By Millie Bevan
Editor- Ashleena Bilal
This piece isn’t trying to say that having autism in a neurotypical world is easy, because it’s not. It's to say that being autistic isn’t a bad thing. It’s difficult because, in general, the world isn’t made for us and proves to be confusing. But for anyone struggling with their diagnosis/symptoms (and any neurotypicals unclear on the individual nature of autism), I want to make it clear that having autism isn’t a defect. It can be a bonus in many situations, and when accommodated, autistic people can provide new perspectives and skills to the benefit of others. We have a place in society - no matter where our traits lie on the spectrum.
The following points are from my personal experience, but I hope they may enlighten you to the possible benefits of having autism:
1. It makes me a better actor
Girls with autism are often diagnosed later than boys, and I believe a part of this is to do with the fact that autistic girls are believed to ‘mask’ more than boys do (among other things). What this means is that we essentially make a huge effort to learn from other people’s behaviors, make sense of social rules, and fit in - masking many of our autistic traits and natural reactions. I think this is part of the reason why people say to me, ‘you don’t look autistic’ (not a helpful comment, by the way, there’s no way to ‘look’ autistic). While this can be exhausting, I believe it has also benefited me in certain situations.
Sometimes I know the social rules better than anyone else on account of having to learn them consciously. What this has done is make me a better actress - theatre being my passion. I have observed the reactions, and variations in them, of many different people. On stage, this translates to an insight into how my different characters might behave and has enhanced my acting ability.
Autistic people are capable of so many different careers. We are varied like the rest of society.
The topic of observation brings me to my next point. Autistic people experience a larger sensory input. This can become overwhelming - light seems too bright, sounds too loud, etc. - but when managed, it can also be to our benefit. My greater sensory input means that I tend to notice more than others around me; I observe more. When I am not overwhelmed, this can be useful in many situations. Some examples are:
And many more! Our traits are often deemed detrimental and can help other people when we are accommodated.
Like observation, my greater sensory input has always made me very sensitive to sounds. Researchers from the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge have found that a higher proportion of autistic people experience synesthesia than the general population - that means that experiencing one sense triggers another. I experience this in a small way with sound; I might see colours when I hear music. I do not doubt that this, paired with my keen ear, helps me when I play instruments - I am very good at learning things by ear. Autistic people tend to also be very good at spotting patterns, in dates, shapes etc. For me, this translates to helping me when I’m playing piano as I can assess the patterns in the music, or when I’m learning vocal riffs as I see the notes in a sort of pattern. Pretty cool really, how my traits can transfer to some impressive real-life skills.
It is a complete misconception that autistic people don’t experience empathy. We may have difficulty working out exactly why or what you’re feeling, but when it comes to affective empathy, many of us are even more sensitive to changes in mood. We can be great people to be around when someone requires comfort or a space to be, because we truly do care. I know I care, especially due to the emotional dysregulation I experience as part of my autism, as I know how painful emotions can be and don’t want anyone else to experience such difficulty. Although we may not always be able to comfort someone in a traditional sense - because that’s simply not how our brains work - we can come up with some ideas for helping that are more unconventional, and this might be to someone else’s benefit. When people understand how intensely we can feel other people’s emotions sometimes, and take this into account, it can help us deal with it and use our incredible traits in other ways.
Stimming - also known as self-stimulatory behavior - is often considered a bit weird, but for me it’s a superpower of autism. Why? Because my stims can immediately make me feel better. For example, I used to hit my head when I was distressed, and over time this became a ‘hat phase’ when I would wear hats everyday as a way to feel comfortable. Now when I feel anxious, I only have to put on a hat to feel safer and be able to think more clearly. How many people have such a simple thing they can do to calm themselves? It’s so awesome! My stims can also help me express myself when I don’t know what to do, and even help me figure out what I am feeling. They are a tool to aid me in managing my emotions, and they feel so natural to me.
6. Special interests
Many autistic people will find themselves intensely focused or interested (some people may even say obsessed) with a particular topic or topics over the years. This has been of benefit to me as my various special interests over the years have provided me with a wealth of knowledge in a variety of subjects that can be useful at times. It also means that if I become interested in a particular project, I will pour my heart into it and work hard on it, which is to the benefit of everyone else involved. It’s also so enriching and rewarding for me when I find a new interest in this manner.
7. Being Neurodivergent
Simply being neurodivergent is a huge benefit. We think differently - that means we have different perspectives and ideas that may have been overlooked, but can add a great deal to the world. We can be innovative, finding solutions and expanding understanding for others in this wonderfully diverse world.
I hope this has revealed you to what can be some of the benefits of autism, and that you may see how wide this spectrum is in all of us. Once again, we have a place in society - and have so much to give in so many ways.