Autism Myth #5: People with Autism Have Special Skills

by | Last updated Jan 25, 2021

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Dear Community,

April is the month to honor people with autism and bring awareness to the challenges many families face.

This is our series on autism myths. Below is myth #5. Please read and share.

Myth: People with autism usually have “special” skills, or splinter skills.

What do I mean by “splinter” skills?

Some may remember the movie Rainman. Dustin Hoffman’s character has autism and being the amazing actor he is, he put autism on the map in that movie. People became intrigued by Hoffman’s character who liked to eat his cheetos with a toothpick and adhered to rigid routines like wearing certain underwear from K-Mart. Tom Cruise was in the movie, which I’m sure was another reason it gained such popularity. Oh, and the way he looks in that suit coming down the escalators in Vegas…okay, let’s get back to business here.

The reason most people became fascinated with Hoffman’s character was his ‘special abilities.’ He could count hundreds of matches by sight, even though he did not know the price of a candy bar. I have no idea if that particular profile exists, but I can say that some people with autism are better at visual problem solving and not as good at practical, daily living tasks, like shopping for food. So it is possible that this character is based on a real person with autism.

However, let’s stop the madness right there. Most people with autism do not have such extremes of ability as portrayed in the movie. Many people with autism have cognitive abilities just like you or me or anyone.

This idea of the “splinter” skill came about in the case where someone with autism and a lower IQ can do something amazing like create art that will blow you away or a piano recital that will bring tears to your eyes. This does sometimes happen.

There are two reasons this is a myth, and let’s knock those out here.

1. The clinical world started calling these abilities “splinter skills” as a way of describing that the main skills aren’t in place for this person but there are a few little “splinters” of amazingness.

A better term for the neat skills that some people with autism display is “exceptional abilities” as Dr. Kroncke and I described in our book.

We know that experts in autism and ADHD call special skills “islands of competence.” This is the idea that you may have some area where you really excel and some areas where you just don’t. That’s okay. That’s normal. The other thing about a “splinter” skill is it could be seen as kind of insulting to call your best assets by the name of something that hurts when it gets stuck in your finger. Maybe we should give that term the, well you know what I am saying there.

2. The other problem with this myth is that most people with autism do not have such extremes in their abilities. Yes, people with autism may get really interested, even hyper-focused on something and get very good at it. However, it is more common to see an average cognitive ability. It is uncommon to see the extreme like we saw with Dustin Hoffman’s character.

Thanks for reading and please, no more splinters! You don’t want to go to the doctor anyway. Avoid those splinters, I say.

Onward and upward!
Dr. Willard

PS: Our new parent portal went live on Monday. Have you checked it out yet?

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