Next Steps, Part 2: Unmasking “Secretly Smart”

Hello readers,

I hope everyone had a marvelous weekend. I know I did. My six-year-old niece’s first dance competition took place Saturday morning. Her team took second overall in her age group, and considering they were one of the smallest teams and it was their first time dancing together in competition, that’s nothing to sneeze at. I am a proud auntie! Plus, the travel meant I got to do some book and sundry shopping, so that’s always nice.

And now, since it is Monday, back to reality and back to the blogosphere. đŸ™‚

I’m sure you didn’t expect part of our “Next Steps” series to be about a trope…because I didn’t. I love tropes, but I usually don’t write about them with a series in mind. However, as Tumblr opened up my connections with autistic and disabled people, I’ve learned more about their experiences. One thing I’ve learned about the disability experience, and the intellectual disability experience especially, is that I know a lot about disability tropes. But there are some tropes I missed or wasn’t aware of. There are some that are particularly common to intellectual disabilities, and that intellectually disabled people want to go away.

Now, I’m unsure tropes can “go away” completely because…well, by definition, that’s why they’re tropes. They’ve been around a long time, they work well, writers use them because they work.

But then again–we could say the same about one-size-fits-all disability services, institutionalization, special education, and so forth, yes? Yes, we could and we should. And, some tropes have become what are called Dead Horse Tropes, especially in recent decades. Dead Horse meaning, they’re around because tropes exist, but nobody really uses or wants to use them anymore unless we’re talking parody or satire. The most prominent examples include any offensive trope related to race, national origin, orientation, religion, and so on. See some of Disney’s older animated shorts and films, and even some of their not-so-recent, yet still prevalent ones, like the representation of Islamic culture in Aladdin.

And yet, you got it. Dead Horse tropes exist around disability, too. But writers and other creators still use them, without the backlash they’d get for using racial, origin-related, or other tropes. For example, a writer can still portray a “dumb” sitcom character as having every characteristic and symptom of ADHD, non-cognitive learning disability, or Level 1 autism, and get away with it because, “Well, I didn’t call them that/they’re not diagnosed.” An animator can still draw a character with a thick tongue or protruding eyes, and have their voice actor use thickened speech, and get away with essentially making fun of people with Down Syndrome, because, “Well, it’s not meant that way/this character obviously doesn’t have Down Syndrome because they don’t look exactly like that.”

What a load of horse manure.

So maybe we do need to talk about tropes as part of our Next Steps…starting with the Secretly Smart trope.

Secretly Smart: What is It?

This is not a trope you’re going to find on TV Tropes or any kind of trope encyclopedia site, so I’m gonna give you my own definition. It’s pretty simple. “Secretly Smart” applies to disabled characters. It’s what happens when a character’s disability is assumed to preclude intelligence, but in actuality, the character is “smart”–as defined by the majority abled. For example, the character has a photographic memory. The character cannot speak or verbalize, but given assistive technology, not only communicates, “I understood everything you said and did,” but goes on to answer test questions at and above their grade or age level (often way above). The character is assumed uneducable because, due to disability, they have not been given educational opportunities. But again, give assistive technology, the “right” caretaker, etc., they are then shown to be literate, capable of doing math, capable of understanding science and history, etc. Giftedness is not necessary, but is often part of the trope.

So to summarize: “Secretly Smart”: A trope applied to a disabled character who is presumed dumb or uneducable, but is in reality intelligent, perceptive, and capable as defined by the abled people around them.

Note: Characters who are intellectually disabled, have severe learning disabilities, or experience any level of autism and are not intelligent as defined by the abled, but can perform some complex skill very well, are interpersonally “intelligent,” or are unusually perceptive, do not qualify for this trope. That’s “Smart in Their Own Way,” which I will talk about some here and go into more detail with next time.

Where Does This Trope Exist?

If you subscribe to or read this blog and have a disability, I bet you’ve seen Secretly Smart somewhere, and probably more than once. If you’re disability-adjacent, same. But even if you don’t fit into those groups, I bet you’ve seen this and just haven’t recognized it. I know I have–and I know that in some ways, I’ve used it, if inadvertently. Tropes are often traps, and as a writer, I know I fall in. We all do. We just need to be aware and do better as we learn.

“Secretly Smart” actually exists in a lot of recent media about disabled characters. In a way, I completely understand why. For decades, maybe centuries, the stereotype of the disabled character was, physically fragile or physically incapable, and either incapable academically, or incapable but sweet/perceptive (Smart in Their Own Way). A lot of writers would try to buck the trend by making physically disabled characters smart, sometimes to the point of genius, or at least spiritually perceptive (remember good old Tiny Tim, snarkity snark? Love ya, Dickens, but it’s a new century, Charlie. If you’re up there, know that trope wouldn’t hold water anymore). But back then, writers and other creators were either unaware that people labeled as intellectually disabled/autistic/ADHD could be intelligent, or unwilling to look beyond surface labels and diagnoses. So intellectually affected characters who were perceptive, able to hold linear conversations, able to understand the world around them and interact in meaningful ways, just did not exist.

Secretly Smart was, I believe, an answer to this problem and for awhile, a kind of solution. After all, what better way to disprove the stereotype of the intellectually affected person stuck in an institution, or unable to understand much of anything, than to show that you could still have an intellectual diagnosis while being capable and smart? Alternatively, what better way to disprove this stereotype than to show that a severe physical diagnosis (ex.: CP) did not mean you weren’t intelligent, even if “the experts” believed otherwise? (As a bonus, what better way to educate and shame those experts, many of whom were and are ableist, either in the “angry bigot” way or the “poor, pitiful them” way)?

So especially in recent decades, we got media that revolved around “Secretly Smart.” Some examples include:

Sharon M. Draper’s Out of My Mind, wherein protagonist Melody Brooks has cerebral palsy that prevents her from walking, speaking, or performing daily living tasks on her own (feeding, grooming, bathroom). But, she has a photographic memory, understands everything her doctors and teachers say she is unable to do, and given assistive technology, becomes a quiz team star. (That is, until her team leaves her out of a national competition, with implicit teacher permission, just because they want to go out for breakfast and Melody has to be fed. Whoops, I guess smart people don’t deserve to have help with food, so we need to punish them by leaving them behind)!

Terry Trueman’s Stuck in Neutral, wherein protagonist Shawn McDaniel has CP, also, of a similar caliber to Melody’s. Shawn actually describes himself as going to an IEP meeting and being tested with questions like, “What is 2 + 2?” and being asked to match colored shape blocks with their proper holes. When he can neither speak answers nor match the blocks because he doesn’t have the dexterity, Shawn’s IQ is estimated as equivalent to a 3-4 month-old baby, and he is treated accordingly. Shawn’s biggest worry in this book is whether, and when, his father will euthanize him. (This thing was published in 2002, and instead of being decried as ableist, actually reprinted in 2012. It was even required reading in a special education language arts classroom)! (FRICKIN-FRACK, I CAN’T WITH YOU PEOPLE)!!!!

Carly Fleischmann, Temple Grandin, and other real-life autistic people have been treated like this in real life. It’s particularly egregious with Carly because it was assumed she could not communicate until she was given access to a computer/typing. At one time, I’d have agreed with that. But the key is, Carly could communicate and was communicating before she could type. She just did it in ways that neurotypical, abled people, including her loved ones, could or did not accept, so she got stuck with the R-word label and worse. This was slightly less egregious with Temple Grandin because her mother always believed she was intelligent, because she pushed for Temple to be treated as intelligent and capable, and because Temple was sadly a product of autism treatment/viewpoints of the ’60s and ’70s. But even so, both women, and more like them, were shortchanged and mistreated because of this trope.

Protagonists of those Christian-based “disabled hero”/”let’s learn from the disabled person” movies tend toward this trope, although they’re more subversions. For example, Jimmy of the eponymous film is seen as intelligent when compared to people with more severe intellectual disabilities. But he’s considered more “spiritually smart,” like, “Only ‘spiritual geniuses’ can see the angels or Watchers like Jimmy does.” Characters with Down Syndrome who star in these movies, as in Touched by Grace, usually have their level of intelligence or capability defended as a reason why they should be “allowed” to do normal things (e.g., attend a school prom, go to youth group).

Real people with ADD/ADHD, including my good friend R, often have this trope weaponized against them, as in, neurotypical people telling them, “You’re smart, you’re just lazy. You’re smart, you just won’t try.” R is in fact an extremely intelligent woman in her own right–we wouldn’t have been in grad school as English majors otherwise, hello! (And there’s nothing “secret” about that. You have to be smart for that particular program, in your own way or otherwise, or you will not make it). But I witnessed her being shot down because of her ADD at least once. On one occasion, a mutual professor responded to R’s earnest assertion that she was trying with, “Bull****.” The good old prof came *this close* to me chewing him out in front of 20 other people.

Does This Trope Have a Positive Side?

This is a question I had to ask myself, and one I had to be brutally honest about. I am a smart person–and I don’t say that to boast, I say it as a fact, like, I’m a hazel-eyed person. Knowledge, wisdom, learning…these are the things that bring me joy. They are what inform my experience as a person, whether or not disability is part of the conversation. I enjoy creating smart characters, and I love creating twice-exceptional characters, partly because there’s still not much representation of us in fiction and media. The representation that exists of 2E characters, often also focuses on how “bad” our disabilities are (i.e., Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind). And, having had it drilled into my head not to act like my disability was bad–well, that does inform my writing and creating. (More about that later).

So there is, arguably, a “space” in writing and creating for secretly smart characters. Plus, secrets are great at driving stories. Secrets make us ask, why is the character keeping this from others/does this character have a choice in keeping the secret? What will happen if the secret is found out? Should we as the readers root for or against exposure? When and if the secret is revealed, what will change? Secrets come with built-in stakes, and they force characters to grow, because if you just “sit” on a secret, you become a boring character. And disabled or not, nobody likes a boring character!

So yes, this trope can have a positive side. And as noted, I have used a version of it, in creating twice-exceptional (2E) characters. But I have also used it in other ways, which I’ll get to shortly. And in those other ways, plus the 2E way, there are far more reasons for this trope to become a Dead Horse, than to keep it.

Why “Secretly Smart” Should Go Away

I’m not going to spend a bunch of time explaining all the reasons for this. Many are at least somewhat self-explanatory, and I bet you’ve already guessed a lot of them. However, if you don’t know, and/or so you have them for your notes:

  • Secretly Smart implies the character is only smart if the abled say so. This goes back to intelligence being used against disabled people, as an ableist concept. That is, when “secretly smart” is played straight, the intellectually disabled, autistic, ADD/ADHD, whatever character, is assumed to be uneducable, behaviorally deficient, whatever. That is, until the character proves some ability (often gifted level) to interact academically. Then, bang! The abled backpedal. They apologize or feel bad for how they treated the disabled character–just because that character is academically smart. And all I can say is, “Wait a minute–what?”
  • Secretly Smart implies that smart people shouldn’t be treated in an ableist manner–but others should. For an example, let’s go back to Sharon Draper’s Melody. Once her teachers, parents, and others figure out she’s intelligent and has a photographic memory, they question why she was placed in special education and act repentant for placing her there. Granted, Melody wanted to be in general education. And granted, special ed in Melody’s school sucked. Teacher turnover was constant and quite literally, nobody learned anything. But in acting so repentant toward Melody, her teachers, parents, etc. implied, “You didn’t need to be there” while implying the other kids did. Why? Right–because they didn’t and couldn’t fit the standard, abled definition of “smart.” Right, because “smart in their own way” wasn’t good enough. Right, because these kids had even higher support needs and more obvious disabilities than Melody. Even Melody shows prejudice about this–for instance, she describes a same-age peer who poops his pants as “smelling like the monkey house at the zoo.” And sure, it’s frustrating to be in the same room with a kid who poops his pants, and unable to express that. It’s frustrating to be in a classroom with that kid, when the teacher may or may not know how to, or want to, correct the problem. But the implication that Carl, who poops, or Maria, who has Down Syndrome and engages in “childish” interests, or Jill, who rocks back and forth, “need” to be segregated while Melody doesn’t–because now Melody has technology to communicate and now “we know better…” It’s weird at best, ableist at worst. That brings me to:
  • Secretly Smart implies assistive technology works only one way, can make everyone smart, and therefore cure disabilities. The truth is, not every disabled person can use assistive technology. Not every disabled person wants to. In addition, many forms of this tech exist, all of them legitimate. Regardless of IQ, if an autistic person communicates by pointing to pictures, that’s as legit as an autistic person typing complete, grammatically correct sentences into a speaking machine. Regardless of IQ, a dyslexic person who draws or presents assignments orally is using assistive technology as legitimately as a highly literate person with CP who uses a computer. Secretly Smart leaves no room for this. The character or real person is usually either (A) smart enough to type into a speaking machine/learn to speak, or (B) not smart enough for that, not dexterous enough for that, whatever, so not smart at all. “Wait a minute, what???”
  • Secretly Smart implies the intellectually disabled are only worthy to the extent they can appear smart. The “can’t talk or walk but has a photographic memory” manifestation is classic, but there’re also other versions. For instance, a character with mosaic Down Syndrome, wherein the person doesn’t present with all the classic facial features or developmental delays, is often seen as more “worthy” and “relatable” than a character with classical Down Syndrome. A Level 1 autistic (ex.: myself), is seen as more worthy and relatable than someone on Level 2 or 3 (ex.: my cousin, the boy my mom used to shadow at church). This hierarchy feeds infighting, low self-esteem, the erasure of intellectual disabilities, ableism in general…it’s just ugly.
  • Secretly Smart is in fact a secret, and implies people with disabilities are all manipulating, faking, and not trying. Thankfully, I have never seen a case in real life where somebody goes up to a person with CP who uses a wheelchair, can’t hold their head up, whatever, and says, “C’mon, I know you can do trigonometry, quit being lazy!” But as noted, this can and does happen with autistic people, people with learning disabilities, etc. In real life and fiction, Secretly Smart implies that we as PWDs, especially a certain subset of us, are using our disabilities to avoid, to escape, to manipulate, to gain privileges. (Because oh yes, we love the privilege of struggling and being disbelieved)!
  • Secretly Smart leaves no room for intellectually affected people to live authentic lives as themselves. Partly because of this trope, real-life intellectually affected people often feel they have to prove themselves, they have to be “smart in their own way,” they have to downplay their struggles, especially the mental and academic ones. This should not happen. People with intellectual disabilities, autism, etc. should be able to live as authentically as the rest of us–with, not in spite of, intellectual affects. I mean, yeah, I’ve got advanced degrees. Yeah, I don’t have the physicality or motor skills to do trade work. But seriously, guys–when did we get so obsessed with the four-year degree, the mechanic or janitor who “secretly” kills it at quantum physics, the idea that intelligence, as the abled define it, was the most important thing a person could be? If you wanna know, I think that’s really dumb!
  • Secretly Smart leaves intellectually affected people with less of a voice, or no voice. Think about it. How many times have you, in real life or fiction, seen the situation of the severely and/or intellectually disabled person silently begging for someone to listen to them? How many times have you heard stories of a person who was restrained and secluded in school, or institutionalized, or denied basic needs, or God forbid raped, because no one would listen to them? Secretly Smart puts disabled people and characters in the position of not only begging to be heard, but again, having to prove they deserve to be heard. As in, “See? I can read a book. I can do math. Now will you listen and believe what I say? Now will you consider that I have needs and likes and dislikes?” This physically disgusts me.
  • Secretly Smart minimizes the reality of disabilities, and the fact that life is worth living with them. When I wrote Finola Frost’s story, I included a character named Murphy who had mosaic Down Syndrome (note to self, change that name, it’s Carlotta’s last name). I showed Murphy participating in ducking the rules of the abusive HOPE House system, and making fun of the Barney reruns every resident, including the smart ones, were subjected to. Nothing wrong with this on the surface, but I realize I was falling into Secretly Smart. I was communicating, “Murphy has Down Syndrome, but not like that.” In an effort to show that nobody belonged in these abusive HOPE Houses, I actually communicated, “Murphy, Finola, and others don’t because they’re smart enough to mock Barney, but the other kids might. And even if they don’t, their lives are lesser if they enjoy Barney, or don’t participate in the revolution, or otherwise struggle.” Um, no. It wasn’t intentional, but that was the wrong way for me to approach that character. Next time, I’m presenting a character with a more “classic” intellectual disability, who both struggles in some way and has a worthy life that deserves to be lived. (They may still mock Barney, though. I don’t care if you’re disabled or not, Barney is a condescending yutz).

In other words, I understand why Secretly Smart came about and why it exists. It was, as is sometimes said in creative circles, “fair for its day.” But that day has come and gone. My recommendation? Create characters with disabilities who are smart–and who struggle at the same time. Create authentic representations of all disabilities, including and especially those with intellectual affects. Don’t put real or fictional people with disabilities in the position of using any form of intelligence, to apologize for disability or beg for a voice.

Let’s just get smart.

Next time, we’ll delve into Smart in Their Own Way, and why this doesn’t work, either. This may be a bonus, so we can move on to “bigger” topics. Until then, keep learning and getting smart about disability.



  1. I read “Stuck in Neutral” and I took it as the writer trying to say we should not decide a disabled person wants to die, we should not assume disabled people are better of dead because the main character states many times how much he loves his life and is terrified of what the father wants to do to him. Given that many people with disabilities are murdered or beaten by family it seemed more rooted in reality than some of the others you mentioned. Granted it should definitely be consumed with a knowledge of pro life issues, euthanasia issues, disability rights and “Disability Day of Mourning” before consuming it which luckily I already had. It’s not for young children. I’m also bothered it was written by an able bodied writer who may or may not have had thoughts of killing his own children…the authors son had CP. I hate euthanasia plots but read/watch them to make better arguments against them. I agree that whether Shawn was intelligent or not he should not have had a parent thinking of murdering him.

    You should do a post on Judy Heumann.

  2. Yes, a post on Judy Heumann is overdue, isn’t it? I want to take a look at some of her writings. At the moment, I am covered in review requests for other books, but I will get there.

    I appreciate your take on Stuck in Neutral, as I had used it as a source for an anti-disabled death article (as in, against the trope, so, proving that authors do use it and it needs to go away). And I absolutely agree that unless you consume it alongside pro-life literature/media, knowledge of the Disability Day of Mourning and what it’s for, and so forth, you will not get the impression you need. And yes, whatever other opinion a person has of the book, intelligence should never be a factor in stories like Shawn’s. It definitely shouldn’t be used as justification to save disabled people.

    I was and still am extremely angry that Stuck in Neutral was presented to students in a special education classroom (I think they were middle-schoolers)? I ran across the story when looking up whether the book had come under controversy for the euthanasia plot. It hadn’t, and the fact that it was used in that classroom was shockingly ironic. The one reference to controversy, I found on Wikipedia, and apparently, only one parent complained. That parent wasn’t even complaining about Shawn being subject to the possibility of euthanasia. They were complaining because the book was “sad” and “depressing.” But even if the complaint had been different…ONE complaint? A disability euthanasia plot given as required reading to special education students? When those students are the exact students who are at the center of such controversies? I mean, how uninformed do teachers and administrators have to be?

    I’ve said before and will say again: I understand if parents, caregivers, and other disability-adjacent individuals choose to write about disability because their loved one has it. I understand even more if, when given every avenue, that loved one either can’t communicate, or can’t do so in a way that would make it feasible to write a book or undertake a speaking engagement or make a video or whatever. What I object to is, again, (A) when the disability-adjacent voices replace disabled voices and (B) when the disabled voices are not given avenues to tell the stories, or given fewer avenues than abled people would be given. My frustration and fear is that, disability stories are so dominated by caregivers, that our narrative as disabled people is still, “This is a negative experience. These people are sweet, but pitiful. This person has value because I as the parent or caregiver or sibling say so and nuts to what you think” (which is true, but if ONLY those people think we have value, what do we do when they are gone)? Plus, what does that in particular tell abled people who have *no* experience with disability, *no* disabled people in their lives? Right. It tells them, “This still is not your problem. You can continue to think of disability as distant, impersonal, a possible inconvenience, a definite negative.”

    1. I just googled the book and it appears at least 2 middle schools challenged the book as well as disability studies scholars and disability bloggers. I don’t believe this book should be banned from regular libraries or stores and it could be taught to much older teens with a ton of context but middle school is too young and may be harmful for kids with mental health issues. I think the teachers thought special education students might relate to the book because Shawn is locked in to his body and maybe they assume special ed students feel locked in and secretly smart as you call it. The teachers should not assume this either. I have no problem with caretakers writing books, more content is better than less. I just don’t like when disabled people’s voices are seen as inferior.

  3. Hey, thanks for looking into Stuck in Neutral’s history. That point of view on why teachers would teach it to special education students is valid/I see the argument. Although yes, middle school is too young. I’m not a fan of banning books, either, and I apologize if I came across as thinking Stuck in Neutral should be banned. At the same time, I have seen cases where teachers, librarians, and parents seem a bit too eager to expose younger kids to content they may not be ready for, or that may trigger them (not disability-related). So as big a proponent I am for letting students read and experience and learn from as many authors as possible, I do think adults could stand to be more careful in some cases. Across the board, we as adults could stand to know our students better and be more cognizant of what we’re asking them to interact with.

    Absolutely, more content is better than less. And absolutely, the abled majority must stop treating disabled voices as inferior, simply because those voices belong to disabled people. Perhaps a good jump-off point would be, if more families and friend groups with disabled people in them, told stories *together*? And not, “Oh, look, my abled friend or loved one is so good and sacrificed so much for me.” More like, “Here is their POV, and here is mine. Sometimes life is great, and sometimes it sucks–just like for everyone else. What’s great and what sucks simply looks a bit different for us because of how we experience the world.”

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