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  • Writer's picturePatty Laushman

How Autistic Brains Are Like Formula 1 Racecars

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

By Patty Laushman


As a life coach to neurodivergent individuals, autistic adults often come to me feeling exhausted from the struggles they experience with tasks that others seem to navigate effortlessly. Often, they feel hopeless that things can get better, but nothing could be further from the truth. I find, in most cases, they are simply unaware they have a Formula 1 racecar in their brain, but they've been handed the operator's manual for a Honda CR-V!

an autistic woman planning her tasks through sticky notes

Neurodivergent individuals experience, interpret, and interact with the world in unique ways that are different from most people around them. Because the world was not designed with their needs in mind, their neurological differences can make daily life challenging in the areas of relationships, executive functioning, sensory needs, and learning.


Their ongoing struggles can lead to chronic frustration and a sense of failure. They may believe there is something "wrong" with them or that they are "broken." Once they understand, however, that they've been given the wrong instruction manual and they learn how to operate more like a Formula 1 vehicle, they have the potential to do more than survive; they can truly thrive.


Obviously, every neurotypical and autistic individual is different, even when compared to others with the same neurotype, but for the sake of this analogy, I'm going to generalize.


All vehicles, like all brains, have strength and weakness profiles. They all have trade-offs. The Honda CR-V is designed to deal with a wide variety of everyday driving conditions, which means it has a fairly even, albeit very average, strength and weakness profile. It's a generalist vehicle. It performs well under average conditions, but it's not the vehicle you want in specialized conditions like driving at exceptional speed around curves.


On the Circuit of the Americas racetrack in Austin, Texas, the Honda CR-V is going to perform abysmally. Taken at the speeds desired on that track, it will not only be way too slow, but it's likely to slide off the track in the curves because the tires are not designed to grip. What a disaster! Instead, in these specialized conditions, for the greatest performance and thrill, you want a Formula 1 car that can move at speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour while sticking to the track.


Outside of this environment, though, like downtown city traffic or even highways with other Honda CR-Vs, the Formula 1 car is going to struggle. It's a specialist vehicle – its strengths are exceptional, but in many everyday conditions, its challenges are going to be very apparent as well. Its strength and weakness profile is quite dramatic.


In this analogy, the Honda CR-V represents the neurotypical individual. Like neurotypical individuals, the Honda CR-V is known for its reliability, efficiency, adaptability, and ability to function well independently in a variety of everyday and even some basic off-road situations.


On the other hand, an autistic individual is more like a Formula 1 racecar – a specialized, high-potential feat of engineering with extreme strengths under the right conditions and may require a team or "pit crew" for optimal performance.


In the sections to come, I will dive deeper into this analogy, highlighting the unique strengths and challenges associated with each neurotype.


The Neurotypical Honda CR-V

Just as a Honda CR-V is known for its reliability, efficiency, and versatility, a neurotypical person often possesses similar qualities. CR-Vs are often praised for their adaptability to a variety of terrains and situations, performing equally well on highways, city streets, and country roads. They are designed to operate independently, typically requiring little more than standard gasoline and routine maintenance to keep them running smoothly.

an autistic woman fidgeting her hair using a pen

In much the same way, neurotypical individuals navigate everyday social, academic, and professional environments with relative ease. This adaptability stems from their ability to read social cues, adapt to changing situations, and follow societal norms and expectations without expending tons of extra energy.


Neurotypical brains can "drive" through life, adjusting to the "traffic" of various situations and conditions without needing excessive support or accommodations because the environment in which they operate was designed with them in mind.


However, this doesn't mean that neurotypical brains are superior or that they do not face challenges. Like the CR-V, they have limitations and can break down under certain conditions. For example, they may not be as good at tasks that require extremely specialized skills, extended attention to detail, or a huge database of knowledge, things that autistic brains may do with great ease.


The Autistic Formula 1 Racecar

Now, let's shift gears and examine the autistic individual through the lens of a Formula 1 racecar. Formula 1 vehicles are at the pinnacle of automotive engineering – they are specialized, high-performance machines built to operate at incredible speeds, showcasing exceptional precision and responsiveness.


To leverage what these specialized elite vehicles are capable of, it takes more than a basic driver's ed course. You need a specific environment and an expert team, or "pit crew," to get them on the track. This level of specialization and potential for incredible capabilities, coupled with the need for a specialized support team that understands the engineering behind the vehicle, mirrors the workings of an autistic person.

an autistic woman holding a card with an eye and mouth that she drew

Like a Formula 1 car, an autistic brain often possesses specialized abilities because they often have deeply focused interests and may amass an impressive amount of knowledge or skill in their area of interest. It's not uncommon to find individuals with autism who exhibit exceptional skills in mathematics, art, music, memory recall, or other distinct areas.


They may have exceptional visual skills, which can translate into talent in areas like design, mechanical endeavors, or spatial reasoning. Many autistic individuals are very good at understanding and analyzing systems, which can be anything from the rules of a game like chess, to programming, to the intricacies of a language.


Their talents may lie in other areas that are less obvious to the outside observer, such as incredible empathy, kindness, honesty, integrity, and loyalty. They may make the world a better place through an exceptional passion for animals, the environment, or other causes.


These abilities are akin to the incredible speed and precision of a Formula 1 car – a showcase of high performance in a specialized field, but if they spend their entire lives trying to navigate downtown traffic, they never get the opportunity to develop their talents. They may even spend a great deal of time in the repair shop rather than mastering the curves!

an autistic man being tapped in his shoulder by his supportive friends

Just like a Formula 1 car needs specific conditions to excel – the right track, the right weather, the right type of specialized racing fuel, and a team to maintain and adjust it – an autistic person also thrives best under specific conditions. They may require a more predictable environment, routines, accommodations, supports, or specific strategies to manage sensory sensitivities.


And just like the pit crew in a Formula 1 race, the autistic individual may benefit from a supportive team who can provide the necessary guidance, encouragement, and understanding to help them become the best version of themselves possible.


It's important to note that this analogy does not suggest any deficits or shortcomings. Rather it underscores the uniqueness and potential of autistic brains. In a world that's built more like a city street than a racetrack, Formula 1 racecars – and autistic brains – may face unique challenges, but they also bring extraordinary capabilities and strengths if we can only get them operating in conditions that better match those needed for peak performance.


The Importance of Teamwork: The “Pit Crew”

While not true for every autistic individual, like a Formula 1 racecar, an autistic person may thrive best with the support of a well-coordinated team. In the world of motor racing, a pit crew is indispensable. These experts fuel the car, change the tires, make necessary adjustments, and troubleshoot problems, all in a matter of seconds. Without them, even the most powerful racecar would struggle to make it out of the paddock.

an autistic woman fist bumping with her supportive group

For an autistic individual, the "pit crew" represents the support team they may need on their way to maximum independence, and eventually, the team needed for their optimal interdependence -because even most Honda CR-V owners don't change their own oil!


Over their lifetime, they may retain a full team or drop members over time as they gain more skills and find the environments in which they thrive best. This team may consist of parents, caregivers, mentors, therapists, and coaches like me. Each member plays a unique role in nurturing, guiding, and supporting the individual's growth and development while respecting their neurodivergence.


This support system helps the autistic individual identify the environment that optimally leverages their need to mitigate challenges. They may provide guidance, structure, and reassurance, helping the autistic individual navigate the world in a way that works best for them.


It's not about changing the individual to fit the world, but rather, providing them with the tools and strategies they need to thrive within the environment in their own unique way. It's about helping them become the best drivers of their own Formula 1 racecar, no matter what kind of track they find themselves on.


Understanding the Differences

Recognizing the unique attributes and strengths of both neurotypical and autistic brains is crucial for fostering acceptance and understanding. Neurotypical brains, like Honda CR-Vs, are adaptable and can handle a variety of everyday situations with relative ease.


Autistic brains, on the other hand, share the specialized and high-performing characteristics of a Formula 1 racecar, exhibiting remarkable skills in specific areas when given the right opportunities, but sometimes not all the areas needed to thrive independently in a neurotypical world full of city streets and highway traffic.

an autistic woman scratching her head

Unfortunately, misunderstandings and misconceptions about autism and neurodivergence persist. Just as a Formula 1 car isn't designed to navigate everyday city traffic, an autistic brain isn't wired to conform to neurotypical expectations.


This isn't a shortcoming, defect, or character flaw, but rather a different way of experiencing and interacting with the world. It doesn't mean they can't drive on the highway with other cars; each driver needs to be conscious of how they individually accelerate and decelerate differently in order for everyone to merge safely.


Understanding these differences can significantly improve how we support and include autistic individuals in society. By remembering that a Formula 1 car requires different conditions and support to perform optimally, we can tailor environments, supports, and accommodations to enable autistic adults to flourish.


By appreciating these differences, we can begin to see the beauty and value in neurodiversity, rather than seeing it as something to be fixed. This perspective can help us foster a more inclusive and accepting society where everyone can thrive, regardless of how their brain is wired. And then everyone gets to enjoy the race!


Steps for Harnessing the Power of Your Formula 1 Brain

Living as a Formula 1 racecar in a Honda CR-V world does present challenges. Dealing with sensory sensitivities, navigating social interactions, or coping with changes in routine can often be difficult for those with an autistic brain. Yet, these challenges are not insurmountable and can be effectively managed with the right strategies and support.

neurodivergent woman talking with her neurotypical friend about neurodiversity

First, it's crucial to remember that being neurodivergent is not a problem to be solved but a difference to be respected. Embracing your neurodivergence and understanding how it impacts your interactions with the world is the first step toward harnessing its power. Self-understanding through learning everything you can about how your brain works is key.


Second, coming to accept your uniqueness, your strength-and-weakness profile, is the next step. Autistic individuals often receive so many messages from their environment and the people around them that there is something "wrong" with them that the idea of self-love and acceptance may seem like an impossible goal, but it's a crucial step in the process of thriving.


Figuring out what you are good at, the things you've learned without anyone having to teach you, that you do even better than those around you, is a great way to get there. If you don't know what your strengths are, it's time to start exposing yourself to new and different things so you can discover who you really are.


With a clinically significant need for sameness as an autistic person, I know this may be terrifying, but trying out different things is the only way to get there. If you don't already know, you can't discover what you are good at by continuing to do what you've always done.

neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals having their bond

Finally, advocating for what you need to thrive is the final step once you understand and accept yourself. This may involve building a strong "pit crew" – a team of supportive individuals who understand you and not only respect you but actively celebrate your neurodivergence. This crew can include family, friends, therapists, teachers, coaches, and employers. Together, they can provide the understanding and support you need to thrive.


Through these steps, you can start to leverage your strengths and thrive in your own unique way. Remember, the goal is not to turn your Formula 1 brain into a Honda CR-V but to enable it to be the best racecar it can be, on its own track and at its own pace.


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