Your Gifted Child Is Not on the Autistic Spectrum

Enhancing social development in gifted children is the hardest part of parenting a gifted child. Over the many decades that I have worked with gifted kids and their parents on issues that arise and are unique and particular to bright and intense children, social development is the hardest and often the most critical issue to delve into and to work on solving. Unfortunately, poorly informed experts are quick to label the social issues of gifted children as a form of autistic spectrum behavior. But these behavioral experts are wrong. Social quirkiness in bright kids is normal and is more a sign of difficulties with peer relationships. The difference in intellectual abilities between gifted kids and kids who are more normally average is the root of this social problem.  

Educators and parents used to believe that finding the right gifted school would solve their child’s problem making friendships with peers because all the children would have to be gifted to attend. Actually, gifted schools can be narrowly focused, elitist, and only interested in academic achievement. This type of pressure and competition can be a bad fit for most gifted children. Educational research has shown that meeting the social-emotional needs of gifted children can be very difficult in a very structured and high pressure school setting because of the perfectionistic strivings of gifted kids and their asynchronous development—learning highs and lows. When gifted kids are put in a competitive environment early in childhood they can burn out by middle school and become depressed and even suicidal. More recent research and understanding of gifted kids indicates that the most successful and high functioning bright children have been exposed to a more diverse school environment that teaches to their strengths and struggles.

Gifted children can be confused by non-gifted children. For example, the neighborhood children may be very content to play with their trucks and cars or dolls. But the gifted child looks more deeply and needs a collection of cars or dolls or dinosaurs to be happy. The smart kid wants to discuss the differences among his collection with mom and dad and grandma and grandpa and anyone who will listen. The gifted child who speaks about different types of cars or dinosaurs or dolls to his or her neighborhood friend, though, is perceived as weird. The kids begin to leave him or her out of their play, and peer relationships become awkward. Or the gifted child may really enjoy building puzzles and be so much more advanced than his friends at preschool that he cannot engage with them and sits in the corner and reads a book or wants to stay home with his mommy or daddy. Unfortunately and very often, teachers and administrators at school don’t understand why the child is having trouble relating to peers. The easy answer is autistic spectrum disorder and a behavioral specialist.

Wrong! This approach does not work at all. The well trained and certified behaviorist makes the child more anxious, which intensifies their perfectionism and frustration. Parents go broke and crazy with this approach. The child is no better off for all the aggravation that has gone into this supposed socialization process. Indeed, the child may feel more intensely that he or she is a misfit and act out their sense of being strange with other children.

What can be done to help very bright and intense children to feel socially engaged and to make friends?

1.  Avoid labels and labelers. This means in action terms if the preschool wants an evaluation done on your child you should find an expert who works with gifted kids, not a developmental specialist who just know how to diagnosis autistic spectrum disorder.

2.  Look hard—look far and wide—to find kids who want to play with your child. These types of free play interactions will normalize you child’s problems with friends. The child will feel more relaxed in social situations. In other words, your child with a friend will feel better about him or herself and will not need to withdraw from social interaction with peers.

3.  Find a school that looks at social-emotional development for all of the students and especially has experience with gifted kids. Putting your child in a very traditional school is a big mistake. Look for project-centered schools that enjoy creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

4.  Talk with your child about his or her disappointments with friendships. Give your child support and advice based on his perceptions of what is going on with friends. Don’t assume that you know the answer to his or her social problems.

5.  Read about the social issues of gifted children and attend conferences that talk about these issues. Talk with other mothers and fathers who have gifted kids. Your knowledge is your power.