When Adolescent Giftedness and High-Functioning Autism Converge

Teacher and Student in Math ClassThe nature of adolescence is such that the brain has developed adequately to ask piercing questions but life experience and wisdom lag in their ability to provide answers. With the gifted adolescent, the overlay of existential concerns can raise stress levels and compound the intensity of the questions bubbling up in their consciousness.

It is a challenge often overlooked by educators, who view such concerns as off topic or, worse, attempts to change the subject. Unless your gifted teen is in an accelerated program, such treatment cuts to the core of self-confidence. Your child wonders why he or she is the only person pondering such concerns as life after death, causality in the universe, the nature of meaning, and the very purpose of life. Even in supportive academic environments, oftentimes the gifted adolescent struggles quietly to make peace with existential concerns that apparently are of no significance to other classmates.

When your adolescent is also at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, which we used to refer to diagnostically as Asperger’s syndrome, the angst and alienation can remain locked inside to an even greater extent. They manifest in withdrawn behavior, preference for solitude, and intense acting out in frustration.

Often, working with a counselor who understands the nature and implications of intellectual giftedness as well as autism is a tremendous gift you can give your adolescent. There may be initial resistance to such a suggestion, but if you approach it in a matter-of-fact manner, you may be able to convince your adolescent that seeking such help is not an indication that there is any underlying pathology.

After all, you hire a CPA to manage your books and a gardener to maintain your flowerbeds. It is simply a matter of enlisting the assistance of an expert for assistance in an area in which one has no personal expertise.

If you are looking for a therapist for your child, be certain to ask about the therapist’s experience with and understanding of the combination of intellectual giftedness and high-functioning autism. It may be a challenge to locate such a specialist in your area, because this is a narrow clinical specialty.

However, if you select a therapist who is not aware of the nature of this combination, you are at risk for setting your child up for a disappointing experience which may result in the choice of refusing any further attempts at working with a therapist— or the sentiment, “all therapists are the same, and they don’t understand me any better than my teachers do.”

The therapist directory on GoodTherapy.org is a good place to start. Also, ask your school counselor if there are any therapists whom they can recommend. Parents of other gifted teens might also know of someone who could be helpful to you.

Take your time. It is better to wait until you find the right therapist than it would be to risk an encounter that leaves your teen feeling that not even the world of psychotherapy understands his or her experience in this world.

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  • bella

    bella

    December 9th, 2013 at 3:02 PM

    Just like with anything else that falls outside oft he norm it is best to receive a diagnosis very early on so that the needs of the child can be met from the beginning of the learning process.

  • Drake

    Drake

    December 10th, 2013 at 3:51 AM

    I guess there are those who used to think of these kids as just strange or too smart for their own good. I am sure that for them and for their families it is great to know that there is now a name for this, and that there are those out there who can help them to make more sense of what may in the past have seemed too off base to touch. I knew kids like this in high school and they were always kind of ostracized, and now I think of how much farther they may could have gone had they only had the support like this is advocating for.

  • Pam g

    Pam g

    December 11th, 2013 at 3:46 AM

    Mostly I think that many parents would just be happy knowing that there are answers out there available to them that they may not have been aware of before.

    Where there is now recognition that this is a reality that many families of gifted children live with, just knowing that there are resources and information available to them is a huge help.

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    December 11th, 2013 at 9:16 AM

    Thank you for your replies, Bella, Drake, and Pam. I agree that knowing there is help available is comforting to families. I see it in my clients when they discover that they are not the only ones who face this situation with their gifted children. The relief is palpable – and I can see it in their body language. I am honored to have the opportunity to work with these families.

  • shay

    shay

    December 14th, 2013 at 6:20 AM

    I never thought about the difficulties that could face kids like this.

    I have always thought about how lucky they are to be so smart and talented without ever thinking about how deep many of their worries and concerns have to go when others aren’t focused on the smaller problems of life in general.

    There has to be a loneliness to living like that that most of us would never be able to understand so I can see why so many exceptionally brilliant people turn into these tortured souls, mainly because they probably have very little relatability with others and feel misunderstood much of the time.

  • Sarah S

    Sarah S

    December 14th, 2013 at 5:34 PM

    Shay, you make several good points. I think many individuals like this go through life with people assuming that if they are so smart, they should be able to handle everything that may come their way. Yes, there is a loneliness that comes with it that is intensely painful, and you’re right – it is often accompanied by a sense of dread that there’s nowhere to go with the pain. These are the reasons I chose this area as the specialty for my psychotherapy practice.

  • Suzanne

    Suzanne

    May 19th, 2014 at 8:02 PM

    I am the mother of one of these kids. My 17 year old son is quite brilliant yet suffers from social anxiety. He was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder (NOS) but refuses to seek therapy. So I, myself, am seeking therapy from a therapist who is experienced in these matters. It is hard for my son to understand other peoples emotions. He says he doesn’t like his father and doesn’t understand why that affects our family or why that would hurt his fathers feelings. It’s very difficult. He’s a good kid, very smart but I’m not sure he will be able to function in college on his own.

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