Gifted Children with Asperger Syndrome

By Deirdre Lovecky, Ph.D.

June, 2005

Max showed early signs of giftedness. He spoke his first word, “truck,” at eight months. At one year, he could pick out letters of the alphabet and was soon reading. By age three, Max especially loved books about trucks and dinosaurs, his two special interests.

Max had collections of toy cars and trucks, which he liked to line up in patterns. He enjoyed sorting the toys into colors and size order. Max used his toys as a means of beginning to count. By the time he went to preschool, he could add, subtract, and multiply based on “vehicle math,” as his father called it.

Max had difficulty in preschool. He didn’t like circle time and left the group to read on his own. He didn’t like the other children touching him or his things. When they tried to look at his toys, Max would scream or hit them. He didn’t like to play with other children at all, and avoided any of the imaginative play going on in class. Instead, he stacked and sorted Lego pieces by color, size, and shape.  If other children wanted to play with Legos, he wouldn’t share. He did not know any of the other children’s names. Max had a lot of idiosyncrasies that were accommodated at home but were troublesome at school. For example, he didn’t like the color orange and resisted being near anything of that color.

Max was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome after an extensive evaluation. He had many talents, but his deficit areas were striking. For example, most gifted children enjoy games with strategy. At age eight, Max was good at figuring out strategy and could often outwit adults. On the other hand, when Max appeared to be losing a game, he would try to change the rules, insist he have another turn, or rethrow the dice. He would even insist he had won when he had not. If he were told he hadn’t, he would throw the game to the floor and have a major tantrum, continuing for hours until he was hoarse from screaming. By age eight, it was obvious to all that Max did not behave in an age-appropriate manner.

A Definition of Asperger Syndrome

Understanding Asperger Syndrome

What it affects (Attwood, 1998; Gillberg and Gillberg, 1989):

  • Social understanding
  • Social behavior
  • Emotional functioning
  • Verbal and nonverbal communication skills
  • Some areas of cognitive functioning

People with AS show:

  • Repetitive routines
  • Narrow interests
  • Poor motor coordination
  • Sensory integration deficits

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is a developmental disorder in which children have pronounced and pervasive difficulty with social relationships. (The term “Asperger Syndrome,” as used in this article, includes children who might be diagnosed High-Functioning Autism by some clinicians.) They tend to have difficulty in these areas (Lovecky, 2004):

  • Understanding how and why others think and act in certain ways
  • Understanding how to know what to do themselves in any situation
  • Reading nonverbal cues in a social context
  • Regulating feelings.

Having one or two symptoms of AS is not what’s important; rather, the underlying lack of social awareness and social reciprocity matters most. In essence, Asperger Syndrome is a severe social learning disability.

Gifted children with AS are like other gifted children in some ways but different from them in others. The tables below show these similarities and differences in several areas:

  • Early development
  • Special interests
  • Social/emotional development
  • Cognitive development.

Early Development

Like other gifted children, they:

  • Show precocious development of first words and full sentences.
  • Develop extensive vocabularies, which are especially sophisticated in areas of special interest.
  • Show early descriptive and factual memory that is advanced over age mates.
  • Are early readers, spellers, and mathematicians.

Unlike other gifted children, they:

May show advanced reading skills but somewhat lower reading comprehension. This lag is especially notable for fiction as reading develops complexity and requires understanding human relationships, human dynamics, and inferences based on emotion. They have more trouble in analysis of literature for metaphor, irony, and in following a theme. They understand the action of the plot but not the nuances of character. Many prefer reading nonfiction for this reason.

Special Interests

Like other gifted children, they:

  • Have absorbing interests and acquire large amounts of factual information about them.
  • Give lengthy, elaborate responses to questions in areas of knowledge and interest.
  • Can immerse themselves in material of interest and hyperfocus so that they are unaware of the passage of time.
  • Have a rage and passion for learning.
  • Can be high achievers in many fields including math, writing, literature, science, social studies, foreign languages, debating, drama, chess, music, and art.

Unlike other gifted children, they:

  • May collect and categorize information but not connect it to anything else they are learning; fail to see the big picture; and tend to focus on parts and patterns, not the underlying meaning. Thus, they have difficulty seeing how a trend in one area may be like a trend in another.
  • Have excellent skills in many areas but are hindered by deficits in executive function skills, compromising their ability to show what they know.
  • Can hyperfocus on an endeavor but have trouble being creative. With their deficits in getting the big picture, they cannot conceive of an unknown, making typical creative work in school difficult. They are creative but need to work in a different way, through manipulating parts and observing small details. This allows them to see details and make interpretations others may not (Hermelin, 2001). They may develop a catalog of different parts that can be reassembled into something new (Grandin, 1995).  Because they are not embedded in a particular context and blinded by common assumptions, they are freer to think of something new, to literally see with different eyes.

Social/emotional Development

Like other gifted children, they:

  • Show a high level of moral development. Concepts of fairness and justice can be advanced, showing advanced moral reasoning about issues related to these concepts.
  • Adhere to high ideals of following rules and being truthful, honest, and fair.
  • Are more asynchronous than average children (i.e., have a bigger gap between mental age and chronological age).

Unlike other gifted children, they:

  • Have difficulty applying rules flexibly. They miss the social context and so apply rules rigidly, failing to understand when not to apply them.
  • Tend to see fairness as meaning, “what I want,” especially if they are rigidly locked into seeing only one aspect of a situation. Given what feels like just one choice, these children can panic and react badly. Also, due to an inability to feel empathy, their concern for justice does not include a consideration of individual rights or circumstances.
  • Are much less mature and act like much younger children in social situations. A child with a mental age of 12 and a chronological age of 8 may have a social age of 2.
  • Do not know how to make friends or play in sophisticated ways. Given another gifted child with similar interests, they will not be able to interact at an appropriate level. (Other gifted children may lack friends because they cannot find others who share their interests, or play at the level of sophistication they need.)
  • Are much less able to forgive. They can obsess about how things are unfair, preventing them from letting go of the hurt or moving on. Instead, many feel the need to actively express angry feelings through plotting revenge.
  • Objectify human interactions. They tend to relate to objects and see interpersonal relationships in object terms. People are mystifying because they don’t obey exact rules like objects do. On the other hand, studying human relationships in object terms can lead to an understanding of dynamics, such as an anthropologist might with an alien culture. This type of understanding can lead to creativity in writing novels and poetry, in photography, theater, and art.

Cognitive Development

Like other gifted children, they:

  • Display advanced reasoning ability, often showing excellence in deductive and logical reasoning.
  • Are excellent at pattern recognition and sequential ordering of information, which allows flexible thinking about grouping information.

Unlike other gifted children, they:

  • Show more difficulty with output of work, especially written work, and are hindered by slow work speed and slow handwriting output.
  • Have difficulty with work on demand. Although they may be exceptional at producing work around their own interests, they cannot do assigned work unless they understand exactly what is expected. They need much more explanation about what to do and how to do it and smaller steps than average children.
  • Show subtle language problems, such as not understanding the meaning of common sayings. They have trouble with narrative ability and cannot make up stories about things they don’t know. Unless something happened to them, they find it impossible to imagine, due to their difficulty understanding another’s perspective.
  • Have difficulty with the idea of explaining what they know to teachers. Since the teacher knows the material, and they know the material, why do they need to tell the teacher? This difficulty arises from deficits in understanding that others have different thoughts; they think the teacher knows that they know.
  • Only see one solution or one way of doing something. They can get stuck, unable to guess because they don’t see the big picture, and focus only on a part. Being unable to generalize to the underlying concept, they may have difficulty with tackling unknown problems.
  • Have much more trouble seeing the big picture and making sense of things if they have to put parts together. They are less adept at extracting meaning from the whole, at drawing inferences, and at inductive reasoning.
  • Are better than most other gifted children at memorizing, list and fact learning, and reciting verbatim whole conversations, poems, and pieces of dialogue. Many learn how to insert the right dialogue at the right moment, even if they don’t entirely know what it means. Because it can be difficult to compose an answer to an open-ended question, having a whole library of possible phrases in mind can enhance communication. The gift of memorization also allows them to learn many jokes and puns. Because they can play with parts of things, they are able to make up new puns, both verbal and visual.

Helping Gifted Children with AS

Here are some ways that parents, teachers, and others can help gifted children with AS achieve their potential...

Teach them how to negotiate social situations well enough to be able to have a job and live an independent adult life. Those with mild AS need social training, even though they may not be recognized as having special needs. Thus, in childhood and adolescence, gifted children with AS need help in learning about how others think and feel, in solving social dilemmas, in learning social reciprocity, and in increasing empathy.

Give them the opportunity to develop their gifts. Because schoolwork is so time consuming and takes so much energy to complete, many gifted children with AS have nothing left to do their own work. Over time, children who once delighted in learning everything they could spend all their time playing video games. Thus, a focus on individual interests of the child is vital.

Find mentors who understand how to work with bright AS children, especially creatively. The usual creativity projects at school do not fit the needs of gifted learners with AS, who can be creative within a structure that removes the need for generating novelty without a cue. For example, asking young children with AS to draw an impossible animal will usually result in no response because they can’t think of what to do. Asking them to think of lots of animals and select parts of them to make an impossible animal will result in a new animal (Harris and Leevers, 2000).             

Allow them to accelerate their pace of learning in areas of strength, despite deficits in other areas. Many can spell any word, have extensive vocabularies and can easily learn to speak a foreign language. They should be allowed to skip classroom spelling and have advanced spelling activities such as thesaurus work. Those advanced in math can accelerate just like gifted children without AS.

Provide supports for executive function deficits that other students do not need, such as:

  • More explicit directions
  • Models and pictures
  • Compensatory devices such as word processors and calculators, among many others
  • Help with open-ended questions, oral and written expression, and the development of strategies for organization, planning, and problem solving.

Giving these supports will allow them to function more independently.

Conclusion

Like other gifted children, those with AS have many talents and gifts. They learn rapidly and well, and they can be uniquely creative. While it is vital that they learn to remediate and compensate for deficit areas in social and emotional functioning, it is also important that they be both allowed and encouraged to use their gifts in school. With encouragement and support, these gifted children can achieve their potential and make significant contributions to the world.  

References and Books of Interest

Andron, L. (Ed.) (2001). Our Journey Through High Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Attwood, T. (1998). Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Gillberg, C. (2002). A Guide to Asperger Syndrome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gillberg, C. and Gillberg, I. C. (1989). "Asperger syndrome - Some epidemiological considerations: A research note,"  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 30,  631-638.

Grandin, T. (1995). Thinking in Pictures. New York: Doubleday.

Haddon, M. (2003). The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. New York: Doubleday.

Harris, P. L. and Leevers, H. J. (2000). Pretending, imagery and self-awareness in autism. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, and D. J. Cohen (Eds). Understanding Other Minds Second Edition (pp 182-202). New York: Oxford University Press.

Hermelin, B. (2001). Bright Splinters of the Mind. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Jackson, L. (2002). Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Lovecky, D. V. (2004). Different Minds: Gifted Children With AD/HD, Asperger Syndrome, and Other Learning Deficits. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Moon, E. (2003). The Speed of Dark. New York: Ballantine Books.

Moore, S. T. (2002). Asperger Syndrome and the Elementary School Experience. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism-Asperger Publishing Co.

Ozonoff, S., Dawson, G. and McPartland, J. (2002). A Parent’s Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism. New York: Guilford.

Stoddard, K. P. (Ed.) (2005). Children, Youth and Adults with Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley.   

Deirdre Lovecky

Deirdre Lovecky, PhD, has been a clinical psychologist for more than 20 years, specializing in work with gifted children, especially those who are highly and exceptionally gifted and those with learning disabilities, AD/HD, Asperger's Syndrome, or other behavioral or mental health disorders. She is the director of the Gifted Resource Center of New England, located in Providence, RI. She is the author of Different Minds: Gifted Children with AD/HD, Asperger Syndrome, and Other Learning Deficits, reviewed in the June 2005 issue of 2e Newsletter.

Return to top