Aspergers or just Intelligent?

In category Gifted & Aspergers

One of the sugar-coatings used to make the Aspergers label attractive to people is that it sometimes coincides with high intelligence.

Leaving aside the varying definitions of intelligence for this discussion, it does seem that a large number of very intelligent children get diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome because they don’t fit in with children of their own age or they don’t display age-appropriate behaviour.

Parents will sometimes grasp the label as a means of getting some sort of assistance within the school system for their unhappy children. The disability label also gives school staff an excuse be a little more flexible in their expectations and the way they treat the child. It seems like the easiest solution in the short-term but it has many drawbacks.

Let’s look at the situation in another way…

An intelligent child with an enquiring mind is told by everyone that school is a place you go to learn new things. How exciting is that! But when they get there, they find…

  • the curriculum is stuff they’ve known for years
  • even if it’s something they don’t already know they are told over and over and over again to make sure they get it
  • teachers talk to them as though they are babies
  • they are told they are not old enough to know things
  • sometimes teachers tell them they are wrong even when they know they are right
  • teachers expect you to accept what they say as fact, even when it isn’t
  • sometimes teachers don’t say what they mean or mean what they say
  • teachers think that learning is work and wasting time is more fun
  • they are surrounded by other children who don’t seem troubled by this

What’s more, school is supposed to be the place where you can make new friends, but they find…

  • the other children like to talk about different things
  • the other children don’t like to talk about anything they find interesting
  • the other children (and the teachers) don’t get their jokes
  • the other children (and the teachers) usually don’t like it if you know more than they do
  • it’s very hard to fit in with the group
  • not fitting in with the group can be lonely and even dangerous
  • there is a tendency for groups to gang up on those who don’t fit in
  • it’s normal to push and shove to get what you want
  • it’s normal to bully and lie

What is an intelligent child to do in such hostile circumstances?

Keep your head down, don’t argue, fit in.

It takes a lot of work and is stressful but it’s possible. You do it by developing strategies like tuning out, focusing on your own interests, not meeting the teachers eyes when they are being unreasonable. Sometimes you find yourself using repetitive physical movements to relieve the stress. To the outside world you are displaying all the symptoms of Asperger Syndrome. To them in their “normal” world, your responses just don’t make sense. To you, their version of the world doesn’t make much sense either.

Donning the Asperger label might mean that you can get a slightly different curriculum. It might mean that teachers don’t get quite so upset that you don’t respond to them the same way the others do. If you’re lucky they will try to stop bullying but don’t bank on it. It might mean that your parents and your teachers don’t fight so much.

You have to decide for yourself the relative benefits and costs.

So, why the increase in Aspergers Syndrome? What’s changed?

Where a generation ago, such a child might have been accelerated, or had special lessons, or might have been a bit of an eccentric left to their own devices and able to drift through school, changes in the philosophy of schooling have meant that there is a greater demand for age-based conformity – the “normal” box is getting smaller…

  • There is a greater emphasis on equality and rigid age-based classification of children.
  • Intelligence is dismissed as just having advantages or even hothousing.
  • Acceleration and streaming by ability are out of fashion.
  • Teamwork and “social skills” are seen as more important than education.
  • Sport fits into age-based teamwork, intellectual ability does not.

So, I would ask all those professionals diagnosing intelligent children who have troubles at school just how they tell the difference between the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome and the symptoms of chronic stress and survival strategies of a child who is in a hostile school environment.

It won’t make you many friends but maybe we all owe it to a generation of children who are caught up in a much bigger battle.

This does not mean for a moment that I am saying that intelligence and Asperger’s Syndrome go together. An intelligent child in an appropriate school situation won’t be stressed or develop the behaviours described. A child of similar intelligence to their classmates could suffer similar levels of stress and behaviours for completely different reasons. It is the wider social situation and context that needs to be examined.

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