I face in actually doing anything of any material value with those gifts. These limitations and obstacles are wound up in my being Autistic and growing up undiagnosed and without any guidance or accommodations. No one was even aware that “demand avoidance” (PDA) was a real thing and not just stubbornness or defiance or rebelliousness.

I spent the first 45 of my 50 years totally unaware of all that I was not prepared for and all that I had no coping mechanisms for. I had not developed workarounds for the demand avoidance nor the other lovely challenges of a brain that simply doesn’t do networking, self-promotion, pointless and meaningless tasks, rules that have no humane reasonableness driving them, verbal instructions, social rules of conduct and behavior, small talk, honoring hierarchies, engaging in interactions that are carrot-and-stick-style reward and punishment schemes and transactional agreements, deadlines (!!), financial negotiating, and more.

But because I am capable, articulate, and “gifted” (UGH ~ I hate that word), I am seen as better poised to make a go of material life than those who may not have been cursed/blessed with hyperlexia and more than a few savant-grade talents.

Talent and a ten-spot will get me about as far as across town.

Of Burnout And The Burden Of Other’s Perceptions

I experienced profound ~ PROFOUND ~ Autistic burnout in the summer of 2019, and it took me almost 2 years to recover. There are parts of me that are still skittish, mentally and cognitively, about work contexts even when I am more or less my own “boss.”

After 30 years of working for other people and masking and camouflaging for so long without understanding that was what I was doing…

After losing a job due to the failure of my employer to provide reasonable accommodations despite the contract that I signed that stated they would provide reasonable accommodations…

I was utterly broken and sick as a distressed dog for a long while. My mind was totally inert when it came to trying to even consider finding conventional work or seeking gigs or commissions. No amount of talent was going to get me income enough to support me and my kid: pay our rent, put food on the table, pay the gas and electric bills, the telecom bill, our phone bills…

Talent was not going to get me anywhere without some guidance as to how to understand, accept, and work with my own brain in such a way as to be productive and not do myself more damage!

That is still the case.

Is Talent a Privilege?

I am better armed now with a deeper understanding of my own Autism and my PDA brain and have developed some techniques and strategies that allow me to be somewhat functional and to be mostly reliable when it comes to getting tasks done, be they personal or professional. But, there are days when it is all a great big nope, and I still can’t promote myself to save my life (quite literally).

It is not a relative privilege to have talent.

I can tell you this, straight up.

People overestimate your capacity in all kinds of ways and presume that you’ve got all that you need in order to succeed and thrive. People think that others will see how awesome you are at “fill in the blank” and throw money and contracts and commissions at you.

People don’t question if there are the invisible disabilities lurking underneath all of that talent so they don’t see that there have been wounds festering for over 40 years without being noticed or attended to.

I got so sick of hearing the “you are not living up to your potential” speech and the “if you would only apply yourself” gobbledeegook. I hated the assumption that was embedded in those phrases that I could do it any different all on my own by just thinking differently when my brain was wired to think a certain way (and not that way). And no one even realized it, so no one ever offered any help for me to figure out my own right way to get to accomplishing “x.”

I am in the midst of figuring out how to make my way in the world as a Gay, Transgender, Autistic man who is the survivor of profound physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse many times over and who was raised by a single mom in a household deeply entrenched in poverty with addictions, domestic violence, codependence, and mental illness sprinkled like chickenpox all over my lineage.

Who nearly didn’t survive being born.

Who had open-heart surgery at the age of 16.

Who spent 41 years living the lie of being seen as a girl/woman and not knowing if there was ever going to be a way out of that hell.

I was a single parent, raising my child without any substantial parental partnership or meaningful material support even when in committed relationships or in a marriage.

Intersectionality is real.

Hidden disability is real.

I want to honor that this struggle can be even more malicious for Black and Brown Autistics who have to navigate the same hurdles with the added malignancy of racism.

Until someone walks in my shoes, they have no idea if I am more privileged in any way than someone else. They have no idea what prevents me from thriving. This has been my ongoing struggle with parents, teachers, doctors, psychiatrists, potential employers and actual employers, coaches, guides, psychics, social workers, academic advisors, and other well-meaning people who had no clue what I was up against.

Learning to Adapt, Heal, and Ask for Help

Now, in my 50th year, I am finally learning to hack my own brain to develop workarounds, and I am also taking the stand that I am not going to force myself to conform to the expectations and demands that I simply cannot live up to nor fulfill… not anymore.

Never again.

One way or the other, I am going to patch together a livelihood from out of the things that I am good at, which I enjoy, which give my life meaning… But, I am also going to ask for help to fill in the gaps of what I cannot do for myself. I am going to demand accommodations so that I am working with my strengths and not setting myself up to fail.

The asking for help is a big deal.

I need help promoting myself. I need help to connect with people who will actually pay me for what I can do, create, provide. I don’t need to be coached about how to set up a LinkedIn profile or some other self-promotion networking thing.

I cannot manage nor maintain those things. Meaning, I am incapable of it. My PDA is a legit disability there. Same with maintaining an online portfolio or an online store. I just do. not. have. the wherewithal to function with those platforms.

That is a result of the profound burnout that I experienced.

I need people who can help me seed and grow organic relationships. I need help in generating some sort of resume or portfolio that records my work: my writing, editing, artistic, and advocacy accomplishments.

I can do the artsy things, the music things, the writing and writing-adjacent things, the poetry things, the storytelling things, the photography and filming things. I can research and organize. I can recognize patterns that many people won’t even suspect are there. An osmosis-like empathy allows me to step into other people’s experiences for a bit. I can translate that.

I can collaborate on and communicate around work and projects. I can kinda-sorta set and quote prices/rates– but that is hard for me to do, still: asking for money at all and asking for what I am worth.

And that is about it.

That is at the edge of a vast chasm that I cannot cross. Anything else is just a big, opaque “no,” no matter how hard I try to force myself to get to a “yes” or a half-assed “try.”

I need a promoter, an admin assistant, a talent rep, an online social media/reputation avatar, an art dealer, and a “gofer.” For realz.

So, no. Talent is not enough. It will never be enough.

I acknowledge, with humility, that I am perhaps “unfairly” blessed with many gifts. But…

… those gifts, alone, have never been enough to secure me a place in the world.

Being able to do the “b” and the “g” and the “k” does not automatically equate to being able to do that ever-elusive, always-stymying “x.”

“X” might prove to be crippling and destructive.

This is not a “pity me” article. Just so people know. I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me, and I am not seeking comfort nor advice.

A Call For Compassion and Accommodation

This is rather a testimony of a life lived in contrast to and in conflict with neurotypical assumptions about one’s potential and with external and internalized ableism.

It is intended to educate and advocate.

It is a call for compassion towards those whom one could assume “have it made” because of some skill or talent or giftedness or aptitude but who cannot “live up to their potential” and maybe not even survive in the material world on their own because they don’t have the knowledge and tools and hacks and help and accommodations needed to do so.

What needs are missed and remain unmet when all that is seen and recognized are the gifts neurodivergent people are given?

Talent is not always the key to stability and success. In fact, for us, it is usually an unintended smokescreen that hides desperation, lack, need, and uneven strengths.

We often say, in the advocacy community: “presume competence.” We do want and need society to presume competence. We also need and want the barriers, challenges, and limitations that we experience to be recognized, despite the weight that society puts upon our talents and skills.

“Giftedness” can be assumed to be a sign of a “high functioning” state (functioning labels being a neurotypical categorization that do a grave disservice to neurodivergent individuals) and then so much competence is assumed that services, accommodations, coaching, and guidance are never provided for those who are thought of as “too talented” to need help.

My life would have been made so much easier if what was underneath my “giftedness” was seen and understood; if my struggles in school or on the job were recognized as legitimate limitations and as confusion as to how it is I was supposed to navigate the systems and structures that comprised those environments.

Talent is not enough. Talent, alone, will never be enough.

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10 Responses

  1. A shout-out to the super-talented (and subversively funny) Kate Jones for the artwork that graces the top of this article page. A holler for Terra Vance, too, for collaborating upon the imagery of an “alternative” version of the image (the contents of which shall remain an “inside joke”). Y’all are rock stars!! I feel honored and blessed to have Kate’s incredible visuals offered to me for this written piece.

    1. In addition, thank you to Terra Vance for helping me craft the first few opening paragraphs ~ supplying a good, solid, scaffolding for me to build lightly upon. I had no idea how to introduce people to this subject in such a way that was inclusive of Neurotypical perspectives, in particular.

  2. This is absoltely amazing! I very much resonate, even as a pre-diagnosis ASD person. We need more education for NT’s around how this actually works, it seems only ASD people understand it among other ASD people and society is severely lacking in the gifts we are able to deliver when we do get the needs met that we so sorely need additional advocates for. So many people instead feel jealous of the small singular talents we have, and perceptiveness that we embody and instead of supporting us to do more with it to help others, we just get punished in severe forms which degrades society as a whole. It is tragic and NT’s will eventually lose the most innovative minds on the planet until more education is created to help them understand the disservice which is happening to ASD minds at large. Such a huge issue…

  3. This article was everything, It explained my life to a tee! Thank you for writing it! 🤍🙏🤗🙂

  4. Think of the child abuse that it still can be, but was more often in the generation before expanded autism awareness: when a kid not recognised as autistic got labelled gifted, and authoritarian school fantasised that it could force great academic successes out of us. A situation the mainstream media have still never acknowledged + investigated.

    1. That was completely my experience. Undiagnosed (as Autistic at that point ~ I was diagnosed as ADHD as a child and treated with formal ABA therapy and ABA-influenced parenting) and labeled as “gifted”, gaslit and shamed for not “living up to my potential”. I shudder to think of my dad, who is most certainly Autistic as well ~ but never diagnosed ~ and who was definitely labeled “gifted” too. He could not wait to be done with school. He graduated High School and refused to go to college. He was a phenomenal writer but never finished any of his projects and, to the best of my knowledge, never submitted anything to be published. That makes me very sad and angry on his behalf because I know what his childhood and upbringing were like ~ cold, cruel, un-nurturing. His mother told him numerous times she wished she never had him. He’s spent the past 37 years pretty much living on the fringe of society and not forging any lasting, meaningful relationships. He is a ghost in the world. All of the amazing things he could have brought into being but never did because he was totally destroyed ~ emotionally and psychologically ~ by the time he was 20. 🙁

  5. I feel like I’m following in your father’s footsteps—both in the specific details you describe about him and, more generally, in slowly sinking in the sink-or-swim society that we’ve created for ourselves. Your article is a real step in a better direction. Thanks for raising these issues. They definitely apply in my life and now I don’t have to figure them out from scratch (or, more likely, fail to figure them out and just go on struggling for the rest of my life, never knowing why).

  6. Your observations are spot-on. My advice is to frame autistic lived experience in a way that exposes the role of society and current mainstream cultural norms as the source of the disabilities we experience. It is not only that we can’t be successful on the terms prescribed by a sick dehumanising cultural environment, it is also that we don’t aspire to the exploitative notion of success that is deemed “normal”.

    Autists depend on assistance from others in ways that differ from the cultural norm – and that is pathologised. However, the many ways in which non-autistic people depend on others is considered “normal” or is brushed under the carpet https://neuroclastic.com/2019/11/11/celebration-of-interdependence/.

    For example the demand for continuous self-promotion in industrialised societies is detrimental to our health, and in aggregate, it is highly detrimental to all of society. Autists are simply amongst the first whose physical and mental health suffers when attempting to conform to the perverse demands of a life-destroying hyper-competitive society.

    Society needs to finds its way back from the brink of collective delusion and self-destruction. We can start by jointly creating small islands of sanity for autistic people where it is okay to depend on each other and to support each other in all the many ways that meet our needs and that are not part of the “normality” that surrounds us.

    What makes me sad is if I see autists attempting to self-promote in order to better fit in and succeed individually in our sick society. The amount of masking involved is extreme, and it never ends well. It tends to isolate these autists from autistic community, and it plays into the hands of the divide and conquer strategy of the autism industrial complex.

  7. I’m also a creative and have had a few “moderate” successes in a couple of fields. After reading this, I realized that voice saying “you should be able to do more”, is, for me, just the voice in my own head :-/ (and maybe my mother’s too, heh) In retrospect, the few times where I’ve had the external success, I’ve also had support from others around me who advocated for me and could fill in where I couldn’t. At any rate, this article has really helped me put my past and current work into more perspective – thank you!

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