Unique Talent Attributes versus Autistic Traits
“Unique Talent Attributes (UTA)” are distinguishing, often underappreciated abilities and talents,
found in a valuable minority of our population. Individuals can similarly have exceptional potential and skills, but also have significant difficulty in such areas as social and cognitive functioning. When labels as "autistic traits" or “Autism Spectrum” are inappropriately used, there can be unfavorable inferences or consequences.
I had an older brother who lived the best productive life he could. He was disadvantaged from birth with genetic and developmental differences that distinguished him from others in his age group.
He always had to work harder, keep his head up high, even with the constant amount of bias, bullying, rejection, and lack of accommodation in school, social, and work settings. Today, in the typical manner of diagnosing and classifying things, he would have been seen as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder. My parents were always frustrated as there was not significant help, understanding, or services available. At that time, tutors and special education services were not helpful.
I always admired him for continually appearing like things didn’t bother him, though, I’m sure they did. I would always tag along with him in activities like the boy scouts, overnight camping trips, and school events. My parents, one year, put him in a military school, thinking that that would shape him up and give him some special attention with his - learning and difficulty getting things done - problems. The school and his peers did give him some special attention, but not the type he needed. Benton endured that experience, like he usually did, with grace and perseverance.
Until now, I didn’t realize the significant effort he had to put into keeping up with his peers, ignoring any of their pranks or bullying. The funny thing was, how Benton would hover over me, his smaller brother, and shield me from any difficulties with the larger or older boys. Once he rescued me from a gang of kids who had me tied up at the stake - like cannibals, threatening to burn me alive.
Though difficult for him, he was able to take a few courses at a Junior College and managed to do some jobs with a family member’s business. He finally was able to get an entry-level job with a local government agency, where he worked until he retired. He also was able to marry and raise two children until his untimely death, about ten years ago, from a degenerative health condition.
He had many of the traits and attributes described in this article. I also now realized, how many of our family members, including myself, carry some of these same genetic and developmental traits. Thank you, Benton, for being such an inspiration for us all.
The concept of “Neurodiversity,”
would see the difference in peoples' genetic and neurodevelopmental variations - as part of the natural evolution, adaptation, and survival of life. The matrix of significant biodiversity is seen to form a beautiful tapestry of coexistence. The various traits and characteristics found in people that get labeled as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Asperger Syndrome, or as having Autistic Traits can alternatively be seen in a more positive way – as being part of the diversity in the natural evolution of worldly life – with the myriad of favorable individual variations, expressions, adaptations, and capabilities.
The positive point of view, offered by the neurodiversity perspective, counters the more negative attitude: that people with Asperger or Autistic characteristics represent unfavorable deviations in the genetic evolutionary process. Furthermore, there is the connotation that the genetic variance and results are a form of pathology or disease. Medical or psychiatric diagnosing - and the labeling of a person as having a disease, condition or disorder - often disregards the strengths, talents, and positive potentialities that individuals have. http://www.aane.org/neurodiversity/
When there is a level of impairment from more than a few of the distinctive genetic, developmental autistic traits – a person is considered as having a neurodevelopmental disorder. A case for an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or Asperger Syndrome (older term), could be made if there were significant social communication deficits and restrictive, repetitive behaviors. Because of the vast array of possible genetic and developmental variation in people, there can be individuals that have a significant number of differences, traits, or characteristics that may be associated with severe impairment in functioning, both physically and mentally. Individuals with a few of these autistic or Asperger characteristics do well, especially if appropriate allowances have been made for their specialized and unique abilities.
A supportive, nurturing childhood and positive educational experiences are a benefit to any child, but especially so, for a child with Autistic or Asperger traits, or those with “Unique Talent Attributes (UTA)”. UTA is a descriptor that avoids the connotations of disease or significant impairment that may be associated with the other older names or classifications. Individuals with Unique Talent Attributes would be defined as a person without any intellectual impairment – that has only a relatively few of the variant traits, and characteristics, of Asperger syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Individuals with UTA generally do well and are not compromised or disadvantaged by their uniqueness, especially if appropriate allowances have been made for their specialized and exceptional abilities.
Attributes, Traits, or Disorder – from positive benefit to difficulty and adversity:
Unique Talent Attributes (similarity to autism traits, more advantaging for success in areas of interest, may need accommodations) - MINIMAL IMPACT ON FUNCTIONING >>>>
Autism Traits (disadvantaging, less apparent, more often need accommodations) - MILD IMPACT ON FUNCTIONING>>>>
Autism Spectrum Disorder (formerly Asperger Syndrome) - MILD (disadvantaging, noticeable, requires accommodations) - MILD TO MODERATE IMPACT ON FUNCTIONING>>>>
Autism Spectrum Disorder (formerly Asperger Syndrome)
MODERATE to SEVERE (impairment, needs services, accommodations, disability support) - moderated to SEVERE IMPACT ON FUNCTIONING>>>>
A person with Unique Talent Attributes (UTA) gain recognition for:
High intelligence, creativity, technical, and verbal skills;
Positive work ethic, honesty, following the rules, reliability, persistence, and determination;
Determined, original or unconventional problem-solving in generating novel solutions for complex problems;
Ability to absorb significant amounts of information and process it into useful and straight forward conclusions;
Being able to bring great attention to detail, errors, routines, and patterns that others may miss;
The ability to focus for an extended period of times, working alone to do research and complete projects;
Being better at working in a less social and distracting environment as self-motivated, independent learners;
Being perfectionists with the ability to perform repetitive tasks with precision and commitment with the tolerance to frustration needed to complete work;
Willingness to learn social skills which are not natural for them;
Seeing the best in everyone, being a reliable friend, and trusting, even though sometimes taken advantage of;
Having a sense of social justice, fairness, and advocating for the oppressed, bullied, and disadvantaged;
Getting to the point with forthrightness, even when not tactful or in their self-interest.
There still can be, however, significant discrimination against people with distinctive differences or advantages. Their presentation, appearance, talents, and ways of accomplishing tasks can be quite exceptional. For some, being seen as unusual can result in being stereotyped or profiled into a perceived, unfavorable or negative way. The negative perception can result in rejection and non-accommodation in academic and work settings. Aversive treatment, like bullying or intolerance in childhood or adulthood, can occur in the school, the workplace or social settings.
Individuals, noticed as being different from the average, “neurotypical” person, can stand out in this way:
Being different, odd, disorganized, or scattered;
Being uncomfortable or disinterested in social encounters;
Easily irritated when distracted from their work or conversation;
Appearing to treat ordinary social conversation or small talk as irrelevant;
Having unique styles of learning and processing information;
Having more significant needs to work in a non-distracting work environment with a preference for working alone;
Having trouble getting started, following through on specific tasks, or having difficulty shifting focus.
Someone with Unique Talent Attributes (UTA) can feel like an outsider, or like someone that is inadequate, who doesn’t fit in or finds themselves often facing intolerance or unfairness. However, if in the right circumstances, the same individual can succeed and excel. There can be successes, even with the disadvantage of sometimes being targeted because of their differences from the normal appearing and functioning people in their surroundings.
There may be a more apt descriptor or characterization for the positive nature of a person having these unique genetic or developmental attributes and talents - who may be the future essential contributors and specialists for our society. The positive connotation of UTA might promote better acceptance, recognition, support, and lessen the stigma, sometimes associated with other labels - developed originally to classify illness, disabilities, and disease.
Individuals with these valuable traits often remain undervalued and discriminated against because of their sometimes perceived differences -- as their ways of processing information or style of social relativeness. There are many positive examples of people with UTA, who have been great assets to our society, in such areas as the workplace, science, technology, and the creative arts – as some of our notable scientists, philosophers, researchers, analysts, artists, writers, and creatives.
Use of the classifications of Neurodevelopmental Disorder with the subclassification of, “Autism Spectrum Disorder” (ASD), is published and described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). The DSM-5 was issued by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013 and is a diagnostic text and sourcebook for the clinician. It categorizes the different psychological and mental health problems as an aid to clinicians. Assessment of the impairment and severity levels of mental illness is also present.
Persons with "Unique Talent Attributes" can have similar challenges as others - described as having autistic traits - as difficulties with:
Social skills, ease of social-emotional interactions and
reciprocal conversation, recognition of social cues and non-verbal communications;
Understanding, developing, and keeping friendships;
Perceptiveness, empathy or intuitiveness (not good at “mind reading”);
Demanding, impatient, rude, or arrogant; having a firm belief or attitude of rightness;
Quirky behaviors or odd mannerisms;
Being over-scrupulous or perfectionistic, or obsessive about completing things;
Limiting one's self to specific interests, activities, and repetitive behaviors;
Motor skills development and coordination;
Sensitivities to disturbing sounds, fragrances, clothing, or food textures;
**Executive functioning and working memory weaknesses - see below for more on this commonly seen difficulty.
**Executive functioning may be a challenge for persons with Unique Talent Attributes (as commonly present in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder).
It has been estimated that 80% of people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder have difficulties with executive functioning. These difficulties can also be present in people with conditions as ADHD, mood disorders, and schizophrenia.
Difficulties with executive functioning and “working memory” are:
Difficulties with planning, decision making, organization;
Inadequate impulse control or emotional control — being easily upset or over-reactive to minor situations;
Talking before thinking, blurting things out, interrupting, inattentive listening, under awareness of others, and lack of self-monitoring;
Difficulty getting started, following through, getting stuck on a particular subject, problems stopping one activity and shifting to another, struggle to override habits, and mental inflexibility;
Underestimating the time it takes to complete a task;
Difficulty responding to feedback, error correction, focusing on details and missing the broader context (bigger picture);
Poor working memory - the capacity to manipulate and process information, multi-task or do multi-step routines, participate in group conversations, and to generate plans sequentially.
The older diagnostic name for Autism Spectrum Disorder was “Asperger Syndrome” or high functioning autism. The classifications, unfortunately, also had the inference that the person had a disease or a disability, or in some way was defective or inferior - less able to meet expectations of the workplace or academic setting. The “ASD” abbreviation has been used in the past to also denote an “Acute Stress Disorder” that can be confused with “ASD” now used as an abbreviation for “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” This, again, is a problem with labels, acronyms, and abbreviations.
Classifications or categories were deemed as needed for the benefit of individuals with substantial disadvantages so that the affected individual could collect insurance when needed, get government subsidies, disability, get special services or accommodations in schools or the workplace. Researchers also wanted classifications for the gathering of statistical information, for example, about a disease’s prevalence, or how a medication performed in the treatment of an illness.
Common areas as the workplace, academic setting, and social settings are mostly designed
for people that are more genetically and developmentally typical with characteristics and traits more prevalent and average in the population. Therefore, individuals that are high functioning, who have unique genetic, developmental features and differences – a minority in the society – are often placed in a disadvantaged situation or setting which interferes with their optimal productivity and performance.
Because of the widespread discrimination in the workplace, individuals with Unique Talent Attributes (UTA), are either unemployed or are not able to maintain suitable employment over time. High functioning individuals with UTA — that are not impaired by multiple adverse attributes or co-occurring problems - have the potential for leadership and advancing knowledge in their area of interest.
To be assigned a diagnosis or a disease label can contribute to a poor self-concept as being inferior or deficient in some way. The high functioning UTA individual prefers to be seen as a person worthy of respect with great potential for accomplishment with their unique abilities and talents. Individuals with UTA, though high functioning, can still experience prejudice and intolerance because of their unique characteristics and occasional lack of social skills that are natural for others.
Some common issues or complaints expressed by people with Unique Talent Attributes (UTA) are:
Not getting the adequate appreciation for their differences and potential, non-acceptance, and non-support in their social networks, families, organizations, and in job settings;
Inadequate resources in the community or educational systems;
Rejection by peers and family with unfair treatment, intolerance, and bullying;
Problems in getting through school, finding work, establishing a career, or suitable relationships;
Receiving inadequate mental health and educational support;
Unemployment and lack of access to necessary programs and accommodations for their needs.
An individual may have other significant issues or co-occurring problems that need attention as:
Prior life traumatic events as emotional, sexual, physical abuse or bullying;
Growing up in a disruptive, neglectful, or abusive home environment;
Drugs and alcohol abuse;
Traumatic brain injuries;
Attention and focus problems (ADHD), or over-focusing on special interests;
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD);
Severe Anxiety with hypervigilance, over-reactivity, social avoidance, isolating self;
Panic Attacks, or PTSD;
Under-employment, with being underpaid, and forced into taking less demanding or stressful jobs.
There may be an indication for treatment or specialized therapy work in an area of need, executive functioning coaching, and sometimes medication. A neuropsychological or psychiatric evaluation can be beneficial if needed for clarification and help.
Positive Unique Talent Attributes (UTA) characteristics can be the ingredient for success and contribution. However, any of the traits in an adverse setting can be problematic and lead to difficulties in functioning, work, and social activities.
Talented people with their distinctive traits makes our society function — especially the person who can:
See the big picture;
Come up with novel strategic ideas and solutions to the problem;
Stay on task and bring a project to completion;
Get past small failures or distractions to get things done;
Their strengths need appreciation, support, and guidance. Recognition and encouragement are necessary throughout childhood, in school, organizations, and the community. They can be the person that comes out with a money-making product that saves an industry, the general who wins the war, the surgeon or master mechanic that can fix things and save lives, or the person essential for the survival and success of a group or organization. It takes a team with diversity to be exceptional.
There is much evidence that Unique Talent Attributes (UTA) are genetic. You often find these characteristics in other family members. Early life experiences or environmental influence can affect these characteristics or traits as well. There is infinite diversity in presentation and features seen in the UTA population. Performance and levels of functionality will depend on each person’s unique genetic and biologic histories, environmental exposures, early life support, development, and other potential influencing factors. Adaptation to a sometimes unfriendly or even hostile life situation is a challenge, where acceptance, compassion, and intolerance are lacking.
School or employment expectations should be clear for a person with UTA. Help with interpersonal skills to aid effective and cooperative teamwork is essential. Help with organizational skills, time management, and priority setting is also valuable. Use of an executive-functioning-coach can be helpful if executive functioning is a difficulty. Successful employment or career opportunities offer many potential benefits – an increase of income, improvement of self-esteem, offering a place to apply talents and provide a setting to develop a positive social network.
Identifiers, labels, diagnosis, or names
can be confusing, whether Autistic Spectrum, high functioning Autism, Asperger Syndrome, or Unique Talent Attributes. Hopefully, this article will shed some light on the difference and my preference for terms that are more positive and helpful for these unique and talented individuals – an undervalued minority in our population, but with great potential, if given the proper respect, positive recognition, and support.
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Article by Ron Parks, MD and edited by Shan Parks
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