A few words of preface to this piece: I grew up as undiagnosed autistic with a gifted label, so my experience is different from what doubly exceptional children today experience. There were no social stories or social skills classes when I was a kid. Asperger’s Syndrome didn’t become an official diagnosis until I was 25. If you’re younger than I am and grew up with the doubly exceptional label or you have a child who is doubly exceptional, I’d love to hear about the differences or similarities in your/their experience.
Remember how, back when you were in school, there was one day of the week that was better than all the others? Maybe it was pizza day or the day you had band practice or art class. There was always one day that you looked forward to all week, right?
In sixth grade, for me that day was Friday. On Friday, I got to leave my regular classroom and walk down the hall to the TAG classroom. TAG stood for Talented and Gifted–a town-wide pilot program that accepted two sixth graders from each of the five elementary schools in our small suburb.
Ten geeks, eight of whom were boys. Ten kids who happily poured over reference books on Blitzkrieg and backgammon while the rest of the town’s sixth graders were wrestling with the math and reading curriculum we’d finished the year before.
Looking back, in addition to being gifted, most of us were probably on the spectrum as well. We were all socially awkward to some degree. None of us had to be asked twice to choose a topic for our Type III independent research projects. We came to class lugging backpacks filled with resources. We had entire libraries at home on the subjects we wanted to explore.
No matter what we asked to study, Mr. M, the aging hippie who taught the class, encouraged us. When I told him I wanted to “study” MAD magazine for my second project, he explained the concept of satire and helped me work out why the comics were funny.
TAG was aspie heaven. If I spent the afternoon curled up in a beanbag with my stack of MAD magazines, no told me to return to my seat. If I was the only kid in the class who brought a bag lunch because I couldn’t stomach the school pizza, no one at the lunch table made fun of me. If I needed to have a joke explained, even a whole magazine full of them, there was Mr. M, sitting at his desk, ready to patiently answer our questions with humor and honesty and not an ounce of condescension.
He thought we were the coolest kids around and in that classroom, we thought we were too.
Today, kids like the ones I shared the TAG classroom with are labeled doubly exceptional or twice exceptional. Back then we were the geeks and the nerds. Particularly if you were a girl and you were smart, people seemed to expect you to be weird. “Normal” girls weren’t smart and smart girls were quirky.
Adults wrote off our quirks as a byproduct of our intelligence. They sent us out to the playground and expected us to figure out how to navigate the social minefields that lurked within kickball games and jump rope circles. We were smart. We would get it eventually. When we didn’t, they reminded themselves that we were smart and because we were smart, we would get by.
And we did, but not always in the way they hoped we would.
As the concept of giftedness evolved, some theorists put forth the idea of giftedness as “asynchronous development,” suggesting that gifted children reach intellectual milestones faster than other children but lag in cognitive, social and emotional development. Proponents of this theory say that children who are hyperlexic, for example, develop in a fundamentally different way because they have access to advanced ideas at an earlier age than other children.
While this may be true of some gifted children, for many it serves to shift the focus away from their developmental disability–explaining it away as a byproduct of their giftedness. It’s easy to look at this model and assume that these children will just magically catch up with their peers developmentally. After all, they’re smarter than their peers. What’s keeping them from being just as adept in the social and emotional realms?
This is a bit like taking a kid who’s a good baseball player, throwing him in the pool, then being surprised if he sinks like a rock. What do you mean he can’t swim? If he’s athletic enough to hit a baseball, surely he’s athletic enough to swim.
Does my metaphor of a drowning child seem extreme?
If you spent your recesses and bus rides and summers at camp getting mercilessly bullied, physically threatened or worse, you probably wouldn’t think so. For kids who are developmentally disabled but intellectually gifted, expecting them to get by on intelligence alone is the equivalent of throwing them in the deep end of the pool without teaching them to swim first. It’s leaving them to drown–emotionally and mentally–all the while telling them how smart they are.
When a Strength Isn’t Always a Strength
Not that encouraging intellectual strengths is a bad thing. Unlike kids labeled developmentally disabled and given a deficit-based course of therapy designed to “fix” them, doubly exceptional kids have an advantage in their intelligence. It allows them to mask a huge portion of their disability.
Oh, wait–is that really an advantage?
Masking our disability with coping strategies and adaptations means that when we fail to hide something, people assume we’re not trying hard enough. Or we’re being deliberately obstinate. Or that we’re lazy, defiant, insolent, shy, ditzy, or scatterbrained.
“What’s wrong with you?” they ask incredulously. “You can memorize the batting averages of the entire Major League, but you can’t remember to put your homework in your backpack?”
And so the doubly exceptional child grows up thinking, “If only I tried a little harder . . .”
No matter how hard she tries, the refrain never changes.
Can’t hold down a job. Can’t finish a degree. Can’t maintain a relationship. Can’t seem to do the things an average adult can do.
“What’s wrong with you?”
If only I try a little harder . . .
There is no gifted class in adulthood. No one cares if you can memorize all 20 spelling words after looking at them once. You don’t get to escape life on Fridays, reading MAD magazine while the sounds of the playground drift in through the open windows.
When you arrive in adulthood lacking the social skills that most people have mastered by sixth grade, life becomes exponentially more confusing and hard to navigate. For much of my adulthood, I’ve had the odd belief that someday I would “grow up” and suddenly feel like an adult. That I was just a little behind the curve when it came to social skills and one day everything would magically fall into place.
I don’t know when or how I was expecting this to happen. It’s illogical. Maybe it stems from the belief that social skills are intuitive rather than a skill set that needs to be learned.
Neurotypical people acquire social skills primarily by absorption; autistic people need to be taught social skills explicitly. When we’re not, we’re no more likely to learn them intuitively than a typical person is to pick up algebra intuitively.
Maybe that’s where the problem lies. Adults often assume that if a kid is smart enough to learn algebra in elementary school, he or she is smart enough to figure out social rules too. But who would expect the reverse to be true? What rational adult would say to their kid, “you’re smart enough to find friends to sit with at lunch, why can’t you figure out how to solve this linear equation yourself?”
I (Actually Don’t) Know What You’re Thinking
Even as I write this, I find myself cringing internally. Do I sound like a whiner? Shouldn’t I be thankful for the advantages my intelligence gives me?
Again, I find myself arriving at the notion that if I just tried harder, just applied the intellectual resources I have, I’d be fine.
Yes, intelligence helps. In particular, it helps me identify patterns and come up with rules–rules that any neurotypical adult could tell me, if I asked them.
If I thought to ask. Which I often don’t.
For example, at a get-together at a neighbor’s house, I accidentally knocked over a wine glass. The glass broke; I apologized.
Years later, while reading an etiquette book, I learned that I should have offered to replace the glass. This sounds like common sense now, but it’s not a rule I would have intuited or even thought to ask someone about.
Perhaps this is why the invitations for drinks at that neighbor’s home abruptly stopped? Did they find me insufferably rude? I have no idea.
Worse, when I mentioned the rule to my daughter, she frowned and said, “You didn’t know that?”
There are hundreds of unwritten social rules like this one. I have no idea how people learn them. Perhaps they don’t. Perhaps after a certain point, it becomes all about the dreaded perspective taking. You break a glass and think, “If I were the hostess, what would I want my guest to do to make this better?” And the obvious answer, when I think about it like that, is “offer to compensate for the loss.”
One Rule at a Time
Generally, I learn a social rule by reading about it, having someone explain it to me or seeing it in action. Unfortunately, many rules are executed privately, so there is no chance for me to observe them. The polite guest gets the hostess alone in the kitchen and asks about the cost of replacing the glass. (So says Emily Post.)
Even more frustrating: I’ve had people offer to replace something that was broken at my home. To me, that rule is, “If a guest breaks something in my home, they’ll offer to pay for it.” I don’t instinctively reverse the rule to apply to myself as the guest. If you’ve heard it said that autistic people aren’t good at generalizing, well, there you go.
There’s something at work here that has nothing to do with intelligence.
I’m smart and I’m developmentally disabled. One does not cancel out the other.