Gifted, Autistic, and When Your Child Is Both

To say that a student is “gifted” typically means that they’ve been found to be above-average intellectually, particularly in comparison with their same-age classmates. Many schools offer classes that meet the special standards of gifted and talented education, often building up to enrollment in Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses.

Meanwhile, discussion of autism often centers around social, behavioral, and/or intellectual deficits that are identified in the diagnostic process. Autism is often referred to as a spectrum in terms of how it expresses itself from person to person, and that spectrum in turn is sometimes whittled down to a line from “low-functioning” to “high-functioning.” Strictly in terms of intelligence as assessed by IQ tests (which of course have their own issues), some autistic people also have an intellectual disability (i.e., an IQ lower than 70), while others range from average to gifted just like the rest of the population.

With that being said, for many reasons that continue to be argued to this day, this false dichotomy between low vs. high intelligence, or even more generally low vs. high levels of functioning, can be highly problematic. While not exactly the topic of this blog post, I recommend this recent post by Shannon Des Roches Rosa as just one example of this important discussion. At Waypoints, we strive to celebrate and build upon clients’ strengths rather than eliminate autistic traits. I’ve written about our approach to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services at length in this blog – check out Por qué debería ver ABA como una herramienta de desarrollo de habilidades, no como una "terapia" y Por qué celebramos la neurodiversidad, no solo reconocerla as just a couple of examples!

a gifted and autistic child drawing or writing

Twice-Exceptional

The word “gifted” has positive connotations. It implies fast learning and advanced intelligence, and this in turn seems to suggest that people who learn at a slower pace (or through different methods) have fewer gifts. But when it comes down to it, giftedness is a facet of neurodiversity, just as autism and other developmental disabilities are. Whether someone is gifted vs. autistic, both, or neither, they will experience their own unique challenges in life, and also thrive based on their own unique strengths. As Ilise Feitshans wrote, “everyone has a disability, everyone has a gift.”

So, autistic vs. gifted? These two identities are not mutually exclusive, and indeed aspects of one can sometimes be difficult to differentiate from aspects of the other! Children who are identified to be both gifted and autistic (or otherwise neurodivergent) are sometimes called “twice-exceptional,” which can be abbreviated as 2e.

Gifted students are often identified by the fact that they learn faster and more easily in school, but this can simply mean that traditional instructional methods are the most effective ones for them personally. If children received more individualized education allowing them to learn non-linearly or express themselves non-vocally, it’s quite possible that we’d see more of them as gifted! Indeed, flexible problem-solving and thinking outside the box are oft-celebrated traits of gifted children and are also common to autistic people who perceive things in the environment differently than their neurotypical peers.

On the other hand, gifted children may appear to be rigid or stubborn when required to perform tasks that they find to be repetitive, boring, or unnecessary, something that autistic people are also often criticized for. Both gifted and autistic children can also struggle with sensory issues, feeling either over- or under-stimulated in different environments. As another shared set of traits with a combination of pros and cons, excellent expressive language combined with difficulty determining exactly what to talk about and when can lead to gifted autistic children being judged as simply “too gifted to get along with other kids.”

ABA services are tailored to each individual client’s needs and goals, and that would be just as much the case for a client who was both autistic and gifted. For such a client, goals might focus more so on social skills or independent living rather than academics, but it’s just as possible that they would excel with language arts but request extra support with learning math (or vice versa)!

Avoiding Harmful Expectations

This brings me to my next topic – the importance of avoiding placing expectations upon children strictly because of their being autistic, gifted, or both.

Academic and intellectual success can lead to high-pressure expectations that, when they are not met, can be very stressful. As C.L. Bridge wrote in her blog post Don’t Count on Stereotypes, “please remember that stereotypes about being good at something are still stereotypes.”

For this reason, a more supportive approach can be to celebrate what a child does, rather than what they “accomplish.” As someone who was assigned to gifted and Advanced Placement classes, I deeply struggled with what was expected of me when I no longer easily met those expectations. I failed out of my first semester of college because I had no grasp of basic skills like self-management, studying, or asking for help.

It’s never too late to learn those skills – I took a semester off and then came back swinging to finish my undergraduate and graduate degrees – but I wish there had been more focus in my childhood on what I was actually doing and learning instead of the good grades I was “achieving”! Setting goals based on active responding like studying and practicing, advocating for oneself, or communicating effectively (and praising progress toward those goals regardless of pace or outcomes) can be very helpful.

What Not to Tell Someone Who “Has so Much Potential”

  • “You’re too smart to waste your potential like this”
  • “You must just be bored because the work is too easy”
  • “Your gifts aren’t for you; they’re for the whole world” in response to being unable to function in the ways you expected to function
  • “The kids who are teasing you today are only on top in high school. Once you get into the working world, you’ll be in charge. They’re just jealous because they know that.”
  • “School is hard on smart kids, but college will be much better if you just stick it out so that you can get there.”
  • “You’re not applying yourself”

Source: https://realsocialskills.org/2014/04/28/you-have-so-much-potential-3/

Other Ways of Providing Support

Quoting Ilise Feitshans again, “flaws can actually be converted to assets in the right context.” One great strategy for supporting a twice-exceptional child is to provide options for self-expression outside of traditional academic formats. Someone who struggles in a highly structured classroom environment might thrive when learning a craft or a trade; someone who dislikes writing or speaking might love to keep a scrapbooking journal or sketchbook. Engage with your child about their interests that may not be “productive” or in any way career-oriented in order to celebrate the way that they experience the world, even (and especially) if that experience isn’t always supported in traditional societal structures like college or a “9-5” office job.

Gifted and autistic children can  ; Danielle Voit wrote an excellent analysis of this issue in Autism vs. Giftedness: A Neurobiological Perspective, positing that what many would call poor social skills can simply be the result of “an unforgiving social environment in which social relationships provide little benefit to the child.”

With that in mind, it can be helpful to create opportunities for friendships to blossom on the basis of truly shared interests, not just a shared age, classroom, or neighborhood. This may involve creating opportunities for interaction during extracurricular activities, and/or in safe spaces online. Easier said than done sometimes, I know! (Although, one of our recent blog posts shares some great resources in Ottawa County where that can happen.)

Ultimately, your child may be both gifted and autistic, but it would be an unnecessary process to try to pin down which different traits can or should be ascribed to each identity. These labels can help people find the resources and supports that they need, but they are fluid descriptions, not set-in-stone explanations of how a person should be expected to behave and why. The goal will always be to nurture your child as the unique individual that they are, in pursuit of their own personal hopes and dreams.

At Waypoints, we can help out with the diagnostic process as well as with ABA skills training. Please contact us with any questions at info@waypoints.life!

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