Using giftedness to mask autism. Ever noticed gifted autistic girls?

This is another bookish post, based on having read Roeper (1982) How the gifted cope with their emotions yesterday.

Having been 99% sure that everything points to me being an aspie, I wanted to check the last other possibility that seemed open, namely that most of my social unusualness and permanent feelings of isolation (or there being some kind of “glass wall” between me and most people, as I call it) can be attributed to growing up as what they called a gifted child.

I understand that people may have allergies to the concept of “gifted” or find it snobbish – certainly every person, that includes non-verbal and severely challenged people, has (and is) a gift to the world and themselves. I’m using the term here in the old-school, conventional sense of easy academic achievement and IQ and perhaps special talents (in arts, music, maths, language, etc.).

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Bragging about the past

I had all of that (except much musical talent … was hard to overcome this and start using music as the avenue to self-expression that I needed, without the pressure of having to be “gifted” at that). My mum says by the age of two I was better at visual puzzles than the adults. At school I sailed through without having to study (being present and listening and using logic in exams sufficed), at university I kept getting scholarships (that I didn’t even realise were supposed to be hard to get) up to PhD level. That wasn’t really because I put effort into this – in fact, at one point (I think finishing one of my Master’s degrees) I realised that I … kind of totally don’t care.

It was just what I was used to do and what came easy. It had lost any sense of personal significance long ago, if it ever had had any, beyond pleasing my parents whom I loved a great deal.

The truth was, I had no idea who I was and what I wanted.

I just knew I was completely terrified of making mistakes, and of not being “the best” at something.

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Landing on earth

Of course, the moment had to come when I wasn’t the best at something (academic; I didn’t care about social prestige, money and possessions and such), even if I tried fairly hard to deny or ignore or downplay that.

(That was probably at a relatively prestigious computational neuroscience PhD program I applied to just because I was in love with a girl there. Somehow got in. There was a crazy concentration of incredibly smart people there, many of whom were gifted in versatile ways – in addition to being neuroscientists being composers with perfect pitch, jazz musicians, erudite historians, artists, humanitarians – that was perhaps the first time I felt that my skills at anything were not only totally unimpressive but close to ridiculous.)

That happened at the age of 27 though.

That’s really late.

Ok, I had managed to lie to myself for a very long time – but quitting that PhD program, for various reasons, one of them being that for the first time I would actually have to study and get my butt to work, which I had no idea how to do; another being that I don’t enjoy hearing/reading about animal experiments (not to mention doing them); and don’t have patience for or really interest in scrupulous, painstaking empirical testing; another being that it really wasn’t my soul’s calling – I was far more interested in other things; in the times when I wasn’t depressed … ok I butchered this sentence.

Anyways. Quitting that PhD program landed me unemployed and confused squatting an abandoned attic in the country I was born (that I hadn’t lived in in 23 years). That was the beginning of realising I had limitations.

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Omnipotence and limitations

Coming back to the article I’ve read yesterday, it discusses how things in the development of gifted children can get jumbled up because of happening on another timeline that isn’t anticipated by anyone.

There are many possible jumbles.

The one that interests me is that apparently all kids initially think they are omnipotent – they can achieve anything, if they just want it badly enough.

Now that’s something a lot of self-help and positive thinking pop psych literature wants you to believe (or at least affirm). But the reality is, kids learn fast that they have limitations. There are things that they can’t do, that adults have to do, or that they will only be able to do when they grow up, that take resources they don’t have, or that humans simply can’t do.

And that’s not a bad thing.

Now that’s embarrassing to say, but I learnt this really late.

To be honest, I’m learning it now, and it’s in part related to realising (at 33) that I’m autistic.

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Unlimited expectations

Roeper (1982) says that kids typically make this realisation of limitations early, and before they start developing a complex conscience. And that has advantages – when the child learns to understand what is right to do, they already have a reasonable concept of their capacities and limitations and hence what they can be reasonably expected to do (or what they can reasonably impose on themselves).

Some gifted kids are an exception – they haven’t yet bumped into big enough challenges to realise and come to terms with the fact that they have natural limits, and hence, some things can’t be reasonably expected from them (even by themselves).

Like perfection.

Like taking responsibility for adults.

Like taking responsibility for each and every instance of evil their sharp senses perceive in the world. And feeling obliged to do something about everything.

(As you may be able to tell, this is the high road to an agonisingly frontal collision with the “real” world and burnout, at some point.)

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Relieved to be limited

I was a kid like that.

And a young adult like that.

It literally took me (about) 30 years to realise (stop denying), accept, and deal with the fact that there are things that I can’t do – that I can’t do even though I’m smart, can analyse, synthesise, strategise, create, construct, express and empathise (yes, all autistic people do that but on top I’m an autistic empath), and … I really want to.

Until recently, I thought I could achieve a lot of crazy things – which wouldn’t be bad if I didn’t also deeply believe (out of an overgrown conscience) that I had to, were I to be a worthy person.

I mean if you know you can (or could), but you don’t bother to – what kind of human being does that make you?

The problem for some gifted ex-kids (like me) may be that we miss (tune out) the signs that could teach us about our true limitations for decades.

(There’s a reason for that, too, though: our self-esteem often hangs on that, and is surprisingly fragile … mine was/is like a snowflake.)

Autism masked by giftedness

My story isn’t just that of a gifted kid (turned eccentric and somewhat lost adult, though I believe at least one with some unique experiences and depth) … it’s that of a gifted autistic kid.

Nobody saw that I’m autistic.

I was just celebrated as gifted.

It wasn’t really that important that I only ever had one friend at a time, and I couldn’t function at school when that friend was absent. Nobody saw the physiological and psychological cost of at all functioning (which became evident in my adolescence with several mental health issues).

I had good grades.

I didn’t act up (instead, I imploded and dissociated, heavily).

I didn’t say anything in class, pretty much through all of school.

I was lonely, lost, and had crazy stress levels – which I didn’t realise, cause that was just life. And apparently everybody envied me (that I could just get A’s without being much bothered to study, solve geometry in my head and write essays and draw sketches that would stun the teachers). My parents were happy with that, too.

I said I had no friends, but nobody seemed to take that seriously, and I quickly shut up (verbalising and asserting our emotional needs isn’t the strength of autistic kids, I’d think).

I cut my arms up at a point, had an eating disorder, and what I now realise were frequent meltdowns. Really frequent – there were few days without them.

These days were surprising, tranquil and somehow otherworldly, like sun shining through fresh, clean, still water.

Who cares about the quiet girl?

I was a girl, too – and both giftedness and autism tend to not be taken seriously in these. (Later I became very gender dysphoric, I don’t identify as a woman now.)

I wasn’t touted around and sent to university lectures like the smart boys (who still took twice as much time as me to solve the computer science problems). I wasn’t sent to psychologists like the boys who acted up (not in).

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Using giftedness to mask autism

In my 20’s I probably used the major portion of my IQ, creativity, persistence and courage to solve my main problem in life – feeling alienated, always feeling like an outsider, feeling that even though there were now more interesting, open, interested people around me – the glass wall was less, but still there.

And these people somehow got stuff done that I couldn’t – they organised activities among themselves, they made special interest groups, they helped each other out – before I even realised how they had done it or what had happened.

I felt terribly alone.

So I used my IQ to read a crazy amount of psychology books, go to every kind of class where I could “meet people”, move countries a crazy amount of times (10? 15?) to make sure that my persistent feelings of isolation weren’t due to cultural factors.

Meeting really a huge variety of people from the weirdest walks of life (too long to list here), I did bump into good environments and compassionate individuals and – I realise that now – slowly built my friendship and relating (and self-relating) skills in that way.

A crumb here, a crumb there.

I learnt.

I didn’t realise I had to learn all that, in this – adventurous, colourful, crazy, sometimes dangerous, sometimes exhilarating, yet – horribly slow and inefficient way, because I was autistic.

And seeing me do all these things, people (again) thought I’m fine.

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Status quo

At this point I’m relieved to realise that I have a (hidden) disability.

I definitely wouldn’t have felt that way a few years back; it would have shattered me.

All these years of experience have given me adventures and a few very precious friends – but these years of trying to blindly fix a problem that I couldn’t understand (much less name) were extremely hard. I’m paying now, at 33 – I’m often exhausted (the autistic meaning of exhausted – I don’t function).

Realising that the “glass wall” was and is autism has two sides.

Relief that this thing whose shape I had been feeling through my failures has a name; and there is information about it. It’s a reality; it’s not “in my head”. Best of all, there are people who have similar experiences, that I can relate to, it seems, so much more easily, and get advice from that is actually relevant for me (not for neurotypicals who can do stuff I can’t and can’t do stuff I do).

The other one is a lingering come-back feeling of old depressions, all the pains I have suppressed. From age 4 to age 30. Thoughts of how my life could have been (and be now) different – that I could perhaps have a job and a relationship at this point, rather than chaos. If I had understood that I’m different and not spent two decades banging my head against all available walls trying to be like others, thinking (childishly) I’m a genius so I can.

Tearing my biology (and relationships) down in the process.

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I think that’s not just an autistic/gifted story.

Many aspects of it are universal. The archetypal journey to find true self.

Yet … this version is rather intense.

 

 

Works cited

Roeper (1982) How the gifted cope with their emotions

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