Parents and educators have long understood that social savvy and emotional intelligence are not to be taken for granted among gifted youths. Gifted children differ from other children in ways that are obvious both to themselves and to their classroom counterparts. Because they must learn to engage and play with others far less mature in their interests and capabilities, social interaction is rocky terrain for some gifted youths. For gifted children with Asperger syndrome, social difficulties can be especially significant.
Characteristics of Asperger Syndrome
Asperger syndrome is a developmental disorder closely related to autism and hallmarked by difficulties with social interaction despite average to superior intellectual abilities. Individuals with Asperger syndrome often have the following characteristics:
- In the area of social interaction: difficulty using and interpreting nonverbal forms of communication, such as eye contact, gestures, and facial expressions; difficulty with peer relationships; lack of shared interests with others; emotional aloofness and a lack of sensitivity to the emotional states of others;
- In the area of flexibility: obsessive interest in a particular subject matter or activity; strong interest in an extremely unusual topic or activity; rigid adherence to routines or rituals; odd hand mannerisms or body posturing.
Unlike children with autism, those with Asperger syndrome do not exhibit delays in the development of language; however, they often have difficulty with the pragmatic, or social, aspects of language, such as taking turns during a conversation or incorporating appropriate emotional intonation into their speech. Asperger syndrome is frequently associated with mild problems in motor control, so these children may appear clumsy or have trouble with handwriting. They often also show strong aversions or attractions to the way that objects or people look, feel, sound, taste, or smell.
Comparing and Contrasting Asperger Syndrome and Giftedness
Children with Asperger syndrome are often precocious in speaking and reading and tend to use sophisticated or formal language. They frequently have a remarkable memory, particularly for rote, factual information, and they are often passionately devoted to and eager to expound on topics of particular interest to them. But while many gifted children’s emotional and social development falls short of their intellectual growth, children with Asperger syndrome are actually less mature emotionally and socially than most children their age. They typically show poor insight into their own and others’ experience of emotion and may display emotions and facial expressions out of sync with what is happening around them.
Moreover, children with Asperger syndrome often take their passions to extremes, discussing the subjects incessantly and failing to develop other areas of interest. They have great difficulty engaging sensitively in conversations and tend instead to speak in one-sided monologues, with little or no emotional intonation. Finally, they may be prone to angry outbursts, especially when faced with unforeseen changes in their environment or routine.
Diagnosing Asperger Syndrome
If you are interested in having your child evaluated for Asperger syndrome, it is important to seek out an experienced psychologist or team of professionals. A thorough evaluation incorporates assessments of your child’s cognitive, social, language, and motor skills and a detailed developmental history. Diagnosing Asperger syndrome can open many doors for children with the disorder. In recent years, effective strategies have been developed to help such children achieve their full social and academic potential. With proper intervention, they often lead productive, creative, and satisfying lives.
—James McPartland, MS, and Geraldine Dawson, PhD
James McPartland is a doctoral candidate in child clinical psychology at the University of Washington.
Geraldine Dawson is professor of psychology and director of the Autism Center at the University of Washington.
Learn More about Asperger’s Syndrome
- A Parent’s Guide to Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism: How to Meet the Challenges and Help Your Child Thrive, by Sally Ozonoff, Geraldine Dawson, and James McPartland, Guilford, 2002
- The Oasis Guide to Asperger Syndrome: Advice, Support, Insights, and Inspiration, by Patricia Romanowski Bashe and Barbara L. Kirby, Crown, 2001
- Eating an Artichoke: A Mother’s Perspective on Asperger Syndrome, by Echo R. Fling, Kingsley, 2000
- Pretending to Be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome, by Liane Holliday Willey, Kingsley, 1999
- Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, by Tony Attwood, Kingsley, 1998