ADHD And Autistic Assets

Jillian Enright

The strengths and gifts of divergent minds

So much of the literature on ADHD and autism focuses on our deficits, painting us as “disordered”, pathologizing our very existence. Yes, neurodiverse people struggle, as do neurotypical people.

We may experience more challenges due to our neurology, but in many cases, our challenges stem from lack of understanding and accommodation in general society.

Worse, we sometimes encounter ableism or neuronormativity — the idea that being different is inherently worse, or “less than” when compared to the statistical norm — in our own co-workers, family, and friends.

I work as an advocate and provide support for neurodiverse people, most often children. A significant part of what I do is teach their families and schools about their neurotype, and how best to support that child. Another important aspect of my work is helping the child understand their own neurology, and helping them find their strengths.

By the time a child is identified as neurodivergent they’ve already encountered difficulties, otherwise they wouldn’t have been referred for assessment in the first place. This often takes a toll on children and on their self-concept. Many don’t want to be “weird” or different, they just want to fit in with their peers.

Some (of the many) strengths of ADHD and Autistic people are resilience, energy, humanity, sensory sensitivities, hyperfocus, creativity, transcendence, and attention to detail. I’ll describe them here in detail with some real-life examples.

Courage and resilience

When I first read this study describing “courage” as one of our positive attributes, I was a little confused. I didn’t disagree, but I hadn’t heard neurodiverse people described in this way before (resilient, yes, but courageous was a new one for me).

As I read on, it became more clear. Neurodivergent people are described as more sensitive to issues of social justice and human rights when compared to neurotypicals.

We’re also described as being nonconformists, so we are much less likely to be caught up in groupthink and more likely to remain firm in our beliefs, even when they do not align with popular opinion.

A very interesting point made by participants in this study was their spontaneity was viewed as fun and adventurous in certain circumstances, while described as impulsive and reckless in others.

Either characterization may be accurate depending on what is at stake, but it may be a willingness to take risks and trust one’s intuition are also what make people with ADHD such successful entrepreneurs.

Energy and humanity

The authors and participants in the study I mentioned previously discussed different types of energy: physical, psychological, and spiritual. I did not identify with the spiritual aspects mentioned, but I did very strongly identify with their descriptions of will, drive, and volition.

My son and I have always been extremely willful and driven people. When we set our sights on something, we are bound and determined, and we will work relentlessly to achieve our goals.

Volition requires an individual to become energised by a strong desire to achieve something, then to strive relentlessly towards a threshold in which intrinsic motivation transmutes into a physical energy that drives performance and productivity.” — Deci & Vansteenkiste

To me, this is very much connected to the earlier conversation about justice sensitivity. If I feel an injustice has occurred, this energizes me to work against it, I’m driven to right the wrong that has been done.

All participants in the study said that if their ADHD went away they would miss their sense of humour. I am not particularly funny, but my son is hilarious and he has a very clever sense of humour.

An important way this is used in our household is to diffuse tension. If my son and I are starting to get annoyed with one another, often one of us will make a smart-ass remark and we’ll end up laughing instead of arguing.

Sensory sensitivities

The study I’ve been referring to described this strength as “transcendence”. I am a hardcore science-loving atheist, so the idea of spirituality makes me squirm uncomfortably.

A lot of people describe their sensory sensitivities as negative, and I am usually one of them, but not always. One aspect of my heightened senses that brings both pain and pleasure is my acoustic sensitivity (ironic because I’m hard of hearing, but I digress).

I am highly sensitive to sudden or loud noises and can become overstimulated very quickly in loud environments. That said, I love music. I love music turned up to 11. I love it loud and powerful. Sometimes I experience music throughout my whole body in a way that envelops me and carries me away.

Some studies have described this as related to the Autistic strength of exceptional attention to detail, and I would agree.

What I love about music are the details: the key changes, the discordant notes, the timing and metre changes that take you by surprise, the powerful voices and talented musicians, and the lyrics.

If I enjoy a song, I only have to listen to it once or twice and I will have most of the lyrics memorized. By the fourth or fifth listen, I have every word down. Some rap songs take a few more tries, but it is uncanny how lyrics stick in my brain.

Transcendence

I understand the experience of transcendence through Dr. Porges’ Polyvagal Theory and would posit that it relates to our sensory sensitivities.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’ll try to give a quick overview of how the Polyvagal Theory relates to transcendence.

People talk about having a transcendental experience when listening to powerful music, sometimes called “frisson” when you get goosebumps or chills running down your spine. There’s a cool explanation for this — at least, it’s cool if you’re a science geek like I am.

The human ear has evolved to better hear speech. When the brain detects speech, the ossicular chain becomes more rigid. This quiets the lower-frequency sounds (such as cars passing by, or your neighbour mowing their lawn), allowing the brain to focus on the higher-frequency sound of someone talking.

Conversely, if the brain detects a threat (i.e. the sound of an incoming train when you’re walking along the train tracks, or a large truck honking as it is barreling toward you), it does the opposite. The ossicular chain loosens and the brain tells the ear to focus on the lower-frequency sounds in order to be alert for danger.

What’s really cool is that when your brain tells your ear to focus on higher-frequency sounds (like speech or relaxing music), it also tells your heart to slow down because it’s getting the message that your environment is safe and you won’t need to mobilize (i.e. run away) from something scary.

When your brain and ear focus on low-frequency sounds, this sends signals to your heart and lungs to prepare for potential threat and to prepare for fight-or-flight.

This is why the background music in a horror film increases the viewer’s feeling of anxiety and dread while listening to classical music or soothing jazz helps the listener feel more relaxed.

This is part of the transcendental experience. It’s a lot more complex than I can describe in a few paragraphs, but it’s an evolutionary and physiological response, rather than a spiritual awakening.

Anyway

Hyperfocus and special interests

Prime examples of mental hyperactivity are hyperfocus and hyperfixations. Hyperfocus in ADHD is characterized as a deficit in set-shifting and task-switching, but many people with ADHD experience hyperfocus as an asset and associate it with increased productivity.

Hyperfixations are also known as special interests, more common amongst Autistics, wherein we become keenly interested in a subject. A special interest is more than a hobby and more than hyperfocus, it’s a deep fascination that can last for many years or even an entire lifetime.

Another gift included under the cognitive dynamism category is creativity. Many studies have demonstrated people with ADHD generally have more creative minds than neurotypicals.

While those with ADHD tend to be more creative, many Autistics possess exceptional attention to detail and originality. While we may struggle with cognitive flexibility, we more than make up for it with innovation.

It makes sense when you think of what a divergent mind is: it’s a brain whose development and functioning diverge from the statistical norm. This doesn’t automatically mean better or worse, it simply means outside of the average.

There are common ways of thinking amongst those who are the same neurotype. When the majority of our population is neurotypical, their problem-solving processes will be similar, and they’ll come up with similar ideas.

When someone with a divergent brain looks at the same problem, we have a different perspective and are less constrained by social norms and expectations, both of which enable us to come up with unique ideas.

These traits are thought to contribute to some neurodivergent people becoming exceptional entrepreneurs. Research has described ADHD entrepreneurs as more intuitive business owners and points to our outside-the-box thinking as an advantage in the business world.

Attention to detail

Some call it being pedantic, I call it being specific and accurate.

I suppose it would fall under cognitive dynamism, but after my earlier tangent on polyvagal theory, this seemed an appropriate place to mention the attention to detail as another benefit to being neurodivergent.

Our attention to detail impacts how we experience the world around us. It can manifest as talents in the arts, sciences, or mathematics.

ADHD and autism appreciation

I never want to minimize the struggles that many of us face on a daily basis. Being different can be very challenging, especially when we don’t have strong supports in our lives.

If more people understood neurodivergence, and were better informed about the strengths and unique qualities that neurodivergent people have, they would be more accepting.

If people understood that we’re not “disordered,” just different, and differences carry strengths as well as weaknesses, they would be more open and make more effort to accommodate and appreciate us.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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