Autism And The Spiky Profile
My life is a study in contrasts. I can hold my own in a meeting with senior managers discussing strategic policy but struggle to make a phone call to change a medical appointment. After a morning structuring my thoughts into a written submission, I head out to buy lunch and put a dint in the car as I back into a railing. I provide advice to colleagues throughout the day but I can’t remember if I had a shower yesterday or whether I’ve paid the electricity bill and who knows what I did with the car keys when I came home.
I completed two university degrees and two graduate diplomas before I managed to get a drivers licence. I’m yet to navigate the process of buying a car on my own. The prospect of going through a fast-food drive-through is so daunting that I’m yet to attempt it.
This is what life is like when you have a spiky profile: a phenomenon whereby the disparity between strengths and weaknesses is more pronounced than for the average person. It’s characteristic among neuro-minorities: those who have neurodevelopmental conditions including autism and ADHD. When plotted on a graph, strengths and weaknesses play out in a pattern of high peaks and low troughs, resulting in a spiky appearance. Neurotypical people tend to have a flatter profile because the disparity is less pronounced.
Where does the disparity between strengths and weaknesses come from?
Executive functioning is responsible for short term and working memory, planning and time management. Difficulties in this area can mean everyday tasks are overlooked or become overwhelming. In addition, difficulties in sensory processing, motor co-ordination and spatial awareness can make practical tasks like driving very challenging. For autistic people, social communication presents further challenges. Apparently straightforward tasks such as making a phone call are fraught with anxiety which we attempt to assuage by rehearsing the necessary steps.
Strengths in neuro-minorities are often related to an aptitude for high level creative thinking and problem solving; an ability to see different perspectives and ‘think outside the box’. We are less likely to take things at face value and more likely to question assumptions. We can be the ones who shake up the status quo.
“Thinking differently often allows people to make sense of things from perspectives that other people completely miss. If you don’t start with the same assumptions as other people, you are likely to miss what seems obvious to most; however, you are also more likely to find your way to answers that pass the majority by.”
Hyperfocusing on something we’re interested in is a comfort zone; a safe harbour against the sensory onslaught of the neurotypical world. It’s common for autistic people to develop intense interests in specific areas, known in the autistic world as special interests. This can lead people to attain a high level of knowledge and competence in particular areas. Monotropism refers to the tendency to be driven by interests which absorb our attention to the exclusion of other things.
Focusing on areas of intense interest can mean disregarding areas where there is little or no interest. We resist topics that don’t engage us and so don’t develop the baseline of knowledge and skills that a neurotypical person might take for granted. If we’re not confident we can do something well, perfectionism and fear of failure further drives the pattern of avoidance.
An interesting twist on this is that we can also become very skilled in areas that may otherwise be perceived as deficits. For example, I have developed a hyperawareness of the impact of tone in communication and the need to calibrate it in different contexts. It’s also not unusual for autistic people to overcome a lack of intuitive understanding of social interaction by studying human behaviour. Driven by the need to understand themselves and others, some autistic people become very knowledgeable about psychology, sometimes to the point of choosing it as a career path.
The spiky profile varies over time as well as across skills. This has a lot to do with how a person interacts with their environment. Skills might be more easily acquired when the support is in place or there is motivation to acquire it. For example, I didn’t get a drivers licence until I was 30. As someone becomes competent in these types of skills, the spiky profile flattens.
Why is it important?
Discovering you are autistic is to experience a startling confrontation with your weaknesses. On the one hand it can be profoundly validating to find a framework to explain why a lot of things are difficult for you. But the core of a diagnosis (including self-diagnosis) is that you have deficits in the way in which you perceive, process and respond to the environment. The diagnostic criteria doesn’t include strengths. If you’re lucky enough to get support following a diagnosis, the focus tends to be on overcoming deficits rather than building on your strengths. I wrote about my post-diagnosis journey here:
Being diagnosed autistic as an adult changes everything and nothing
Why the journey is a solitary one
Of course it’s important to be supported in the areas where you have difficulties. The problem for autistic people is that this has tended to come from a place of pathologising individual deficits rather than looking at how the neurotypical world makes things difficult for us.
The autistic community has moved towards favouring a social model of disability rather than a medical model of disability. The focus is on making adjustments to the environment to accommodate individual needs rather than teaching a person to be more normal.
The idea that neurological variation is a natural and desirable in society is central to the concept of neurodiversity. It follows that schools and workplaces should provide the conditions that allow neuro-minorities to thrive alongside their neurotypical peers.
The mainstream school system is set up for students with generalist, not specialist skill sets. Getting though school means being good enough at most things. It caters to a level profile, not a spiky one. School students don’t have the luxury of focusing on their strengths as they are expected to reach a baseline standard across the curriculum.
Autistic students who have difficulties in some areas whilst excelling in others can fall through the cracks. A student who derives a sense of pride from their achievements in some skill areas may experience a sense of shame in having to ask for help in an area they are struggling with. Hiding the struggle is just another form of masking in order to fit into the neurotypical world. From a teacher’s perspective, the skill profile may appear much more level than it is and not provide cause for concern.
I was able to maintain a more or less generalist skill set in primary school but it was in high school that the peaks and troughs became more exaggerated. It didn’t take long to plunge into a downward trajectory for mathematics. The teaching was less hands-on and my difficulties with auditory processing meant that I absorbed little of what the teacher was saying. I switched off and fell further behind. I came to hold the subject in contempt which did nothing for my motivation to get on top of it.
The maths teachers engaged with the capable students up the front of the class while I floundered down the back. I did extension classes in English where I was able to have my turn as the capable student who enjoyed the teacher’s ready attention. Simultaneously holding the perspectives of a struggling student and an advanced student was an interesting experience but it’s definitely not a typical one.
Challenges faced by autistic people in school aren’t limited to the academic arena. School demands a comprehensive set of social skills for which no formal training is provided. Nor do we get any support with everyday life skills that neurotypical people take for granted. As a result, these skills stay firmly lodged in the troughs of the profile well into adulthood.
Autistic people who struggle in school may thrive if given the opportunity to explore an area they are passionate about through tertiary study and work. It’s not unusual for an autistic person to nurture a special interest into a successful career.
I didn’t know I was autistic until well into adult life and my choice of career as a lawyer was probably not the most suitable for me. I can’t really say that I chose it so much as fell into it. I was never going to the be the savvy, think-on-your-feet lawyer who amassed an impressive record of courtroom feats. After four years as a litigation lawyer, I was burnt out and felt like a failure for not being able to cope with what my colleagues seemed to take in their stride.
The spiky profile has played out in my working life in an interesting way. I’m still working as a lawyer but I’m utilising a very different skill set. I’ve been fortunate to work in an organisation where I’ve been able to take advantage of interesting and varied opportunities. I’ve found my niche in policy and project work and have built expertise in specific areas of law. I also trained as a mediator and thrive on the problem-solving aspect of it.
Although I’m at a place in my career that I’m happy with, there are aspects of work that I continue to struggle with every day. Working remotely has relieved a great deal of the sensory burden as I’m able to control my environment. However, challenges with communication have increased in some ways. I also put in a lot of effort to balance work with the many other aspects of my life which involves a constant battle with my executive function.
Autistic people are a diverse bunch with many strengths to be nurtured and celebrated. However the other side of the equation is for schools and workplaces to be more responsive to the needs of autistic people so that we have as much opportunity to thrive as our neurotypical peers and colleagues.
It’s also important to acknowledge that developing strengths and entrenching weaknesses doesn’t occur in a vacuum. I’ve been able to access an measure of privilege that isn’t available to all autistic people. Some still struggle to complete study or enter the workplace and may be dealing with other conditions and mental health issues.
A fair society takes in people with all their strengths and weaknesses and provides them with whatever support they need to reach their potential.