Gifted, On the Spectrum, or Both?
A popular young adult novel character named Penelope Bunce often pulls out a chalk board when solving tough problems and starts by creating two lists: What We Know. What We Don’t Know.
When it comes to the connection between giftedness and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it is important to understand that the latter column far exceeds the former. The DMS-5 continues to adjust its diagnostic criteria for ASD, and there is also no universal definition for giftedness. The scope of this article isn’t meant to be a scholarly review of the literature concerning autism, giftedness, and their intersections but will instead focus on summarizing how the two overlap and what parents and educators can do to help these children thrive.
Consider the following brief description for illustration:
A ten-year-old child in their local public school excels at computer programming and has a keen interest in learning advanced coding languages like Python. However, they don’t socialize with others at recess and seems to struggle to communicate when forced to do group work in class.
This child may be gifted and finding it difficult to meet like-minded peers who share their interest or work in groups where they have to wait for a long time for others to arrive at the same answer this child learned so quicky. The child may be autistic and able to excel in their subject of interest but not as equipped for social interactions that require reciprocity. The child may also be both gifted and autistic, often referred to as twice-exception (or 2e for short), where their asynchronous profile allows them to succeed in some tasks while being challenged by others. They may excel in academics but perhaps the sensory overload of recess and group projects causes them to seemingly withdraw. To add to the label confusion, a parent, an educator, and a clinician may all place different emphasis on different aspects of this child’s profile.
Many readers may already be having strong reactions. It is understandable given the history, stigma, and ongoing debates that circle around both the gifted and ASD communities. Parents of gifted children may worry that their child will be mislabeled as ASD, perhaps because of a teacher’s misunderstanding of gifted characteristics (and/or ASD characteristics). Parents of children who are identified as ASD may resent how this label has been used to pathologize, rather than embrace neurodiversity. Parents of children who are both gifted and autistic often feel that they can’t get the benefits of either label, such as access to advanced learning opportunities or scaffolding in school when their child needs extra support.
How Do Autism Spectrum Disorder and Giftedness Overlap?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is considered a developmental condition that results from a brain-based difference. It is broadly defined but mainly focuses on issues of social and communication skills, as well as some observable behavioral differences, often referred to as “restricted and repetitive behaviors,” such as rocking. Professionals consider the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria, which includes behavioral checklists and severity levels, to help identify individuals.
Giftedness is also considered a brain-based difference that is broadly defined. It is commonly characterized by high intelligence, creativity, and/or achievement. Diagnosing giftedness often involves above-level testing, IQ tests, or standardized achievement tests. Gifted behavior checklists are also frequently included in gifted identification.
It should be noted that highly gifted children are not always well-adjusted, high-achievers. Highly gifted children are often described as intense or over-excitable and can present with sensory issues and executive functioning issues, much like those described in students who are identified with ASD. In addition, both students who are gifted or have ASD may struggle with social interactions. As the table below demonstrates, there are several identifying traits that both profiles share.
Shared Characteristics on Behavior Checklists for Both Giftedness and ASD
|Signs of Giftedness *Taken from NAGC & the Davidson Institute||Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder *Taken from the CDC|
|Enthusiastic about unique interests||Has obsessive interests|
|Difficulty connecting with same-age peers||Has trouble relating to others or not have an interest in other people at all|
|High expectations of self and others, often leading to feelings of frustration||Has trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings|
|Rigid rule-following at play time||Does not play “pretend” or interactive games|
|Issues with executive functioning||Has trouble adapting when routines change|
|Greater sensory sensitivity (see GRO)||Has unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel, or sound|
|Impulsive, eager and spirited||Hyperactive, impulsive, and/or inattentive behavior|
How to Tell the Difference Between ASD and Giftedness?
While the examples above may not seem like an exact 1:1, it becomes difficult to disentangle when characteristics like “an intense interest in a peculiar subject” or “difficulty with social interactions” would fall under giftedness or ASD. What does become clear is that even shared traits are described differently depending on which context is considered. When referring to giftedness, words like “enthusiastic” are used to describe the intensity, while when referring to ASD, a behavior checklist might use a word like “obsessive.” Deficits based language often has its roots in educational frameworks which use performance levels to determine the flow of important resources like programming, in-class aid, and funding. However, it should be noted that many within the ASD community find the language used to describe them as ableist and further stigmatizing.
Both giftedness and autism fall on a spectrum, so while there may be individuals who clearly fit into one box or another, some behaviors might be more ambiguous and require additional information, context, or professional opinions. Just like in our discussion of giftedness and ADHD, it should be noted that there is no definitive test to identify either. Instead, understanding your child’s full learning profile will require a careful and thorough assessment of the whole child by a trained professional, particularly by someone who has worked with both gifted and ASD children.
Neuroscience research is ever-evolving, and while there is not yet one fail-safe method for identifying when a student is gifted, on the spectrum, or both, several professionals in the field have observed key areas that might help others identify ASD when the situation is not a clear-cut case.
Considering the motivation or context behind behaviors that may look the same on the surface is one tool professionals use when considering a possible diagnosis. For example, difficulty relating to age-peers is often cited as a shared characteristic. However, gifted students may have this difficulty because they have higher expectations of their peers, wish to dive deeper into topics, or desire a more mature form of friendship (see Miraca Gross’s article, “Play Partner or Sure Shelter”). Students on the autism spectrum often desire social connection, but may struggle interpreting facial expressions, expressing emotions, or engaging in tasks with reciprocity.
Another key indicator when considering an evaluation for ASD is the severity of symptoms and their impact across all aspects of life. As Dr. Melanie Crawford points out in her article, when symptoms create prolonged emotional distress and prevent students from engaging in regular tasks of daily life, it may be time to consult a professional. Examining the intensity of symptoms may also help professionals identify ASD in students who are gifted. For example, Emily Kircher-Morris, LPC, describes her experience investigating how, in some cases, intensity can’t always be “explained away” by giftedness alone.
How to Support Students Who Are Identified as Both Gifted and on the Autism Spectrum?
There are great resources for gifted children as well as resources for children who have been identified as ASD. When a student is twice-exceptional, with both giftedness and ASD, it may be difficult to navigate which options work best for your child. As Dr. Ed Amend suggests in this article, it is “the needs of a child, not the specific diagnosis or identification category, [that] are supposed to drive the interventions.” Because giftedness and ASD can manifest in many different ways, it is important that educators, parents, and professionals follow the lead of the student to support their areas of strength and provide scaffolding in areas where student has deficits.
While there is still much we don’t know about the overlap of giftedness and ASD, what we do know are some ways to start supporting these students. A few common tips include the following:
- If your 2e child has significant areas of challenge that affect their ability to participate in classroom activities, social opportunities, or pursue their interests, a formal assessment may be the first step so that their full profile is understood. Try to locate individuals who have experience with both gifted and 2e students through lists like our Gifted and 2e Testers & Therapists map or Hoagies’ Gifted’s “Psychologists Familiar with Testing the Gifted and Exceptionally Gifted.”
- Use a 504 Plan or IEP to its full extent. While many support plans focus on school performance and can assist with challenge areas like written language, they can also aid with classroom transitions, social skills, and incorporate strategies for emotional regulation.
- Even if your 2e student struggles with social situations, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to connect with like-minded peers in their own way. One way to do this that also aids their intellectual development is by enrolling them in non-competitive clubs, summer programs, or other programs that focus on a specific area of interest like coding, history, or math.
No child should think of themselves as “deficient” because of who they are. It can be difficult for some families to initially accept a 2e label of gifted and ASD because of the history of stigma that has surrounded the ASD community. However, a diagnoses can be helpful when it comes to accessing tools and support systems that the student might not otherwise have, such as an IEP, access to a community of like-minded peers, resources to decrease stress, and a fair and appropriate education that allows the student to explore their areas of interest. In a neurodiverse world, there are many examples of successful individuals who could be described as 2e – there’s no reason why your student can’t thrive too!