Twice-Exceptional Students:

Autism and Giftedness



A Literature Review




Ellen Baskerville

University of Colorado Denver 






It can be said that many highly gifted and talented people in history have shown traits of autism. Albert Einstein, Bill Gates and Vincent Van Gogh are just a few examples (Davis, Rimm & Siegle, 2011, p.397). These twice exceptional people have contributed greatly to society; their talent is what the world remembers, not their inabilities. Temple Grandin is one of the best-known advocates for the autistic community. Her Book, Thinking in Pictures: My Life With Autism is a narrative in which the reader truly feels what it is like to be autistic. This Literature Review will use Grandin’s work as a platform to show it is clear that autism and giftedness can and do go hand-in-hand when appropriate evaluation and early identification are in place. Both autism and giftedness have a multifaceted definition, the research presented discusses the importance of looking at the whole child and not just one piece of their faceted life.

Autism is one of five pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) often referred to as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The National Institute of Mental health states that people diagnosed with ASD have deficits in social interaction, communication, and often partake in repetitive interests or behaviors (2008). According to the United States National Library of Medicine, “autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first 3 years of life, and affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills” (2010). Autism is a physical disorder where the direct cause is still widely unknown. Combinations of factors such as diet, genetics, and other external factors have been proposed, and the research on this disorder continues to make breakthroughs in this regard.

The nature of the disorder manifests in so many levels and ways that it is often difficult to specify diagnosis. ASD usually displays irregular responses to sensory issues, such as sounds or touch. Lack of eye contact or flat expressions are often seen in children and adults with ASD. Hypersensitivity is also a common symptom to ASD. “Each of these symptoms runs the gamut from mild to severe” (NIMH, 2008, p. 5). Currently, shifting definitions of ASD and the varying levels of disability can cause misdiagnosis and/or create numerous factors involved in how to treat and cope with the disorder.

There is a high occurrence of autistic spectrum disorder diagnosed alongside giftedness. Gifted and talented is not a simple definition to pin point, like autism, it includes varying levels and multiple factors. A concise definition from the United States Department of Education:

Children and youth with outstanding talent perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others their age, experience, or environment. These children and youth exhibit high performance capability in intellectual, creative, and/or artistic areas, possess an unusual leadership capacity, or excel in specific academic fields. They require services or activities not ordinarily provided by schools. Outstanding talents are present in children and youth from all cultural groups, across all economic strata, and in all areas of human endeavor (1993, p.3).

Through this definition parents, educators, and community leaders can begin to tailor to the needs of these exceptional children. Giftedness is often overlooked in reform and scaffolding for education because there is the incorrect assumption that gifted children can get along just fine without additional assistance or guidance. Davis, Rimm and Siegle claim this notion is possible the most detrimental stance towards gifted and talented students, “highly intelligent children also are highly vulnerable” (2011, p.9). The social and emotional sensitivity often manifests into a persistent struggle and can then be labeled as a disability.

Twice-exceptional students are those whom fit two distinct categories, gifted and disabled. Twice-exceptional students in particular are one specific cluster of the gifted population that requires a breadth of support and personal attention. These students are often caught with their disability overshadowing their talents. It is the job of the educators and parent to highlight the gifts and help manage the disabilities. Autism Spectrum Disorder is a common disability that manifests in gifted children.  The asynchronous development seen in many, if not all, twice-exceptional children is extremely prevalent in ASD students. Physical, mental and social growth does not develop at the same rate and problems arise. The research following explains how the asynchronistic development in gifted children with autism makes diagnosis difficult. The research also highlights the importance of parents and teachers as facilitators building positive outcomes for this twice-exceptional population.

Temple Grandin is a profoundly gifted and autistic person who has become an advocate and often the voice for autistic people. Not only is she a professor, author, inventor, architect and scientist, she is autistic. The book Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism chronicles her struggles and achievements as an autistic person. She has a unique viewpoint on giftedness and ASD, “one of the most profound mysteries of autism has been the remarkable ability of most autistic people to excel at visual spatial skills while performing so poorly on verbal skills” (Grandin, 2006, p. 3). Her ability to articulate her struggles has placed her in a position that lends a hand to research in the realm of giftedness and autism, an insider’s perspective to a disorder that often hinders social and language skills.

Like many autistic children, Grandin did not see her disability as a talent. She was ostracized as a child and was an outcast among her peers. It was only after her mother and teachers were able to imagine life through her perspective that she was given proper support to accept herself and grow academically. Assisted persistence by her mother and teacher revealed her a strong empathy for animals. Their encouragement provided a platform where she was able to harness her connection with animals and design one third of the cattle handling facilities in the United States (2006).

 A Profile of Gifted Individuals with Autism: The Twice-Exceptional Learner is an article from Roeper Review. The article describes the symptoms and associations of being twice-exceptional. ASD children are precocious and “possess a broader spectrum of competencies than autistic individuals whose mental abilities are weak” (Cash, 1999, p.8). Gifted children with autism are often caught between two worlds: one where their strengths can thrive and the other where their unusual traits and complexities are overwhelmingly misunderstood. As cited in Cash (1999), “these students have remarkable skills occurring alongside areas of deficit which cause test scores to be uneven or fall below gifted and talented program criteria” (p.9). In connection with much of the research to follow, Cash emphasizes proper evaluation and early identification so these twice-exceptional students receive the correct form of support and structure in their lives and education. The article is an older piece of literature, but it still is a valid source, with background from the American Psychological Association. The strength lies in the detailed suggestions for teachers and parents to assist the twice-gifted children reach their full potential.

The book chapter Gifted and Talented Students on the Autism Spectrum: Best Practices for Fostering Talent and Accommodating Concerns highlights the importance for proper evaluation to take place so “appropriate interventions can be implemented early and effectively” (Foley Nicpon, Assouline, Schuler & Amend, 2010, p. 244). When diagnosis occurs the gifted student can either take the ASD label as a second hurdle to climb or “it can be an empowering discovery that leads to meeting the student’s multidimensional needs” (Foley Nicpon et al., 2010, p. 227).

Foley Nicpon et al. (2010) state the first step to attending to these twice-exceptional learners is a comprehensive evaluation. “Ability, achievement, memory, cognitive processing, fine-motor skills, social-emotional functioning, interpersonal relationships, communication skills, developmental history, behavior, and adaptive functioning” (p. 229) all must be examined. The chapter discusses findings from a project that sought to help educators meet the needs of this special population of twice-exceptional students through increased awareness, enhanced knowledge of evaluation techniques, improve educators’ attitudes towards appropriate interventions, and also by changing the educators behavior when working and implementing procedures for gifted students with ASD.

Results show that gifted students with ASD often take comparatively longer “to process information, and long-term auditory memory is stronger than short-term auditory memory overall.” Results also showed this population “may not be able to demonstrate their true math knowledge under timed circumstances because their difficulties would mask their talents” (Foley et al., 2010, p. 232). This result is also seen in the written language area. Socialization scores were significantly lower than typically considered for their age level, with little facial expression and trouble with rapport as well as little sign of insight into social relationships. Foley et al. results suggest both parent and child must complete a comprehensive evaluation and assessment. The goal is that the evaluation can tailor the intervention, which must include input from the family, child, educator, and therapist in collaboration.

An additional piece of literature also focused on the necessity of proper evaluation. Assouline, Foley Nicpon and Doobay complete a psychometric case study comparison, which “demonstrates the necessity of a comprehensive psycho educational evaluation to ensure prevention of missed diagnosis or misdiagnosis,” (2009, p. 102). Powerful in results, but lacking in breadth the article presents two gifted girls – one with ASD and one without – to show the sensitivity in diagnosing twice-exceptional students. The hypersensitivity and vulnerability in giftedness can manifest as an apparent disorder, making it even more pivotal that evaluation and diagnosis are comprehensive. When comparing the two cases, the girls were virtually identical in the majority of the tests and evaluations. It was the measures specific to ASD, as well as adaptive functioning results where their differences became apparent. With only two subjects to examine, the research has its limitations, but it is significant to note the need for adaptive functioning tests to be included in diagnosing ASD in gifted students.

Asperger’s Syndrome is one of the 5 pervasive developmental disorders on the autism spectrum; it can be referred to as high functioning autism. The article Gifted Children with Asperger’s Syndrome, from the Gifted Child Quarterly, suggests intervention approaches for educators working with gifted children with Asperger’s (Neihart, 2000). As most research on ASD addresses, diagnosing gifted children with ASD can be difficult because of the social, emotional and physical symptoms resemble other problems or normal traits of a gifted child. This article stresses knowledge of the disorder and understanding of each individual child are key to shaping intervention and their learning process.

Neihart touches on the asynchrony of gifted and Asperger’s development; this uneven progress must be acknowledged by educators and parents alike. Sensory integration therapy was suggested to be included in a students learning because it “is designed to improve integration and reduce sensory sensitivity” (Neihart, 2000, p. 225). The articles overall conclusion focuses on the importance of accurate diagnosis so that proper assistance can be given. This literature is a valid and reliable source associated with the National Association for Gifted Children. Within the article there are numerous articles referenced and detailed, the article coincides with Temple Grandin’s book to help shine light on gifted students with ASD in diagnosis and intervention.

The Geek Syndrome is an article from Wired Magazine by Steve Silberman, which discusses a high prevalence of autism in Silicon Valley, the technology center of the United States, and the area regularly rated as the smartest cities in America. This article talks about the genetic connection between highly gifted adults and their children’s chances of being diagnosed with autism. In Grandin’s chapter titled Einstein’s Second Cousin: The Link Between Autism and Genius she points to numerous connections that “intelligence and educational achievements of the parents of an autistic child… are often greater than those of similar parents without any autistic children” (2006, p. 204). She also pointed to the mild traits of autism and that they often show up in the relatives of autistic children.

The article cites a consulting psychologist who suggests this is not just a high prevalence of diagnosis because of changing definitions or previously overlooked children (Silberman, 2001, p. 3). Silberman explains that in Silicon Valley, “the autistic fascinations with technology, ordered systems, visual modes of thinking, and subversive creativity have plenty of outlets” (2001, p.6). When people with a disorder cluster in a specific area the general tendency to mate is high for the genius genes possible connected with autism and the population of Silicon Valley, “in the parents, who carry a few of the genes, they’re a good thing. In the kids, who carry too many, it’s very bad” (Silberman, 2001, p.8). The high prevalence is not always a bad thing. Many people on the autism spectrum, like Temple Grandin, have a different perspective on the world and “it is precisely those differences that make them invaluable to the ongoing evolution of the human race” (Silberman, o2001, p. 9).

Like Grandin’s book Thinking In Pictures, narratives are great insights into autism and giftedness. The Gifted Side of Autism by Penelope McMullen is about a gifted adult grew up without the label of autism, and because of this struggled to identify and explain her quirks that began as a young child. She states that diagnosis helps a gifted person with ASD hone their skills and “build certain strengths as a result of their disability” (2000, p. 240). Understanding of the disorder is a key component to overcoming the restraints it may bring forth. The Gifted Side of Autism cites various research and personal conversations with those who are gifted and autistic, but is not a particularly valid article to base evaluation and intervention.

A brief article linking the connection between giftedness, autism, music and language discusses therapeutic indications to help with intervention.  Gifted children typically “do not pick up on nuance in facial expression such as distinguishing between a happy and sad face but do pick up emotional nuance in music” (Bennett, 2011, p.1). Initial stages of research prove that music can help build language and can strengthen areas of cognitive function. This article is only an update on research yet to be published. There is little validity, but worthwhile in drawing connections and deepening treatment options.

Twice exceptional children and adults juggle their talents and disabilities everyday. As Temple Grandin states, “not all geniuses are abnormal, but the genes that produce normal people with certain talents are likely to be the same genes that produce the abnormalities found at the extreme end of the same continuum” (Grandin, 2006, p. 209). Research shows that there is a fine line between genius and disabled, in fact most of the time this line is blurred. With proper and individualized treatment plans, gifted children and adults with ASD can thrive and even contribute great things to our society.

Without proper research and knowledge in the realm of twice exceptional students, a parent or educator trying to assist the child often is placing a square peg in a round hole. Cohesive understanding must be made to help excel gifted students with autism. As the research has shown, the spectrum is wide and individualized attention must be given to every child. Grandin has embraced her disability and turned her struggles into skills, in her book she says: “I would never want to become so normal that I would lose these skills” (2006, p. 210). She is not alone, “able autistic individuals can rise to eminent positions and perform with such outstanding success that one may even conclude that only such people are capable of certain achievements” (Neihart, 2000, p. 227). As the research proves, proper evaluation and early identification is the key aspect for honing the sills of the gifted children with autism. As a society, we cannot risk to not cultivate their abilities. Autism is a spectrum disorder that does not have a cure, but with correct diagnosis autism can be a blessing in disguise.








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