I hear a lot of stories out there from parents whose children were initially diagnosed as being gifted only to discover years later that their other symptoms related to obsessive-compulsive or social behaviors weren’t just quirks, they were symptoms of something else entirely. Until recently autism spectrum disorder or ASD wasn’t as readily screened and diagnosed as it is today. Schools, physicians and even behavioral specialists regularly missed important cues related to ASD and chalked these behaviors up to a byproduct of an unusually gifted or advanced mind.
Part of this misdiagnosis is the disorder itself. Autism spectrum disorder comes in many different shapes and sizes – there’s no one-size-fits all set of symptoms and behaviors that can easily put all autistic persons in a single box. Each individual has his or her own pattern of development and skills, making it very difficult to properly diagnose.
While each child is uniquely different in the way that ASD symptoms are displayed, there are three primary areas that diagnostic symptoms fall into within a range of varying degrees. These three areas include behaviors that are stereo-typed or repetitive, difficulty with communication and impairments related to social skills.
In most cases it is the parents who first notice different behaviors in their child, particularly when the opportunity arises to compare their child to other children of the same age group. These behaviors can be seen even from birth with some babies avoiding eye contact or focusing excessively on specific objects. Developmental delays, such as not responding to communication or play interaction with parents or other children, are also indicators of ASD.
Developmental regression can also be an indicator of ASD. Some children will develop normally until the age of 2 or 3, but will suddenly begin displaying a change in behavior. Depending on the individual, a loss of interest in communicating, skill development, exploration and even an apparent indifference to other people or social situations will begin to occur seemingly out of the blue.
Symptoms of ASD
There are specific symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder that are not typically seen in other children. While some children may be naturally shy or pull away from social situations, children with ASD can display unusual reactions, such as refraining from making eye contact, preferring to play alone or by responding in a contrary manner when others display emotions such as affection, concern or anger. Misreading facial cues, gestures and other forms of non-verbal communication is a common symptom seen in children with ASD, and is thought to be a direct cause of reduced social interaction.
Problems with communication are another red flag sign that parents and doctors may pick up on in a child with ASD. Delayed language development, use of limited words or sign language, slowed verbal skills, repetition of words or phrases and use of words in way that is contrary to their actual meaning are other typical behaviors associated with ASD. Some children communicate their own thoughts very well, often talking incessantly about a particular subject, but are unable to allow others to interact with them and add something to the conversation. ASD can be difficult to diagnose because no two children will have the exact same types of symptoms at the same level of severity – there’s no cut-and-dry pattern of behavior.
High-Functioning ASD and the Gifted Child
Despite all of the developmental issues and behaviors associated with autism, some forms of ASD, particularly high-functioning disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome, regularly confuse teachers, physicians and specialists. There are a lot of shared symptoms between gifted and autistic children, making it important to test and assess each child early to determine a course of action.
Both gifted and autistic children can display an unusual intelligence compared to other children within their own age group. Additionally, some of the unique symptoms seen in children diagnosed with ASD are also seen in gifted children, most often in the form of social behaviors, unusually focused interests on a particular subject and inattentiveness.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) also share similar symptoms and behaviors. It is important to note that some gifted children may have attention problems unrelated to ADHD or ASD, but that hold them back in the classroom and keep them from gifted program participation. Early screening, IQ testing and other specialized assessments can help prevent a misdiagnosis, which can lead to potentially damaging courses of action with regard to treatment or even a lack of treatment that could be beneficial to the child.