I have to thank Jess and her readers for an intelligent, honest, open conversation about labels. It’s why I love true community and the conversations have certainly made me think…
Take the following list of characteristics:
- Overly aware of sensory information
- Awareness of and memory for details
- Extreme interest in singular topics- some call “obsessions”
- Penetrating insights
- High levels of activity; often difficulty sleeping
- Finds and creates patterns
- Can focus for long periods of time on areas of interest
What am I describing? These characteristics can be found on list of descriptors for both giftedness and autism. Taken from one perspective, they’re symptoms of a problem; from another, they’re characteristics of tremendous strengths. So much of it depends on the context.
I will never forget when I first took Elizabeth to be evaluated for Early Intervention at the age of 2- worrying, afraid of what they might tell me. The evaluator asked, “Does she react strongly to things she hears or sees or touches?”
“Well, yes. She cries- a lot- when she’s put on her tummy and she can’t stand the feeling of sand or lace. But those are early signs of giftedness.” I had expected some questions about language, about withdrawal, but not things that I had rolled my eyes at, worked around, and nurtured. She was clearly analyzing things and she was already starting to learn her letters. Of course I saw signs of giftedness!
The evaluator gave me a look of pity and said “Well, it fits the profile of autism, along with her language delay and her times of withdrawal.”
I sat there, stunned. Here I was looking at her glass as half-full- more than half, overflowing, and I’d just been told that her glass was half-empty and losing water rapidly. Here were two “experts”: me in the gifted corner- for I know gifted education, I’ve taught, studied, etc., but I knew nothing about autism- and that expert over in the autism corner looking at these same behaviors- the SAME behaviors- and coming to completely different conclusions. We would be in for a prize fight in which my daughter’s treatment programs, educational programs and people’s perception of her would be altered depending on which aspect was “winning” on that particular day.
For the thing that gets me is that she still, seven years later, is all of that- she still hates sand, still is focused on topics of her interest, doesn’t really follow the conversations of others, is hurt to her soul when people are “mean”, fixates on one singular idea and won’t get off of it until she has processed it to her liking, and has to search for words when she’s anxious or stressed. She wanted to name her fish, her doll and her dog “Jingle”- all at the same time. Oh, and is doing math three grades ahead and reads beautifully and writes well, but not imaginatively. And there sits that glass- overflowing and leaking.
But- and I want to emphasize this- she, and my son, are each one person- not two disparate halves. As I said in a comment on Jess’ blog, I bristle at how much attention and focus there is on my children’s “dis”abilities, and how much lack of attention there is on their abilities, when it’s all the same child and sometimes the same behaviors. I bristle when I am made to feel that I’m pushy or “braggy” when I’m asking for what they need if it’s advanced and I’m given sympathy if it’s for an area of challenge- and I’m ignored if they’re doing “fine” because of the exhausting interaction between the two.
One of her readers noted that there seemed to be an interesting overlap between giftedness and autism… I agree. I think so much of has to do with perspective, and ability to cope within a given environment. Neurological wiring is fine-tuned. There’s perhaps a reason why Silicon Valley, home to Apple and , is home of some of the highest rates of giftedness and some of the highest rates of autism/Aspergers…
Silicon Valley, by the way, is a place , according to Matt Ridley, where ideas come to “meet, recombine and mate”. I, personally, think that the unique combinations of giftedness and autism that is floating around has a lot to do with that... (The highest rate for autism is in New Jersey, which is home to Princeton, close to New York, and home of numerous toxic waste sites)