Autistic vs. Gifted: Advocate or Educate?

Gifted children are more than just cute, smart kids. They show evidence of advanced capabilities in the areas of intellectual, creative and artistic expression. The US Department of Education defines gifted children as “Children and youth with outstanding talent who perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment.”

I had a hunch that my daughter, Zora, was gifted at an early age when she learned complex choreography at the age of seven. She could watch a video of a complex dance for five minutes, and mimic it completely within an hour. Then she taught herself gymnastics, how to play guitar, piano and three languages–all by the time she was 13.

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It wasn’t all exciting talent shows and intellectual feats, she also had other behavior that concerned me. When she was about four years old, she started to have excruciating night terrors. She appeared as if she was awake, having a full on panic attack and screaming that something was attacking her, but she was still sleep. She would never fully wake up.

Even stranger, she would never remember any of this the next day. As a mom, I comforted her, and found basically the only way to calm her down was to let her sleep with me all the time. She co-slept with me or her sister until she was 14.

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Asperger’s is an autistic -spectrum disorder that is defined as possessing strong verbal language skills and intellectual ability. This includes a remarkable attention to detail, strong focus and persistence, and an aptitude for recognizing patterns. But is it a disorder, or a gift?

Trying to figure this out can be very difficult, and ultimately rely on you, as the mom. Schools have tests or screenings like IQ tests, and also factor in score analysis, and teacher observation. Parents are the best observers, however, and shouldn’t wait for school recognition.

Parents are the best observers, however, and shouldn’t wait for school recognition.

Some schools won’t even test for IQ until second or third grade, if at all. The tests for Autism, and Asperger’s are even less prevalent. With such ubiquitous information, how does a mom know when to step in and advocate for her child’s learning?

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According to Psychology Today, some gifted children may be overlooked because they may not be high achievers in the classroom or may even have problems with attention, have poor organization skills, or lack certain social skills. Just because your child may not fit a wunderkind image that every teacher loves, doesn’t mean your child isn’t gifted.

If a child doesn’t have a disability, and doesn’t need a special education plan–but is not classified as gifted, it’s possible that she is on the Autism Spectrum, the gray area of Aspergers. Your child may have advanced skills in some areas, and other areas that are underdeveloped.

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I suspected this with my daughter when she was in the fourth grade. I was a lone and confused advocate for a long time until she started to display more visible symptoms during puberty. I had to do some research to learn that many teachers and even some doctors are in the dark, or know just enough to be dangerous.

You know a mom has a certain voice that comes alive when she is forced to defend her child against an adult for the third time.

I’ve had a few heated sessions with a “counselor” who said my daughter’s symptoms were just “things in her head.” The school counselor wrote this in a broadcast email to my daughter’s teachers, which was supposed to simply include a modified schedule to help get my daughter back in the classroom after missing two weeks.

You know a mom has a certain voice that comes alive when she is forced to defend her child against an adult for the third time. Even though she doesn’t use it everyday, it is always at the ready, and is not easy to forget once you hear it.

This was something we worked out with little help from her school or the medical community.

I was eventually able to work with my daughter to identify her panic attacks and help her find a way to manage them. This was something we worked out with little help from her school or the medical community. I read every book and article I could on the subject, and started asking my daughter questions to see if I could get to the root of it.

During this time, my daughter’s father, and the schools were my mostly formidable opponents to getting my daughter healthy. Her father is the type to tell a woman to “drink some water, walk it off and everything will be fine.” This was when she wouldn’t get out of my bed for about three weeks straight.

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My daughter couldn’t move, she didn’t eat, barely drank, and couldn’t tolerate light in her eyes, strong smells, or loud sounds. She really didn’t want to interact with anyone besides me, and she slept all day.

I don’t really hold onto bitterness about the past, so I don’t spend time on things done to me. However, the things people said my daughter during her time of struggle will NEVER be forgotten. (Related: this is the main issue I have with my ex-husband two years later.)

The counselor that told me that she was just “acting up” so she didn’t have to do homework, heard more than a few choice words from me. I had to remind her how academically gifted my daughter is and that she speaks three languages, is a self-taught musician who plays three instruments, and a gymnastics champion. Basically, my daughter was more intellectually accomplished than many adults at the age of 14.

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I took my daughter to therapy, and she tried medication, but didn’t like how it made her numb. The therapy helped us find tools to manage the panic attacks, and I read a book called Energy Medicine by Donna Eden. We did some of the exercises in the book, which really helped. Most of all I did not let anyone invalidate her, or convince my daughter that what she was experiencing was her fault.

Most of all I did not let anyone invalidate her, or convince my daughter that what she was experiencing was her fault.

I felt like I was the educational professional, because I was constantly advocating and educating other professionals about our experience. I ended up telling the school counselor how to do her job. I told her what my daughter needs in a modified school schedule, and I made it clear if coming to the school makes her condition worse, I will hold them accountable. I also urged the counselor to research this, and make the accommodations that my daughter requires.

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Isn’t that what a school counselor is supposed to do? Why do I have to tell these people how to do their jobs? Just when I thought I was fighting a losing battle, I found other parents dealing with the same issue. Even though I’ve shouldered most of the expense myself, my daughter is doing much better and is a senior in high school set to graduate in 2019. She still has attendance problems, but I found a school that is interested in helping her succeed.

 

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Girls, Interrupted

Since girls respond to feedback differently than boys, their constructive coping skills, keen observation, imitation and ability to handle social situations helps them grow into their difference more gracefully than boys at times. This also makes it harder to detect if they are on the autism spectrum disorder, or if they are gifted, or even just going through a personality phase. Mom’s don’t have to stay in the dark, however.

Early signs in preschool-aged girls include intense emotions, sensory sensitivity (especially tactile and auditory), unusual characteristics in language or cognitive development, comfort in clothes with lots of pockets, interest in reading or specializing in certain topics, and a belief that other girls or trends are boring. These girls can be prone to social mistakes, but are also fine in their own world. My daughter slowly displayed most of these symptoms, but it wasn’t until she began having panic attacks in certain school rooms that I took her in for testing.

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What to do if you think your child is gifted or on the autistic spectrum?

It’s important not to get too caught up in titles. The main issue is determining how your child learns best, and what support she needs to feel confident in her abilities to learn and succeed. Every child’s development and needs change over time, so there’s no need to feel pressured to find a label, a pill, a test, or a special program for your bright child.

It’s important not to get too caught up in titles. The main issue is determining how your child learns best.

It’s best to stay aware of what she needs and do your best to get her the best resources to support her development. It may be necessary to adapt educational expectations to fit your child’s ability and needs. Be willing to keep yourself educated, and make adjustments yourself. As a WonderMommy, you are your child’s first, and most constant teacher.★

6EF8B899-C9CE-4341-B5DA-76226F5B2A06Angela is a farmer, writer and community researcher with an interest in natural health, women’s health and business leadership. She writes a bi-weekly column on agriculture and economic public policy, and operates an organic farm in Minnesota. She can be reached at writer@spiritscripps.com

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