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Why is Autism Often Missed in Gifted Kids?

Common gifted/autistic characteristics are often misattributed to giftedness alone

Research suggests - and I’ve seen firsthand - that many gifted autistic kids and teens go unidentified for years and never receive proper understanding or support.

Why does this happen?

 

First, it makes sense that parents may not realize their gifted kid is autistic.

 

Media portrayals of autism tend to focus on simplistic stereotypes and representations of autistic people with more obvious external differences. Many autistic gifted kids look nothing like the stereotype of autism.

 

Gifted autistic kids tend to have extraordinary language abilities, for example, not delayed language. Many (not all) are socially motivated and have friends. These kids' differences are often attributed to their giftedness, and their strong intelligence often allows them to compensate for their autistic differences, which makes those differences less obvious to an outside observer.

Professionals also lack knowledge about less-obvious presentations of autism.

 

Most pediatricians, mental health providers, and assessment providers have little to no knowledge about less-obvious presentations of autism, so autism is often missed even when parents seek out an assessment.

I’ve worked with many families who have asked their pediatrician whether their child might be autistic only to have their question dismissed because their child is bright, has friends, or makes eye contact. Parents are told to not worry and to not be concerned.

The common response "don't be concerned" illustrates how ableism and misunderstanding can delay and confuse the process of autism identification or diagnosis. When providers equate autism with something “bad” and only consider autism if there are significant concerns and challenges, they miss out on identifying a lot of autistic kids who are doing well overall, who are well-supported by their parents, and/or who have clear strengths. Autism isn’t necessarily something to be concerned about, but it is a meaningful difference in how a child perceives and navigates the world.

I’ve also seen many assessments where the assessment provider “ruled out” autism, but the child was later diagnosed as autistic by a more knowledgeable provider.

In many cases, the original assessment provider listed all the information needed to diagnose autism in their report, but because they were not trained in less-obvious presentations of autism, they did not recognize these characteristics as related to autism.

What does an autistic gifted kid look like? Act like?

Below are some common characteristics of autistic gifted kids that are often misattributed to giftedness alone, and which are often (also) related to being autistic (this is not a complete list):

  • Early fascination with letters or numbers - often includes advanced abilities in these areas. For example, a number of gifted autistic kids teach themselves to read before age 5 or memorize math facts early. Research shows that early reading and early math talents in gifted kids are linked to twice-exceptionality. (Autistic folks are also more likely to be dyslexic than the general population, so not all gifted autistic kids are advanced readers.)

  • Love of organizing and systematizing - for example, loves to make lists, loves to put things in size order or organize things by category.

  • Love of collecting both items and information - for example, loves to learn many facts about their interests and quiz themselves or others, loves to collect many examples of the things they love (e.g., has a huge collection of Lego sets, unicorns, rocks, cars, dinosaur toys, books, tools), loves to carry around objects they love when they are younger (e.g., always has a car in hand).

  • Drive for accuracy - for example, corrects others’ statements, insists on more precise vocabulary, points out inaccuracies or inconsistencies, gets upset when others say or do things that they perceive as inaccurate or inauthentic.

  • Strong sense of justice - can include a desire for things to be fair, and an eye for spotting hypocrisy. A drive for justice can be particularly strong in gifted autistic kids who seek a more logical and literal interpretation of truth and fairness, with less willingness to abide injustices or power plays just because that is what’s usually done or considered socially acceptable.

  • Intense curiosity about subjects that interest them - Often includes a desire to learn about about these topics independently or become an expert in the topic. Autistic kids may devote more time, attention, and energy to their interests and curiosity than non-autistic gifted kids, and may want to talk about these interests at length and in detail without interruptions, with a stronger need to complete their train of thought (and a stronger drive to include complete information) than non-autistic gifted kids.

  • Advanced and formal use of language - Did you know that kids who sound like “little professors” may be autistic and not just gifted? Autistic kids are more likely to use formal, technical, and specific language (and gifted autistic kids know a lot of formal, technical, and specific terms and phrases!). It’s also common for gifted autistic kids to make up neologisms (new words or terms), to enjoy puns, and to use a lot of words or phrases like “well, actually,” or “of course" or "as you can see."

  • Advanced ability to notice patterns and understand systems - Autistic minds are often skilled at analyzing systems and patterns, and so are gifted minds. Gifted autistic minds therefore often excel in pattern recognition, system understanding, system analysis, and system improvement (e.g., kids who point out flaws and inefficiencies in the way things are done, or who often suggest new ways to do things that make more sense to them). This can also manifest in more quotidian ways, like wanting to make patterns and systems for eating food, walking, playing, or interacting in particular ways.

  • Emotional intensity - Although the gifted community likes to talk about emotional intensity in gifted kids, research does not suggest that gifted kids are more emotionally intense than non-gifted kids, on the whole (for example, as covered in Anne Rinn's review of research on gifted kids). In fact, some research has shown that gifted kids are less prone to anxiety, depression, and emotional distress than same-age peers. Often, an autistic child’s emotional intensity is assumed to be part of their giftedness, and thus their autistic identity is missed. (Emotional intensity is more common in autistic folks and can stem from sensory discomfort or overwhelm, from being misunderstood, from the stress of living in an unpredictable world that does not meet the autistic desire for predictability, among other reasons.)

If you’d like to read more about commonly-missed signs of twice-exceptionality, you can see my longer article on the topic here.

If you’d like to read more of the articles and emails I’ve written about autism and common autistic/2e experiences or needs, here are some options:

If you want more ideas like this directly to your inbox, sign up for Gifted Lab Notes, my weekly email with tips and information for parents of intense or sensitive gifted or twice-exceptional (2e) kids.

If you know or suspect that your gifted kid is autistic, and you'd like to feel more confident parenting in a way that actually works well for you and your kid, you might like to check out my highly-supportive coaching program, Support Your Intense Gifted/2e Kid. You'll learn guiding principles and practical strategies specifically tailored to twice-exceptional kids like yours, and you'll get a ton of personalized support from me. 

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