This is a repost from Aiden’s personal website on an argument against the savant/genius autism stereotype. If you enjoy it, please consider supporting them directly by following their own website!
I wrote a post about why I don’t like the term ‘Asperger syndrome’. Following that, a friend suggested that a possible reason I’ve achieved everything I have despite seeming so mystified about it is that I might be a savant. Though it’s true I’ve done a lot to do with art recently (including making an animation for the first time, which is 69-seconds and took me eight hours, which is very fast), I rejected it almost immediately. Below I’ll explain what a savant is and why I not only don’t think I am one, also why I don’t like the focus on it.
- What is a savant?
- Why would I object to it?
- Isn’t it just a compliment though?
- Sometimes you don’t see effort
What is a savant?
According to the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary, there are two definitions of a savant. These are as follows:
1. A person with great knowledge and ability. 2. A person who is less intelligent than others but who has particular unusual abilities that other people do not have.
When it comes to autism, people basically never mean the first one – that tends to be reserved for researchers and other academics. It’s almost always the second. Obviously I would object to the second. Across multiple areas, I would say that I’m not less intelligent than the average person. Unusual abilities? Sure. I mean, I literally used to recognise people according to the sound of their footsteps and their scent. If that doesn’t sound unusual to you, you’re likely either neurodivergent yourself or a typically developing person who knows us well.
Thinking about autism specifically, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an ‘autistic savant’ as:
A person affected with autism who exhibits exceptional skill or brilliance in some limited field (such as mathematics or music).
Okay, that doesn’t sound too bad, right? So that brings us to our next question…
Why would I object to it?
Genuinely, I don’t think I am one. If you look at the Wikipedia page on it (hey, I’m not a student anymore!), then you’ll see that about half of savant syndrome cases are associated with autism. And they do relate mostly to memory, such as artistic ability.
Sure, I’m a lot better at drawing than the average person. And apparently my personal essays aren’t half bad either despite the lack of feedback in my practice. Plus apparently my poetry’s decent enough too even though I only started four weeks ago? I explained all of these things recently in a blog post specifically on my different practices. The only real development by now is that my art accompanied a Medium article I wrote. I liked my piece so much that I even wrote a whole separate blog post explaining everything.
However, am I really one in a million? If you’re asking areas of identity and resulting struggles, maybe. I mean, there probably aren’t going to be a lot of multiply disabled, multiply LGBT second/third-generation immigrants of colour who got into Oxford and do as much volunteering as I do. That’ll be because there won’t be a lot of people with just the identity aspects anyway.
I am confident in my abilities. However, I’m not self-obsessed/conceited/deluded enough to say I’m that exceptional. Even with the upper bound of 1 in 10 autistic people being savants to some degree, I can’t say that. I’ll call myself exceptional to some extent compared to typically developing people. I won’t do the same for my community though, especially when there’s so much more I need to learn.
Isn’t it just a compliment though?
I can see why you’d think that. And I can also see why the person saying it thought that it would be. Hear me out though.
I’m neither a woman nor a POC where people may dismiss you as unintelligent. (East and South Asians have a different problem, which I’ll actually get onto.) So I’m not going to pretend that I understand. However, doesn’t this sound a tiny bit like that?
The main reason why I disagree with a label similar to Asperger Syndrome is because it draws a line in the sand where there is none. I don’t see how this is any different. In my opinion, it creates a distinction between exceptional ability and disability, instead of seeing the person as a whole.
People can be good at some things and bad at others! For example, I can’t learn Romance languages or languages with an alphabet well; Chinese and BSL for example mesh better with my brain. You’ll have similar quirks. And you can improve with work and a good strategy. AKA…
Sometimes you don’t see effort
Call it a symptom of living in a society where having natural intelligence and aptitude is cooler than putting in hard work. Or even beyond that, just people looking back and forgetting how hard they found everything. Almost especially if they worked their way to the top, they might think anyone else could do it. If only they wanted it hard enough.
Sure, it is objectively true that I’ve only started writing personal essays in earnest with my first post on 28 April. I did only start writing poetry on 15 May. And I only started drawing again properly in December, setting up my art account in January.
However. I do all of that about areas that I’m interested in and have been for eight years for autism and 14 for Pokémon. I did grow up as myself! I’ve obviously done a lot of thinking about them both. It’s only now that I’ve started to produce work publicly about it, so it seems sudden. When really, it’s the culmination of thousands of hours of thought.
Here are some things you probably haven’t seen from my life because sometimes even my parents and siblings haven’t:
- The evenings spent as a kid on the Pokémon website memorising all the Pokédex entries
- Me playing the same Pokémon game 10+ times so I know almost all the lines verbatim
- Full days spent actively thinking about how to unpick my social behaviours to avoid psychologically breaking
- The time actually testing out my hypotheses
- The continuing readjustment of my autism and sensory strategies with age and chronic illness
This ticks me off because it reminds me of stereotypes of East Asian people. Where people would act like it’s a given I’d be good at Maths or Chinese. It’s insulting to us all.
Linking back to conceit. If I’ve had this experience, other people will have too. And likely other members of the Autistic community especially – we do have things in common that aren’t appearance or attraction-based!
Special interests. For me, autism and Pokémon undoubtedly qualify and are top-tier, long-running interests. It’s thought that between 75% and 95% of us have them: interests that are abnormal compared to typically developing people in intensity and/or specificity.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this. If you’re interested in something, you spend time on it. And if you spend time on it, you get better at it. And if you get better at something, you often become more interested in it too. The cycle repeats.
So many things to do with autism are a matter of degree. If you’re interested in dates and so that becomes your special interest? Yeah, you’re probably going to get good at calendar calculation. Especially since it’s not something most typically developing people are interested in.
So yeah. I just think it’s a silly concept. It doesn’t really help anyone in the long run. Once again, inclusive language.