From: Understanding Our Gifted, 14(2), Winter 2002. Open Space Communications Giftedness and Asperger's Syndrome: A New Agenda for Education Shelagh A. Gallagher James J. Gallagher What is Asperger's Syndrome? Asperger's Syndrome is one of a number of pervasive developmental disorders, a group of disorders that includes autism. Early on Asperger's Syndrome was referred to as "high functioning autism." Now AS is recognized as a disorder separate from autism, although the primary difference between the two is level of mental functioning: while autistic children tend to also have lower than average measured intelligence, children with Asperger's Syndrome have average or above measured intelligence. Characteristic Behaviors of Asperger's Syndrome Asperger's Syndrome is primarily a disorder in social interactions. People with AS tend to be oblivious to social conventions (Attwood, 1998). They literally don't know how to share a conversation, to be "polite," or to seek friendship. The American Psychological Association (1994) divides the behaviors that indicate Asperger's Syndrome into four general categories: impaired social functioning, including inability to make friends, show empathy, read social cues or use social non-verbal communication (eye contact, posture, and gestures) restricted and stereotyped behaviors or interests, including a single intense area of interest, repetitive hand movement, sensory sensitivity, compulsive repetition average or above average language development--vocabulary and usage are normal, although some hyperlexia (basically, sophisticated usage without sophisticated comprehension) may be present, especially in an area of intense interest 2 average or above average cognitive development-standardized IQ measures anywhere from average to highly gifted The first two categories describe the problem, the second two clearly associate AS with people who are otherwise of "normal" or above average ability. A growing misconception is addressed in this description, for it is not true that all AS children are gifted; rather, gifted children are included in the range of abilities where AS can be diagnosed. Appreciating the Different Drummer The math teacher bristles at the suggestion that Jason has a disorder: he's not sick, he's different, she insists. He sees the world in a different way. Socializing is hard because his thinking is so advanced. He's gifted-this doesn't require a cure! Advocates for Asperger's/gifted (AG) children are eager to have them appreciated as wonderful, special children. The presence of dual exceptionality always casts a shadow over this goal. So much of Asperger's Syndrome echoes the behaviors of healthy highly gifted children that some of the first discussions of AS in the gifted community are cautions not to mistake giftedness for Asperger's Syndrome. Differentiating between AG and AS is simplified by remembering that Asperger's Syndrome is a spectrum disorder--representative characteristics lay on a continuum. An AS diagnosis is only warranted when the behaviors 1) occur together and 2) are extreme. This fact is pivotal for parents and professionals involved with gifted children because it allows for differentiation between behaviors typical of gifted children and the extremes of Asperger's Syndrome. Table 1 presents a thumbnail sketch of a few critical distinctions between the behaviors of gifted children and Asperger's children of average IQ. The differences are often those of degree more than kind. To take one example, seeing Jason sitting in the corner and knowing that he's depressed because he has no friends in class is not enough to determine the presence or absence of AS. All AS children have social problems, but not all children with social problems are AS. Facing the Equal but Opposite Challenge Jason's English teacher sighs. She's only trying to help. Good vocabulary and good memorizing skills do not automatically mean giftedness. Jason is not functioning, and he won't without systematic intervention. Even if he is gifted, that doesn't make him immune to other problems. He needs special help. Cautions against misdiagnosis are legitimate; however, there's an equal and opposite challenge--recognizing that although most gifted children do not have Asperger's Syndrome, some do. To that end, a group of parents have generously opened up their lives by responding to an extensive survey about their AG/AS children, their lives at school, and their lives at home. While this group is hardly a scientific sample, and provides no definitive answers, they do present valuable consistent insights that can be used as a springboard for dialogue, research, and ultimately services for AG/AS children. What follows are some of the most significant issues and ideas raised by the parents' descriptions of their AG/AS children and supported by separate research literature on AG and AS. 3 Gifted and Asperger's: First Signs and Identification Issues For the most part, parents reported that giftedness was the first exceptionality identified, often in the form of advanced verbal skill, a trait shared by both AG and AS children, but more likely to be classified as gifted. Some parents indicated that identification of AS was delayed because attention was centered on giftedness. Failing to recognize the presence of AS, parents and teachers may focus only on the child's giftedness, thinking the child is simply "geeky." At other times, social interaction problems of AG/AS students may be attributed incorrectly to a diagnosis of a learning disability. Although the AS literature suggests that some girls are identified as AS, this group was typical because the children discussed were all boys. A couple of respondents made reference to a possible genetic link, even saying that the child's diagnosis led to a retrospective diagnosis for his father. Despite any initial concerns about misdiagnosis, each parent who responded to the survey reported great relief when his child was identified AG/AS. Parents described their child's AS behaviors in detail and recounted extreme frustration with the contrast between extreme intelligence and social ineptitude. Most frequent in the list of AS qualities was poor social interaction, or a simple lack of attention to the social world: This last week, one of his previous teachers stopped to talk to him while he was with the counselor. This teacher was wearing a hat with a big bat on it in the spirit of Halloween. After they were done talking, the counselor asked B to turn around and describe the teacher. All he could come up with was that she had brown hair. When directly asked if she had a hat on, he said, 'Ummm, no?' He simply does not observe people at all. The biggest challenges have been his wild outburst where he seems to lose the ability to control his actions and words. Rigid need for order and predictability. BIG problems with transitions. BIG problems with departures from routine. Table I: Distinctions in Behaviors of Highly Gifted and Aspergers Syndrome Highly Gifted Aspergers Syndrome Socially Isolated Socially Inept Independent of Age Mates Unskilled with Age Mates Highly Focused Interest Highly Focused Interest Advanced, Sophisticated Vocabulary Hyperlexia Complex Cognition Simple Cognition Advanced Understanding Advanced Memorization The Combining and Colliding Characteristics of AS and AG Gifted children possess a set of characteristics that separates them from typical developing children. So do children with AS. Put the two together and the characteristics combine and collide in complex ways.