Andy Rotherham’s Autism Blog – The Gifts of Autism

For this edition of my blog I will be exploring and explaining the ‘gift’ side of Autism. This is something that is sadly overlooked by many employers, resulting in the full potential of the Autistic workforce being undervalued and under-utilised.

My own story very much fits this pattern. But more about me later. First some background;

Background

Autistic people often feel invisible in society and as such are ignored or dismissed. Our skills and intelligence are very rarely recognised because we don’t communicate in a Neurotypical way. Yet, many great minds who have contributed significantly to the development of mankind displayed signs and symptoms of what would now be recognised as Autism.

Hans Asperger himself said, “It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.”

Personal Experience with Autism

I was diagnosed as Autistic almost 6 years ago, at the age of 50. As one who slipped through the proverbial net and who struggled to understand both myself and the reactions of other people to me, the diagnosis was quite a revelation. Once I had come to terms with what it meant, researched it to the “nth” degree and dealt with the co-morbid anxiety I had been living with my entire life to that point, I made a decision: To hell with what had gone before and all the people who hadn’t recognised my talents or intellect. I was going to make my Autism work for me. I was going to take the things it gave me and use them to make my life from that point happy and fulfilling. So, what did I do?

  1. I got rid of all the things and people who made me unhappy. The first thing I did was quit working for an employer who had caused me great anguish by failing to support my sensory needs and by refusing to accept that I could even be Autistic, despite having a copy of my official diagnosis! I didn’t fit with their preconceived ideas of what Autism is.
  2. I cut communication with people who brought drama and conflict into my life.
  3. I rebuilt myself both physically and mentally to a healthy place.
  4. I then set about making myself happy.

I started looking at all the things I wanted to do as hobbies, but never had the time. I have always loved music, now I could take the time to teach myself to play to a level I was happy with.

I loved guitars and had an idea swimming around in my head for some time for a custom shaped bass guitar. A Yellow Submarine, as per The Beatles animated film. Trouble is I am the guy who was kicked out of Woodwork at school as I was told I would always be useless and never be able to make anything with my hands. It was going to be a sharp learning curve, but I believed I could do it.

Before each stage in the project, I researched thoroughly. I found that I have the ability to think through an action and rehearse the method many times before I would put tool to wood. I can carry out these rehearsals during lucid dreaming. I can go to bed thinking about the problem and wake up the next morning having ironed out all aspects of the process to the point where I can do it without any further physical preparation.

Once I had the wooden structure complete, I learnt to paint it, with a mixture of techniques from spray can to fine brush work. I taught myself how to do guitar electrics, fitting the pickups and controls. Then came the stringing of it and setting the bass up so it played easily and sounded good.

I also found that I could use this lucid dreaming technique to learn how to play songs. I found this out when I was struggling with a song and I abandoned my efforts and went to bed. I remember very well in my lucid dream that I was stood with my bass on and the song was playing. I could pause, rewind and isolate certain instruments, as if I was in front of a multi-track mixing desk. I replayed a note I was struggling with, looked down at the fretboard and moved my hand up and down until I found it. Then I moved onto the next note. I woke up in the morning and told my Wife what had happened. I couldn’t wait to find out if it would translate to actually playing it. We both went into my music room, I picked up a bass and sure enough I was able to play the song perfectly!

As people learnt of my new skills, I started getting requests from fellow musicians to work on their guitars and basses. This led onto being approached by the Guitarist of a popular band and asking me to service and set up his guitars for him. I relished the opportunity, although of course there is self-imposed pressure to be perfect in everything I do. In my work for him this is heightened. I was also asked by the band to work ad-hoc at their studio to help with the day to day running of the place when needed.

This last summer we carried out a big building and renovation project at their studio complex, which saw me build internal walls from timber and plasterboard. I learnt how to do it the evening before from a 10-minute YouTube video, most of which I fast forwarded through. And, yes, you’ve guessed, by building them many times in my sleep…

The real upside of this hard work was I could set up a workshop in one of the newly partitioned rooms. I built a guitar workbench from left over timber in one day and covered it with carpet and a large ceramic tile for soldering on. I now find myself employed for a band whose music I love. People I both like and respect, and who really value me for my skills and abilities. I am looking after the whole guitar and bass collection the band own. Each day brings its own set of challenges, but I love learning as I do them. I have found that I have a real gift for restoration particularly. I am currently bringing back to life a beautiful 1976 Rickenbacker bass. Yesterday was a Spanish/Classical guitar.

Of course, being Autistic, I am a collector and have a house full of guitars and basses of my own… Although I do need to draw this in it is a small price to pay to have discovered gifts, I never knew I had, skills I never thought I could learn and a hobby that has turned into my dream job!

Conclusion

There are reasonably common gifts that accompany Autistic individuals, like Pattern Thinking, Visual Learning, Attention to Detail, Extreme Levels of Concentration, Loyalty and Honesty and a Deep Passion and Knowledge on their Special Interest.

Less common ones include Savantism and High IQ.

But like all things Autism related there is no standard. Some may have many of these gifts, some one or two and some none. As Dr Stephen Shore said, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
What unites us all however is Out of the Box thinking, the ability to think freely without the constraints of established thinking or social norms.

What society and the employers who haven’t caught on yet need to understand is that the Autistic Mind is a relatively untapped resource. Given the right environment, encouragement and tasks specifically related to the gifts they possess we are a most loyal, productive and hardworking addition to the workforce.

“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine,” Alan Turing.

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