Asperger’s Syndrome – Could the concept of Superpowers be causing more harm than good?

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There’s been a lot of talk about the increasingly popular idea that people with Asperger’s Syndrome possess some kind of superpower.

Indeed, many people seem to genuinely believe it.

Search any website on the topic and you’re sure to find groups of people who freely name their superpower and then describe in minute detail the extraordinary things that whatever their particular superpower of choice may be, enables them to do.

To me, such talk of there being any form of an Asperger type superpower is ultimately harmful as it reflects the misbegotten and much argued against concept that those with Asperger’s Syndrome view themselves as being, in many ways, superior to everyone who does not have Asperger’s.

It wasn’t all that long ago that we were fighting against the claim that all people with Asperger’s Syndrome were arrogant, detached, cold, sub-human, robot type intellectual beings, who were capable of memorizing complex physics equations , but who were also seen as being every bit as humorless , heartless and as incapable of feeling empathy as a toaster is.

Fortunately, we’ve come an awfully long way since those days.

As a society, we are now able to openly acknowledge that individuals with Asperger’s are extremely loyal and loving people who are just as capable of feeling empathy and sympathy as everyone else.

We also know that individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome give as much care and devotion to those whom they love as the rest of the population do.

We simply could not account for the fact that there are so many happily married and/or dedicated and loving parents with Asperger’s if the opposite were true.

Yet it seems that correcting the many myths and multiple misnomer’s that once served to create the image of individuals with Asperger’s as cold, heartless, intellectual machines, is simply not enough for some people.

Now, we are being encouraged, if not told, to believe that we must all tow the party line and admit to having some kind of hidden, yet terribly important, superpower.

A superpower that only those with Asperger’s Syndrome can have.

A superpower that serves , once again, to prevent us from being seen as existing within the realms of common humanity by re-framing us as having powers that go beyond the scope of an average human being.

Given that we’ve spent years fighting for the acknowledgement that we are human beings who just happen to be differently neurologically wired, as opposed to being weird, cold and sub-human beings with a superiority complex, I find it incredibly ironic that there is now a movement out there that is openly seeking to regenerate the whole ‘superiority’ angle by declaring that we have superpowers.

Apart from the fact that such claims are all pretty much bunkum, to what end does it serve to seek to over emphasize a whole range of weird and wonderful , mystical, new age types of manifestations or hidden talents within individuals with Asperger’s ?

Okay it may be good for an individual’s level of self-esteem to believe or feel as if their talents are valued, but as for the rest of the en mass movement toward claiming superpowers as an Asperger’s only thing….. Well I just don’t get it.

Yes we have empathy for others and in some cases we can be overwhelmed by the empathy we feel due to not being able to process it and understand it for what it is, as quickly as others do, but why on earth are some people striving so hard to rename this difficulty in storing empathy and in not being able to release it, as a superpower?

Why are some people now saying that someone who is good at storing information, regardless of whether or not they actually want to store that information, now has an information storing superpower?

Or that someone who has a photographic memory now has a photographic memory superpower.

Should someone who can play a piece of music after only hearing it once now be said to have a music playing superpower?

Should someone who can sing in a pitch perfect tone each and every time they sing, now be given the title of having a pitch perfect superpower?

Does someone who can draw a perfect skyline based solely on memory have the superpower of drawing, memory or both?

You’ll have to forgive me but not so long ago, we simply called these unique attributes skills or talents.

We certainly didn’t call them superpowers.

And we certainly didn’t ascribe to the belief that only those with Asperger’s Syndrome could do such things and thus hold such superpowers.

There are many people out there who are good at storing information that don’t have Asperger’s Syndrome. Take pub trivia nights for example or quiz shows like Sale of the Century or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. You cannot seriously tell me that every single person who’s ever won big on any of those shows has Asperger’s.

(Here’s a hint, a contestant with Asperger’s would likely by so nervous or stuck in the midst of experiencing sensory overload due to the bright lights, movement of cameras and audience noises, that they’d have to be working extremely hard on just hearing and processing the questions, let alone getting out all of the answers required to win in that environment).

There are also numerous people who can play music by ear, draw pictures from memory and sing pitch perfectly every time, without ever first holding the prerequisite of having Asperger’s Syndrome in order to have their talents recognized without turning them into superpowers.

As far as I’m concerned, the minute we claim that the skills and talents that have always been apparent within a sub-set of the general population belong only to one particular sub-group, and we then name those skills and talents superpowers, we are falsely claiming a degree of superiority over every other group or individual, no matter how talented, that are not of our chosen ilk.

I believe that anytime a sub-set of the population declares itself to be the holder of superpowers; they are in a very real way, also declaring themselves to be superior to every other group and are therefore actively seeking to set themselves not just apart, but above, all other groupings within society.

I believe that in making the claim toward having superpowers and therefore superiority over the rest of society, some within the Asperger’s community are indeed trying to set themselves both apart and above society.

Which to me makes no sense at all, as up until now, the emphasis for many within the Autism Community has been on creating acceptance via the understanding that we are all, each and every single one of us, equal as human beings, no matter what our neurological status may be.

So please, think about what it is you are actually saying when you say that [insert type of skill here]  is my superpower because when you actually claim this as an individual with Asperger’s, you are effectively adding to the erroneous myth that each and every person with Asperger’s either is or considers themselves to be gifted and talented beyond all normal human measures.

After all, isn’t that exactly what a superpower?

So I ask you, is this really just a harmless way of making individuals with Asperger’s feel better about their unique traits, skills and talents, or is it something that could potentially cause more harm than good in terms of the concepts of equality and acceptance for all within our society?

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31 thoughts on “Asperger’s Syndrome – Could the concept of Superpowers be causing more harm than good?

  1. You couldn’t find a super-power in me even if you tried looking for one with a microscope. I am average in most areas, terrible in others and a little above average in a few. Why would people want a super-power anyways? Do we (the asperger/autism community) want to become THEM to such a degree? Thank you Mae. I am going to reblog this article.

  2. Reblogged this on humanitysdarkerside and commented:
    You couldn’t find a super-power in me even if you tried looking for one with a microscope. I am average in most areas, terrible in others and a little above average in a few. Why would people want a super-power anyways? Do we (the asperger/autism community) want to become THEM to such a degree?

  3. Reblogged this on A Clear Voice, One Aspie's Journey and commented:
    The most ridiculous part of the ‘superpower’ thing is that we take things literally, so we KNOW that we don’t have ‘superpowers’ . we know that there are no such things as superpowers. so we know claiming ‘superpowers’ is lying, and we know it is wrong. We are a minority who want to be treated like people. That is what we are. People

    1. I completely agree Marick. Which is just one of the reasons why the superpower love fest makes no sense at all to me. Thank you very much for reblogging. Cheers Mae

        1. Wow… That’s simply one of the loveliest things anyone has ever expressed to me. I am so grateful for your words. Thank you. So glad that you’ve found the confidence to use you’re own voice. And what an astute and amazing voice it is too. Keep going. Cheers Mae

  4. I do use sometimes the superpower analogy.

    That might be because I have been known to be a huge superhero fan, but mostly because once you really start rambling about it ( and I do love my ramblings) you quickly get to the point where superpower is not the gift it seems to be for a lot of superheroes.

    Take Superman superhearing ( my daughter has a really really fine hear, and can sometimes make sense of whispers across the room) it’s a superpower…

    But that’s a huge weakness at the same time: it can momentarily paralyse him with pain, he had to train – and still has to keep up the skill – to tune in or out and filter an incredible number of noises and voices.

    He hears things, people in danger, and has to live with being powerless to help them because even Superman can’t be everywhere at once and can only move so fast.

    1. I understand the desire that many have to create the ultimate positive out of any given situation, however, I don’t understand why individuals with Asperger’s simply aren’t simply being taught the realities of their sensory issues and the way they can and will impact on their daily lives, without applying the superpower/superhero analogy. I have highly sensitive hearing too and much like your daughter, there are many aspects of life that are made harder, even sometimes intolerable for me, due to this. There are benefits to having such highly attuned hearing, such as being able to work as a sound technician, where being able to pick out instantly which instruments/voices are either too loud or too soft, saves on time and enables me to be able to adjust sound levels both quickly and efficiently, but there are also many drawbacks. Such as never being able to feel comfortable in all of those normal, yet to me, incredibly noisy places that others enjoy going too, such as cafe’s or the movies where everyone rattles their lolly or crisps bags. So, no, I would never liken having sensitive hearing to having a superpower. It is what it is. So I’d simply call it having highly sensitive hearing….. and once again…. there are many people out there, who are not on the spectrum, yet who also have highly sensitive hearing, who are not being encouraged to view themselves as having superpowers simply because of their capacity to hear acutely.

  5. If tripping over my own feet, being completely vexed by using and interpreting both eye contact and body language, and not really being able to process emotions in real time are superpowers, then I must be some kind of “all that and a bag of chips.”
    I know better than that. I know my weaknesses all too well. I will say that over the years I have been able to mitigate those weaknesses to an acceptable degree, but many things that come naturally for “the normals” take a lot of concentration, energy and intentional effort for me.
    I wouldn’t wish the way I’m wired on anyone, but for me personally, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. That sounds like a paradox, and it is. But does my Aspergers/HFA confer upon me some kind(s) of superpower(s)? No way.

  6. Great post, I agree. I’ve been cringing for a while seeing books for ASD kids and similar projects come out that reframe Asperger’s/HFA as a mysterious, attractive, superhero-like affliction that gives superpowers. (Visually too … E.g. pictures Girls and women with Asperger’s as aloof but super feminine fairly-like beings, which it is unlikely to reflect the way many ASD females look, move, and feel considering common co-morbid aspects like poor proprioception, tactile sensory issues with clothes, EF and self care-issues, androgyne tendencies et.c.). It seems like a marketing concept designed as positive propaganda rather than information. They encourage lots of kids and young adults to show off their “superpowers”, but what’s being showcased are (unsurprisingly) just skills, interests and talents, and there’s no particular explanation why the skills and talents of aspies are superpowers, while the skills and talents of “normal people” are just skills and talents.

    I know it is most likely a well intentioned strategy that aims to help aspie individuals counter low self esteem by highlighting their strengths / reframe ASD in a positive light, but the superpower theme is the wrong way to go. It may seed superiority complexes in some people (a common defence mechanism I think), and sort of implies that everyone on the spectrum must have “superpowers”, lest they are … not good enough? or not really on the spectrum then? That’s fixed by making the superpower concept super elastic… any interest or skill is a “superpower”, but that just renders the superpower concept meaningless. It may also unintentionally frame persons who have, or seek, an Asperger’s (ASD) diagnosis for themselves or their kids, as trend-chasers wanting to jump on a cool superhero pop band wagon, rather than people who’re seeking help and acknowledgement of a serious disability.

    1. I completely agree with you Anna. The other problem that’s becoming increasingly worrisome regarding encouraging ASD children to view themselves as having superpowers is : what happens when they grow up and realize that they’re not superhero’s and that they don’t actually have superpowers? And that their entire feeling of ‘specialness’ has been built on a lie….? Where as, if you call their unique area’s of interest, skills or talents, then there is no lie involved. No reason for them to feel even more let down simply because they may be different. My son is 18 and I’ve never once told him that he has superpowers. If I had, then I have no doubt that at some point he may have tried to test those superpowers out…. because to him… superpowers equate to being able to fly like Superman, or web swing or walk down walls like Spiderman. So I’m definitely glad that he whole promotion of kids on the spectrum having superpowers wasn’t around 5,10, or even 15 years ago.

      1. Thank you, Anna! I feel exactly that way, especially about the hyper-feminine “fairy” images, which I would never have identified with after about age 5. And it does seem incredibly “trendy” and turns my stomach. All children need appropriate self-esteem, key word being “appropriate.” This stuff is very counter-productive for parents and children alike, in my opinion. NT’s need to see us taking ourselves seriously. Not to say we can’t have a bit of fun.

  7. I would like to say i agree with you entirely, but… I agree with you on the superiority part. I think there many of us with asd that take the whole “next stage of human evolution” a little too far, seriously, get over yourself, we are not x-men. I’ve read many posts that can easily be considered degrading to those with an nt brain, along this topic line. I don’t even think there is a word for it yet, “neuroism” or “neuroist” maybe. I think that kind of attitude is more damaging than helpful.
    However, I don’t find anything wrong with people looking at their strengths, something that they do better than most, as a superpower, but i think of it as a lot more watered down terminology. If finding their skill set helps any person feel more valued within themselves, then call it what ever you want.
    I do take issue with finding unique talents solely from the autistic brain. Also with people thinking that it makes them superior to someone else, that I don’t like,
    I would like to think that any person has something special about themselves that sets them apart from everyone else and makes them unique.

    1. I’m all for finding the positives and nurturing and supporting strengths too, but I do feel that calling a person’s talent or skill a superpower simply because they are on the spectrum, is going a step too far. As children on the spectrum grow into teens and adults, they are likely to come face to face with others who will be more talented or more skilled or even realize that what they were taught to believe had been a superpower, is simply something that everyone else can do. What then? There must be a more realistic way of praising and building up strengths than resorting to this. Twenty years ago we were raising children with Autism and cheering them on to achieve without resorting to such tactics. I’m sure Temple Grandin’s mother never once told her she had superpowers. Yet despite this she has accomplished more in her lifetime than the vast majority of the people on the face of this earth. On the other side of the discussion, such unrealistic attitudes can also serve to further marginalize those spectrumites who don’t have a special talent or skill. And yes, I’ve heard people saying that “hugging is my child’s superpower” and yes it’s cute and lovely to hear such things but….. at the same time… we all realize that it’s actually not the truth. Hugging is not a superpower. Especially if that child then goes about randomly hugging strangers on the streets or whilst in shopping centers….. let’s not forget that both children and adults on the spectrum often take things literally….. I can see issues arising if we continue to let ourselves be herded down this superpowers path and let’s not forget where the idea came from in the first place? Perhaps it would be wise to question exactly who stands to make money out of this new trend regarding the way we’re being told to treat ASD children. Chances are they’ll belong to the same profession that back in the 50’s and 60’s made bundles of money out of “expertly” telling parents to place their children in institutions and to walk away and forget about them.

  8. Thank you so much for writing this. I always felt that this idolization of autistic traits is caused by an inability to see autistic people as fellow human beings. It’s like, they can’t demonize so they idealize. And i think a lot of autistic people start to believe this because of their low self esteem and lack of understanding about themselves. They feel like they should be some super intelligent and unique special snowflake to value themselves and it’s just sad.

  9. I use the superpower analogy with my 4 year old son, but I agree that it shouldn’t be used to make him feel like he is somehow superior or better than others…just that, in the same way as superheroes, his senses are heightened and he feels, hears and sees things differently to a lot of other people. It means he has a positive reference of understanding about why he is different that falls within his experience and it cushions the blows to his self esteem as he starts to understand that his differences aren’t always viewed positively by others and he becomes more aware of his own anxiety and confusion about the world. As he grows and understands more I plan to slowly name his superpower as autism and then refer just to the autism without the ‘superpower’ label….I agree that being autistic is not having a superpower any more than being epileptic or diabetic is…but I do find in our case that the superpower reference is helpful as a starting point for my son as newly diagnosed and still very young, in his own understanding and positive self image.

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