Mapping the Autistic Advantage from the Accounts of Adults Diagnosed with Autism: A Qualitative Study

Autism Adulthood. 2019 Jun 1;1(2):124-133. doi: 10.1089/aut.2018.0035. Epub 2019 Apr 13.


Background: Autism has been associated with specific cognitive strengths. Strengths and weaknesses have traditionally been conceptualized as dichotomous. Methods: We conducted 28 semi-structured interviews with autistic adults. Maximum variation sampling was used to ensure diversity in relation to support needs. We asked which personal traits adults attributed to their autism, and how these have helped in the workplace, in relationships, and beyond. Data were collected in two stages. Responses were analyzed using content and thematic techniques. Results: The ability to hyperfocus, attention to detail, good memory, and creativity were the most frequently described traits. Participants also described specific qualities relating to social interaction, such as honesty, loyalty, and empathy for animals or for other autistic people. In thematic analysis we found that traits associated with autism could be experienced either as advantageous or disadvantageous dependent on moderating influences. Moderating influences included the social context in which behaviors occurred, the ability to control behaviors, and the extent to which traits were expressed. Conclusions: Separating autistic strengths from weaknesses may be a false dichotomy if traits cannot be isolated as separate constructs of strengths or deficits. If attempts to isolate problematic traits from advantageous traits are ill conceived, there may be implications for interventions that have reduction in autistic traits as a primary outcome measure.

Lay summary: Why was this study done?: The study was done to find out what autistic adults could tell us about their own abilities. They told us about their abilities and how these abilities had helped them in their everyday lives: at work, in their relationships with other people, and at home.What was the purpose of this study?: To tell a story about what aspects of their autism adults thought were of benefit, when going about their daily lives.What did the researchers do?: The researchers interviewed 24 adults who had an autism diagnosis. Some lived in residential care and others lived alone in rented apartments. Some people were interviewed twice. Most people said they enjoyed the experience of being interviewed.Once the interviews were done, they were typed up and the researchers tried to figure out what were the common themes over all the stories they had heard. They thought about the themes, then did some more interviews with autistic adults to check they were on the right lines. After discussing them, they wrote the story.What were the results of the study?: Hyper focus, attention to detail, and the ability to remember were the abilities that autistic people said benefitted them most often. But autistic adults who were interviewed said although their autistic traits were sometimes helpful, at other times they hindered their progress. So the same trait might be useful in some circumstances and unhelpful in other situations. For example, hypersensitivity led one person to enjoy nature, but was difficult to cope with in crowded streets. The study highlights this interchangeability.What do these findings add to what was already known?: Before, autistic people were known to have both strengths and challenges, but studies tended to separate autistic strengths and weaknesses as different things. We theorize that some traits are expressed as behaviors that may serve to improve or hinder autistic people's progress, but this depends on their situation (context).What are potential weaknesses in the study?: Because the researchers used interviews, they did not include any nonverbal autistic people in the study.How will these findings help autistic adults now or in the future?: It could be useful to think about autism in a way that does not focus on deficits and this study will help us to do that. Plus, if an autistic trait can give people an advantage or a disadvantage, interventions aimed at reducing autistic behaviors might risk dampening advantageous traits as they seek to help with difficulties. That means, autistic adults and children might lose useful abilities when and if they are treated for traits that can also be problematic. The researchers hope their study will lead to more discussion about these types of ideas.

Keywords: autism; autistic intelligence; neurodiversity; strengths and weaknesses; thematic analysis.