A lot of the time, when I ask parents and teachers to consider a neurodiversity perspective of autism, or to look for what their children’s strengths may be and not only their deficits, people will retort, “My child doesn’t have any savant skills!”
And so I wanted to address the relationships between what we commonly think of as “savant skills,” and communication, expression, and the deficit model of autism.
Autism is commonly conceived of only as a set of serious deficits, except for when it confers spectacular, miraculous-seeming, but isolated savant abilities or splinter skills.
This is a problem.
I was kind of already thinking about these things when I ran across this post, about splinter skills as simply very specialized expressions of things that are otherwise just called talents, and this paper, which describes savant skills as specific perceptual strengths for which the time and tools necessary for reinforcement are available. (Note: the paper is in very dense, abstract, and academic language. It's a rewarding article to read, but it is not written in accessible language.)
I’ve always presumed myself not to have a savant skill. I certainly don’t have any of the stereotypical, conspicuous ones like card-counting, calendar calculation, or photorealistic drawing. But I’m not totally sure anymore that’s true. Or at least, what my actual core strength is, is fairly ultra-specific and manifests in a relatively narrow band of tasks.
And I think it’s something related to perception and filtering of information about time. (How’s that for obscure and specific?)
This thing about timing is something I feel like I’ve always had as a primary perceptual bias. It’s an entirely non-verbal perception, and yet it can have expression in verbal contexts.
Whether or not I have any way to express it, on the other hand—to make it apparent as a strength at all—is incredibly context-specific. That’s happened twice—in scholar bowl—where in my first student vs. faculty rounds in middle school, I was so fast at pulling answers about subjects I’d never studied out of thin air and hitting a buzzer that it had my teachers scrambling to discover how I was cheating. And in stage management—what I now do for a living.
People are still surprised to hear that calling a show—that is, the act of reciting from a script all the light, sound, and entrance cues in a show so that they happen exactly when they should—is my favorite part, and the easiest part to me. I was confused the first time I was asked in an interview, with some skepticism, whether I like calling shows.
I love it. Nothing else feels so mentally close to flight.
And I was just good at those things, the first time. I got even better with practice, but they were things that just intuitively clicked the first time I did them. But I was fairly old before I had any way to demonstrate this as a pattern of skill, and even older before I had the language or pattern of experience to recognize and identify it for what it is.
The counterintuitive part is that even though it’s a strength, even though it’s an enhanced perception compared to what most people experience…it can also be disabling. It’s intimately involved somehow with why speech and initialization of movement are difficult. It’s related to why participating in group conversation is hard, because other people are using an entirely different set of cues to direct and understand the flow of conversation.
It’s a major source of anxiety, because this thing that my whole sense of the world is patterned on, is undermined and disrupted by most other people most of the time. It’s part of what makes transitions so hard to navigate for the same reason.
It’s the very same trait that can be a strength or a disability depending on the context in which it occurs, and sometimes even both at once. It’s the same trait that makes speech and gross motor planning hard, as makes me able to run a complicated show practically as easily as breathing, depending on my environment, the expectations of people around me, and the tools I have access to.
People who have a recognized savant ability or “splinter” skill are only the ones who have a readily available medium for it.
What’s most alarming to me is how dependent on access to technology and educational resources my chances of even getting to identify and make use of this have been.
If I hadn’t had the language capability I do, if I hadn’t been considered a gifted student, if my chances of going to college were undermined instead of supported, if I hadn’t had access to theatrical training—all of which could so easily have happened if I’d remained non-speaking. Or if I’d even been diagnosed correctly. I would likely have been denied access to the very resources that are most necessary to expression of my most central abilities, based only on prejudices about what my inabilities meant. (Which weren’t not there anyway, they were just not acknowledged or presumed to be willful on my part.)
There is no reason why acknowledging disabilities, deficits, and need for supports should mean refusing to recognize strengths, or why recognizing strengths should mean refusing to cope with deficits. Humans don’t have only intrinsic strengths or savant skills or disabilities. Not only are none of those things mutually exclusive…they can actually be intimately related.
It positively frightens me to think about how many kids could be in a situation in which their strengths are denied because they don’t fit a limited stereotype of what “savant” abilities look like. Where their families and teachers have been taught to see only grave deficits as consequences of autism. Who haven’t been given any way to know or communicate what tools they need or what kind of environment would best allow them access to their abilities, which may not resemble what most people think abilities look like at all.
How many are being written off as being without abilities, even without awareness, because they don’t have the medium they need for expression?
When I ask “What are this kid’s strengths?” the answer may require looking for something that is also at the root of their disabilities.
I want to be totally clear: I’m not saying that all autistic kids have some hidden, magical savant skill, but that people are in danger of having their abilities and competencies ignored when they don’t look like what people think savant skills look like, and believe that a limited repertoire of savant skills are the only true abilities that an autistic person could have.
[Image is of a Clear-Com headset sitting on top of a stage manager's calling script, with lots of cues and timing notes written in.]