You here it all the time: people on the autism spectrum are extremely good at one thing/subject but bad at other things/subjects.
You also hear that people on the autism spectrum have a weak central coherence. They will be good at seing details. Some also say that they can be good a systemizing.
This would make studying their favorite subject(s) easy (for those with normal IQ). But I have seen example of people on the spectrum who did not do so well even if they really liked the subject. Why would they not suceed at their favorite subject if the theory mentioned above is correct? And how can these people get help in order to suceed at something?

Hello Hank,

You bring up a lot of items. I get the sense that you might have a particular individual in mind.

You are right that SOME people on the autism spectrum may excel at the subject that greatly interests them. In particular, we're talking about those with high functioning autism. Typically people with ASD (autism spectrum disorders) take in information that they see far more easily than that which they hear; they have visual strengths but auditory processing weaknesses. They also often have challenges in the social areas, not easily picking up social nuances. Those issues might impair their performance in other areas.

Another area that can cause difficulties is that of executive functioning. This is a cluster of skills focused in the frontal lobes of the brain. Executive functioning includes those essential adult skills such as organizing, prioritizing, sequencing, shifting attention, maintaining attention, etc.  Weaknesses in these areas made successful adult life trickier.

For these and other neurological reasons, the world can be a confusing place for those with autism. Because of this, they latch onto routine because it helps them make sense of what's going on and what's expected. Some take this further and relish systems. Systems are predictable; they make sense. Some individuals might adhere religiously to these systems, become disturbed if they are upset.

Central coherence is the ability to pick out of the environment that which is most important to focus on. You're right that this is generally a weak area for those on the spectrum. It makes them good detail people, but sometimes they can't see the forest for the trees. This central coherence feature also makes it difficult for the person to get the information they need from reading the person's face. The individual might notice the person's nose, the left eyelid, the line between the mouth and nose, but not put all these parts together to read the whole facial expression.

What do you think are the barriers to the person doing well in a favorite subject? Has their interest changed and what used to fascinate them is no longer of huge interest. Is the person ill? The incidence of allergies and gastro-intestinal ailments in people with ASDs is high. Are there sensory sensitivities that are interfering with their accomplishments? Do they understand the parameters around which they must work? Do they understand the expectations? Were these expectations given in other than oral form? (They should be written down). Is there an example of a finished product so the person knows what he should be aiming for? Is time a factor? Due to the executive functioning weaknesses, organizing, sequencing and having a sense of time are troublesome to those on the spectrum. They may need to have the task broken down into smaller pieces with timelines attached to each. Perhaps the person has everything firmly in his mind, without realizing that others expect him to demonstrate this learning with some type of product. Does the person have attentional issues that get in the way of him remaining on topic, even a topic that interests him? (Attention difficulties are common in autism).

Sternberg has some theories on why intelligent people fail:

Renzulli’s Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness considers the interaction of three interlocking clusters of traits as essential elements associated with outstanding accomplishments:
- High ability—including high intelligence
- High creativity—the ability to formulate new ideas and apply them to the solution of problems
- High task commitment—a high level of motivation and the ability to see a project through to its completion

There can be myriad reasons why a bright person who has autism may not succeed in an area in which you'd expect them to excel. There are myriad reasons why a bright person who does NOT have autism may not succeed.

Would you like to talk specifics about an individual that you have in mind? I might be able to offer more appropriate suggestions if I knew more about the person who concerns you.

Best wishes,


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Dr. Sharon A. Mitchell


Sharon can help with parenting and educational concerns. She has worked in teaching, special education, counseling and consulting for over thirty years and gives workshops to educators and parents on working with kids with autism spectrum disorders. Sharon speaks from both the education and parent points of view, having an adult son with Asperger's.


Sharon has spent decades as a special education consultant with a school district and autism consult for the province's Department of Education, giving workshops and individual consults. Currently she works as regional autism consultant for a health district in between teaching university classes. She is an Amazon bestselling author or a series of novels, each depicting a child who has an autism spectrum disorder. Sharon's Master's thesis looked at the long-term outlook for persons with high functioning autism and Asperger's. Her Doctorate focused on strategies to help those with autism spectrum disorders.

Website at and sits on Autism Today's Panel of Experts (

Author of "Autism Goes to School" - a novel about autism that that became an Amazon bestseller. Get this Amazon bestseller free at In the next book, Autism Runs Away, Ethan is only in grade one and already has been kicked out of one school due to his tantrums and pattern of running away when in a panic. Now in a new school his mom remains glued to her phone, waiting for the call to tell her that they don’t know what to do with a child who has autism. Sara is about to learn if this new school is up to the challenge. ( Autism Belongs is the 3rd book. Manny's life has shrank to the confines of their house. His parents are desperate not to rock his world because the aggression has gotten to much worse. Where will this lead? Is there a chance that Manny could actually belong out in the world? You bet! Get a free sample at Book four, Autism Talks and Talks, is about a 12 year old girl who has Asperger's. She's bright, inquisitive, highly verbal, but lacks social skills. Try a free sample at Book five, Autism Grows Up features Suzie, a bright, twenty-one year old whose life collapsed after she finished high school. Now, she lives in her mother's basement, spending nights on her computer, afraid to broach the world outside their door. Autism Grows Up is found at Prefer a boxed set? Get the first 3 books bundled together at Co-author of bestseller, The Official Autism 101 Manual (

B.A. in Psychology, B.Ed. in Special Education, M.A. in Educational Leadership PhD. in Psychology Management, specializing in autism.

Awards and Honors
B.R.A.G. Medallion for the novel Autism Goes to School - Book 1 in the School Daze Series. ( Like Autism Goes to School, the third book in the series, Autism Belongs, also ranked #1 on Amazon ( Manny is not like other children. He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t leave the house. His parents desperately try to arrange their world so that Manny does not get upset. Because, when he does, well, the aggression was getting worse. At ten, Manny was becoming difficult to handle.

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