Parenting a gifted child is a challenge. Gifted children can be intensely focused on certain subjects, have poor cooperation skills in a group setting, and may have difficulties in social situations. Interestingly, these same traits are also common among students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Giftedness and ASD can sometimes mask one another so that a child is only recognized as having one, but the two can also coexist! The concurrence of giftedness with a disability is referred to as twice-exceptionality. One mother described her journey with her intellectually adept child who is also on the autism spectrum. If that post resonates with you, you might also have a gifted child on the spectrum. This can be a difficult situation for parents; navigating the dual worlds of gifted and special education can be confusing.
If you suspect your child might be gifted and also on the autism spectrum, there are some initial steps you can take as a parent. It is important to understand that children identified as having ASD are eligible for special education services. Such services entitle him or her to appropriate curriculum modifications and accommodations in the classroom, in addition to an Individual Education Program (IEP). A good first step would be to set up a meeting with your child’s teacher to discuss present concerns, as well as the school psychologist or student support team in order to determine the appropriate process for obtaining a psychoeducational evaluation. This process differs from state to state and district to district depending on what model your child’s school uses to qualify students for special education. The resulting educational label* opens the door for special education services that can be a game-changer for students with autism. Unfortunately, most educators are most comfortable with their area of expertise (i.e. gifted or special education), but your child qualifies as both! The good news, according to a 2013 study on twice-exceptionality, is that gifted specialists tend to be the most familiar with the needs and challenges for gifted students who also have a disability. So what’s next if your child is already identified as gifted and on the autism spectrum?
As a parent of a child with specific educational needs (that may differ even from typical gifted students), it is important for you to be an advocate. Advocating for your child includes understanding the range of services available to your child, and setting reasonable expectations for how school professionals can work with your child to ensure academic success. You are a valuable member of the IEP team because you know your child best. The University of Iowa published a helpful resource for parents of twice-exceptional students, which outlines recommendations to highlight or suggest to your child’s teacher. Some notable suggestions include creating a plan with your child for how to deal with problematic behaviors, using tangible reinforcers over social praise (computer time versus “good job!”), and creating and maintaining structure (posting the daily schedule and giving warnings if the daily routine will be disturbed for some reason). Most importantly, remember that your gifted child with ASD has a multitude of strengths, which if fully realized, will allow him or her to achieve great heights.
As your child transitions to the scary time we call adolescence, consider how your child can begin to develop skills in self-advocacy. These skills can be practiced and emphasized by including your child in the educational planning meetings. Self-advocacy is an important skill involving increased self-awareness and the ability to speak up and ask for specific needs to be met. The strong intellectual and reasoning abilities that often accompany giftedness will allow your child to be a wonderful self-advocate, because the ability to explain unique challenges and verbalize needs helps others to best understand and work with your child. Although parenting a child with this unique combination of strengths and needs can be difficult, remember to have fun with your quirky, interesting, knowledgeable child and help your child to make a path of his or her own.
*An educational label is different from a medical diagnosis. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004, students must meet one of the 13 disabling conditions to qualify for special education and related services in the United States.