7/18: “Splinter Skills”

Next, I’m going to talk about several traits that are in the DSM 5 criteria and have been in the DSM for a long time. I began by talking about the autistic traits that I’m most aware of in myself, the differences in how my brain works that have the biggest effects on my daily life. These next sections describe some visible, outward autistic traits that tend to stand out most to people around us, the things that mark our everyday behavior as strange but which we may not notice until they’re pointed out to us.

When you’ve seen autistic people in fiction or heard about us on the news, you may have heard about the idea that some autistic people, although disabled in some ways, have one exceptional talent, one subject on which they not only don’t seem disabled, but are much more skilled than the average person. Older media use the term “idiot-savant” for a person like this. Newer terms are “twice exceptional” (used in education and meaning, to put it crudely, a person who’s exceptionally bad at some school subjects and exceptionally good at others) and “splinter skill” or “savant skill” (referring to the skill that stands out above the person’s overall “level” of ability or education).

I want to note here that the kind of intelligence measured by IQ scores and standardized tests is not in any way part of the criteria for autism. Some autistic people score extremely well on these kinds of tests, others are average, others have low scores. This does not mean that those of us with higher IQs are less autistic or less disabled, or that those with lower IQs are less worthy of respect or less capable of making their own decisions— only that some of us are better at the specific skills these tests require. I generally do well on standardized tests, yet there are real ways in which I am cognitively disabled; my brain is not always capable of doing what I need it to do or what other people expect. I know people whose IQs are significantly below average, yet in certain ways they are undeniably smarter than I am, and I’ve learned a lot from them.

Anyway, it’s true that some autistic people have these skills, even if the way people describe them is sometimes pretty gross.

I don’t have a “splinter skill”, in the sense of a single highly-specific skill that I’m exceptionally good at. In fact, I’m fairly bad at a lot of the “splinter skills” that have made it into popular culture. In particular, I’m mediocre at best at mental math, and anything that involves juggling a lot of information in working memory.

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