What are splinter skills?
I first became aware of the term splinter skills 16 years ago through an autistic friend of mine, John Simpson. The Autism Society of Minnesota has an excellent definition of what this is in their downloadable resource:
A splinter skill is the ability to do a specific task that does not generalize to other similar situations; a “splinter” of a fuller set of skills. Splinter skills are part of what is called the “uneven developmental profile” or “spiky skills profile” that is typical of autism.
Oolong, autistic blogger, had this to say about splinter skills:
If you think of skills as lying on a spectrum, some people have moderately high levels across the board. An autistic spectrum of skills is more like a series of bright peaks with dark troughs in between them. I accept that this is not quite the common description of the ‘autistic spectrum,’ but I stand by it.
I do find that I and other autistic people I know seem to pick up some skills much faster than most people. When things build on our existing interests, perhaps the deep-linking style of the monotropic mind lends itself to rapid progress within an area, often at the cost of poorer generalization between areas of skill.
Some splinter skills are so extraordinary that most people can’t comprehend them. These are called savant skills, but they are much more rare. This is not the same as being talented as research shows autistic savants have a distinct cognitive and behavioral profile. Someone who is considered a savant may be especially skilled in art, math, music, memory recall, mechanical or spatial skills. The savant skill is typically linked to a massive memory. One of the most famous autistic savants is Kim Peek, the man who was the inspiration for the film Rainman.
In autistic development, splinter skills will make a profile look “spiky”. What this means is certain skills spike very high while others remain very challenging. You may see these spikes in areas of working memory, expressive language, receptive language, or others.
What do splinter skills look like?
Separating skills from comprehension can be very difficult for parents and professionals who are supporting autistic people. This is because these skills can really surprise a person and seem like a talent which is more extensive and diverse than it really is. For example, some autistic children are hyperlexic which is an ability to decode words, but there is no understanding of the words that are read.
Some autistic people have an excellent rote memory and recite entire passages from books, films, or TV shows without understanding the meaning. My son recites huge sections of dialogue from the BBC series Pride and Prejudice. He has also memorized Bob Barker’s sign off from the Price is Right and says that every time he leaves an activity or social gathering. These scripts are more advanced than his everyday language skills.
Here are some examples of splinter skills:
- A child memorizes the shapes of the US states and can identify every one but cannot read a map.
- A young man knows the entire skeletal system, but can’t point to any of these parts on his own body.
- A person enjoys compiling football game statistics, but has no idea how the game is played or what the rules are.
Look for understanding when you see splinter skills exhibited. This is important to know because, for example, being able to tell time doesn’t mean a person can comprehend or manage time. Being able to spell words correctly or reading at a high level does not necessarily mean a person can construct meaningful sentences. My son reads very complex nonfiction books aloud to himself every day but he can’t speak spontaneously at the level that he reads.
Why do we need to understand splinter skills?
We need to understand splinter skills because we often make assumptions of what an autistic can and can’t do based on observing splinter skills. An example of this would be thinking a person who can’t speak can’t read. John Simpson told me he doesn’t know when to change his clothes and will continue to wear them day after day, yet he is a very articulate person.
Knowing about the uneven or spiky autistic profile explains why these assumptions are not accurate, and why each person’s skills and challenges need to be understood individually. This is referred to as presuming competence. This means if you don’t have any other evidence, assume that a person can participate in the tasks and interactions at hand. If there is another, similar skill that a person struggles with, you should still presume competence about a new or different skill.
There can be a lot of difficulty around generalizing skills. We call this critical mass. Critical mass is the point where an individual has gained enough information to be successful in situations, activities, or skills for which instruction has not been provided. When there has been enough instruction and multiple experiences, a tipping point can occur and the person can apply the skill in many new ways.
It’s important to build a trusting relationship with an individual and believe them when they say they are struggling with a task, even if you’ve seen them do something similar before. I have often talked about this when toilet training because a child may have toileting success using a toilet at home, but may not be able to use a toilet at school or at a restaurant. There are too many variables to deal with in bathrooms outside of the home and the toileting skill has not been generalized.
How can we support an autistic person with splinter skills?
- Be accepting. Autistic people hear many negative things about themselves all the time. Don’t tell an autistic person something is easy because for them, that task may be incredibly hard. Focus on asking how you can help, ask what is challenging, or simply be supportive. Allow for practice time for skills to be generalized. This is a process!
- Don’t make assumptions. Don’t assume that a person can or can’t do something based on other skills that they have. I recently made the assumption that my son couldn’t make his bed because I had not broken down all of the steps for him on how to do it. Two months ago, he emerged from his room with his bed perfectly made for the first time without any instruction given.
- Teach to the strength. I have talked about teaching to the strength before. Talking about strengths can improve self-esteem, help someone notice skills they may not have realized they had, and remind a person of the skills that they do have.
- Be patient. Working on new skills or applying learned skills to a new area can be daunting and anxiety-provoking. Be patient, wait before jumping in to help, and recognize the small steps on the way to success.
- Be accepting and respectful. We shouldn’t value a person based on what they can do, but accept them for who they are. I am not a good adult figure skater, but I love it and am part of a wonderful skating club that accepts me for who I am. We need to respect autistic neurology and not try and change who that person is. No one should have to earn their value.
Autism Society of Minnesota. What Are Splinter Skills? Autism Society of Minnesota
Oolong (July 5, 2019) Autistic Skill Sets: A Spiky Profile of Peaks and Troughs. NeuroClastic
Rudy, J. (April 2023) What are Splinter Skills in Autism? Very Well Health
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