My autistic superpower


Growing up with Aspergers the world seemed to be a very strange place. So many things around me didn't make any sense. Things seemed to just happen and I never knew why. Everyone else seemed to know what they were doing, but it was like I missed the memo.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston shows stylised 'Paul' trying to match faces to emotionsI remember when my primary school teacher asked the class to 'find a partner'. In the time it took me to think 'Okay. How do I do that?' I looked around to find that everyone else had already found a partner. It felt like I was always one step behind. What did I miss? How did they all know what to do?

Despite my struggles, I joined in as much as I could. At school I played cricket or soccer with the other kids at lunch time. Sports were easy. They had rules. They may not have always been explained in advance, but if I ever broke one I found out straight away.

Unfortunately, in most other situations the rules aren't spelled out so clearly. What are the rules governing free time? How do I play with other kids? How do I talk to them?

The penalty for breaking a social rule is ostracism. There is no referee and no opportunity to appeal. No one told me what I did wrong. They just stopped talking to me. How was I supposed to learn these social rules? Who could teach me?

Rejected by my peers, I turned to adults, but this approach had its own problems.

I ask questions all the time. It's how I learn. Why does a cell divide? Why does a magnet produce a magnetic field? When I ask, it's because I genuinely want to know the answer.

After misbehaving, however, it seemed every question I asked made the situation worse. Why can't I do that? How was that rude? What's the difference between 'answering' and 'answering back'?

These types of questions were often misinterpreted as a protest and dealt with accordingly. I received unhelpful answers like 'because I said so', or 'you just can't'. It seemed even asking questions was rude! I wasn't trying to challenge authority. How could I communicate that I just want to learn?

My brain seems to lack a certain degree of 'pre-programming'. I am naturally open-minded and non-judgemental. When asked a question I immediately (and often dispassionately) think of many possible solutions. This is great for questions like 'How can we improve this system?', and less good for questions like 'On which body part do you wear your pants?'

Maybe you can see how this trait might get me in trouble with authorities.

When I was asked to find a partner at school, the reason I was always last was because instead of acting on instinct, I stopped to think. It's ironic how being inclined to think more can make a person seem 'slow'.

When the instincts of everyone else in the room converge, I am left behind, wondering how they all 'knew' to do that. Well the answer is that they didn't know. The whole point of instinct is that a person does it without thinking. This explains why no one was able to teach me. Who can adequately describe the rationale behind their instinct?

My problem was that I was trying to learn social rules by focusing on actions. I thought I needed to 'know' the right thing to do, and I therefore spent a lot of time and energy memorising a seemingly endless list of possible scenarios.

It turns out the secret to learning the rules of society is in understanding emotions. The difference between what is 'appropriate' and what is 'inappropriate' often comes down to how it makes the other person feel. Once I discovered this everything changed. It was like a veil was lifted and everything started to make sense.

By paying close attention to the emotions of others I was able to slowly learn how they operate. Popular opinion would have us believe that emotions are somehow irrational, or unpredictable, but the more I observed, the easier they became to predict. Just as my childhood intuition suspected, everything follows rules. Emotions are no different.

By gaining a conscious understanding of emotions I was eventually able to learn how to do what so many others seem to do instinctually, namely interact 'normally' with other people. Nowadays, after many years of practice, I too get a 'gut feeling' as to whether or not something is appropriate in a social context, but when in doubt I still fall back on my conscious understanding.

So despite a decidedly slow start, emotional intelligence is now my special interest; my autistic talent; my super power. Through a lot of hard work and single minded persistence, my greatest weakness has now become my greatest strength.

Paul Micallef

Paul Micallef is studying to become a spiritual director and works for the I CAN Network as a mentor for young people on the Autism Spectrum. Previously he worked as an aircraft structural engineer for Boeing in Port Melbourne and Seattle.

Orignal artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Paul Micallef, autism, Asperger's



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Existing comments

Interacting 'normally' with other people is not my strong point either. I am drawn to people who are different, on the margins, or quirky. Or people who don't go to church, even though I go to church. I baulk at the 'family' thing of church, thinking that everyone outside church is really my family. I have a few good friends who think I'm okay - however, I can see that relating to other people involves being sensitive to how they are feeling. This article has given me lots to think about!

Pam | 25 October 2015  

Have you heard of the Enneagram? It is a rule system for how everybody sees the world from a different perspective. But there are only a small number of perspectives - nine. It really helps to understand why people act in certain ways.

Chris | 26 October 2015  

Thanks for writing your insights and experiences, Paul. Your unique point of view, your superpower shows up some of the silliness and hypocrisy in what society calls courteous etc. Your article helped me make sense of some of my own experiences about fitting in and not fitting in and not understanding.

Michael D. Breen | 26 October 2015  

Thankyou so much for sharing your insights. We, in the education field really appreciate it.

paula kelly | 26 October 2015  

Great insight Paul - thanks for sharing. I run workshops on Emotional Intelligence and also go to a male prison every week. After one course, a guy came up to me and said,'Thanks Miss. I've never been able to express my emotions and could never understand why my relationships fail.' Emotions are our fuel, our energy; from the Latin word 'motere' - to move. Coincidently, I learn a lot from my autistic grandson. Keep up the good work.

Elizabeth | 26 October 2015  

Thanks so much for this perspective Paul. Something for us all to learn I reckon! Like Chris I thought of the Enneagram. I also thought of hakomi therapy which focusses on 'loving presence' to others.

Margaret | 26 October 2015  

Thank you Paul, for your insightful and explanatory piece. I teach Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.), which focuses on emotions (parents helping identify children's emotions; and parents identifying their own); assertiveness (where the parent explains to the child how the child's actions have impacted on other people); and no-lose problem solving (where the child has a say in working out an outcome). There is no punishment or reward. Many parents of children with Aspergers have completed the course with me, and found the skills helped their children tremendously. Your article has helped me understand why this approach is so helpful to children with Aspergers. Thank you.

Larissa | 28 October 2015  

This is cool, Paul :-) I've been thinking for ages that I want to start a website or blog that deals with emotions and how to work with them. I think there'd be lots of people who would appreciate it, Aspie and NT alike

sue | 05 November 2015  

Thanks for your honesty Paul. I would question the 'instinct' theory - I think many people learn things, almost by osmosis, and it seems instinctual but is really learnt behaviour. I too am a thinker, so I see many possibilities, where others may not see more than one. Good on you for gaining emotional intelligence, but don't lose your other superpowers in the process. Your unique perspective is of great value.

Karen | 13 November 2015  

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