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Intellectual Giftedness And Asperger Tend To Look Alike

[S]ome cognitive and social features often ascribed to giftedness, like language precocity or social isolation, resembled certain behavioural characteristics of children with Asperger’s Syndrome (Burger-Veltmeijer, 2003). [...]

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Burger-Veltmeijer (2006) concluded that in the few publications on IG + ASD [= the co-occurrence of Intellectual Giftedness and Autism Spectrum Disorders], the authors supposed that mis- and missed diagnoses of gifted students with (suspicion of) an ASD could be ascribed to mutual traits of both exceptionalities, and/or to a mutually-camouflaging effect of both conditions. This means that characteristics of both giftedness and an ASD tended to look alike and/or modified or masked one another, thus making identification of either more difficult. This was particularly the case when professionals were trained in either giftedness or ASDs but rarely in both (Henderson, 2001). From clinical experience, Gallagher and Gallagher (2002) stressed that characteristics of giftedness and of AS can combine and collide in complex ways, and therefore impede correct identification, as illustrated in their following remarks “A small number of gifted children suffer from social isolation – isolation that may be exacerbated by the presence of AS.” and “Consider combining the social inattention, motor clumsiness, and high verbal skill of Asperger’s Syndrome with such traits as independent thinking, constant questioning, and heightened emotional sensitivity (. . .). It is the perfect formula for a social pariah.(p. 9).

This camouflaging effect4 might lead to the formulation of an inappropriate educational plan (Neihart, 2000), since it troubles the correct identification of IG and/or ASD, as well as correct assessment of strengths as well as weaknesses. For instance, advanced rote skills of a student with an ASD might be mistaken for advanced comprehension (Huber, 2007) while vice versa, the advanced comprehension and creative thinking of an IG student might be overlooked because of weak learning strategies. Moreover, if talents were subordinated to limitations, the student might receive improper intellectual challenges, suffer from low self esteem, low motivation and depression (Cash, 1999). In the literature on gifted students, the camouflaging effect was supposed to be a general characteristic of twice-exceptional gifted students, and not simply related to IG + ASD. For instance, Reis and Renzulli (2004) stated that gifted students with learning disabilities often were misunderstood because their giftedness could mask their disabilities and their disabilities could camouflage their talents. Moon (2002) claimed that because some symptoms of AD/HD overlapped with characteristics of giftedness, scholars in the field of gifted education theorised that a gifted child – while not actually having the disorder – might be labelled and treated for AD/HD.

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4 Camouflage means any form of pretence or hiding. If the ASD-symptom of ‘social isolation’ is exacerbated, as described in the quote of Gallagher and Gallagher (2002), it might mask traits of giftedness, like supreme cognitive intelligence. In other words, in that case, the weaknesses obscure the strengths. It can also be the other way around, however: For example, if gifted traits like extensive (verbal) knowledge base are intensified, this might modify and obscure ASD-traits like a lack of reciprocal non-verbal communication.

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[...] Link between IG and ASD

Fitzgerald (2002) argued in a letter to the editor that there might be a link between genius and Asperger’s syndrome, which can be summarised as a mathematical view of the world. He also linked the ‘creative thinking’ of the geniuses to Asperger traits. In the four reviews of one of Fitzgerald’s books (Fitzgerald, 2004) on this topic (Barber, 2005; Davies, 2004; Dosani, 2005; Wolff, 2005) this link between creative geniuses and Asperger’s syndrome was also mentioned and critically discussed. Inter alia, these four reviewers argued that Fitzgerald’s premises are not substantiated in a methodologically robust way, because of the selective choice of (only male) geniuses and the lack of a control group. The work of Casanova et al. (2007), of which Fitzgerald is co-author, might put this discussion in another perspective. In a controlled post-mortem brain study, these researchers expose an anatomical similarity between autistic brains and brains of eminent scientists, concerning the morphometry of the cell minicolumn. This is a vertical column through the cortical layers, which is the smallest module capable of information processing in the brain. Casanova et al. (2007) suggested that a minicolumnar phenotype that provides for discrimination and/or ‘focused attention’ may help explain the savant abilities observed in some autistic people and in the intellectually gifted. This focused attention, especially on details, is also mentioned in the literature review of Wallace (2008) as an ability that is shared by talented individuals with and without ASD. Cash (1999) also concluded this to be a similarity. Following a selective literature review, she argued that individuals with autism, as well as gifted learners, might intensely focus on their activities. Cash (1999) argued this similarity also has differential potentiality, saying that gifted learners more selectively filter out information.

[...] Similarities between IG and ASD

The previously mentioned similarities ‘focused attention’ and ‘creative thinking’ are aspects of the characteristics ‘intense focus/obsession to detail’ and ‘creative/divergent/fluid intelligence’. These two stand out quantitatively, because they are marked as a similarity in at least four publications. Apart from these, [...] [we] revealed similarities in the clusters ‘uneven development’, ‘verbal/language issues’, ‘memory issues’, ‘social issues’ and ‘hypersensitivity’. These are concentrated in four selective literature reviews (Cash, 1999; Donnelly & Altman, 1994; Huber, 2007; Neihart, 2000). This can be explained by the fact that these authors specifically compared literature on ASD with publications on IG (interweaved with clinical opinions and case descriptions) and that they referred to each other. All other publications reviewed in this study have no such study-design and might be less suitable for finding affirmations or contradictions of any similarities.

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[...] Characteristics of IG + ASD

[...] The characteristic ‘significant VIQ–PIQ discrepancies’ stands out qualitatively, being the only significant one found in comparison with an IQ-matched control group (Baron-Cohen et al., 1999). The characteristics that stand out quantitatively are those that show up repeatedly in the various analyses [...] and that are at the same time mentioned in at least 4 of the included publications. These are: Uneven development (‘social versus cognitive capacities’, ‘significant reasoning-motor discrepancies’), superior non-verbal capacities (’mathematics, physics computer’, ‘creative/divergent thinking’), verbal/language issues (‘formal/pedantic speech with nearly absent prosody’), memory issues (‘excellent rote/factual memory’), EF-issues (‘fascination, preoccupied absorbing (restricted) special interests’, ‘intense focus/obsession to detail’), social issues (‘deficits in social adjustment, isolation’, ‘limitless talk about own interests, lack of reciprocal communication’, ‘unawareness of social rules and (one’s own) interactions’), hypersensitivity (‘general hypersensitivity’).

Of the relatively few characteristics that are marked as a similar trait of IG and ASD, ‘creative/divergent thinking’ and ‘intense focus/obsession to detail’ are the most remarkable, because they stand out quantitatively. These might hypothetically be linked to a possible neurobiologically based overlap between IG and ASD (Casanova et al., 2007). The most outstanding clusters are those that quantitatively stand out [...] and at the same time possess more than one remarkable characteristic. These are ‘uneven development’, ‘superior non-verbal capacities’, ‘EF issues’, and ‘social issues’.

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Burger-Veltmeijer, A. E. J. (2006). Hoogbegaafdheid plus autismespectrumstoornissen (HB + ASS): een verwarrende combinatie (1) [Giftedness plus autism spectrum disorders (IG + ASD): A confusing combination (1)]. Tijdschrift voor Orthopedagogiek, 45(6), 276–286.

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Cash, A. B. (1999). A Profile of gifted individuals with Autism: The twice-exceptional learner. Roeper Review, 22(1), 22–27.

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Gallagher, S. A., & Gallagher, J. J. (2002). Giftedness and Asperger’s syndrome: A new agenda for education. Understanding Our Gifted, 14(2), 7–12.

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Henderson, L. M. (2001). Asperger’s syndrome in gifted individuals. Gifted Child Today Magazine,. June 22.

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Huber, D. H. (2007). Clinical presentation of autism spectrum disorders in intellectually gifted students. Doctoral dissertation at the University of Iowa, Iowa, United States of America.

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Moon, S. M. (2002). Gifted children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In M. Neihart, S. Reis, N. Robinson, & S. Moon (Eds.), The social and emotional development of gifted children: What do we know? (pp. 193–201). Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

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Neihart, M. (2000). Gifted Children with Asperger’s Syndrome. Gifted Child Quarterly, 44(4), 222–230.

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Reis, S. M., & Renzulli, J. S. (2004). Current research on the social and emotional development of gifted and talented students: Good news and future possibilities. Psychology in the Schools, 41(1), 119–130.

-- Agnes E.J. Burger-Veltmeijer , Alexander E.M.G. Minnaert , Els J. Van Houten-Van den Bosch

from "The co-occurrence of intellectual giftedness and Autism Spectrum Disorders: A literature review"

Quoted on Sun Apr 15th, 2012