Giftedness and Autism: Dual Diagnosis
Updated: May 6, 2021
In our last post, we talked about the intersection of giftedness and mental health and the ways we often fail gifted children. By misidentifying their experiences as either giftedness or mental health crises, we fail to give children the support they need to thrive and develop.
The same dual diagnosis principle also applies to giftedness and autism. Just as the line between giftedness and ADHD or OCD can be blurry, so too is the intersection between giftedness and autism. Signs of autism can mask giftedness and giftedness can mask autism. And of course, a child can be both gifted and on the autism spectrum.
To support children who are struggling with mental health, development, or social interaction, kids need a correct diagnosis and the right therapy. Once again, achieving this often requires a dual diagnosis that takes both autism and giftedness into consideration.
How Are Giftedness and Autism Confused?
Gifted children exist in the popular imagination in a clearly defined box: they’re hyper-intelligent and also very quirky. The two attributes seem to be forever linked. In some spaces, children on the autism spectrum occupy the same box: intelligent but different from their peers.
In reality, there is a long list of misconceptions about who gifted children are and who they should be. The same is true of children on the autism spectrum. These misconceptions aren’t just seen in the portrayal of gifted children on television and in films. They also exist among professionals, including teachers and paediatricians, who are only now getting the training, information, and time they need to care for these children.
Gifted children can show some of the same behaviours as those on the autism spectrum. Social quirkiness is normal in bright kids as well as in those with autism. Like kids on the spectrum, gifted kids also have keen memories and a good grip on language. They can also get lost in their imaginations or think logically and critically to the extent that imagination seems far away. Both groups can also find it difficult to manage social interactions with their peers.
At the same time, these are broad generalisations of behaviours. Once you dive deeper, you can see there are some important differences.
For example, a gifted child may present an extensive and advanced vocabulary with a rich verbal style. A child on the autism spectrum may have an advanced use of vocabulary, but they may not have full comprehension of the language they use. They may also have a less inviting verbal style that lacks the engagement of others.
Another example that pulls apart distinguishing behaviours lies in social norms. Gifted children are more often aware of social norms and understand they are different from their peers, which causes real turmoil. A child on the autism spectrum may be indifferent to social norms and may not recognise any differences between themselves or peers, and it can cause them an equal amount of emotional strain.
The one thing gifted children and children with autism have in common is that they are neurodivergent.
What is Neurodivergence?
Children (and adults) who are neurodivergent are those who have an atypical neurological configuration. They may have a developmental disorder, such as autism, or a mental illness. Alternatively, they may have neither of these and may instead be gifted and have a high IQ.
Those who have an average range of human neurology fall into a group called neurotypical.
Neurodiversity doesn’t just apply to children on the autism spectrum. There’s no binary in neurology. You aren’t either neurotypical or autistic.
Instead, neurodiversity is the whole and diverse spectrum of neurology. Everyone is on the neurological spectrum. It recognises that everyone’s neurology is different.
Neurodivergent children, which can include kids who are gifted, autistic, both, or neither, can’t be put in a box, but they do need support that reflects their modes of thinking and their individual difference. As a result, supporting them requires finding the correct diagnosis - or a dual diagnosis.
Giftedness, Autistic, or Both? Finding a (Dual) Diagnosis
While giftedness and autism are two types of neurodivergent groups that are often confused, a child can absolutely be gifted and on the autism spectrum. This is where a dual diagnosis becomes incredibly important.
First, it’s important to note that finding a diagnosis isn’t the solution to a child’s struggles - emotional, social, developmental, or otherwise.
Instead, a diagnosis opens the door to help communicate your child’s inner life and enable them to parse their experiences. When they can do that, it’s easier to find strategies that support their emotional and social development. After all, a diagnosis means little if you’re unable to provide your kids with the help they need to make sense of their world and thrive within it.
As a result, an accurate evaluation is very important. As with other dual diagnoses, a child who is on the autism spectrum benefits most from therapies that also incorporate their giftedness.
To find the right diagnosis (dual or otherwise), you need professionals well versed in multiple disciplines who can take a full developmental history and get to the underlying cause of a child’s behaviours.
For example, studies show that it may be possible to distinguish gifted children on the autism spectrum from other gifted children by examining:
Their use of language
Their ability to understand the perspectives of others
Their responses to disruptions
Their affective expression
Without help, children with this dual diagnosis find themselves isolated and misunderstood both as they navigate their childhood, adolescence, and even adult years.