Autistic and Gifted

Every parent of an autistic child should read the books of Temple Grandin and see the movie about her life. While downplaying the autistic child’s need for personal relationships, Grandin  emphasizes their need to be identified as smart. She writes, “Autistic children will remain in their own little worlds if left to their own devices…. People with autism can develop skills in fields that they can really excel in. Where they really need help is in selling themselves.” She goes on to explain that it is now thought that Einstein might have had Asperger’s. He didn’t speak until he was three, he silently repeated words to himself, and he didn’t interact with his peers. He did poorly in school until he was sent to a school that allowed him to use his visualization skills. Later in life he told a psychologist friend, “I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I try to express it in words afterwards.”

One of the smart, autistic children I worked with is Terra, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was in 2nd grade and who is now a graduate student living independently of her family. Terra’s mom, a special education teacher, admits that she wanted only to see Terra’s strengths and not her weaknesses when she was little. She says, “I didn’t want her labeled for her deficits in school. Kids with the learning-disability label are categorized based on their weaknesses. But Terra’s social and sensory deficits became more and more apparent as she approached middle-school age. I knew I needed to get an IEP [Individualized Education Plan] with Asperger’s listed. By pretending the issues don’t exist, you are denying the child her full development. You must work on the weaknesses, as well as the strengths.”

When Terra was in 7th grade, she took the ACT through Talent Search. She had a phobia against math, and those scores were low, but her English and reading scores were high, a 28 and 27 respectively, compared to a mean of 20 and 21 for college-bound seniors. Her mom sent her to me at WCATY. “My goal in sending Terra,” she reported, “was for her to see herself in relation to smart kids, rather than only in terms of her disability. I wanted to expand her world intellectually and build her confidence, and I hoped that maybe she would find a friend.”

Terra concentrated on the areas she excelled in – art and writing. She did grow intellectually, gained confidence, and made a friend – a close friend.

Her mother advises, “Do not push thoughts of the future on your children with multiple exceptionalities when they are not ready for thinking that far ahead. But do help them to develop their gifts. At the same time, don’t deny their limits. They must know and understand both their weaknesses and their strengths if they are to become all they can be.”

Like all mothers, Terra’s most wanted her child to be happy. “So much is heavy in her life,” she said, “But I can’t make her happy. The best I can do is to keep making connections and hope to get her in the right environment. She sees herself as being from another planet, an alien. Once we get her through high school, maybe the connections in the academic world will work. She is a little professor.”

The connections worked, and this little professor is succeeding in her academic world today!


2 responses to “Autistic and Gifted

  1. I love your blog, I have a 3 1/2 y/o son who is categorized under mild autism spectrum disorder, sensory and social impairment is what I really see and the speech delayed is more on behavior. He was evaluated almost 1 yr ago and since then he made remarkable achievements, he can count up to 100, he can count backwards from 20-1, he can recite his abc’s backwards (which freak me out at first) and I think that is the reason why Im writing to you, as a mother I want him to have everything he needs to cope with what they call deficits, I want to see his capabalities rather than his weaknesses, we are on an early intervention program and he already have an IEP but I think there is more that needs to be done. Pls advice, what should I do next and where should I go, who should I talk to about this.

  2. Go to Judy is the mother of one of the students I worked with in WCATY. I was always impressed by her insightful comments when she wrote to me. Then, I learned that not only did she have an autistic son, but that she was autistic herself. In the years since, she has shared her techniques for working with her son and coping herself in several books, a blog, and work with an autistic organization here in Madison, WI. I think you will find her materials helpful. Her first book, “Making Lemondade” helped many parents like you, and then she continued to grow as a professional in a field she knows from the inside out. You can let her know that I referred you to her. Best wishes to you and to your little boy. Please keep emphasizing his skills and abilities and developing those as well as helping him to live effectively and happily with his differences in approaching his world.

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