A Fine Line Between the World of Giftedness and Autism
She cannot get her face any closer to the paper. Her eyes move furtively. Using the rivets on the pads of her fingers, she navigates through the results of the graph. Comparing her three-year-old little girl to other little girls her age feels more like a critique as she studies her daughter’s assessment. As a mother, she should be excited about her daughter’s progress; but her eyes continually dart towards the areas of deficit. Her mind sprints as if it is in a race against the clock.
What can she do right now to help her daughter build on her socialization skills? What services can she afford that would help get her daughter on the same level as other little girls her age?
She cannot sleep because the guilt weighing on her chest feels suffocating. She feels as if she can never do enough. Autism… a never-ending life of comparing. A never-ending life of what seems to be never good enough—for the parent and for the child.
As there may be conflicting opinions, physicians have recently conjectured that the great Albert Einstein may have had autism.
We will never know because diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were not prevalent back then. In fact, diagnoses of autism may have been completely nonexistent. Perhaps, however, what we categorize as autism today may have been thought of as “giftedness” during Albert Einstein’s lifetime.
There seems to be a very fine line between the world of giftedness and autism. They may actually be the same thing.
As cliché as it may sound, perception is reality.
In today’s society, perception of reality has morphed into something much different than it was during Einstein’s day.
Might it be that our perception of autism is skewed and teetering much more toward the negative side, because our society has such a negative perception of the world around us?
No one ever really delved deeply into Einstein’s deficits because of his high intelligence. Society’s perception of reality was much different during his time. People saw him for what he produced.
Einstein once said, “My passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility has always contrasted oddly with my pronounced lack of need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities. I am truly a ‘lone traveler’ and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart…”
In four sentences, spoken by Einstein, every red flag points Einstein in the direction of autism with his inability to socially connect with anything in human nature that was not math-related.
Einstein made this statement as an old man. There was an entire lifetime of inability to socialize. Yet no one obsessed over his social weaknesses.
So, what if Einstein was a child today with autism? He’d be placed in a heavily structured environment with intense applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, controlled activities to build socialization skills, and an ordered exposure to life situations. He would never be good enough and would be unceasingly picked apart.
Under these circumstances, would Einstein have been able to accomplish all that he did? If we spent days and nights with little Einstein working on socialization, would the bud of his genius ever grow as it did?
Perhaps, instead of thinking of children with autism as having a disability, perhaps we can think of them as having a little bit of Einstein in them. Perhaps we need to loosen the ties of “structured,” and see what “unstructured” bursts from the seams.
Perhaps, just perhaps, we need to be more like Israel.
In 2016, Tamir Pardo created a unit in the Israeli military to help integrate young adults with autism into the workforce. Pardo focused on each adult’s savant, each adult’s genius, and created jobs for them. He referred to them as autists—not someone with a diagnosis, but someone with a talent, like an artist or a guitarist.
He gave them glory, versus a debilitating diagnosis.
Pardo focused on their obsessions, their abilities to pay close attention to detail, their abilities to have an exceptional long-term memories and impressive math skills, their great abilities at repetitive tasks, and their enhanced motion perceptions.
Pardo explained that when there were any changes in the terrain, such as a gradually moving object, or something slightly increasing in size, his autists picked up on it immediately. These details were missed by everyone else’s naked eye. Pardo’s special unit excelled because he accepted them just the way they were.
As Einstein elaborated on his inability to socialize, most will say that, despite his intelligence, there should have been an effort to help Einstein with his socialization skills. I agree.
However, was Einstein really socially inept? In his eyes, sure; but in reality, no.
Einstein evolved with age, forcing him to socialize without him noticing it. Through the maturing of Einstein’s mathematical genius, he was forced to socialize because of his discoveries; and everyone who interacted with him was interested in his obsession: mathematics.
Through his obsessions, Einstein was forced to break the bonds of his inability to socialize. Slowly, Einstein, through associations connected to his discoveries, was able to relate to others. He was comfortable talking about mathematics, and that made him comfortable being social with people.
In Einstein’s path, compared to today’s path of someone with autism, perhaps we are doing it wrong. Perhaps we should be embracing obsessions and interests, using them as a gateway to open doors that seem closed.
In today’s structured way of life for those with autism, who would Einstein be?
Where would Pardo’s special unit be if he molded them into the soldiers he wanted, versus using them for their strengths?
It is natural, out of parental love, that parents of children with autism are driven in their desire to create a structured environment…to “fix” their children, to make them “normal.”
It is parental sadness that drives the increase in control over something that seems uncontrollable.
Yet there is a human being underneath that cloak of autism.
Pardo, as well as people in Einstein’s day, had the perspective of acceptance, and they embraced people who were different for what they were.
They nurtured their strengths, as opposed to trying to plant new seeds and telling the seeds how to grow.
The questions for today’s society to ponder are these: Is autism truly giftedness, rather than a disability? And have we, as a society, become “debilitators” through the simple pitfall of silencing obsessions to meet standards?
Maria Rohan RN, BSN, is a registered nurse at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Outside of the nursing field, Maria has dedicated her life to working with children with disabilities, trying to provide the most opportunities possible. Having worked with children with autism for 10 years and having the autism diagnosis in her family, Maria writes interactive workbooks for children with this condition. She molds each workbook to their musical voice patterns, their attention spans, and their likes. She currently sits on the PTO of STEPS Center for Excellence in Autism and continues to let her love for the children plant seeds of movement.
This article was featured in Issue 66 – Finding Calm and Balance