Autism –vs- Giftedness: A Neurobiological Perspective

Each one of my students holds a special place in my heart – ten years, thousands of students and parents – it’s been a long journey towards understanding in an effort to provide the resources that these children need so desperately.  Yet, it’s been those profoundly gifted students who present with social and communicative inadequacies – often deemed as “quirky behaviors,” and in extreme situations, autism spectrum disorder(ASD), that invoke a sense of urgency in my own professional ambitions.


There was once a time when I believed that gifted students were destined to have “quirky personalities” – perhaps because I’d met so many profoundly gifted students with few, if any, social or communicative skills.  These children found it difficult, if not impossible, to socialize with children of similar ages.  I also once believed that ASD, in some cases, made way to profound giftedness.  In either case, I once looked at the relationship between ASD and giftedness as a causative relationship.  However, over the years, I’ve come to understand that the relationship between these two is far more complex, ingrained in neurobiology.  Neither are particularly causative of the other, but rather the neurodevelopment of individuals with either, or both, are fairly similar with different degrees of observable symptoms.

Neither ASD or Giftendess are particularly causative of the other, but rather the neurodevelopment of individuals with either, or both, are fairly similar with different degrees of observable symptoms

There is also a large misconception that autistic children are anti-social and/or lacking in emotions.  I don’t believe this to be true.  I believe that autistic children find social relationships just as important, however, this desire is internalized because their abilities to communicate and to express emotions are, typically, lacking.  This, in turn, presents as behavioral problems – temper tantrums, physical violence, oppositional defiance, etc.  An inability to, or reduced ability to, understand other people’s emotions and feelings only makes the issue worse.  Unlike the typical child, these children often do not understand that these behaviors upset bystanders which makes these behaviors difficult to correct or change.  These behavioral problems tend to reach extremes at the cusp of puberty, exasperated by fluctuating hormones and erratic emotions that a child simply can no longer manage on his/her own.  

Many signs and symptoms of autism are similar to that of gifted, and namely profoundly gifted, children.  Often times, these children are also diagnosed with autism, falling into the twice-exceptional category.  Gifted children, like autistic children, tend to have very focused interest.  They may spend hours, days, months, or even years, engrossed in a particular interest with what appears to be an obsession.  Both autistic children and gifted children have incredible attention to detail, a nuance that can certainly exasperate caregivers.  Both gifted children and autistic children also tend to have poor social skills. In both cases, I believe that this is largely a result of an unforgiving social environment in which social relationships provide little benefit to the child.

The Neurobiology of Autism

Interestingly, the neurobiology of gifted and autistic children share many similarities.  In a previous article, I assessed the findings of John Geake, who studied the neurobiology of giftedness.  He found that “gifted subjects have greater inter-connectivity between different areas of their brain” – rooted in several neurobiological differences including: a thicker cerebral cortex, superior cognitive control, greater working memory, and better spatial and temporally coordinated neural networks.  Gifted minds have greater, more complex, inter-connectivity amongst the synapses of their brains.  The cerebral cortex is linked to thought, memory, information processing, language, reasoning, perception, and voluntary movement.  
​Gifted minds have greater, more complex, inter-connectivity among-st the synapses of their brains.
​Some studies suggest somewhat similar findings in the study of the autistic brain, suggesting that individuals affected by autism have a surplus of synapses – connections, between brain cells.  In a normally functioning brain, synapses and connections are often slowed down, or pruned down through a process called synaptic pruning.  Synaptic pruning is the process by which synapses are eliminated as the brain develops and matures, mostly between the ages of 9 and 20.  In essence, the brain purges itself of seemingly wasteful, or unwanted, connections to make room for, and to strengthen, other [more important] connections. What we hear, see, or experience during this time helps to shape the brain and its connections.  During certain periods, often referred to as critical periods, the brain is more sensitive to change.  The autistic brain may, perhaps, have fewer [or shorter] critical periods than that of the average brain.  

While the autistic mind may be somewhat disconnected from the environment and, thus, less likely to adapt in “normal” ways – less likely to strengthen certain synapses in lieu of others which the normal brain might value less, or not at all, this developmental difference may be what allows autistic children to develop unique observations and insights.  In comparison to the norm, the synaptic connections of an autistic brain may seem inefficient, disorganized, or even “wrong.”  The distinguished “wiring” of an autistic brain may indeed be at fault for poor social skills, low emotional intelligence, and/or poor communication skills.  Yet, in the case of gifted autistic minds, this varied brain wiring also allows for higher order abstract thinking and greater working memory.  It is also probable that many of our autistic children go unidentified as gifted due to their inability to communicate their intellectual gifts.  

Coping with Signs and Symptoms
Many profoundly gifted students are likely misdiagnosed with autism, whilst many autistic children are likely undiagnosed as gifted.  Given the incredibly complex, and similar, nature of both giftedness and autism, the diagnosis itself is rather unimportant.  The more important question to ask, and to answer, is what will this information do for you?

​Given the incredible malleability of the human brain, it is necessary to provide proper nurture, especially to our autistic children, during these critical periods of neurological development.  

Since the cortical circuits are refined as a reaction to sensory stimulation and many autistic children suffer from hypo- or hyper-sensitivity to sensory stimulation, it is imperative that we provide these children with proper nurture early on, rather than later.  While most of us subconsciously learn how to combine and/or focus on our senses to understand our environment, children with sensory processing disorders struggle to process sensory information – there’s either too much(hyper) or too little(hypo) information to process.  
​While most of us subconsciously learn how to combine and/or focus on our senses to understand our environment, children with sensory processing disorders struggle to process sensory information

​With or without a diagnosis, if a child demonstrates symptoms of sensory processing issues – extreme responses to loud noises, resistance to being touched, strong preferences or dis-taste for certain clothing or fabrics, etc, it’s important to create a therapeutic environment for the child.  Children who display signs or symptoms of sensory processing disorders need to learn how to improve focus and attention, to regulate their alertness to sensory information, and to cope with sensory seeking and avoiding behaviors.  

Since many autistic children have difficulty recognizing or communicating emotions, and are often very analytic in nature, it is important to find logical intrinsic motivation in each child.   Teaching autistic children to analyze micro-expressions can be very successful, if they have the proper motivation.  This can help them to logically, and scientifically, evaluate the emotions of others and to determine an appropriate response.  Moreover, autistic and/or gifted children still need to form relationships and bonds with other people.  It is the false assumption that their social inadequacies and/or poor communication skills are indicative of anti-social personalities, however, when allotted time with children of similar interests and personalities, they often thrive.  In my own classrooms, I often see their social “quirks” begin to fade over time, becoming less noticeable as they gain more practice and find more value in building relationships.  It is important to note that autistic and/or gifted children who struggle socially will likely not benefit from “normal” social skills programs, but rather from more specialized programs based on interests. 

Whilst not every gifted child is autistic, I often see a fraction of the signs and symptoms of autism in many profoundly gifted children.  These signs and symptoms, without intervention, often become more noticeable as the child ages – no doubt a result of the increasing distinction between their own neurological wiring and the neurological wiring of the “normal” population.  While the goal is certainly not to reduce or mute the precocity of autistic and/or gifted children, we must also ensure that they are properly equipped to handle the world around them as they grow up to be adults.  These efforts are, undoubtedly, far more successful when employed at a very young age when the brain is more malleable.  If autism is a “critical period” disorder, then we must ensure that we optimize learning during these shortened critical periods.  

17 thoughts on “Autism –vs- Giftedness: A Neurobiological Perspective”

  1. Thank you so much for this insightful article! I am a (likely profoundly) gifted adult who is trying to understand more about my giftedness, and this article really helped. I sometimes display behaviors or social struggles that lead people to believe I am autistic, but I always test as not being on the autism spectrum by a long shot. I think my anxiety, complex PTSD, and troubled childhood are also factors in how I tend to come across to people, although I am working with a therapist to overcome these hurdles.

    It’s tough to explain to people that I may “act autistic” sometimes, but the underlying cause could be different. For example, when I was a child/teenager, I had extreme difficulty looking people in the eyes–not because I didn’t understand how to engage neurotypically with a conversational partner, but because eye contact was an emotionally overwhelming experience for me. I felt I could read the other person TOO well – uncomfortably well – and I assumed they were having the same experience. I sometimes described it as “seeing into their soul”. It was a connection I did not want from most people in the course of casual social interactions, so I avoided it.

    I’ve also been told I have difficulty being expressive in my social interactions, but it’s not because I don’t understand expressiveness. Rather, I’m naturally a very socially reserved person, and I was bullied as a child for being emotional, so I tend to take on a rather subdued and aloof demeanor unless I’m with people I trust. I also sometimes have sensory processing issues, and it gets sort of exasperating when I keep hearing “that’s a sign of autism/OCD/ADHD”, when it’s actually a sign of giftedness too.

    Anyway, this article is right on the money. Autism and giftedness are incredibly complex, and it is important that a child receives the correct diagnosis. Just because something looks like autism to a bystander, doesn’t mean it is autism. It could be giftedness, unusually expressed.

    1. This > is my son. Thanks for expressing it so helpfully. > “It’s tough to explain to people that I may “act autistic” sometimes, but the underlying cause could be different. For example, when I was a child/teenager, I had extreme difficulty looking people in the eyes–not because I didn’t understand how to engage neurotypically with a conversational partner, but because eye contact was an emotionally overwhelming experience for me. I felt I could read the other person TOO well – uncomfortably well – and I assumed they were having the same experience. I sometimes described it as “seeing into their soul”. It was a connection I did not want from most people in the course of casual social interactions, so I avoided it.”

  2. So what time of intervention do you suggest if one has a gifted kid who shows signs of increasing social skill problems?

    1. Hi there,

      Sorry for the late reply, but I hope you still find this useful. Speaking as a non-professional, but as a gifted individual who definitely has experience with this sort of thing, I suggest that the first thing you do is sit down with your child and ask them why they are experiencing social struggles. Gifted people have a lot going on in their minds, so they often have very complex motivations for their outward actions. A social challenge may look straightforward to solve from an outside perspective, but if the root cause isn’t properly addressed, it will continue to manifest. Social skill problems may even be a sign of life stress in an unrelated area. So it’s very important to learn from the child what’s actually going on in their head.

      If the issues persist, I would definitely recommend consulting a psychiatrist to see if it’s due to a neurological condition such as autism or ADD. But I believe one should never leap to that conclusion right away.

      As an example from my own life, as a child, I struggled immensely with socialization in my peer groups because I found the other children too immature for my tastes. I learned to read years before any of them and was reading at an adult level in third grade, so there was a definite disconnect when I was devouring science fiction novels while everyone else in the class stumbled through early chapter books. I quickly grew fed up with the schoolyard gossip of “who likes who” when I would much rather have been discussing dinosaurs or space or mathematics. And it didn’t help that I was bullied and teased for being different. I really wish I had had an adult sit down with me and ask what was wrong, instead of just criticizing me for preferring books over the company of other children. I would have loved to have friends, I just needed a different social group comprised of people who were at least willing to understand me and try to make me feel welcome and included.

      Perhaps your child is struggling with something similar?

  3. Ever think that maybe the ‘signs of giftedness’ are actually signs of autism and adhd before they were expanded and well known? Why we still cling to these notions are beyond me. It makes no sense that we’d say ‘the reason you are terrible at understand body language and sarcasm…that’s giftedness” instead of “hmm, maybe you’re both gifted and autistic”.

    We need to reassess these “signs of giftedness” to take in the information we have nowt and not when this was written 40-50 years ago. Look at some of these from a real list:

    1. Very Strong Memory
    2. High Levels of Concentration for Extended Periods of Time
    3. Pursues Anything that Interests them Right to The End
    4. Enjoy Solving Problems and Find Unique Solutions in Strange Ways
    5. Has Strong Opinions and Believes Strongly in Justice
    6. Prefers Spending Time with Adults than Children of Their Age
    7. Issues Regarding Attention and Organization
    8. Difficulty in Making Friends
    9. Difficulty in Being Patient
    10. Issues Regarding Control
    11. Being a Perfectionist

    Now for some signs of autism:

    1. Attention to detail
    2. Deep focus on subjects that really interest them
    3. They have an innate sense of justice
    4. Visual skills…they are visual learners
    5. Expertise – deep knowledge on a topic and high level of skill
    6. Novel approaches – they use u
    7. Creativity – they are extremely creative
    8. Great memory
    9. Perfectionism – they struggle when they make mistakes
    10. Sensory Processing Disorder
    11. Difficulty making friends
    12. Executive Function Disorder – causes problems with organization, time keeping and forgetfulness

    For some reason, there is a clear acceptance that ADHD can occur with giftedness. However, if you mention autism, people start coming up with reasons why it has to be a misdiagnosis. There is a very clear overlap between autism, adhd and giftedness. Brain structure imagining has shown that the brain structures in both adhd and autism are virtually indistinguishable…that’s why a very large amount of people with one are diagnosed with both. However, we need to stop making up reasons for why someone who is gifted cannot be autistic, as well. The signs of giftedness are outdated, imo. We need to take in the new information we have about the causes of all 3 and understand that there’s a large overlap we are ignoring.

    Why? Because the truth is, gifted children with autism are not getting the help they need because people are convincing them that their child is ‘just gifted’. There’s also the fact that we should change the standard for giftedness and as long as we pretend that gifted people don’t have autism, we are shutting out people who need enrichment and accessibility.

    The idea that trained psychiatrist are ‘misdiagnosing children with autism’ when they are gifted is harmful. If a child is unable to socially communicate in the correct ways, that is not a misdiagnosis. Being gifted does not make that psychiatrist wrong. If there’s that much of an overlap, then we need to accept that the overlap is REAL and that we might need to change our current definition of giftedness.

    1. I just found your website and I want to thank you for these articles. I was a profoundly gifted child before several head injuries, now just moderately gifted I suppose though I have the same function as I did before.
      But I am likely also autistic, diagnosis in process, though already suggested to me by other psychologists.
      Reading this article made all of me (brain emotion etc) jump up and down in my head singing “this is me this is me”. I feel seen, at least this once.
      Thank you.

      1. Rachel,
        Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so glad that you were able to relate to my writing.

      2. Primarily, I felt seen for the first time as I was reading this article, and on top of that, I felt seen by seeing another person relate.

    2. Yes, I agree 100%. Whether misdiagnosed as having autism, when in fact simply gifted, or misdiagnosed as being gifted, when in fact simply having autism, or having a dual diagnosis and more a PDD-NOS diagnosis, what is most important is receiving social skills instruction. People with high functioning autism and people with giftedness, are much more likely to die by suicide, as compared to the rest of the population, due to feelings of social inadequacy and extreme loneliness. In addition, many may understand more than most , and therefore, absorb the pain of the world. As was the case with the young lady that avoided eye contact because she felt as though she were looking into the person’s soul, and they were looking at hers. This had been my own personal experience with my own lack of eye contact with others over the years. My energy became drained after looking into another person’s eyes, and still does. I lost both of my sons by suicide at the ages of 24 and 26. They were both identified as gifted, and my youngest came to me a year before he passed away, expressing he thought he perhaps had Aspergers. Looking back now, they both had autistic tendencies, as do I. What matters most is making others aware that regardless of diagnosis, social skills instruction is crucial for our kind to survive in this world. It would seem better to try and find those like ourselves, also mentioned in the article.

      1. I’m so sorry for your losses Suzanne. What a tragedy to lose your sons. I hope you’re doing ok!

      2. I’m so sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine going through that. Thank you for sharing.

      3. Suzanne, thanks for sharing this. As a mom I can’t even imagine what it is to go thru what you did. Gifted kids are very intense and difficult to parent yet we love them so very much. I am so thankful that you are sharing your story and helping other mom. Sending you lots of love.

    3. I couldn’t agree more. The stigma against autism prevents kids from accessing necessary services and understanding. People need to stop seeing a hierarchy to this. Gifted isn’t better than autistic. As long as people think that way, there will continue to be hesitation to lean into labels that make sense.

      I mean if a child is actually getting what they need then ok, labels don’t matter. But if they are denied access to something because people don’t want to consider autism that’s very sad.

  4. NotAutisticJustRaisedByWolves

    I am an exceptionally gifted person who was misdiagnosed with autism. Turns out my mother was the autistic one. I grew up in a terrible neighborhood and recognized it as such and the behaviors of the people around me (including most adults) as wrong since I was a toddler. Mama Autism was my only positive role model, so I copied her, autism and all. Then I went away to a college where I was surrounded by civilized human beings who didn’t treat me as if my very existence was a personal affront. I realized that my alleged autism was not heredity but learned behavior. Now I have great social skills, a successful career, and a highly above-average ability to spot autistic people (I call it autismdar, haha) and interact with them.

  5. descriptions change over decades… manic…bipolar… depressed… its all the same wave…just depends on what the crowd decides to call it at the moment. It doesn’t change the motion, just the time of the tide…

  6. Licensed Psychotherapist, Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinical Specialist and Mom to a Gifted Late Talker here!

    There are very real overlaps between giftedness and autism and this article gets a lot of things right. The trouble, however, in not getting the diagnosis right in the early years, is that gifted children (specifically those who are also late talking, also sometimes described as having Einstein Syndrome) are often misdiagnosed with ASD or developmental delay, and interventions for supporting young children with ASD who are late talking can actually be problematic for these kiddos who are not Autistic. Had to plug this here in case there were any parents whose gifted late talkers do not seem to benefit, or seem to be displaying increased problematic behaviors or mood, as a result of ABA therapy, speech therapy, social skills training, or other therapies indicated for ASD, or speech delayed toddlers.

    Negative impacts of speech therapy, ABA therapy, or social skills interventions range from something as harmless as boredom for the gifted late talker, to something as severe as the development of very low self-esteem (related to the awareness of their inability to meet expectations), ruptures in their attachment relationships, and/or resentment towards educational institutions that can last throughout their developmental years and beyond. This is why an accurate diagnosis matters, and why this is a very tricky thing. Unfortunately, psychologists do not receive training on giftedness in children and must make this a specialization they seek out on their own- leaving many of these gifted late talkers with a “confirmatory diagnosis” of ASD or developmental delay, instead of a “differential diagnosis”.

    I hope this has been helpful for someone! It’s taken me years to synthesize all of the available trainings and information out there to understand and support my own Gifted Late Talker. My son made no progress during months of intervention services, but after reading up on Einstein Syndrome, and ultimately pulling him from services, he began to flourish on his own- when his brain was ready to do so!

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