Some people who are in positions of power have savant skills. Such exceptional talents include an encyclopedic level of knowledge or a highly talented control of a hands-on task. Savant skills can be common to people on the autism spectrum. It could be due to just being wired that way in the brain, or intense focus as a means of escape from stress and anxiety.
You likely know quite a few savants. These people are engineers, scientists, educators, medical doctors, and lawyers. They are the ones who are highly intelligent yet strike you as a bit quirky or different. Think about it. You may have wondered about some people who you work with. There could be some family member who behaves a little bit off at family functions. You may have a family doctor or lawyer who just seems intense or disconnected to people, but you let it go because they are great at their job. However, you or another neurotypical could not get away with such behaviors at work or home without penalization.
How are these people so successful? How can they have the gifts that include memorization skills, focus, creativity, singular thinking, and persistence, but not others? These aloof, quirky, sometimes challenging people may appear like they are content, but they are often not. Their lives may not be as golden as they appear.
I am a teacher with autism, so I have experienced it firsthand, and I have worked and interacted with a lot of individuals with fields of specialization. My specialization is the ability to teach any subject. I am certified in most subjects from self-study and passing exams and am legally hirable to teach almost any subject in any school. I help graduate students and edit research papers. This stuff is easy for me. I also like Star Trek and reading science journals. I am a nerd but have seriously struggled socially.
So people who seem exceptional but odd? These people are quietly suffering. They are top at their game, but struggle in their personal lives. They may be divorced or are having domestic problems. They may be single. They might want friends but not know how to approach people. They may want to act or look cool (people of all ages want this!) but not know the first step. They could be disorganized or obsessive about their money, organization, or hobbies.
They may want to connect with people, but only know how to say things that sound awkward or scripted, or worse, come across as rude and aloof. These folks want to live like neurotypical folks, but do not know how. Hence, they bury themselves more in their field and build a wall.
Do they want to be alone? Very unlikely. Do they need help? Definitely. These neurodiverse folks struggle, but do not know how to work with the challenges. They want friends and a functioning home life but cannot seem to make it happen. They are unhappy, sometimes to the point of depression. How can they be helped?
Sometimes a first step is acknowledging that there is a problem. Being in a high position of power can create a sense of pressure upon oneself to appear above average as a human in all facets. Hence, it may be very hard for a person to stop and reflect that they are less than others at certain skills. If they have a job which places them as very important within society, they may identify themselves as an important individual among others. The thought that a job is just part of life may not connect with them. They could live their day seeing themselves as Mr. or Ms. Lawyer instead of just “Joe”. The reason could be that a job provides the comfort of expectations and rules to follow. Many autistics need structure and rules. A job provides this. The real world… not so much. Therefore, attaching oneself to a job to the point that it is one’s world is highly seductive.
Once the person realizes they may have a problem with work-life balance, the next steps include wanting to change, making a plan, and finding options. Sometimes the affected person may not want to change because the challenge is too high. Transitioning from a high status to a low status role is hard for anyone. High status would be the job, because they have skills and power there, and low status would be the activity that the person is trying to do in the new setting. Examples include an acting role in a community theater play or being a student in a community skills class. Moving from a role at a job where the person is on top to a hobby where the person is struggling can be hard. People on the spectrum can have a particularly hard time with transitions. So the challenge can make that desire to change fade after a couple of attempts. That is okay. It is a start, and people can return to that desire and try again.
Making a plan and finding options go along with wanting to change. Getting into situations where the person is not the top dog can take some trial and error. If a new situation is too difficult, the person may need to stop and regroup or find other options. That is also okay. It takes time to change and grow. Overall, the person will fight a battle, but it is a battle worth winning.
If this is you, or someone you know, have patience. Have compassion and understanding. Set boundaries with the other person, if necessary, if it’s someone you know, and set goals if it is you. The most important thing is acknowledgement and understanding. There are so many self-help books and videos online on how to work with people. In addition, co-workers and family should be incredible resources for support and feedback on how to be an effective communicator and self-manager. While there will be frustrations at times, overall, things will only improve. Soon, you or the affected person will experience a fuller and more satisfying lifestyle.
Mary Janca is a teacher and coach for students of all learning differences. She has been teaching for twenty years, has a Master’s Degree in Teaching, Behavioral/Emotional Disorders, and is certified in multiple subjects from first grade to high school. She coaches youth and adults with life skills and academics. She is currently working on a client base to serve students in Greensboro and Raleigh. She is also drafting a book and website based on learning differences and behaviors.
Mary has Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. She has faced many struggles in life due to these differences, but is proud of her desire to get back up, learn, and keep going. She loves to help others succeed with whatever challenge they are facing.Tags: autism, autism communication, autism employment, autism social skills, autism support