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Gifted and Autistic: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

The uncanny link between intellectual giftedness and autism.

Key points

  • Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger proposed a link between giftedness and autism that has been lost in today's discussions about autism.
  • Many children with autism struggle with hand and mouth movements. Their IQ scores may therefore not be valid as reported.
  • Discussions about intelligence in autism should align with discussions about giftedness in all of its forms.

Can autism occur in gifted children? Of course! So, the fact that I am even writing this post might seem ridiculous to anyone who has watched prime-time television in the last decade, where autistic savants have been featured in over a dozen hits.

But for those of us reading the scientific literature or training professionally in the field of either giftedness or autism, it might be surprising to know that within educated circles there is still an assumption that about 65 percent of all children with autism are intellectually disabled (IQ scores below 70). It is predicted that the remaining 35 percent possess IQ scores that are equally distributed, with no evidence of a relationship between intellectual giftedness and autism. It is also widely held that some of the “seemingly gifted abilities” seen in those with autism spectrum disorders are, in fact, “splinter skills,” and therefore, do not constitute true “giftedness,” even though they are present in at least one out of every 10 individuals diagnosed with autism, and some of these same skills are classified as “gifts” in children who are not diagnosed with autism.

Across my career, I have had one foot in giftedness and one foot in autism for over 25 years. With that unique lens, I would like to propose that perhaps not only are autism and giftedness not mutually exclusive, (I recently heard a leading expert in giftedness say that autism and giftedness were mutually exclusive at a national gifted conference), but in my opinion, families with intellectual giftedness running through them may be more likely than others to have a child who is diagnosed with autism.

While it might seem like I am the only one linking autism to giftedness today, both Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger referred heavily to the presence of gifted parental lineage in their respective cases. However, not long after the gifted-autism link was made, Bettleheim ran with that idea, and with no research of his own, blamed autism on “cold refrigerator mothers” who were often highly intelligent and professionally well-situated, when most women of their time stayed at home with their children.

From there, discussions about giftedness and autism were lost as researchers set out to free working moms from the burden of blame for the condition of autism. But within the process of debunking the Bettleheim myth, I believe that the field of autism searched so hard to prove that autism occurred across all walks of life (which it does), that the original link between giftedness and autism, as proposed by both Kanner and Asperger, was lost.

By the early 1970s, with studies clearly disproving the "cold refrigerator mother" syndrome, autism became recognized as a condition that occurred in all ranges of intelligence. But what if Kanner and Asperger had it right from the beginning? What if there is some strong link between giftedness and autism? Wouldn’t today’s assumptions about intellectual disability in autism then become one of the greatest travesties of the modern era, especially for those children who are non-vocal? More specifically, what if many children with autism are innately, cognitively gifted, despite their ability to speak, control their motor skills, regulate their sensory responses, or perform on standardized IQ tests? What if that kid sitting in the corner, doing the same puzzle every day, is truly an intellectual genius?

In the field of gifted education, a child’s IQ scores, academic achievement scores, and in some cases, even creativity or other special abilities dictate whether the child is identified as gifted. But it is widely assumed that most gifted children have asynchronous development. So, while certain areas, such as abstract verbal or perceptual reasoning might be highly advanced, other areas that often include: visual efficiency, auditory processing, executive functioning and/or motor production skills (which combine to slow processing speed) are often average or even lower. This is explained within the idea that while a child’s innate intellectual mind and thus their reasoning skills might be functioning well above the age of their body, gifted bodies are not necessarily aligned with gifted minds. So, in giftedness, one can easily be very advanced in one area, much lower in another area, but still carry the label of giftedness.

Unfortunately, this assumption is not equally accepted within the field of autism. For a child diagnosed on the autism spectrum, especially when the autism is accompanied by poor motor skills that negatively affect mouth and hand movements, there is first and foremost the truly daunting task for the individual diagnosed with autism of proving oneself as not intellectually disabled! From there, cognitive gifts, such as being able to hyper-focus or single-task (which is technically the opposite of multi-tasking), seeing and predicting visual patterns, hearing subtle sounds and nuances, remembering visual details that others don’t even notice, or experiencing sensory phenomena that aren’t within the range of normal experience are viewed as disabling and diagnostic factors in relation to the autism condition, instead of as strengths. In other words, the same skills that give some gifted kids their qualifying strength area, when viewed through the lens of giftedness, become proof of disability when viewed through the lens of autism.

So why does this happen? First off, as clinicians, most of us are trained and specialize only within one field. Second, we rely so heavily on our current definition of intelligence, and trust without question its measurement within standardized IQ tests, that we have stopped really thinking about what intelligence might encompass. Adding to this, we have adopted, without question, a developmental paradigm that claims to fully understand normal development and characterizes anything outside of that as abnormal and in need of intervention and repair. Finally, we throw around terms like neurodiversity to politely refer to those who are different-minded, without fully accepting and celebrating the basic premise that the entire human spectrum of intellect falls within the definition of neurodiversity, and therefore there is no such thing as "neurotypical."

These mindsets cause us to stop really looking for different forms of intelligence that fall outside of our realm of “normal intelligence,” which assumes fast verbal and visual thinking, articulate speaking, and the ability to produce work efficiently within timed visual and motoric tasks. So where then does the intelligence behind artistic creation, musical composition, insight into social justice and the like exist?

I am not saying we should stop using IQ tests or measuring a child’s progress against developmental milestones for the purpose of providing supports. I provide assessments for these things for my living. But we need to start thinking beyond the scope of these instruments and tools and reopen discussions about intelligence, especially as it occurs in autism. Isn’t it time to really explore the full range of abilities and gifts within a broader definition of intelligence for the purpose of developing and utilizing true innate talents in those who do not perform within standard or normal expectations? Isn’t it possible that those with autism well possess an intelligence along with associated gifts and abilities that you and I cannot even begin to understand, let alone express?

I will be exploring the topic of intelligence in autism with some of the greatest autistic minds in the field in the upcoming 2021 US Autism Association’s World Conference and Gala. If there is in fact a link between autism and intellectual giftedness, which was proposed long ago, but is no longer being legitimately considered in scientific circles, we need to start talking about intelligence in a broader way and in the least, give those with autism the presumption of intellectual competence until we have some better answers.