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Autism Spectrum Abilities

This is a very exciting and innovative project, where the focus is on the wonderful abilities and talents people with autism may have. I propose the concept of ‘Autism Spectrum Abilities’ to shift the attention for a moment from the struggles and difficulties people with autism and their families experience daily and show another side of this condition so little known by most of us. More and more children get diagnosed daily, which can be devastating, but they need to know that it is not the end of the world. There are people out there who live a happy and fulfilling life with autism. Yes, they need lots of help to get by and learn to navigate the social world, but most would not choose to live without autism, as they feel it is a fundamental aspect of the person they have become. This project is the result of many years of work and research, I hope now it can take flight and help change the way we perceive autism. Please follow LilyPED’s facebook page, where I have been regularly posting works and profiles of remarkable people with autism to be discovered and appreciated by all.

Everybody knows  the famous movie Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant with extraordinary computation skills. This is called ‘splinter skills’ or ‘islets of ability’, defined as the presence of an outstanding talent in a specific area of interest. It is estimated that almost 30 % of people with autism display some splinter skills, such as remarkable talent in art, music, math or calendar calculation (Howlin et al., 2009).They are also known to have an ‘eye for detail’, outstanding pattern recognition and logical reasoning, which allows them to perceive things differently from the average person. As Larry Arnold put it ” seeing only parts of the ‘picture’ gives me the opportunity to make different connections and come to radically new conclusions that people who see it otherwise will not be able to”.  Arnold goes on to saying that not being clouded by convention or social thinking have also helped him have remarkable insights. Detail-focused attention, extraordinary memory, enhanced perceptual functioning, and fast information processing may explain the predisposition to these extraordinary talents. Temple Grandin, an accomplished adult with autism, gives a staggering account as to how her mind works like an ‘Internet search engine’, where all her thoughts appear to her as photo-realistic images. Other people with autism are rather pattern thinkers, like Daniel Tammet. In his latest book ‘Thinking in numbers’ he describes how he associates numbers with colour, texture, and emotions. This is also known as synesthesia, a condition in which one sense is simultaneously perceived by one or more additional senses (e.g. associating a certain colour to a letter or number). Stephen Wiltshire is just another remarkable artist with autism who earned the nickname of ‘the human camera’ due to his striking ability to draw panoramic views entirely from memory after having seeing them just once.

Of course not everybody with autism is a savant; some individuals have substantial impairment of the intellect and will never be able to live an independent life. Alex Masket is a severely autistic young man who has no use of verbal communication and needs extensive supervision in his daily life, and yet he became a remarkable artist whose fascinating work is displayed in many solo and group exhibits. If it weren’t for his parents, however, who discovered Alex’s artistic interest early on and allowed him to freely explore his passion for colours and forms, he would not be the happy and accomplished person he is today. Instead of words, Alex uses his art to express himself, and his work gives us a glimpse of his captivating internal world.

We still know so little about autism and in our adamant strive for social normalcy we might be missing out on discovering some of the extraordinary skills and hidden potential some people with autism may have.  My goal with this project is to showcase the talents of people with autism and inspire others to think differently and see the ability in the disability.

Anikó Burján, M.Ed.

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