Blog Bonus/Next Steps: Smart in Their Own Way: Getting It Out of the Way

Happy Friday and ding-ding-ding! Welcome to the bonus round!

In the interest of moving on to “bigger” Next Steps topics, we’re going to devote this bonus to another trope. This one is a cousin of Secretly Smart, and it’s called Smart in Their Own Way.

Smart in Their Own Way is not a “formal” trope, meaning it’s not recognized on trope sites or as a common trope, as one like Disability Superpower or Inspirationally Disadvantaged would be. (You can find both these tropes at It doesn’t have a definition or examples as such, just as Secretly Smart does not (although Secretly Smart does have close relatives, such as Smarter Than They Look. But Smarter Than They Look is not disability-related, that I know of).

Therefore, I’m building this trope from anecdotal evidence/what I’ve learned from my relatively new knowledge. Please be patient. Take what I say with a grain of salt, write in pencil, not pen, and if you have any insights I miss, I welcome them. Also, keep in mind, this trope is often aimed at persons with intellectual disabilities and/or, greater and more “obvious” support needs than I (usually) have. Thus, it’s not normally my experience and again, I welcome insights from those for whom it is. (I have had a couple experiences and I will reference those, but it’s not my norm).

So, on we go.

Smart In Their Own Way: What is It?

This trope is a little funny, in that it’s often more an attitude than a trope. That is, if you’re a creative and you have a character with say, Down Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome who doesn’t perform well academically but is a great gardener or dancer (nature smart, kinesthetically smart), that’s great. That is not this trope, and I’m going to explain why. But I’ve seen the actual trope, less than I’ve seen the attitude that points back to and gave birth to it in the first place.

So, what is this trope? Get out your pencil (not pen):

Smart in Their Own Way: A trope or attitude, usually applied to intellectually/developmentally disabled people (people with I/DD), that communicates they understand even if they are not “intelligent” as defined by the majority abled (emphasis mine, you don’t have to use it).

What This Trope is Not (and Why):

This trope is not:

-An intellectually/developmentally disabled character (cerebral palsy, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Down Syndrome, whatever) who does not perform well academically but has strong skills in a non-academic area

-An I/DD character who is legitimately an empath or highly sensitive person (HSP) as diagnosed by a professional or self-diagnosed having been guided through research (as opposed to an abled person claiming the I/DD person is “smart in their own way” because they’re “so sweet” or “always happy”)

-An I/DD character who is denied the means to communicate but understands everything others say and do, and reveals that once given means (if their intelligence is doubted and/or they turn out to be gifted, that’s “secretly smart”; if they’re an expected IQ, that’s just, hey, the ableds wised up and let them communicate, and now the ableds look stupid because they assumed their disabled counterpart couldn’t and didn’t understand)

These examples don’t fit because in each of these, the person/character in question wouldn’t have to be disabled to be considered smart. In other ways, these are examples of everybody being smart in different ways, because everybody actually is. I made mostly A’s in school, but was also gifted verbally (word smart). My abled brother never liked academics; he could perform well but struggled to do so, just because that environment wasn’t friendly. Still, he is more socially smart than me. He’s movement smart, doing very well athletically. He’s nature smart–disability or not. get your bugs and your mud and your creatures away from me! (Cats and some birds excepted, of course). And in the third example, it’s less about being smart than it is about, this person is capable, they were just judged based on appearance, and that’s not cool.

“Smart in their own way” actually has nothing to do with being smart, in the sense of, using your brain and having other people respect that and learn from you. When abled people say that people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are this, they mean, “They’re not ‘smart,’ but they understand ‘the simple things.’ They’re not ‘smart,’ but they understand ‘what matters, what life’s about.’ They’re not ‘smart,’ but they’re sweet.” It’s a bit like that old chestnut where, the blind person can’t see, but they “see the heart.” The beauty pageant contestant in the wheelchair, by virtue of using the wheelchair, “displays real beauty.” Smart in their own way is another form of inspiration porn. It’s also a form of minimizing, begging people to see PWD’s worth when they should anyway, and softly agreeing that disability, especially intellectual, is negative.

Does This Trope Have a Positive Side?

As with secretly smart, I can understand where smart in their own way came from and how it was meant as positive. In the not-so-distant past, intellectually and developmentally disabled people were assumed to be stupid. They were labeled with slurs like “idiot,” “moron,” and “cretin” (the medical community actually ranked them like this, with each label corresponding to certain mental ages. Yuck). The R word was, still is, a perfectly acceptable medical word that some doctors still use. I/DD people were called stuff like “feeble-minded,” and that came from nicer people (marginally nicer)!

Nobody likes words like that, even if they were considered “accurate” (and if you think otherwise, I’m sorry, you’re a bigot). All those designations and connotations point to the person as worthless, dull, and stupid. And what’s one of the first things we learn as little kids? Right–“stupid” is not a nice word. It’s not a cuss word, but we don’t call people “stupid.” Since the opposite of “stupid” is assumed to be “smart,” I can see how this trope would evolve. I can see how loved ones of people with these disabilities would want to say, “They’re smart in their own way.”

Are and were these loved ones wrong? No, I don’t think so. It is my belief that every person with a disability has some kind and level of skill, if they are given the means to explore what those could be. Now yes, there are profound manifestations, wherein the PWD will never walk, talk, complete activities of daily living, what have you. In those cases, I believe the skill would be, gaining enrichment from participating in life with guidance from people who love and care for them. In those cases, the skill legitimately can be, brightening the lives of others, because the PWD is allowed to be the central figure who does that (rather than, “This is all you can do, you’re here to smile big and ignore your pain and make us happy.”) In those cases it’s more like, “We, the abled loved ones, want this person in our lives, and based on what they can do, what they love, we build our lives on that so we can all be enriched.”

The problem comes in when people with I/DD are made to feel that “smart in their own way” is all they are or all they can do or be. I have seen intellectually disabled people, autistic people, what have you, say on social media, that they hate this trope and attitude. They’re sick of it. What could have been positive has become trite, sugary, based on deficits and weaknesses.

Why This Trope Should Go Away

Once again, without spending a lot of time on it, and without co-opting the experience of those who know better than me (use your pencil):

This trope turns on intelligence as defined by the abled majority. As with Secretly Smart, Smart in Their Own Way leaves no room for I/DD people to be themselves. It leaves no room for them to explore their strengths, personalities, inborn skills, or any new experiences they want to try (because they might not be good at them right away, and unlike with an abled person who’d be encouraged to keep working at it, they might be assumed to have failed or not met some goal).

This trope allows abled people to define the worth of people with intellectual/developmental disabilities. More than perhaps any other trope or attitude, this one turns on what the I/DD person is not. It’s almost like the abled person is saying, “You’re not this, you’re not that, but I say you’re still worthy because in my estimation, you are this and that.” But one, in Smart In Their Own Way, the first thing you get to know about the person with the disability is, they are not smart in the conventional way–so what are they? What is being used to compensate–to justify their presence in some arena, or worse, their very existence? Two, Smart In Their Own Way allows an abled person to define a PWD and thus control them in some way. Three, Smart In Their Own Way puts PWDs back into a hierarchy, where people with high or obvious support needs may feel the need to use this trope the minute you meet them. Meanwhile, people like me, who have lower support needs, can and do and have feel the need to clarify right away that we are conventionally intelligent. This pushes us away from I/DD compatriots and makes us laterally ableist, which we then have to confront and repent of. And that’s if we even do that. I was blessed enough to wake up to it and deal with it–and I have not “arrived,” don’t think I’m perfect. Some people don’t wake up.

This trope allows positive discrimination/ableism to continue. Smart In Their Own Way turns on the idea that I/DD people “understand” the world and people from the standpoint of, they’re sweet, they’re angelic, they know “what life is really about.” Abled and disabled people alike are taught in their schools, their faith communities, wherever, that this is a human ideal. And I guess in a way, it is. What Would Jesus Do and all that (looking at you, ’90s. I had a WWJD bracelet in every color, including a rainbow one. Rainbow–what would they do with THAT these days, I wonder)?

The thing is, because sweet and happy and understanding what life is really about is a human ideal, abled people think it’s still okay to pigeonhole PWDs this way. I’m not off the hook, either. Remember, CP is a developmental disability. I have literally had somebody (a rich, Southern matron scholarship donor) say to me, “Honey, I had no idea you were disabled! I understood everything you said!” (In other words, when I made my thank-you speech, I was poised, I spoke clearly, I was an ideal credit to my ability level, and it shocked Miss Daisy, I guess). Forget the fact that I had a 4.0.

This trope, along with Secretly Smart, gives abled people an out when it comes to improving the lives of PWDs. Now again, sometimes I/DD, autism, ADHD, whatever, is what it is. And that’s okay. If you have intense support needs, if your needs change day to day, if you will never make the progress “they” want you to, that’s fine and I’m sorry I ever implied that I judged you for it. What I’m afraid these “smart” tropes and attitudes will do, however, is keep antiquated views of quality of life around.

That is, for example, a Level 3 autistic person should be allowed and encouraged to experience their autism as much as they need or want to. Yes, even if they are in their 30s and want to play with Squishmallows and watch Disney movies. Yes, even if they never leave the house unless they have to. Yes, even if they have to wear ear defenders everywhere they go (which sometimes I wish I could. We’re gonna talk more about what I wish I had been able to do when I was younger/how I wish I’d been able to live as an “out” autistic).

But there are also ways in which quality of life can and should be improved for persons with disabilities. I’m not talking cures (unless the PWD wants them). I’m talking about, rethinking, retooling, and rebranding group housing and special education. I’m talking about, getting completely rid of ABA and its relatives in favor of pro-autistic therapeutics. I’m talking about PT and OT that treats the client like a whole person (I am SO grateful to my neurologist and current PT for being on board with this). I’m talking about a society that says disability is diversity, disability is natural, wheelchairs and AAC and whatever are necessary, not inconveniences or unfair advantages.

I’m afraid tropes like Smart in Their Own Way will prevent such changes. Because after all, if the mildly affected among us can still be conventionally smart, and the more obviously affected can still be conventionally sweet, what needs to change? #sarcasm

This trope does not allow I/DD people, in particular, to have and explore real emotions or real understandings. Self-explanatory, especially for those with disabilities like autism, which is stereotyped as turning on “meltdowns” or “violence” or whatever. This trope, or any trope or attitude that turns on PWDs being always happy, or understanding what “life is really about,” makes them non-people who aren’t allowed to feel and experience what everybody else can. It’s just not cool, and it’s morally wrong.

This trope allows abled people to act stupid. Straight up. I am so sick, so freaking sick, of loved ones, parents in particular, telling me their intellectually disabled kids and loved ones are worthy because they know what life is really about, they know who God really is and what God wants, and so on.

Now, I’ve said before and will say again: God in His mercy will save and bring into His Heaven any person who legitimately cannot comprehend salvation, His moral requirements, and so on. That’s why I believe babies and small children who tragically die are in Heaven. It’s why I believe there’s an age of accountability in terms of salvation (my church does not define this and I have not asked; I need to ask. Some Protestants will say, “Age of accountability is whenever the kid can ask Jesus into their heart,” but I don’t buy that because any kid can say the words if prompted right or pressured. From what I have seen, age of accountability seems to be around 12-13, like in Jewish tradition, where that’s bar/bat mitzvah age).

But outside of that–if you are abled and past accountability age: Your relationship with and to God, your understanding of morals and ethics and what life is about, is your own responsibility. If you are depending on a disabled person, or my people group, to tell you, you’re in trouble. Crack your holy book, pray and meditate, learn something. Stop expecting me, and especially my compatriots, to do the work for you.

Again, we need to get smart about our tropes and attitudes, especially how we handle the intelligence of people with disabilities. Because it is there, for every person with a disability and every kind of disability. Just because it’s not the kind you expected or wanted, don’t discount it. Instead of Smart In Their Own Way, what if we said, “Yes, this is a complex, uniquely crafted person” and then celebrated whatever strengths and skills they had?


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