Nothing is more delightful than watching your child with autism excel. Pride overwhelms you, tears gather, and the future seems a lot less scary. I’ve been in this place many times, and it’s one of the gifts of autism – taking nothing for granted and celebrating the small triumphs that most families take for granted. We’ve been lucky as parents to have lots of these moments throughout our child’s academic journey as well. And I’m truly thankful that our child’s gifts are recognized by his school. It’s a tangible way to celebrate his unique mind, and we’ve added gifted and talented to our list of adjectives with which we describe our son’s personality.
But being gifted comes with its own mixed bag of “treats,” and when autism gets thrown in finding the right tools and the right community feels impossible. There are so many places that don’t fit our twice exceptional child that I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever find a place, outside our home, where he belongs.
We’re not alone in this paradox. Many children living with autism display amazing gifts that are often overshadowed by their unique challenges. At its core, autism is a communication disorder, one that is based in how the brain works. This makes seeing a child’s gifts difficult for those who are invested in a traditional concept of what “gifted and talented” looks like. Those children who are studious, quiet, socially and emotionally mature, who understand the rules intuitively along with the give and take of the academic setting are easily labeled as gifted. And they are who we all see in our mind’s eye when we hear that label.
Children who learn differently or have a developmental disorder do not present this perfect image. Too often gifted children with autism cannot show their exceptional talents in these expected ways. So, unseen, their talents are lost to us.
We know that gifted children that go unchallenged often fail in school. Behaviors take over their classroom time, and school becomes a place to be avoided. Gifted kids on the autism spectrum experience this as well, usually to a higher degree. In addition, research shows that their self-esteem suffers, and this issue coupled with their communication and social struggles can result in alternative placements that lack the academic rigor these children need to succeed. Or they are unable to access enrichment programs.
Our family experienced this first-hand. I signed my son up for a class that I knew would challenge and motivate him. I assumed he would fit right in in this class of gifted children with similar interests. While he was younger than most in the class I knew the material was well within his capabilities. And I wasn’t wrong about that. I was wrong, however, about the social environment. He was teased and left out by a group of other students and the teacher joined them in their contempt for my child’s lack of “social graces.” My son left that week-long class with no academic advancement and a huge hit to his self esteem. It was a disaster, and now a program that should be open to him as a gifted student is closed to him as a child living with autism.
So how do we keep this from happening? Knowing how to support twice exceptional children is essential to accessing their talents. My son needs more organizational and social support than other gifted kids. This doesn’t make him less gifted, in fact, in many ways he is more so, but it does make him more exceptional. Once we realize how these two neurological profiles work together – gifted and autism – we can tap into the unique talents these children have. Unraveling exactly how to support these learners begins with exploring the research and sharing what works with other parents and teachers. So join us at our next Lecture Series event – Helping Gifted Children on the Autism Spectrum Succeed with Maureen Neihart, PsyD.