Autism and the Spiky Profile

One of the hallmarks of autism is asynchronous development – also known as the Spiky Profile or “islands of skill”.  All this means is that some of our skills are very well-developed and others are much lower, so that a graph of our test scores looks a bit like a mountain range.  Now, nobody – autistic, allistic, ND or NT – is good at everything at exactly the same level, but in autistic children, the spikes can be especially noticeable.  Depending on where those spikes or islands of skill are, we may end up having our strengths ignored or having our weaknesses labeled as character flaws.

Different Kinds of Spiky Profiles

As with everything on the autism spectrum, there is infinite variety in our skill profiles.

My own spiky profile involved language and reading skills way above my grade/age levels, while my math and social studies skills were either just at grade level or a hair above and my handwriting was equivalent to that of a child several years younger.  They thought I didn’t have any learning disabilities, but that was because 20-30 years ago they didn’t recognize dyscalculia and dysgraphia and my ADHD was undiagnosed.  Result: I was expected to always be just as good at everything as I was at language arts and reading, I was called sloppy for my handwriting, I wasn’t given help when I asked for it, and I was just told to “try harder” when I was failing math.  My social issues were blamed on being “too smart for my own good”.

Another spiky profile might be the stereotypical idea of autism: highly gifted in math and sciences, at grade level or a bit above in reading and language, socially inept and robotic.  The result of this profile may be a kid who struggles to keep up with all the reading in advanced language arts classes while they breeze through calculus and AP physics.  They’ll still probably be expected to be as good at everything as they are at their best subjects, and their social issues will be waved away with the idea that they’ll become Silicon Valley billionaires or start-up giants and they’ll “find their place” after their school days.

But then there are other spiky profiles that include diagnosed learning disabilities like dyslexia, SPD, diagnosed ADHD, and others.  This profile will show a kid as being below grade/age level in some areas but at or above grade level in others.  Depending on how this manifests in the individual child, this could end up with the kid being labeled as “disruptive” or “wasting their potential” because they don’t “apply themselves”.  If their strengths aren’t pretty spectacular, these kids risk getting lost in the shuffle without getting any encouragement or help.    

And then there are the kids whose spiky profiles don’t include any academic spikes.  Generally poor students, these children may never be seen for the strengths they have – strengths which might lie in music, visual arts, mechanics, electronics, spatial visualization, or other useful areas.  These kids are not stupid, but they’re not “smart” in the ways that schools measure.  Most often, these kids are written off or ignored as teachers see them as lost causes.

None of these scenarios are ok.

Every child, NT or ND, deserves better than to be told that their best isn’t good enough or that they’re not worth investing any time in or that they’ll never amount to anything.

What Can Parents Do?

Do Not Blame Your Kids

I’ll say that again: Do Not Blame Your Kids.

If your autistic child is usually great academically but struggles in one or two areas, ask them why!  Don’t accuse them, don’t tell them they’re “capable of so much more”.  For Heaven’s sake, don’t take my mother’s approach when I was failing algebra (she told me “just learn how to fucking factor so you can pass the test”).

Try something like “You’re doing really well in these subjects, but it looks like you’re having trouble in X class.  How can I help?”  You might need to push a bit further, so be prepared to ask follow-up questions like “is the work too hard?”, “is there something you’re stuck on?”, “have you started something new that’s not making sense to you?”, and “is there a problem with your teacher?”.

Offer all kinds of help as your child needs it.  Math doesn’t make sense the way their teacher does it?  Go find an outside tutor, preferably one familiar with autistic kids.  If one doesn’t work, try another one – somebody will be able to get it through to them enough for them to pass.  Can’t keep up with all the reading?  SparkNotes are a thing.  Yes, it’s kind of a cheat, but I see no shame in that when some advanced classes expect kids to read ten or more full novels in a school year, on top of all the work for their other advanced classes.  Having trouble writing papers?  Look for a template that allows kids to plug in their knowledge without having to futz around with formatting the information correctly.  Sometimes you just need a guide to remind you how to order your thoughts.    

Make sure your autistic kids know that they can ask for help and you’ll support them and help them find the assistance they need.

Go To the School for Help

Parents and teachers should be working together for the kids’ best interests.  Most teachers really do want every kid to succeed but don’t have the time to give everyone the individual attention they need.  Ask your child’s teachers for suggestions for tutoring, online resources, or see if they can arrange after-hours help.  And if your child has an IEP or special education accommodations, make sure the school is living up to their obligations and adjust those goals and aids as your kid’s needs change.

Don’t Let Your Kid’s Strengths Or Needs Be Ignored

Focus on any strengths your children have, whether those are academic or not.  Remember that college is not for everybody, trade schools exist and many trades pay very well.  Your child does not have to get a degree to get by in the world.  Selling art and designs online can be hard, but it’s doable and many people make money that way as well.

Don’t ever let your kids feel like it’s wrong to need help.  If you get teacher reports that use a lot of phrases like “not trying” or “could do better” or “needs to apply themselves” – call that teacher out!  Ask what help they have offered your child, find out what happens when your kid asks a question in class or if they even feel comfortable enough to ask for help.  Remind your kids regularly that it is not weakness to be less than perfect and they don’t have to be great at everything.  Teach them that it’s better to ask for help than to struggle alone – and that goes for all of life, not just school.

Spiky profiles don’t determine your worth as a human or your abilities.  Nobody is great at everything, and nobody is bad at everything.

It’s a parent’s job to give kids the best foundation for them to be successful adults – not to make them a carbon copy of Mom or Dad, not to make them just like everyone else, but to make them the most confident, successful adult they can be.  That looks different for different people.  What skills does your child have that will help them to get by in the world as an adult?  What strengths can they draw on?  What areas do they struggle with and where do they need to find workarounds?  These questions will help your kids so much more than pushing them to get perfect grades or fighting over homework.

A class of middle or high schoolers shot from the back, facing the teacher. White and blue text on a purple background reads "Autism and the Spiky Profile"

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