Neurofabulous: Twenty-one Awesome Symptoms of Autism'

Twenty-one Awesome Symptoms of Autism

by Katy Elphinstone

Peach Tree

paintings and drawings also by Katy Elphinstone

  • How can there be 'awesome' symptoms?

    There can't really. The title is ironic. It struck me there are many, many lists of the negative symptoms of autism available. But yet, surprisingly, there can be some good things about being autistic too.

    Here is a list of some of the awesome characteristics you just might possess if you are autistic or otherwise neurodivergent. Thank you to all those on the Wrong Planet forum who helped with their ideas and feedback.


    1. Hyper-sensory experiences

    Hyper-receptivity to sensory input can obviously be a challenging quality in life, as it means that the chances of frequent sensory overload are high.

    However, if strategies are found to deal with or avoid overload, and support and acceptance are at hand in order to build up resilience to the more difficult aspects, it can also be a great gift. It brings with it the capacity to be aware of ambient nuances, beauty and subtlety. It can also mean things like noticing in time if the house is burning down (autistic people are usually highly sensitive to smell).

    Hyper sensory experiences are often unpleasant but can be positive. When I walk through a forest, the sounds, smells, textures, colours and wind moving through the leaves has such a pleasant effect on my mind. I see beauty in the small details.
    (Amity, Wrong Planet forum)

    Autistic people are often lovers of nature and the universe; appreciators of beautiful environments. On the flip side, we have low tolerance levels for ugliness, pollution, strip lighting and noisy artificial environments.

    Trees by Katy Elphinstone

  • 2. Compassion and unusual empathy

    For people, animals, and even objects! This empathy can be very democratic, i.e., it does not exclude anyone or any creature who doesn't appear useful; who perhaps hasn't succeeded well in life and whom society would usually judge and write off.

    Until recently it was thought that one of the main indicators for autism was a lack of empathy (ref. Theory of Mind).1 It is now hypothesized that in cases where empathy is lacking, it may be due to there having been a shut-down of connection as a defense mechanism (which ties in with the hypersensitivity described above).2

    Brain scans have shown that autistic people, in response to seeing others in distress, have strong empathetic reactions in the areas of the brain connecting with compassion and fellow feeling, even when their outward behavior does not show any sympathy.3

    Affinity with animals, often to a marked degree. This is common among autistic people – indeed, there are instances where the person's family and friends think of them as a sort of 'animal-whisperer'.

    There have been many recorded incidents of apparently telepathic phenomena between autistic people and others.4 This is particularly evident in close relationships e.g. mother/child.

    Polar bear mother with baby

  • 3. Unusual perception

    Differences in methods used for processing information, combined with heightened levels of perception, very often lead to high levels of creativity, and unusual talents.

    Autistic tendencies may sometimes be seen in those who become deeply involved in mathematics, or in music – as well as in other fields that involve combining creativity with pattern-seeking. Using spatial/colour/shape visualizations during calculations or during a creative streak is common (there is an unusually high prevalence of synaesthesia in autistic people).5

    Important to note here is that (while society may laud autistics who excel at mathematics, code-breaking, or music), all too often, the areas where our perception differs from the mainstream may not be particularly appreciated. For example, the ability to visualize/discern patterns e.g. environmentally and/or socially – even when we don't know what to do with the information.

  • 4. Hyper-memory

    The ability to remember a vast amount of information on a topic of interest. This capacity to intensely concentrate one's brainpower in an area may allow specializations to be developed to advanced levels.

    It is important to note here that the topic of interest could be literally anything – there's no hierarchy. An in-depth interest in (and knowledge about) e.g. Pokemon or Avatar's world is just as valid as an intense interest in quantum physics, or Baroque composers.

    Quite a lot has been written on the reportedly 'savant' abilities of some autistics. In modern times it becomes apparent that a disproportionate number of people through history who were specifically known for their extraordinary ways of seeing things, persistence, talents and/or visionary powers (in many and diverse fields), actually showed quite a lot of autistic traits, according to the modern definitions and criteria.6

  • 5. Hyper-focus and concentration

    The capacity to focus on a single topic with all of one's mind/attention, and be practically un-distractable from it! This ability to hyper-concentrate leads to a high level of productivity, and often to new ground being explored.

  • 6. Perseverance

    The ability to keep on at a specific task for extended periods of time without losing focus. Autistic people, and those with ADHD, often show an incredible capacity for perseverance when working on tasks of personal or professional interest. And generally, we do not give up e.g. just because of needing to modify or adjust our ideas – instead adapting our work to fit the new reality.

    One thing to add here, is just how much fun autistic people can have while following our interests and passions in this way. Though these periods of hyper-activity generally need to be alternated with some proper down-time; something I call 'vegetation'.

  • 7. Interesting reading and writing skills

    Some autistics possess the ability to read very fast, or very early, and/or in quite unusual styles. For example, mirror writing and reading/writing upside down are also among the interesting skills that can be sometimes seen in autistic people (these skills, when seen in more prounounced ways, are known as hyperlexia).

    Child holding up a sign in the mirror which reads, 'This is mirror language. Do you understand?'

  • 8. Attention to detail

    Autistic people famously pay a lot of attention to details – sometimes to the point of not seeing the whole at all, or at least not in the same way as others. While this can bring its difficulties, it can also mean unusual observational powers combined with a high level of precision. It also means, although we may take longer to process things, we're less liable to fall into a 'heuristics' trap (which is when we quickly generalize things, when information is lacking, to come to a possibly-inaccurate conclusion).7

    We often notice things other people don't (while maybe not noticing things other people do!). Autistic people might notice and remember completely different aspects of a scene or event from others. This information, when we all work together, can serve as an invaluable contribution.

    Sant'Ivo della Sapienza

  • 9. Looking for the 'why' of things

    There is a strong tendency among autistic people to use their intellectual and analytical capacities for trying to figure out why things might be as they are.8 And, to add to this, the propensity to creatively imagine how they could be changed.

    Autistic adults (and often young people too) are often very into social justice and questioning of the system, and are upset at seeing exploitation of the vulnerable – also cruelty e.g. to animals.

  • 10. Non-conformism

    "Conformity is the jailor of freedom and the enemy of growth." (John F Kennedy)

    To an autistic person, 'because everyone else is doing it' is not a good reason for doing something! This is because we tend to lack that sort of 'herd mentality'.9 I see this as a positive: a safeguard against bullying and hooligan behaviors, as well as an avenue for creativity, positive risk-taking and celebrating our differences.

    Matt Friedman's cartoon the blob expresses beautifully how 'group mentality' appears from the point of view of an autistic person.

  • 11. Doing things because they're important, and not to look good

    Not feeling a need to adhere to group code, or striving just to be popular and successful in life (having other values instead). A lack of care for social norms provides truthful/insightful answers where others fear treading as they see that their social status will be jeopardized.10

    On the downside, it seems that autistic people do not very often achieve success and recognition for what they do. Our mind is probably on other matters, and 'networking' is highly unlikely to be either one of our strengths or priorities. Also, a disarming openness about one's own failings and weaknesses can obviously be a big obstacle to success in a 'sell yourself' world.

  • 12. Unusual visual-spatial skills

    Temple Grandin is famous for 'Thinking in Pictures'. In her book with this name, she explains the ways in which she processes information imaginatively using visualization, and how that has made her work possible.11

    Some autistic people may be really good at modelling, or imaginatively laying out gardens and interiors, or making intricate paintings/cartoons/embroideries, drawing out maps, or even (for some) making and fixing things. For example, I am rather good at putting together IKEA furniture (even if, ahem, I might not manage to go to IKEA to buy it).

    For some, this propensity for visualising can mean 'just knowing' e.g. how many steps to the grocery store, or how many buns will come out of that dough, and where to place them on the rack so they're all the same distance apart.

    Bologna University, drawing by Katy Elphinstone

  • 13. Which leads to analysing...

    Making sense of and connections between subjects encompassing a broad spectrum. Unusual thinking and non-standard ways of seeing things. The ability to make correlations between data sets and come to a 'new idea'.

    It has been said of people who are autistic or ADHD that it doesn't seem to be so much about thinking outside the box... as apparently not even being aware there is a box!

  • 14. A capacity for real/loyal friendships

    An ability to take people as they are, and are not as what the societal hierarchy/social norms, popularity or economic status, deem them to be. This can lead to having genuine good people in one's life, because of understanding their worth and really valuing them.

    Kindness, honesty, and the ability to sense true kindness in others.

    Often, there is a capacity for understanding and validating other people's way of thinking even when disagreeing with them. Although, there is a tendency to avoid things we find difficult emotionally, or hurtful – so if we find another's views unkind or upsetting, we may stay away (not to be confused with holding a grudge).

    Back massage

  • 15. Failure to take on others' ideas about 'duty'

    It may sound odd to call this a positive. However, in our world self-discipline is (counter-intuitively) something we like to impose on children 'for their own good'. This is usually for the purpose of making them do things they would not naturally want to, and occasionally to take the fun out of activities that previously they had spontaneously wanted to do.

    It's a way of bending people to the standing rules and norms of our society; getting them used to habitual self-denial, and putting them firmly on the treadmill of 'real life'. Once our children have properly learnt this sort of self-discipline, they can be relied on to impose it upon themselves. Spontaneous joy becomes a guilty luxury, or even just a distant memory, and rewards are deferred to a misty future. No wonder we lookback so wistfully to childhood.12

    Autistic children, while showing remarkable dedication when applying themselves to tasks and activities of interest to them, generally show strong resistance or even total inability to being taught this kind of self-discipline. They often seem not just unwilling but unable to harness themselves in this way. This might be why many therapies and programs for autistic children allow for some quite drastic measures which are no longer considered acceptable in the education of neurotypical kids.13

  • 16. Resistance to being moulded

    It's a good thing, in my view, to be resistant to being 'improved' and changed as a person. It is not always a positive thing to fit in – obviously depending hugely what kind of environment you are fitting into and what sorts of compromises it will take to do so.

    I see this intrinsic resistance as an involuntary and positive rebellion against excessive conformity.

    Just to mention here though, that many people who are on the autistic spectrum (especially women) possess an extraordinary ability to become chameleons. They may succeed and even excel in their chosen sphere, out in the 'real world'. However, even these people retain a life-long feeling of not quite belonging - they are always aware on some level that they are hiding something important of themselves, often at great cost.14

  • 17. Strong reactions against being manipulated

    The reactions vary: the gist is the same. Autistic people, even though they often consciously feel ashamed and self-hating because of it, tend to strenuously resent and resist attempts by other people to manipulate them.

    I believe some meltdowns may be due to this. You might be made to feel 'wrong' and badly-behaved, because of the intense pressure on you to conform combined with your inability to do so. You hear the disapproval and censure, and feel both betrayed and manipulated. And then, after the anger, comes the shame – as you are brought gently to understand how you, and only you, were at fault.

    I've observed in my son a strong backlash reaction even when anyone is trying to affect him or his behavioiur just through using praise (this is a method we use consistently, though usually unwittingly, in our culture. We use praise to either direct children into doing what we want or think is best, or else encourage them to continue in behavior we approve of. It has been shown in studies to actually reduce self-motivation and genuine kindness, while it increases conformiity and superficial people-pleasing behaviours.15 If an adult effusively praises his work, my son might say politely without looking up, "Please can you stop talking". Which usually quite effectively leaves the adult speechless.

  • 18. Unusual and/or pronounced forms of imagination

    Many autistic people have the ability to enter into an imaginary world almost to exclusion of everything else around them, which can lead to astonishing flights of fantasy and detail. Creative talents may be pronounced, such as music, art, writing, or engineering and building things.

    On the other hand, there are those with Aphantasia – meaning you're unable to form mental images of things that aren't there. People with this condition sometimes have sensory experiences instead of remembering objects or people (such as taste, or smell)!

    Flying horse

  • 19. Childlike demeanor

    A childlike playfulness can often be found in autistic adults (not to be confused with immaturity). There seems to be an amazing ability to enjoy the moment and derive pleasure out of small things, and, very often, a retaining of curiosity about everything.

    We tend to have immediate, genuine and heartfelt reactions to experiences (whether positive or negative), as well as a capacity to be easily amused.

    One common aspect of being autistic seems to be a natural trust/innocence, which is often retained into adulthood. Unfortunately, this can all too easily be exploited – but, on the other side, it can trigger protective, loving and tolerant reactions from others.

  • 20. Honesty

    Autistic people are often disconcertingly honest. Many find it literally impossible to tell a downright lie.

    When autistic women on the Spectrum Women forum were asked, 'Do you ever lie?', the overall answer was yes, occasionally – but only very unwillingly, and always because of having to be socially acceptable and/or not wanting to hurt other people s feelings.

    This lack of ability to pretend to others that either you believe something you don't or you feel a way you don't, means that many autistic people learn to keep quiet rather than make any attempts to either pretend, or risk telling the truth.

    We hate lies and injustice – unless someone leans on lying as a coping mechanism/masking tool.
    StampySquiddyFan on Wrong Planet

  • 21. Having a strong community

    This may surprise some people, as autistic people are not widely lauded in the mainstream for their social skills. However, with a growing online community in places such as Wrong Planet, Autistic/Neurodivergent Mastodon (there is even a server, ''), and Autistic/Neurodivergent Twitter, and ever-increasing numbers of groups/communities of neurodivergent people who meet up in person (my own local group is SWAN; the Scottish Women & Non-binary Autism Network), it is proving that autistic people, and neurodivergent people in general, have significant skills in inclusion, advocacy, and indeed just plain socialising.

    This is not to say, however, that many of us do not feel lonely quite often. High levels of sensitivity and social anxiety (often at least in part caused by negative experiences around being among people) can mean that we avoid meeting people in real life. This is why the burgeoning online social scene has been so beneficial in the forming of our own social and community spaces.

    Twin girls, Cambodia


  • If you're interested in reading further on this site about the more difficult symptoms of autism: take a look at the Symptoms list on the Trauma and Autism page. I wonder whether perhaps signs of distress and overwhelm in autistic people are perhaps not being erroneously taken to diagnose the neurotype itself, which could maybe be better defined by the features, and especially the hypersensitivities, I've described above.



    1. In psychology, 'Theory of Mind' refers to the capacity to understand other people by ascribing mental states to them (that is, surmising what is happening in their mind). It has been assumed autistic people lack theory of mind because of not reacting in expected ways in social experiments. But could this be down to differences, rather than to deficits? And indeed, Dr Damian Milton's Double Empathy Problem shows up an 'empathy gap' between the two sets of people involved (autistics and non-autistics). This happens simply because we think differently, and perceive things differently, from one another. Wikipedia: The Double Empathy Problem.

    2. The 'Intense World Theory', developed by neuroscientists Kamila Markram and Henry Markram, proposes autism not as a mental deficit, but rather as a mental (and emotional and sensory) overload, leading to trauma shut-down responses. A Simple Explanation of the Intense World Theory.

    3. While autistic people may not show outward displays of 'sympathy', at least not in ways considered socially appropropriate (while our brain signals, and often our direct lived experience, would show otherwise), psychopaths very often do have a full display of sympathetic reactions (or 'cognitive empathy', so body language, words, facial expressions), while lacking the emotional empathetic reactions in the brain. Ralph Savarese talks about this in his presentation 'I object: Autism, Empathy and the Trope of Personification'.

    4. Telepathic phenomena and autism. Telepathy, anomalous experience and the relation to the autism spectrum, by Lief Ekblad (Research Gate).

    5. A person with synaesthesia can see sounds, smell colours, taste shapes, feel sounds on the skin, hear colours - and so on. Although not specific to autism, synaesthesia seems to be quite common among autistic individuals.
    'Synaesthesia and autism: Different developmental outcomes from overlapping mechanisms?'' (Paper by Tessa M van Leeuwen, Janina Neufeld, James Hughes, and Jamie Ward). Excerpt from the Abstract: "Synaesthesia, a mixing of the senses, is more common in individuals with autism. Here, we review the evidence for the association between synaesthesia and autism with regard to their genetic background, brain connectivity, perception, cognitive mechanisms and their contribution to exceptional talents". Full paper here.

    6. People through history who show marked autistic traits include: Henry Cavendish (who made huge innovations and discoveries in the scientific world, but was so reclusive that most of his discoveries were later 'discovered' by, and accredited to, others). Virginia Woolf, literary pioneer who features in Joanne Limburg, 'Letters to my Weird Sisters', mathematician John Nash (featured in the film A Beautiful Mind). Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who showed many autistic and ADHD traits - the combination is not at all uncommon). And many, many others. Here is a list of just some of them.

    7. 'Autistics don't do Heuristics', article by Peter Crosbie (2016). The article contains links to relevant studies, and can be read online here.

    8. I was fascinated to read Bessel Van Der Kolk's work The Body Keeps The Score, where he gives 'questioning things and having a heightened sense of moral justice' also as a post-trauma symptom! Here is a list of autism and post-trauma symptoms for those interested in more details.

    9. The results from a recent study indicated that individuals with high autistic traits show a reduced 'herding' impulse (greater social separation from the group) as compared to individuals with low autistic traits. (Marton-Alper, I.Z., Gvirts-Provolovski, H.Z., Nevat, M. et al. Herding in human groups is related to high autistic traits. Sci Rep 10, 17957 2020.)

    10. When asked to make real charitable donations in the presence or absence of an observer, autistic people were not influenced by the presence of an observer. Non-autistics, on the other hand, contributed significantly more when an observer was present. (Keise Izuma, Kenji Matsumotob, Colin F. Camerera, and Ralph Adolphsa. Insensitivity to social reputation in autism 2011.)

    11. Temple Grandin has written a personal account of how she uses visual thinking and categories, in order to create theoretical and practical models. The full account, entitled 'How does visual thinking work in the mind of a person with autism? A personal account', can be read here.

    12. Charles Eisenstein, in 'The Ascent of Humanity', says: "The mess we now collectively find ourselves in is not in fact due to human nature, but rather to human nature denied." I would tend to agree with him.

    13. I've been horrified almost beyond words by reading about some of the methods currently used by e.g. parents and therapists. To me these show varying levels of coercion and disrespect... all of which are totally unacceptable to me. An obvious example is ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis), a therapy which is still used in our schools, by therapists and psychologists, and in the home. We are so used to the idea of coercion and extrinsic rewarding that we don't even notice or question that there may be something wrong with it... and when our instincts rebel, we hush them - after all let s face it, it s not that there are many alternatives right now (at least not e.g. in the world of medical insurance). On the Wrong Planet forum I've come across some quite interesting threads with titles such as 'Who else out there survived ABA therapy?'

    14. In Wikipedia, autistic masking is described as follows: 'Autistic masking, also referred to as camouflaging or neurodivergent masking, is the conscious or subconscious suppression of autistic behaviors and compensation of difficulties in social interaction by autistic people with the goal of being perceived as neurotypical. Masking is a learned coping strategy that can be successful from the perspective of autistic people, but can also lead to adverse mental health outcomes.' The full text can be read here.

    15. On intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, the work of Alfie Kohn is very informative, especially (I found) his book, 'Punished by Rewards'. If you're interested in reading more on the topic of praising children, see my article 'Should I praise my child?'