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Gifted or Autistic?

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: Hi, I'm hoping you could help me regarding my daughter Charli and her behaviors. She's 32 months old. I know it'll be too early to identify if she's gifted, at the moment we've been investigating autism with the pediatrician because she only just started talking at 2.3 years, but everything else she has done not language related points to either being quite bright, or potentially gifted.

For instance she:

  • Lifted her head off my shoulder to look around while still in hospital after birth

  • Spent 5 hours awake directly after birth

  • Usually never slept more than 1/2 hour at a time as a baby and was always a difficult sleeper, and difficult to get to sleep and stay asleep

  • Rolled at 3 months

  • Crawled at 5 months (literally got up and crawled perfectly straight away)

  • Walked at 9.5 months (perfectly - never toddled - walked)

  • Walked up stairs and down stairs, kicking and throwing balls, jumping at 12-15 months with ease

  • Could drop kick a ball perfectly at about 18 months

  • In gymnastics performs everything perfectly and well above her age - jumping, forward rolling etc. as did lots of these things early on anyway

  • Understood high level of instructions from very early on even though didn't speak

  • Barely spoke 10 words until 2.3 years though understood instructions really well

  • At 2.3 years literally just started talking, and now at 32 months speaks fluently 4-5 word sentences and has a huge vocabulary range

  • Did have fluid in her ears for first 2 years of life which may have contributed to language delays

  • Counted as soon as started talking - up to 10 and for a few months now can count 1-1 objects up to 10 and draw lines up to 10 etc.

  • Had obsessions with circles and round things and drawing from very early age - even as a baby

  • Has just become very interested in drawing - suddenly she's drawing full pictures of people and animals with people having accurate oval head, 2 arms, 2 legs, feet, 2 eyes perfect in place, accurate mouth, nostrils, hair, hat, bellybutton and very intricately drawn - sometimes with 2 body parts (tummy/head) and does so better with a pen than crayons - and with a pen draws small intricate drawings

  • Has shown significant autistic behaviors with early on repetitiveness of phrases words and necessity for routine, to have certain things - when anxious blurts out a saying that is stuck in her head constantly

  • Has had social difficulties - never wanted to integrate socially preferred independent play or play with either babies or much older children

  • Has always been a thinker - never smiled much as a baby/young toddler but observes situations rather than getting involved

  • Seems to take things so seriously regarding accomplishing things, but has a most fabulous sense of humor and did as a baby through to now

  • Loved puzzles accomplishing basic puzzles by 15 months or so. By 2 years she could really pick up any of her 20 odd puzzles (with knobs) and knows where each piece goes without hardly looking - if there was a bunch of puzzles on the floor she's know where each puzzle belonged

  • likes to keep things in sets (or do I teach her that - I'm pedantic about that too!)

  • Will sit for ages on one activity - as a baby would lie in her cot for ages reading a book or engaged in an activity she was interested in

  • LOVES books - reads them back to herself now and could read books for hours - in fact many times she's fallen asleep with literally 50 books or more at her feet - notice big difference between DD1 and DD2 here as Charli at 4 months would sit and listen attentively as we read 3-4 books every night, paying attention to every page - whereas Poppy 10 months old can barely sit still for a second and certainly pays no attention to what we are doing. We thought this was just normal behavior of Charli until we had Poppy!

There's probably more, but that's a start. She was seeing a pediatrician and still is because of her lack of social/language skills but with the language skills suddenly taken off, it is more than she doesn't enjoy company of kids her age - almost as if she sees the things they do as boring and silly. For instance, when instructed today to do things at gym in a relay race, she just had this look on her face as in to say 'why' (like put a foam block over your head and sit down) - even though she'd do it if I showed her how, its like she didn't see sense it and therefore didn't want to do it - after a while lost interest and walked off.

I'm actually going to use her as my case study for my Masters of Education research project next year, as she truly puzzles me on a day to day basis. Sometimes she so evidently shows autistic traits, but other times she does things way above her peers, and doesn't really seem to want to play their little games etc.

So hoping with your experience you'd shed some light on it.

My second daughter is achieving milestones early too (she's 10 months) and also shows excellent sense of humor and things like that, figures out how to work things like DD1 did, but at the same time, she's done them more progressively, rather than with DD1 who just suddenly started crawling, walking, speaking, drawing without any seemingly prior development of skills.

Anyway, I find it so interesting and would love your thoughtfulness to this issue!

A: Charli certainly has shown some speedy development for her age. However, to ascertain that she may be autistic or simply above average developmentally is something that warrants some testing in terms of observation by a certified medical professional who specializes in pervasive developmental disorders. This is usually done by 3 years of age. Observation by parents or teachers may not be a very reliable indicator and should be best not used to diagnose autism. From your description, it is rather hard to say if she is gifted or has some developmental disorder since observation by a professional is crucial in this case. There is also a possibility of Charli having Asperger Syndrome, though children diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome usually have normal language development (but normal/above average intelligence) or perhaps gifted with a developmental disorder. Charli had fluid in her ears when very young and that may cause language delays.

Some behaviour associated with autism and Asperger Syndrome are limited communicative ability and reluctance to initiate/sustain communication with other that results in limited ability to make friends, repetitive and unusual use of language, limited imaginative or social play, intensity in focus on subject of interest, preoccupation with objects and reluctance/difficulty of changing patterns or routines.

You would need to firstly, rule out any disorder or if a disorder is determined, the paediatrician would advise you on the course of treatment. Secondly, I believe that whatever the diagnosis may be, Charli appears to be growing quite well, in fact, developmentally in terms of her motor skills, way ahead of her peers. Therefore, all she needs is for you to guide her develop her skills well; and you are indeed doing the right thing for now. Keep her stimulated and help her make the best of her speedy development. Iím afraid I am not able to advise much more as you would need to see a specialist to determine her condition.

Do read the articles on the following site - it may be of interest especially if you plan to do your post graduate project.

Genius May Be an Abnormality
Understanding our Gifted and Complex Minds
Asperger's Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism

Best of luck.


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