Why Autistic "Splinter Skills" Should Be Celebrated

Splinter skills can be important milestones and achievements.

Child Doing Jigsaw Puzzle
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In the movie "Rainman," Dustin Hoffman's autistic character can't manage ordinary day to day activities but has an uncanny ability to memorize dates, times, and statistics as they relate to the activities of airplane crashes. This ability, sometimes called "savant syndrome," is an example of a "splinter skill" — a talent or ability that is unrelated to other aspects of a person's life. The character doesn't need or use the information he's acquired — but he is uniquely able to acquire it.

Not every person with autism is a savant. But many do have "splinter skills." For example, some people with autism are wonderful musicians, mathematicians, or artists. Others can design and create amazing structures, or read novels at the age of three.

Why Splinter Skills Are Usually Ignored

In school, when my son Tom showed a surprising ability to do something that, in theory, should have been beyond his ability, I'd point it out to teachers and administrators. "Look," I'd say, "he learned to play a scale on the piano all by himself!" Almost without fail, the answer would be the same: "yes, it's true — but it's really just a splinter skill." By this, they meant "yes, he can do it — but it doesn't mean anything because he doesn't relate it to the rest of his life."

Splinter Skills Should Be Celebrated

Dismissal of splinter skills is not only disrespectful — it's also hurtful.

How would a typical child and his parents feel if he were a terrific athlete but a struggling student, and they were told: "oh, yes, he can play soccer like a pro, but it's really just a splinter skill." The implication would be that the athletics were irrelevant — cute, perhaps, but hardly worth encouraging. Instead, of course, typical children are highly supported as they show off all of their skills — and all of their skills are, generally speaking, celebrated to some degree.

People with autism are often lacking in many of the skills and abilities that are celebrated by the typical world. Popularity contests and team sports are usually outside their range of abilities. But most have something special to show off. For Tom, it's music. For other people, it may be a knowledge of baseball stats, a talent for drawing, an impressive ability to solve jigsaw puzzles or an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars trivia.

None of these things are "just splinter skills" — they are talents. If "splinter skills" are pushed aside as junk, how is a person with autism to build a sense of worthiness or self-esteem? How is the world to see that person as talented, worthwhile, or interesting?

Of course, splinter skills can't stand on their own. But they are a foundation for building on. A talent for soccer, karate or dance can provide a typical child with a sense of belonging and prestige. A "splinter skill" can do the same for a child with autism. Just as importantly (and I'm speaking from experience here) — it can provide that child's parents with a clearer sense that their child, too, can shine.