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Gifted Children with Asperger Syndrome1

Max showed early signs of giftedness. He spoke his first word, “truck”, at eight months. At one year, he could pick out letters of the alphabet and was soon reading. By age three, Max especially loved books about trucks and dinosaurs, his two special interests. Max had collections of toy cars and trucks, which he liked to line up in patterns. He enjoyed sorting the toys into colors and size order. Max used his toys as a means of beginning to count. By the time he went to preschool, he could add, subtract and multiply based on “vehicle math’ as his father called it.

Max had difficulty in preschool. He didn’t like circle time and left the group to read on his own. He didn’t like the other children touching him or his things. When they tried to look at his toys, Max would scream or hit them. He didn’t like to play with other children at all, and avoided any of the imaginative play going on in class. Instead, he stacked and sorted Lego pieces by color, size and shape. If other children wanted to play with Legos, he wouldn’t share. He did not know any of the other children’s names. Max had a lot of idiosyncrasies that were accommodated at home but were troublesome at school. For example, he didn’t like the color orange and resisted being near anything of that color.

Max was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome after an extensive evaluation. He had many talents, but his deficit areas were striking. For example, most gifted children enjoy games with strategy. At age eight, Max was good at figuring out strategy and could often outwit adults. On the other hand, when Max appeared to be losing a game, he would try to change the rules, insist he have another turn or rethrow the dice. He would even insist he had won when he had not. If he were told he hadn’t, he would throw the game to the floor and have a major tantrum, continuing for hours until he was hoarse from screaming. By age eight it was obvious to all that Max did not behave in an age appropriate manner.

A Definition of Asperger Syndrome

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is a developmental disorder in which children have pronounced and pervasive difficulty with social relationships. Social awareness, social behavior, emotional functioning, communication skills, and some areas of cognitive functioning are all affected (Attwood, 1998; Gillberg and Gillberg, 1991). In addition many people with AS show stereotyped behaviors, have restricted interests, and show poor motor coordination and sensory integration deficits. The core social symptoms describe people who have difficulty understanding how and why others think and act in certain ways, understanding how to know what to do themselves in any situation, trouble reading nonverbal cues in a social context and difficulty regulating feelings (Lovecky, 2004). Having one or two symptoms of AS is not what is important; rather, the underlying lack of social awareness and social reciprocity matters most. In essence, Asperger Syndrome is a severe social learning disability.

Differences Between Gifted Children with AS and Gifted Children without AS

Special Interests

Like Gifted Children without AS, Gifted Children with AS:

  • Have absorbing interests and acquire large amounts of factual information about the interest.
  • Give lengthy and elaborate responses to questions in areas of knowledge and interest.
  • Are able to immerse themselves in material of interest and to hyperfocus so that they are unaware of the passage of time.
  • Have a rage and passion for learning.
  • Can be high achievers in a variety of fields including math, writing, literature, science, social studies, foreign languages, debating, drama, chess, music and art.

Unlike Gifted Children without AS, Gifted Children with AS:

  • May collect information and categorize it but not connect it to anything else they are learning. They do not see the big picture and tend to focus on parts and patterns, not the underlying meaning. Thus, it is more difficult to see how a trend in one area may be like a trend in another.
  • Have excellent skills in many areas but are hindered by deficits in executive function skills so that their ability to show what they know is compromised.
  • Can hyperfocus on an endeavor but have more trouble being creative. Because they have deficits in getting the big picture, they cannot conceive of an unknown. This makes typical creative work in school difficult. Gifted children with AS are creative, but need to work in a different way, through manipulating parts and observing small details. This allows them to see details others miss and make interpretations others may not make (Hermelin, 2001). They may develop a catalogue of different parts that can be reassembled into something new (Grandin, 1995). Also, they are not embedded in a particular context and not blinded by common assumptions; therefore, they are freer to think of something new. They literally see with different eyes.

Early Development

Like Gifted Children without AS, Gifted Children with AS:

  • Show similar precocious development of first words, development of full sentences, and develop extensive vocabularies. They have especially sophisticated vocabularies in areas of special interest.
  • Show early descriptive and factual memory that is advanced over age mates.
  • Are early readers, spellers, and mathematicians.

Unlike gifted children without AS, Gifted Children with AS:

  • May show advanced reading skills but somewhat lower reading comprehension. This lag is especially notable for fiction as reading develops complexity and requires understanding human relationships, human dynamics and inferences based on emotion. Gifted children with AS have more trouble in analysis of literature for metaphor, irony, and in following a theme. They understand the action of the plot but not the nuances of character. Many prefer reading nonfiction for this reason.

Cognitive Development

Like Gifted Children without AS, Gifted Children with AS:

  • Show advanced reasoning ability. They are often excellent at deductive and logical reasoning.
  • Are excellent at pattern recognition and sequential ordering of information, which allows flexible thinking about grouping information.

Unlike gifted children without AS, Gifted Children with AS:

  • Show more difficulty with output of work, especially written work. Slow work speed and slow handwriting hinder output. Some process so slowly they produce very little work.
  • Have difficulty with work on demand. Even though they may be exceptional at producing work around their own interests, they cannot do assigned work unless they understand exactly what is expected. These gifted children need much more explanation and smaller steps than average children about what to do and how to do it.
  • Show subtle language problems. They have trouble understanding the meaning of common sayings (“Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about this” may be taken literally). These gifted children have trouble with narrative ability. They cannot make up stories about things they don’t know. Unless something happened to them, they find it impossible to imagine. This is related to their difficulty understanding another’s perspective.
  • Have difficulty with the idea of explaining what they know to teachers. Since the teacher knows the material, and they know the material, why do they need to tell the teacher? This difficulty arises from deficits in understanding that others have different thoughts. They think the teacher knows that they know.
  • Only see one solution or one way of doing something. They can get stuck and not be able to guess because they do not see the big picture, and focus only on a part. Because they cannot generalize to the underlying concept, they may have difficulty with tackling unknown problems.
  • Have much more trouble with seeing the big picture and making sense of things if they have to put parts together. They are less adept at extracting meaning from the whole, at drawing inferences and at inductive reasoning.
  • Are better than most other gifted children at memorizing, list and fact learning, reciting verbatim whole conversations, poems, and pieces of dialogue. Many learn how to insert the right dialogue at the right moment even if they don’t entirely know what it means. Because it can be difficult to compose an answer to an open-ended question, having a whole library of possible phrases in mind can enhance communication. The gift of memorization also allows these gifted children to learn many jokes and puns. Because they can play with parts of things, they are able to make up new puns, both verbal and visual.

Social/Emotional Development

Like Gifted Children without AS, Gifted Children with AS:

  • Show a high level of moral development. Concepts of fairness and justice can be advanced, showing advanced moral reasoning about issues related to fairness and justice.
  • Adhere to high ideals of following rules, being truthful, honest and fair.
  • Are more asynchronous than average children. There is a bigger gap between mental age and chronological age.

Unlike gifted children without AS, Gifted Children with AS:

  • Have difficulty applying the rules in a flexible manner. They miss the social context and so apply rules rigidly. They don’t understand when not to apply a rule.
  • Fairness can mean, “What I want.” This is especially the case if they are rigidly locked into only seeing one aspect of a situation. Given what feels like only one choice, these children can panic and react badly. Also, due to a lack of ability to feel empathy, a concern for justice does not include a consideration of individual rights or circumstances.
  • Are much less mature and act like much younger children in social situations. A child with a mental age of 12 and a chronological age of 8 may have a social age of 2.
  • Do not know how to make friends or play in sophisticated ways. Given another gifted child with similar interests, they will not be able to interact at an appropriate level. Other gifted children may lack friends because they cannot find others who share their interests, or play at the level of sophistication they need.
  • Are much less able to forgive others; they can obsess about how things are unfair. This mental obsession will prevent them from being able to let go of the hurt or move on. Instead many will feel the need to actively express angry feelings through plotting revenge.
  • Objectify human interactions. Gifted people with AS tend to relate to objects and see interpersonal relationships in object terms. People are mystifying because they don’t obey exact rules like objects do. On the other hand, studying human relationships in object terms can lead to an understanding of dynamics, such as an anthropologist might with an alien culture. This type of understanding can lead to creativity in writing novels and poetry, in photography, theater and art.

Helping Gifted Children with AS to Achieve Their Potential

  • Gifted children with AS need to learn how to negotiate social situations well enough to be able to have a job and live an independent adult life. Gifted children with mild AS need social training even though they may not be recognized as having special needs. Thus, in childhood and adolescence, gifted children with AS need help in learning about how others think and feel, in solving social dilemmas, in learning social reciprocity, and in increasing empathy.
  • Gifted children with AS need the opportunity to develop their gifts. Because schoolwork is so time consuming and takes so much energy to complete, many gifted children with AS have nothing left to do their own work. Over time, children who once delighted in learning everything they could, spend all their time playing video games. Thus, a focus on individual interests of the child is vital.
  • These gifted children need mentors who understand how to work with bright AS children, especially creatively. The usual creativity projects at school do not fit the needs of gifted learners with AS. Gifted children with AS can be creative within a structure that removes the need for generating novelty without a cue. For example, asking young children with AS to draw an impossible animal will usually result in no response because they can’t think of what to do. Asking them to think of lots of animals and select parts of them to make an impossible animal will result in a new animal (Harris and Leevers, 2000).      
  • Gifted children with AS can accelerate in some subjects despite other deficit areas. Many gifted children with AS can spell any word, have extensive vocabularies and can easily learn to speak a foreign language. These children should be allowed to skip classroom spelling and have advanced spelling activities, for example, Thesaurus work. Those advanced in math can accelerate the pace of learning just as can gifted children without AS.
  • Gifted children with AS need supports for executive function deficits that other students do not need. Getting these supports will allow them to function more independently. These include more explicit directions, use of models and pictures, help with open-ended questions, oral and written expression, development of strategies for organization, planning and problem solving and the use of compensatory devices such as word processors and calculators, among many others.

Conclusion

Like other gifted children, those with AS have many talents and gifts. They learn rapidly and well, and can be uniquely creative. While it is vital that they learn to remediate and compensate for deficit areas in social and emotional functioning, it is also important that they be both allowed and encouraged to use their gifts in school. With encouragement and support, these gifted children can achieve their potential and make significant contributions to the world.

References and Other Books of Interest

Andron, L. (Ed.) (2001). Our Journey Through High Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Gillberg, C. (2002). A Guide to Asperger Syndrome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gillberg, C. and Gillberg, I. C. (1989). Asperger syndrome - Some epidemiological considerations: A research note,  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 30, 631-638.

Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in Pictures. New York: Doubleday.

Haddon, M. (2003). The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. New York: Doubleday.

Harris, P. L. and Leevers, H. J. (2000).Pretending, imagery and self-awareness in autism. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, and D. J. Cohen (Eds). Understanding Other Minds Second Edition (pp 182-202). New York: Oxford   University Press.

Hermelin, B. (2001). Bright Splinters of the Mind. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Jackson, L. (2002). Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Lovecky, D. V. (2004). Different Minds: Gifted Children With AD/HD, Asperger Syndrome, and Other Learning Deficits. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Moon, E. (2003). The Speed of Dark. New York: Ballantine Books.

Moore, S. T. (2002). Asperger Syndrome and the Elementary School Experience. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism-Asperger Publishing Co.

Ozonoff, S., Dawson, G. and McPartland, J. (2002). A Parent’s Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism. New York: Guilford.

Stoddard, K. P. (Ed.) (2005). Children, Youth and Adults with Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley.

NOTE 1. The term “Asperger Syndrome” includes children who might be diagnosed High-Functioning Autism by some clinicians.


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