Asperger syndrom and giftedness: is there a link?

October 7, 2014

in Asperger, Autism, Child prodigies, intelligence, Raising children, research

There has been a surge of interest in autism in the last ten years, with media articles, awareness campaigns and progressive research carried out on the phenomenon. In particular, there has been much interest in Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), which is a disorder on the autism spectrum characterised by social deficiencies together with average or above average intelligence (Chavkin, 2008). In fact, among the population of people with AS, there is a higher proportion of giftedness than in the general population. Also, the success of people with AS such as Satoshi Tajiri (the creator and designer of Pokemon), Tim Page (Pulitzer-price winning author), and Vernon L. Smith (Nobel laureate in economics) has led some to believe that there may in fact be a causal relationship between Asperger syndrome and giftedness. However, although certain characteristics of Aspergers—such as the tendency to have strong and unrelenting interest in specific topics—may foster excellence in particular areas, the disorder is most simply categorized as a high functioning level of autism and in and of itself does not cause giftedness.

Asperger’s Syndrome was first acknowledged by Hans Asperger in 1944 who considered the condition to be a personality disorder. In particular, he noted his patients’ impaired two-way social interactions as well as their exceptional logical abstract thinking skills and their very particular and isolated areas of interest. It was these observations that caused him to assert that those with the disorder had “a special interest which enables them to achieve quite extraordinary levels of performance in a certain area” (Neihart, 2000). Since that time there has been significant progress made in understanding the disorder and it is no longer considered to be a personality disorder. The clinical descriptions of Aspergers include symptoms of having little to no empathy, monotonous speech patterns, idiosyncratic and intense interests, social isolation as a result of inappropriate social communication, and inflexible thoughts and habits. The Center for Disease control which surveyed the prevalence of autism in the US has shown that in 2000, 1 in 150 children were diagnosed as opposed to in 2010 where about 1 in 68 children (about 1.4%) were diagnosed. Most researches believe that this increase in incidence is due largely to relatively recent changes in diagnostic criteria, and increases in population along with increased awareness among practitioners (Chavkin, 2008).

In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published its 5th addition and made significant changes to criteria related to autism and its subtypes. This manual serves as the American Psychiatric Association’s tool for the classification and diagnostic criteria for psychiatric illnesses. Until last year, AS was considered among a set of ‘Pervasive Developmental Disorders’ within the autism spectrum and had its own set of diagnostic criteria. In the newest released addition, there are no longer the four separate diagnostic labels (i.e. Asperger’s, childhood disintegrative disorder) and instead these are all now included under the umbrella of ‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder’ (ASD). The rationale behind this was that similar dysfunctional behaviours relating to impaired social, communicative and imaginative impairments exist for all the categories that are now included in ASD. Although the latest version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11)—the diagnostic manual used by the World Health Organization—has not yet been published, there is some expectation that similar changes will be made.

Though widely supported, the new criteria for Asperger syndrom does not explain or acknowledge its notable coexistence with giftedness. Using fairly stringent criteria for giftedness (IQ>130), it has been speculated that as many as 7% of people with AS are gifted (Henderson, 2001). This is in comparison to the general population in which about 2% are considered gifted. There has been little controlled research done as to why this may be the case yet Maureen Neihart who is a psychologist specialising in Asperger’s syndrome proposes that, “It is as if [AS patients] have compensatory abilities to counterbalance their deficiencies. Their unswerving determination and penetrating intellectual powers, part of their spontaneous and original mental activity, their narrowness and single-mindedness, as manifested in their special interests, can be immensely valuable and can lead to outstanding achievements
in their chosen areas.” In this light, AS can be considered to be a unique and valuable set of characteristics that contribute to exceptional forms of thinking.

There are many overlapping characteristics between normally-developed gifted children as well as Asperger’s gifted children. Firstly, both tend to display verbal fluency as well as exceptional memories. Both tend to have intense interests in specialised areas and as a result gather significant amounts of information about particular topics. Both notably can annoy their peers with their limitless talk or curiosity about these interests and as a result both tend to prefer socialising with adults. Finally, both normally developed gifted children and AS-gifted children can have hypersensitivity to certain stimuli and are very particular in their choices of things like clothing material or food texture. These similarities make it sometimes difficult for Aspergers children to be diagnosed because their unusual behaviours are attributed to their giftedness.

However, there are also substantial differences between gifted and Asperger’s children:

  •  Among the most characteristic of these differences is the absence of a ‘Theory of Mind’ which in essence is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This tends to mean that while a typical gifted or eccentric person is aware that other people regard his or her behaviours as weird, someone with Asperger’s syndrome will be oblivious of this
  • In addition, people with Asperger’s syndrome tend to have a much more limited sense of humour as they take meanings very literally
  • Finally, one of the most distinguishing differences is the remarkable lack of insight regarding the feelings, needs and interests of other people.

Our understanding of autism and AS has grown substantially in recent years and the diagnostic criteria have become much clearer. There is much more awareness among both the public and among psychiatrists about autism and the needs of those afflicted with the disorder. There is a wide range of functioning across the autism spectrum and those who are diagnosed with AS, though they face social problems, can show extremely high levels of giftedness. In the future, we will continue to gain a greater understanding of this link.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ayaa September 15, 2015 at 4:04 PM

I think that yes, it’s fair. As long as you have the support stsyem (emotional, social, financial) in place so that you will be able to care for both children, and provide for both of their needs which may be very different. As long as one of the kids is not neglected due to the needs of the other child, I think it could be a pretty fantastic experience for everyone involved I am an autistic and adopted only child parenting an autistic only child and I think that the one thing missing from our family is another child. If I were to adopt, I’d lean toward adopting a child with autism, as I can’t imagine raising a non-autistic child or attempting to balance raising one of each (for lack of a better term). I wish we had the option to add another child to our family, but I feel like I’m strapped already (I have rheumatoid/autoimmune arthritis and spine damage). Hope this helps Let us know what you decide!


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