What Are Splinter Skills in Autism?

Splinter skills look impressive, but may not be useful in the real world

Boy (6-7) reading book in school library
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Splinter skills are abilities that are disconnected from their usual context and/or purpose. Because they are just a "splinter," or fraction, of a meaningful set of skills, splinter skills may not be particularly useful in real-world situations. Examples include the ability to list football statistics without understanding the game of football, or the ability to memorize a bus schedule without understanding how to get to a bus station or buy a ticket.

Splinter skills are common among people with autism, and can be very frustrating for parents and teachers who are eager to help children to built meaningful connections and skills.

What Do Splinter Skills Look Like?

The movie Rainman, Dustin Hoffman portrayed a man with autism who is suddenly moved from an institution to the wide world. His brother, played by Tom Cruise, wants to take an airplane ride. Dustin Hoffman's character refuses to fly any airline other than Qantas because he has memorized all the statistics of all the airline accidents that have ever occurred . Based on his knowledge Qantas, alone, has never had a crash. Thus, only Qantas is a safe airline to fly.

Hoffman's character, while clearly capable of understanding and interpreting statistics, is unable to use his knowledge in a meaningful or practical way. While he is correct that Qantas is a safe airline, it's obviously impossible to fly Qantas (an Australian airline) within the continental United States.

The character, however, is incapable of grasping that reality and adjusting to it. In other words, he has skills which, while impressive in themselves, are "splintered" or separated from their significance.

Some splinter skills, like those seen in Rainman, are so extraordinary that they are literally beyond the abilities of ordinary people.

These are also called "savant skills." But most splinter skills are not as impressive.  An example might be the ability of an autistic child to recite the entire script of a TV show without understanding the words, or to put together a complex jigsaw puzzle without understanding what the picture represents.

How Common Are Splinter Skills?

Splinter skills are quite common among children in general. Ask a neurotypical child, for example, to explain the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance, or to discuss what makes a square a square. Many young children can recite a memorized script or identify an object without really understanding what they're saying or looking at.

For most children, splinter skills are the start of a learning process that leads to useful abilities. For example, once a child can kick a ball into a goal he may become interested in soccer and interested in learning the broad range of skills required to play the game well. The ability to recite a script generally leads to an understanding of the concepts being communicated by the script. Children with autism, however, may become stuck on kicking a ball into a goal or reciting a series of meaningless memorized sounds.

Splinter Skills in Autism

For parents of children with autism, it can be particularly tough to separate splinter skills from understanding.

That's because kids with autism may have skills that appear to be more significant and broad ranging than they are. For example, hyperlexia (the ability to decode words) is common among children with autism; such children can read words aloud, but may have no understanding of their meaning. Similarly, many children with autism are extraordinarily good at rote memorization, and can rattle off whole paragraphs memorized from books or videos without grasping their significance. 

Here are a few other more common examples of splinter skills:

  • a child who can recite his alphabet backward and forwards at the age of three, but is unable to understand what letters are used for or how they are made;
  • a girl who can recite the entire script of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, but is unable to answer any questions about the characters or the story;
  • a man who can tell you the stats of every Major League baseball player but knows nothing about how the game is played and no ability to follow a game if he watches.

Because it can be tricky to identify splinter skills, it's important for parents to probe their autistic child's level of understanding. For example, the ability to read a clock does not necessarily indicate an ability to understand or manage time. The ability to replicate correctly-spelled words does not necessarily indicate a readiness to write meaningful sentences.

Are Splinter Skills Useful?

To what degree are these "splinter skills" really useful? Over time, splinter skills can become the basis for real-world interests and abilities, but this is not always the case. For example, while some kids with splinter skills in math can start to connect their abilities to classroom problem sets, many continue to simply recite memorized tables or charts. And while some youngsters can use memorized videos as tools for better understanding human relationships or concepts, others are unable to use their memorized scripts for anything except self-calming.

The ability to expand understanding is not necessarily a reflection of intelligence. Rather, it relates to an individual's ability to "generalize" or apply information, words, or ideas learned in one setting to a different setting.