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Are Autistic People Really That Smart?

RainMan21Everyone says we are. If someone has poor social skills then the automatic consensus is that they’re one smart cookie. After all, poor social skills often entail pitting logic against emotion. And doesn’t a disorder that predisposes you towards logic make you smart by default?

I guess that depends how you define “smart.”

We see a lot of autistic people in tech. I think math-oriented fields are a natural fit for the autistic brain. Good with details. Truth as the bottom line. No need to factor in empathy-based nuance. But that’s a very specific form of intelligence.

Sometimes you see us succeed in music. Music  is patterns. Like math with feelings. Or even art, because you don’t necessarily have to take different views into consideration to create a piece of fantasy that means something.

But I’d be shocked to see a significant number of us succeed at philosophy or political strategy.

Autistic people see black and white. We don’t pick up on things intuitively and then work them into our worldview. Our worldview is composed of context-free details that we throw together hoping they’ll stick. It takes us years to pick up on social/emotional things: things that most people pull from their hindbrains into their consciousness before puberty.

Plus we have weak central coherence. That makes cause-and-effect thinking difficult. We’re always missing something. Some big thing. And so many of us have trouble filtering relevant details to begin with.

People on the Internet are saying Putin has Asperger’s. Because he’s got a stiff gait or something. But let’s look at his mode of governing. He gives kickbacks to his friends so they’ll stay loyal. He intuitively knows that if he aligns himself with powers that the U.S. won’t: Assad, China, Edward Snowden, etc. he can claim a formidable role in global politics.

That seems like the opposite of Asperger’s-type thinking to me.

Autistic people are great with details. We rule at logic. But we’re missing the basic template that the rest of the world runs on. That intuitive knowledge is what keeps our thoughts grounded. Otherwise they’re just fragments.

I think I’m a good writer. I’ve improved a lot over time. But still, I mostly just cherry-pick details and tie them to ideas that are already there. I have trouble forming coherent thoughts half the time, let alone a coherent, original argument. I know I have a unique way of looking at things, but I’m constantly worried that my work will never amount to more than the sum of its parts.

I know this sounds harsh you guys. But I don’t think we’re hopeless. I think the autistic brain might be better than the neurotypical brain at some things. We have a hell of a lot of intellectual curiosity for starters. We combine ideas that other people would never think to put together. There’s some pretty convincing evidence that Einstein was on the spectrum. I suspect Andy Warhol was too.

We could be better-built, or at least better predisposed, than neurotypicals for the entire realm of science, math, and tech. And almost certainly some parts of it, like Big Data. Plus software testing. Many of us have a tireless attention to detail that Specialisterne will hopefully succeed at helping us make use of.

But when it comes to forming a nuanced and cohesive worldview then I think most of us are going to fail. I wish both the autism community and the pandering media would take that into consideration next time they tell us how smart we are.


*Rain Man from Movie Project.

Are Autistic People Really That Smart?

Gwendolyn Kansen

Gwen Kansen is a mental health writer in New York. She likes food, karaoke, and smart-but-campy books & TV. She's hoping to capture a little sliver of life on here that might not be the first thing you'd see.

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APA Reference
Kansen, G. (2016). Are Autistic People Really That Smart?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 Jan 2016
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