Strengths of Autism: Why Autistic People Excel at Specific Tasks

As we kick off Autism Acceptance Month for April, Healthnews highlights research that focuses on the strengths of autism rather than the challenges. Understanding why they have these unique skills may lead to better outcomes in education and employment.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodiversity that comes with some unique challenges, including difficulties with expressive and receptive language, deficits in social skills, sensory processing issues, and restrictive patterns of behaviors.

For years, scientists have worked tirelessly to develop treatments that focus on the symptoms and behaviors associated with autism with the goal of making an autistic person less neurodiverse and more able to function in a neurotypical society.

This medical model of autism differs from the social model of autism, which shifts the focus from "fixing" ASD to developing intervention strategies that acknowledge limitations, yet align with an autistic individual's strengths. A model that some folks in the autistic community wish more people would embrace, as many believe autism doesn't need to be "cured."

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What are the strengths of autism?

According to research recently published in Neuropsychologia, strengths associated with autism include hyperfocus and enhanced local visual processing speed.

In addition, a 2023 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry suggests that autistic individuals may have excellent nonverbal reasoning skills and are proficient at creating systems that make their environments work.

Moreover, people with autism often outperform neurotypical individuals on visual-spatial reasoning assessments and tasks that require finding visual features embedded in images.

Autistic participants in a 2022 study revealed that many believe their strengths include superior creativity, focus, and memory. Increased efficiency, honesty, and dedication, as well as the ability to offer a unique autism-specific perspective, were other self-reported strengths.

Research also suggests that more than 70% of autistic children and adults have isolated savant skills in memory, 32% have visuospatial abilities, and about 17% have savant skills in calculation, drawing, or music.

Why are autistic individuals better at specific tasks?

While some scientists believe the strengths of autism, such as an eye for detail, may contribute to enhanced skills, recent research published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, suggests that differences in neural activity in the brain may play a role.

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Specifically, higher levels of neural noise in an autistic person's brain — which is linked to social and behavioral challenges — could also contribute to an increased ability to perform tasks successfully, a phenomenon known as stochastic resonance.

To conduct the study, scientists had participants who were not formally diagnosed with ASD complete the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) assessment to measure autistic traits.

Then, the participants completed letter-detection experiments in the lab and online, which involved identifying a letter obscured by various intensities of background visual static. This static added more neural noise to the participants' brains.

The team found that additional neural noise via visual static did not benefit participants with more autistic traits. However, when the visual static was low, participants with higher autistic traits performed better and with greater accuracy than those with fewer traits.

The researchers suggest the high neural noise already occurring in an autistic person's brain may cause a natural stochastic resonance effect, leading to better performance.

Although the participants did not have a formal autism diagnosis, the findings add more weight to the idea that natural stochastic resonance in autism may be the driver of superior performance in some tasks.

What does this mean for autistic people?

Autistic individuals often face several challenges that interfere with their ability to learn in the educational setting, obtain and hold a job, and comfortably socialize with others.

For example, estimates indicate that up to 85% of autistic Americans remain unemployed, even if they have a college degree.

However, these challenges may be more the result of how the neurotypical world perceives someone with ASD. For example, an employer who lacks knowledge about autism might perceive an autistic person's strength of hyperfocus as non-productive when, in fact, it could be harnessed to tackle highly detailed projects.
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Therefore, studies like this, which focus on learning more about how an autistic person's brain works, may help promote understanding and acceptance of the strengths and limitations associated with ASD. This understanding can lead to less stigma and more supportive educational, social, and employment opportunities for autistic individuals.

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Comments

I want to leave the spectrum
prefix 3 months ago
“A model that some folks in the autistic community wish more people would embrace, as many believe autism doesn't need to be "cured."
Well I’m the spectrum and this woke model for acceptance doesn’t really speak for me. I want to leave the spectrum. Thankfully there’s been a lot of development for treating autism. Eventually leaving the spectrum will be an option.