Aspergers and the Achievement Chasm

The inspiration for this post was one of those 10 minute quizzes on Facebook-one of what I refer to as “time wasters” because they’re something I do when I am bored and have a few spare minutes to waste. This particular quiz was about visual memory. I didn’t expect to score highly as my visual memory is very weak and I know this. I was therefore very surprised when I scored almost full marks and confused at the gaping chasm between what I can achieve on a “time waster” quiz on Facebook and how poor my visual memory is on a day to day basis.

As a baseline for how poor my visual memory is, I frequently joke to my friends that I would make the worst witness ever in a court case. My observation skills are shocking. My brain just simply doesn’t retain information such as the colour of someone’s car, what outfit someone is wearing, the colour of their hair or the route between two particular places. I can be very close friends with someone for years and yet struggle to describe how they look unless they are there in front of me. I am more likely to describe someone who is blonde haired and tall as being brunette and short rather than describing them accurately because I genuinely can’t remember how they look. Add in the fact that my avoidance of eye contact means I very, very rarely know the colour of  people’s eyes and you get a very unreliable witness to any crime! People often get frustrated with me when my brain fails me on the visual details of life because they expect my visual memory to be as good as my auditory memory and my long term memory and, unfortunately, it’s just not. Unlike some people with Aspergers, I can’t focus on tiny details when I look at something. In fact, my mind is usually focussing on something else completely so it doesn’t occur to me to take in somebody’s appearance.

Looking back, I realise that the reason I scored so highly on the quiz is precisely because it wasn’t true to life. It was a series of pictures I had to memorise and then answer questions on. This is something I can do with ease. When there is nothing else to concentrate on and the scene in front of me is unmoving, I can score very highly in memorising where something is in a certain picture but that’s not real life. In real life, scenes are never still. There is always movement, conversation, smells and touch to contend with as well. In real life, my brain is forced to contend with so much sensory information that visual information is the least on my mind. This is something that other people on the spectrum also find. We can achieve well on tests but can’t translate that knowledge into daily life.

There are other examples of this achievement chasm. As a young child, I was capable of, and deeply enjoyed, reading medical journals but was incapable of dressing myself reliably until the age of nine. Admittedly this is not the same thing as two tasks that deal with the same skill but it is a good example of the spiky profile of people on the spectrum. I have always loved language but failed a recent Proofreading course. My profile of strengths and weaknesses is huge. This pattern of spiky profiles is also common in other neurodivergent conditions such as dyspraxia, dyslexia and ADHD. It is less spiky in people who don’t have any of these conditions.

If you are a parent, sibling or friend of someone with Aspergers or a teacher who teaches pupils with Aspergers, please remember that our chasm of achievement is not our fault. It is a product of the way that we are neurologically wired. If you have Aspergers yourself and struggle to understand why this chasm exists, remember that it is not your fault-Aspergers gives us a lot of strengths, both academic and personal, but also a lot of weaknesses that we need to learn to accept and work with. The kindest thing we can do is accept our flaws, whether academic or personal, and adapt to them and work with them. Accept and be proud of your strengths too-we need to take pride in ourselves before anyone else takes pride in us.

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2 Responses to Aspergers and the Achievement Chasm

  1. Oliver Simpson says:

    This is an interesting post, as I can resonate with this as well, one of the big things I would say is true of autistic people is that we tend to focus on what interests us or seems relevant to us at the time, so anything that doesn’t interest us, or we simply don’t need to know then we wipe it form our minds, since keeping it there can be very tiring and wanting to give 100% focus to the latest thing contributes to that as well I think.

    As for describing stuff, me I hate having to describe anything at all due to feeling that someone should be able to perceive something if they use their head or memory. Plus I am someone who prefers to let other people talk since I am not one for conversations (even on topic’s I like I only speak so much since I prefer to know other peoples views and opinions).

    So as you I can know someone for years but not be able to describe much or anything at all about them, since I feel you have to meet them yourself if they are a person, or experience it instead to get a feel for it.

    Since that is what life is in a lot of ways, exploring it and making up your own experiences, views and feelings, though this can get quite ugly for some, but be beautiful for others.

  2. khendradm says:

    “We can achieve well on tests but can’t translate that knowledge into daily life.”

    Story of my life!

    I did well academically, but people keep wondering why I’m not independent yet when I’m about to turn 30 next month. That’s because the world expects multifaceted, independent, socially charming individuals – the kind that probably messed around when they were younger, but turned out okay once they became adults, and their weaknesses turned into strengths.

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