Smart and Stupid With Autism

Mette Harrison
4 min readMay 17, 2023

When I was in high school, I remember multiple people accusing me of purposely misunderstanding instructions to simple tasks. One said I “had no common sense.” And it was, indeed, frustrating to them that I seemed so intelligent in a wide range of areas, but also so very stupid in some very simple things that everyone on the planet surely got when they were a toddler.

I look back on this now and see the clear neurodivergence present (missed because so many other family members were neurodivergent, so it was almost “normal” and also possibly because I was so functional in other ways). I struggled to have even a basic toddler level understanding of proprioception (body sense). I also didn’t pay attention to smells or sounds like normal people do. Like with pain, I am sometimes overly sensitive and other times completely unaware of “normal” and “obvious” things.

I was a kid who was reading far above grade level, who was given permission to work on the math textbook on her own, and ended up finishing it all in about six weeks, after which I moved onto a series of folders of interesting math projects one teacher had. I took two fourth year college classes by correspondence as a Junior in high school and got A’s in both. I finished a B.A. in eighteen months and went to Princeton for graduate school at age 19. I took multiple languages and excelled in them: German, French, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Russian.

I got my worst grade in my life in junior high “Home Economics” because I couldn’t sew a straight line to save my life, nor could I manage to bake or cook anything following a recipe without burning or ruining it in another way. I also struggled in normal P.E. classes because I didn’t have the coordination necessary to play any sports in groups or alone. I didn’t know how to run without extreme shoulder pain caused by clenching my jaw and fists. I could listen to lectures on the human body or human psychology and ace a test on both, but I couldn’t get my own body to move the way I wanted and I didn’t know how to recognize my own emotions or what to do with them.

If you see someone who has these kind of wildly varying skills, you might consider that they are neurodivergent and not just deliberately provoking you with a refusal to do normal things that anyone else can do properly without a length explanation of all the pertinent details.

Here are some funny examples of my autistic stupidity in basic skills.

1. When I was a teenager, I was assigned to make dinner once a week for the family. I often made pizza, because it was my favorite food and everyone liked it. One night, my mom was gone running errands and I couldn’t find the cheese. I called her and she told me that the cheese was in the drawer, wrapped in plastic wrap. So I found something in the drawer that looked like cheese.

Reader, it was not cheese. It was butter.

When my mom got home, she was furious to discover I’d grated an entire block of butter and put it on the pizza, ruining both her precious butter (we never got butter, only margarine as kids) AND dinner.

2. A year later, on my birthday, I was making pizza again. I couldn’t find any tomato sauce. Trying to be resourceful, I got some stewed tomatoes and decided I could put them in the blender. Once they were in, I couldn’t find the lid. I just put a plate on top, and proceeded to make the pizza.

My brother took one bite, asked how I’d made the sauce, and told me point-blank, “I know where the lid is, Mette.” It was in the plastic pizza.

How did I not notice the sound of the crunching plastic lid as I blended up the tomatoes? I don’t know except that I was autistic, and this was extremely frustrating to people around me who really did think I was messing obvious things up on purpose. Hint: I was not. ND kids are weirdly smart and stupid in turns. I learned this better as a parent.

3. I routinely mixed up things like salt and sugar in recipes, baking powder and baking soda, or forgot things entirely that were necessary to the end product. Even now, as an adult mother of five, I still struggle to follow recipes. It was only as I was writing this that I realized one of the reasons why might be that I had to learn to create my own internal system of checks and balances in what was “common sense” because I wasn’t good at reading recipes and thinking logically through what might be wrong, even if it was obvious to a “normal” person.

4. I eventually learned how to make about 5 different meals, and later expanded that to 10, all without a recipe. (Pizza, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, tacos, lasagna, roast in a crock pot with veggies, split pea soup, rolls, brownies, and chocolate chip cookies — all are recipes I hold in my head and never use a recipe book for). Mostly, I eat those meals on repeat, and it doesn’t occur to me to want to eat anything different. The reality that my siblings were all largely happy with the same bland, repeating fare seems to indicate I’m not the only ND one there. (One of the stories I tell is that we ate tacos with ketchup on top of unseasoned ground beef because anything else was “too spicy.”)



Mette Harrison

Autist, Ironman Worlds triathlete, Writer, Right-Brained