What Are "Splinter Skills" in Autism?

Splinter skills look impressive, but they're rarely useful in the real world.

Boy (6-7) reading book in school library
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The movie Rainman, starring 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 -- and Qantas, alone, has never had a crash.

Later in the movie, he proves himself to have other amazing abilities to memorize and recite reams of information.

Hoffman's character, while clearly capable of flashes of brilliance, is exhibiting what are called "splinter skills." These are skills which, while impressive in themselves, are "splintered" or separated from their significance.

Some splinter skills, like those in Rainman, are so extraordinary that they are literally beyond the abilities of ordinary people. These are also called "savant skills." But many splinter skills are skills that are age appropriate -- but outside the general ability level of the particular child.  An example might be the ability of a non-verbal six year old to recite the Pledge of Allegiance by rote.

How Common Are Splinter Skills?

Splinter skills are quite common among children in general. Ask a neurotypical child, for example, to explain the significance of the pledge of allegiance...

or to explain what makes a square a square. You'll find that 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.

Children with autism, however, may become stuck on kicking a ball into a goal.

Splinter Skills in Autism

For children with autism, it can be particularly tough to separate splinter skills from understanding. That's because kids with autism are often extremely good at reading at a very young age - and so appear to have an advanced understanding of ideas that they really don't grasp at all.  They may be extraordinarily good at rote memorization, and able to rattle off whole paragraphs memorized from books or videos - yet understand very little or nothing of what they've said. And they may be very good at working with numbers without having a clue as to how numbers might relate to real-world situations.

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 -- along with the songs -- 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.

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.

Learn more about autism and splinter skills:

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