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.  

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