A common debate that often pops up in media discourse around Autism is whether being Autistic should be considered a superpower, or a disability.
While every person sees being Autistic differently, and not everyone sees it as a ‘superpower’, there are just as many who do: who perceive it as a gift they are fortunate to have; one that can enable them to do great things, perform incredible feats, to demonstrate high levels of skill and talent, to be pioneers who expand ways of thinking and being – to accidentally starting massive social movements.
However, being Autistic very clearly imposes struggle and limitations as well: struggles that are exacerbated by the society we live in.
This once again begs the question: Is Autism a superpower, or a disability?
My answer is one that you might not expect: both.
To analyze why I have come to believe this, it’s necessary to look at what society constitutes as ‘superhuman’. Given that the term ‘superhero’ in the real world is incredibly subjective, there are not many real life ‘superheroes’ (as we know it) to analyze, so I will be primarily drawing examples from fiction.
Being a superhero (or sometimes villain): it’s every child’s dream. To have powers beyond that most people have, to be able to perform incredible feats, to go on incredible, awesome adventures and use these abilities however one sees fit, for better or worse.
A closer look might make one think twice, however. Superhuman capabilities tend to have limitations – which may sometimes be written into the plot, but are typically things that can be seen as an obvious side effect of the powers themselves.
As I am currently going through the MCU’s Netflix shows at a slow pace, a character that comes to mind is Luke Cage. How cool would it be to have impenetrable, unbreakable skin along with super strength? Sounds awesome. But what about the fact that, as comes up in the plot on more than one occasion, it makes medical procedures incredibly difficult? That unbreakable skin comes in handy when stopping bullets; less so when one is incapable of taking vaccines, blood tests, or any other medically invasive procedures that might be necessary. From a certain point of view, this makes his condition incredibly disabling under the wrong circumstances.
One of my favourite video game series, Infamous, features Cole McGrath in the first two games. With the power to essentially “bend” electricity, using it for many different purposes, you would think there were no drawbacks, right? Think again: being unable to swim or even shower, being unable to enter the inside of a car without it exploding, firearms exploding on contact as the hand’s electricity ignites the gunpowder. Interactions with people can be risky, especially near bodies of water, as the wrong move can electrocute a person to death – there will never be any romantic days out at the beach for this hero.
Further, he must be in the presence of electricity, or else his body experiences distress.
A third major example I can think of would be found in Star Wars: Force-users are beings that I actually consider analogous to Autistics: in some ways, it may be (albeit unintentionally) allegorical. There are many commonalities: hyper-sensitivity to the environment, deep attention to detail, emotional intensity, and typically having above-average skills in certain areas. Having the deep ability to focus, to be insightful, and to find solutions that are not obvious to others. Often being unable to relate to other people who are not like you. Being a Jedi or a Sith sounds pretty awesome, but it’s pretty plainly obvious that their lives are not necessarily happy. More importantly, the Jedi and Sith have limitations (that can also be analogous to Autism): for instance, feeling a “disturbance in the Force” is something that is glossed over, but described in novels to actually be physically and emotionally traumatic; another common way to “beat” Force users in-universe is to cause suffering, which takes advantage of hyper-empathy, or to mask one’s feelings with thoughts to avoid having one’s true intentions detected – something to this effect played a role in Order 66, as the clones systemically carried out their betrayal in a dispassionate fashion that took most Jedi by surprise.
My point in drawing all these analogies isn’t to make direct comparisons between reality and fiction, but rather to show that ‘superpower’ and ‘disability’ are not mutually exclusive – in fact, in many ways they are linked. Both involve the differing of minds and bodies from the norm, and both can result in people who possess these differences being ‘othered’, perceived as freaks or threats. Further, works of fiction often reflect and critique on our real world; Star Wars and certain superhero-based stories very specifically do this.
It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that people who demonstrate ‘extraordinary’ abilities of any kind in this world, are viewed with prejudice as much as reverence. Gifted kids may be seen as nerds. Monks and yogis in Asia capable of performing incredible physical or mental feats are viewed as freaks as much as they are viewed with awe.
And Autistic people in this world are seen as ‘freaks’ as much, if not more than we are seen as ‘special’ or ‘prodigies’ for any talent we may have. You would think that memorizing complex subjects, remembering everyone’s birthday, or naming a lot about trains would make us more interesting, but the sad reality is that many will just see it as ‘freaky’. Autistics who can read beyond their peers at a young age are not treated with admiration, but resentment. Greta Thunberg herself, driver of one of the biggest environmental movements the world has seen, is met as much with condescension and intimidation as she has rightfully earned the respect of many around the world. She regards being Autistic as a superpower, but it was not always that way for her. Being allowed to find her true path made it that way.
When I watch the X-Men films, or read about how people with extraordinary abilities are treated in various universes, or even how cyborgs – which are essentially physically disabled people with access to advanced technology – are treated, I cannot help but feel as though, like dystopian fiction, it is a commentary on how people with diverging minds and bodies are treated in our world today. It reinforces the concept of the social model of disability: that disability is a construct; a product of social inaccessibility. Ultimately, the same fear of difference that drives the persecution of the X-Men or the extermination of the Jedi Order, are what turn the wheels of ableism in the real world. And the sooner these parallels are seen for what they are, the sooner we as a society can seek to dismantle ableism.
Autistic people have so much to offer to this world, if we are given the chance – and the access – so that our challenges are subsided, and we can allow our superpowers to shine.