As a child, I particularly liked series with teams. I was fascinated by the idea that each individual has strengths and weaknesses, and that individual weaknesses are accepted and the individual strengths are seen and used in such a way that in the end a goal can only be achieved by working together.
This team character was evident, for example, in the „Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles“:
Leonardo: a natural leader, sometimes too stubborn and quite egocentric.
Raphael: angry, impulsive, but also the comedian of the team.
Michelangelo: very childish, but fun-loving, loyal and strong.
And my personal favourite as a kid, Donatello: the clumsy scientist.
Yes, they are in some way stereotypical, but I find the main message important: that completely different characters build a functioning team together, without mocking their differences and emphasizing the strengths of the individual. This diverse team works even better than if each Turtle were working alone.
I really liked it. The idea of diverse teams. This pattern was repeated in almost all children’s series of the 80s and 90s like e.g. Ghostbusters or Sailor Moon.
The frightening realization came when checking fiction with reality: the diversity shown in popular children’s series was in no way near to reality. In real life, conformity and homogeneity was propagated as the ideal. Those who are different are excluded, bullied or at best dragged down from above as mascots. An ideal team in reality seams to consists only of „Leonardos“, people pretending to be Leonardo, people imitating Leonardo and people obeying to Leonardo… There is no room or place for Donatello’s world view, Raphael’s way of being or Michelangelo’s opinion in real life teams.
The power of language and framing
Until recently, psychology concentrated mainly on „weaknesses and deficits“ instead of strengthening and highlighting existing strengths. And even today, both in pedagogy and psychology, one’s own and mutual acceptance is not the goal. Instead there are diagnoses mainly based on deficits, and even possible strengths are redefined so that they only appear as weaknesses.
Some of the so called “deficits / weaknesses” of the Autism Spectrum are a matter of interpretation, of definition, of context. And the majority, the neurotypical ones, define the status quo: what is normal is good. With us autistic people it is the case that all our „differences“ are interpreted negatively, although some traits could also be seen as positive depending on the point of view.
As a thought experiment I have now reformulated some typical personality traits of autistic and neurotypical people in such a way that the autistic is presented more positively than the neurotypical, in order to once again illustrate the power of language in this context.
The following common characteristics of neurotypicals are scientifically known and have been researched for decades. Their effects can e.g. lead to wars and to bullying. Nevertheless, they are not attributed to be neurotypical „deficits“, although they clearly could be defined as such.
Examples for deficits of the average neurotypical person
This are common negative traits of neurotypical people:
- Neurotypicals can be easily influenced by authorities – and tend to obey authority even in violent and immoral ways.
- Neurotypicals are needy for belonging to a group – they are prone to actively exclude others to feel belonging to a group and give up their individuality to do so.
- Group membership leads to strong exclusionary behaviour which even goes so far as to trigger a tendency to favour one’s own group at the expense of others, even when it means sacrificing in-group gain.
These negative tendencies of neurotypical people were shown in the Milgram experiment (Milgram, 1963), in studies on group conformity and group coercion (Asch, 1951, 1956), and in research on discrimination and exclusion of outgroup members (Tajfel, 1970).
Examples of strengths of autistics
This common autistic traits could compensate for the above-mentioned neurotypical deficits (if these strengths were not pathologized):
- Autistics own a strong moral system in the sense of Kant’s categorical imperative that is not easily shaken by peer pressure.
- They have a high sense of justice and high sensitivity for the suffering of others.
- Another positive trait is their high sensitivity for moods of other people.
(Sources: Garnett, Attwood, Peterson & Kelly, 2013; Markram, & Markram, 2010).
These lists could be continued… The sad fact, however, is that our common strengths, like e.g. a strong moral system which is entirely in Kant’s sense, are stigmatized as „inflexibility“, while the „blind obedience“ characteristic of many neurotypical people is regarded as normal. This is the power of language, the power of framing… This is the power of the majority that defines what is called a deficit and what is not.
What is my point?
Well, to come back to the beginning of this article: I wish for a world in which we are accepted with our strengths and weaknesses. I wish for neurotypicals to reflect that they also have weaknesses that some of us autistic people could well supplement if we were included in teams. I think if people listened more to autistics, we would be able to create a better world together.
I don´t want a world of Leonardos, where the Donatellos, Raphaels and Michelangelos are excluded.
I would like to see diverse, heterogeneous teams full of mutual respect in which individual weaknesses and strengths are reflected and accepted. Because we have all strengths and weaknesses, but unfortunately neurotypical people too often forget their weaknesses and do not pay attention to the strengths of the neurodiverse people. They seem to not understand how teams should work.
Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs, 70(9), 1–70.
Garnett, M. S., Attwood, T., Peterson, C., & Kelly, A. B. (2013). Autism spectrum conditions among children and adolescents: A new profiling tool. Australian Journal of Psychology, 65(4), 206–213. doi: 10.1111/ajpy.12022
Kant, I. (2004). Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
Markram, K., & Markram, H. (2010). The Intense World Theory: A unifying theory of the neurobiology of autism. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 4. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2010.00224
Milgram, Stanley (1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67(4), 371–8. doi: 10.1037/h0040525
Tajfel, H. (1970). Experiments in intergroup discrimination. Scientific American, 223, 96–102.