Today I’m speaking with Kate Donohue from Dynamic Parenting about the intersection of giftedness and autism.
In the episode, we talk about highly and profoundly gifted children, what autism looks like in gifted children, the intersection of giftedness and autism, and what we need to look out for.
Kate has been working in the disability sector for more than 20 years. She has been a DIR Floortime therapist, kindergarten and schoolteacher, service leader mentor, support worker, and workshop presenter.
Kate’s learning journey really began when she became a parent to 2 neurodivergent girls.
Hit play and let’s get started!
“They need to be able to comprehend our children. Some people just cannot comprehend how diverse our kids are because the giftedness skews all of the disability. So, the disabilities don’t present the way they’re doing the textbooks. .. the clinician needs to have an understanding of the interplay between the disability and the giftedness and sometimes multiple disabilities and giftedness. So, it’s this really unique profile.” – Kate
“It’s not about the behaviours on the outside. It’s not about somebody who looks autistic or doesn’t look autistic. It’s about what the gaps in development are, or what their sensory system is doing, what they need to know to understand other people, and then supporting them to get the supports that they need.” – Kate
“While they’re concentrating so hard on fitting in and understanding others and not making mistakes and not being found out and not being ridiculed. There’s so much anxiety going on. It’s really hard for them to learn. And it’s really hard to have joy and freedom and expression and to become that authentic version of themselves. So masking does have a high cost to people who do mask.” – Kate
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Sophia Elliott: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome today. We’re talking to Kate from dynamic parenting about autism and giftedness. So welcome Kate. Thanks for coming down, talking to us today.
Kate Donohue: [00:00:12] Thank you so much for having me
Sophia Elliott: [00:00:14] It’s an absolute delight. So we might. Just dive straight into it with our first question. First of all, when we’re talking about autism, the autism spectrum, Aspergers, like what’s the correct terminology because it does change over time. So when we’re talking about these issues, what, what’s the kind of language that we should be or could be using?
Kate Donohue: [00:00:40] Yeah. So it’s always great to check with the people in your life who are autistic, what they like to be referred to, how they like to be referred to. So some people want to be called autistic, and that seems to be quite prominent in the autistic community to, to refer to themselves as autistic and to be spoken about in that way.
But some people like person first language. So I am Kate with autism rather than I am Kate and I am autistic. So majority of the autistic community are now becoming very clear that they would like to be referred to as autistic as it’s a part of who they are. It’s a part of their identity. It’s the way they see the world and perceive their surroundings and process and think so it’s not something that’s attached to them.
It’s really an ingrained part of who they are in the world.
Sophia Elliott: [00:01:33] so it’s that difference between being seen as having a problem or a deficiency versus this is the way that my brain works. This is who I am.
Kate Donohue: [00:01:44] exactly. Yeah.
Sophia Elliott: [00:01:46] And some folk might feel as though if they’re referred to, as a person with autism, it’s akin to being, you’re a person with a problem. So that might become offensive if they’re preferring to identify as being autistic and that’s just who they are and the way their brain works.
Kate Donohue: [00:02:07] That’s right. And there are many, many positive things about having a different brain wiring that the autistic community are wanting to celebrate. So there’s a lot of people who say they would like to get rid of their anxiety or their OCD or strong reactions to smells or sounds and sensory processing, but they don’t want to get rid of their autistic brain.
They don’t want to get rid of the way they think because that’s who they are.
Sophia Elliott: [00:02:32] Absolutely a different way of perceiving and being in the world, like a lot of neurodiverse, what we call them labels, I guess, or when we talk about neuro-diverse I know there’s a whole bunch of things that fit into that category. So what would some of those things be?
Kate Donohue: [00:02:52] So being dyslexic, ADHD, sensory processing. Oh, I’m not sure if sensory processing disorder. Is in that because that’s more sensory system,
Sophia Elliott: [00:03:04] Oh, a sensory system, as opposed to necessarily brain wiring.
Kate Donohue: [00:03:08] there’s mental health illnesses can be in that. And it’s, it’s really anything that changes the way or is different to the way typical people process and think.
So some of the things are amazing and brilliant, but some of the things make it really hard to function in society. So it’s not about ignoring the challenges or it’s not about over focusing on them, but just looking at the, in each individual and their profile and knowing that they think and experience the world differently.
Sophia Elliott: [00:03:42] And so we’re also of course talking about giftedness and we can deep dive a little bit here. And what I’d like to have a chat about is that I don’t know, differences, similarities between being autistic, being gifted. And being profoundly gifted cause we were talking earlier about the distinction between gifted and profoundly gifted in terms of that kind of standard deviation the bell curve that, IQ is classically tracked upon the difference between gifted and profoundly gifted would be as much as I think gifted and highly intelligent.
So there’s quite a, there’s quite a gap there as well. So let’s dive into that a little bit. Those similarities or differences of those different ways of being
Kate Donohue: [00:04:29] One of the really fascinating things about our kids who are profoundly gifted and very highly gifted is that they are going to perceive their world very differently. So they are going to see things differently than their peers. And so often our kids. Get so much information that their peers just aren’t having to process.
And what this can do is it can really mean that it’s can sometimes be socially a bit hard for them to navigate the world. So when we have our five-year-olds who are really trying to dive deep into topics that sometimes even adults grapple with, with why the world is the way it is, then they can really have a different social experience.
And this can sometimes be confusing for us looking on and wondering whether they are autistic or not, or whether they are gifted and trying to understand their world differently. But there are some key differences about understanding whether our child is gifted or whether they have autism as well. So one of the big differences is where is their differences coming from?
And often it can sometimes be, look like distress. So when our kids are trying to grapple with the injustices of the world, it can. Really be quite intense and it can sometimes lead to a lot of tears or upset or anxiety. And I guess the big distinction between understanding if, if there is autism involved or if it’s just giftedness, is where is that coming from?
More Transcript Here
Is that coming from their intellectual curiosity? Is it coming from them understanding and having a broader reach in the world and having to process so much more? Or is it coming from other social differences coming from within them and whether they’re able to navigate the world intuitively, do they understand other people?
Are they understanding the normative social rules in this world? Or are they acting in a way that’s indicating to us that they’re not quite getting other people? And if they’re not quite getting other people and we’re seeing little things where. It appears that they’re missing cues or they’re really not reading into other people like their peers are.
Then that might be an indicator that they might be autistic as well, or it’s worthwhile, definitely worthwhile investigating and seeing a professional. And I always recommend talking to the receptionists about what sort of profile the clinician has, because it’s really important to understand both giftedness as well as autism, because sometimes some of the behaviors can look like they cross over.
So when you have a clinician who understands both, you can really tease out what’s happening inside your child.
Sophia Elliott: [00:07:22] so it’s having that good understanding of both giftedness and autism so that you can pick up on those nuances between the two. So we were talking earlier and I was telling you about my eldest who had this moment when he was five standing in front of our fireplace. My husband was home. He was putting the kids to bed.
He came out and my oldest is standing there in tears, but like devastated, just absolutely beside himself crying. And it took my husband 10 or 15 minutes to calm him down. And eventually, you know, in that time I like, Oh my God, what has happened? I’ve never seen him this upset, but eventually my son just says, we’re burning life.
Now he’s looking at this fireplace. And the wood burning is like, we’re burning life. And it took my husband and another half hour to, to calm him down and talk about, that circle of life and, and try and, and ground him a bit, or just kind of pulling them out of what was this existential crisis.
And it was five at the time. And he’s always had that depth quite, you know, that scary depth of understanding. So that would be considered a trait of.
Kate Donohue: [00:08:41] Yes. I would see that as he’s five and he, his emotional maturity just isn’t quite developed enough to keep up with what he’s cognitively comprehending and understanding. So there’s a mismatch within his body to be able to regulate emotionally what’s going on in his brain. So that would definitely may be an indicator that it’s his, he’s struggling with his profound giftedness, as opposed to having maybe something else going on.
Sophia Elliott: [00:09:13] yeah, although I did share another example of my son and the, and I do have quite a few of these kinds of examples from his younger years. And I was saying that, you know, less so as he’s getting older, which is interesting within itself when he was younger. And I’m thinking that kind of age two, three, cause he was a very early talker, very social.
But he, he would make some social errors, like for example, many a time, if we were out, he would think nothing of sitting in between a mum and their child. If, you know, if we were, I’m thinking of one situation, we’re on this little train like at our train museum. And he thought it was quite reasonable for him to go and sit between this mother and child work.
Clearly it was not what one would normally do. Normally one would sit with their own parents rather than feel like that was okay. And yeah, lots of little scenarios like that. And so that’s not a typical behavior and that would be misunderstanding those social cues
Kate Donohue: [00:10:21] Yeah, and was really important to look at. And it’s hard for us as parents. Sometimes we don’t know what other kids are doing. Like we don’t know what typical development is. So really looking at what their peers are doing and asking questions of others around you and watching other kids as well to see what is sort of typical or, or the age that your child’s at.
So sometimes things happen because our kids are young and, and they’re maturing. So, so for example, the case where He was so upset and beside himself for nearly an hour over the fire, that would be an cause he was four. And he was comprehending things about his age level. When you put that age and the cognitive ability together, you come up with an explanation and reason for that.
That makes sense. But if you’re seeing things continually in your child, that they appear a bit different to their peers development socially, then I would advise us, just start writing them down. Just, just start taking notes, because then when you do go and speak to someone, you’ve got that log of history, that of the things that you’ve been.
Sophia Elliott: [00:11:30] It’s tricky. Like it’s really hard as a parent, especially with your first child. I think with any child to know what to look for. And we rely so much on the people in the experts around us. So if we have, you know, one of our children and we have some concerns about these things, and is it giftedness? Is it autism?
Is it both what we’re really then looking for is a assessment. Ideally with someone who has a really solid grounding of both, so they can see those nuances.
Kate Donohue: [00:12:11] It can be confusing for even therapists and psychologists to understand the 2E profile. So two is twice exceptional, so gifted with something else going on. So when our child is gifted, it skews all the other special needs. And it is really tricky because autism looks a bit different in kids who are gifted.
Because they can use their intellect to navigate. They can actually avoid some signs or out external signs. So what we really need to do is look deep within our child and see, are they struggling? Socially? Are things confusing? Them are things not making sense to them because sometimes they can modify their behavior to appear like they understand what’s going on.
And sometimes so some of our kids who are socially motivated that, and they use their intellect. So they put their social motivation together with their intellect and they study other people that can be very fluent socially and often for quite a long period of time. But there are signs. So there often are cracks when they get home because they are so exhausted from having to cognitively navigate and do extra tasks that neuro-typical people don’t have to do to fit into the world and to be social. It can also big changes in development can, can also show signs that something else is going on. So when kids transition into school at five and it can be a really tricky transition, sometimes that’s a period where you can find that your child’s struggling more than you expected, or sometimes when they hit through the teen years.
So when the, when kids particularly girls around 13, if they didn’t get diagnosed early, it sometimes comes about when all their peers start to mature and their social skills. I have a good foundation, intuitive foundation of social emotional understanding that our autistic kids don’t have. They can then launch off and continue to develop where our kids can’t keep up.
Sophia Elliott: [00:14:23] And so girls are, there’s a whole other thing about girls isn’t there, you know, and
let’s talk a little bit about our girls and what that might look to look like if they’re both autistic and gifted. So how would that differ? Or, I don’t know. So what yeah, what does that look like?
Kate Donohue: [00:14:45] Sometimes it, it doesn’t look different. There’s there’s girls who and these are usually the girls that get diagnosed that their presentation is quite similar to boys. And they’re the ones that get diagnosed. Now there’s a lot of information out there around the trajectory that understanding autism has gone along and primarily it was the research was around boys, the boys presentation the girls weren’t really researched and put in to that information.
So what we’re looking at is really more of a boy profile. That said, sometimes boys do have more of a what is known as the female presentation. So it is really just an alternative presentation.
Sophia Elliott: [00:15:25] Yeah. So it’s not The, so the research isn’t saying it’s a masculine, feminine thing or a gendered thing. It’s just more of an understanding that actually it can present itself in different ways, but at the moment, we’ve our knowledge is really based on this one particular way that we, we call boys.
But actually isn’t boys. It’s just one way. Okay. Good to know.
Kate Donohue: [00:15:44] Yes. And so there’s this profile that is more known as the girl profile. That is really the person who is very socially motivated. They tend to be able to mask well, but, and people will often say, Oh great, that’s good. They can then fit into school. They can then fit into life.
They’re more likely to be successful. Right. They’re also more likely to have mental health problems because. They don’t know who they are, their identity and their sense of self is, is really quite unsteady because they’ve always had to pretend to be someone else they’ve always had to pretend to be different.
And also why they’re concentrating so hard on fitting in and understanding others and not making mistakes and not being found out and not being ridiculed. There’s so much anxiety going on. It’s really hard for them to learn. And it’s really hard to have joy and freedom and expression and to become that authentic version of themselves.
So masking does have a high cost to, to people who do mask.
Sophia Elliott: [00:16:46] And I know, I know a few not just women, but men as well, who have had diagnosis of various things as adults. And I always think there’s that power in knowing yourself isn’t it. And they always talk about the huge relief that, that brings that they finally understand themselves the way they ticktheir life makes sense.
And they can start to. It’s almost like, um, exist in the world in a new way, but a way that is better for them. And not at that cost that you talk about, you know, it’s not coming out that cost, but they’re, they’re understanding themselves so they can navigate it differently. So there’s not such that high cost.
Kate Donohue: [00:17:27] what we want for our children. And we want them to understand themselves so that they can become their own advocate. If they don’t know that they have sensory processing differences and they’re not supported to understand what works for them and how they can support themselves in stressful situations.
We’re not we’re not equipping them with a toolkit that they need to navigate successfully. So when we help our children to understand who they are, then we can empower them to then. Understand themselves enough that they can then be independent or with support and, or we support depending how their profile goes to be able to go, right.
I’m going to go into a situation. That’s going to be really overloading for me. So these are the things I’m going to do before I go in. And these are the things that I’m going to do during, and these are the things I’m going to do afterwards. But if we don’t help them to understand themselves, they don’t know what to do.
And then they just have to grin and bear it or avoid it or shut down and, or these other secondary behaviors and anxieties and other things that don’t necessarily need to be there if they understand themselves and they’re supported to understand themselves,
Sophia Elliott: [00:18:35] Which leads to that idea that there’s something wrong with them and that they’re broken because they don’t
Kate Donohue: [00:18:41] you
Sophia Elliott: [00:18:41] manage in the world the way other people do. And, and all of those mental health issues, like you say, and that could lead to all sorts of anxiety and depression. No doubt. Okay. So that leads me on to, I’d asked you earlier about the idea of autism as a spectrum, but you’d actually said.
Actually we’re moving away from the idea that this is linear into a different model. So tell us a bit about that because I hadn’t come across that before. That was really interesting
Kate Donohue: [00:19:12] Yeah. So traditionally we’ve as a society thought of autism. As at one end, we have people who struggled to talk, struggle to go to the toilet by themselves, struggle to have Autonomy and go to work or engage in school, engage with other people. At that end, we often used to call that end of the things more like severe autism.
And then at the other end, we had what people would label as mild or a little bit autistic where people were intelligent. They could go to school and communicate and appear typical in the world. The problem with this model is that the people that severe end ended up getting a lot of therapy and supports and help, but they weren’t necessarily empowered and given as many opportunities to thrive in the world and to find their unique version of themselves.
Whereas at the other end of the spectrum where people were sort of just placed in our mainstream schools and expected to be okay, because they could. Appear to be okay. At times they didn’t get the, all of the supports that they needed to be able to understand themselves and navigate. So neither end of the spectrum really got the support, the individualized supports that they needed.
So what we’re moving towards now is really looking at a profile or sometime it’s pictorially drawn as a wheel where we look at the individual parts of the person, look at their profile and see what they individually need. Some people who would have been called mildly autistic actually have need quite a lot more support than somebody who might be severely autistic because of their profile because of what they need to feel.
Okay. And be okay in the world. So we can’t really judge somebody by what we see. It’s not about the behaviors on the outside. It’s not about somebody who looks autistic or doesn’t look autistic. It’s about what. The gaps in development are, or what their sensory systems doing, what they need to know, to understand other people, and then supporting them to get the supports that they need.
Sophia Elliott: [00:21:23] Thank you. That’s really helpful shifting away from that linear concept to a different model of thinking about it and yeah, that really rephrases it for me.
Kate Donohue: [00:21:35] There’s also some really exciting new research around reframing how we say autism, where we’re looking at what they’re calling double empathy. So when we have a group of autistic people together, they can really communicate, understand and empathize with each other really well. When we have a group of neuro-typical people together, they can also communicate, understand and empathize with each other really well, but where the problem lies is when we mix these two different communication styles.
And that’s where the barriers to communication and understanding arise. So what the research has now starting to show is that it isn’t that. People who are autistic at a deficit in their communication and empathy at all, all it is showing is that there’s a mismatch in understanding each other, but because the autistic community are in the minority, they’ve definitely been labeled as the ones with the communication and empathy problems.
But it’s coming out now that it’s just differences.
Sophia Elliott: [00:22:37] It’s just different. So it’s in that scenario where you’re just miscommunicating with someone, but it’s like, you know, you’re doing it wrong because clearly I’m doing it. Right. But actually they’re both different.
Kate Donohue: [00:22:50] just different.
Sophia Elliott: [00:22:51] That’s a whole new way of looking at it. Isn’t it?
Kate Donohue: [00:22:53] that’s right. And people aren’t meeting each other’s needs, so they’re not connecting, they’re missing each other. And it’s just a difference. And I know many, many beautiful, empathetic, caring, autistic people who.
You do communicate in their way that works for them. And together they support each other. I know other mums who come and visit each other when one’s in hospital or supports each other with their kids. So they really provide a lot of care and support for their friends, but they do it in a way that they understand.
Sophia Elliott: [00:23:24] Well, that makes me think of just in terms of that communication example is I was reading an article recently about companies who are getting more savvy to the many strengths of an autistic person in terms of the way their brains, wired differently and, and where those strengths can be in terms of different industries and obviously tech.
Maths kind of computing is one that comes up a lot, obviously not the only one, but certainly comes up a lot. And this particular company had adjusted the way that they do interviews because they were expecting people to communicate typically in that situation and those interviews, weren’t catering for the fact that autistic people would communicate differently and therefore they weren’t getting the job, but actually have the ex excellent skills for that job.
So there’s that situation where expecting communication to look like one thing. And because it doesn’t look like that, they’re not jumping through those hoops that, they weren’t getting the jobs, but it didn’t mean that they weren’t excellent candidates for that job.
Kate Donohue: [00:24:33] Yeah.
Sophia Elliott: [00:24:33] So, but it’s just means yeah, we have to adjust.
Kate Donohue: [00:24:36] the environment to suit the diversity that we naturally have in our population.
Sophia Elliott: [00:24:41] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Really important. So, okay. So given that conversation. I know and have been in that situation where I’ve been talking to parents and about their child and they have raised with me that the teacher at school has suggested that they get an autism assessment because they’re having some challenges and, and they’re immediately thinking it’s autism, but we know that giftedness can get misdiagnosed as both autism or ADHD as well.
So there’s obviously some crossovers between them. So what does that look like in the classroom sometimes? So we were talking before about meltdowns passions, those kinds of things.
Kate Donohue: [00:25:34] Yes. So there’s some interesting changes happening as well, because obviously over excitabilities were quite heavily used to explain
Sophia Elliott: [00:25:44] the buzz word for giftedness,
isn’t it? Yeah.
Kate Donohue: [00:25:47] really stating that gifted kids do everything a bit more intensely, including, you know, emotional regulation or sensory staff could, all we described as over sensitivities, that’s changing as well.
And the line that I like to support parents to go along would be like, is this what your ex, what your child’s experiencing, whether it’s intensity of emotions or some of our kids are really energetic and seek a lot of movement, or whatever’s going on, ask yourself, is this affecting their function? Is this affecting their ability to engage in learning or friendships or bedtime?
Is it also affecting our family as a whole? Is it something that we’re really having to juggle and consider and put a lot of effort into? So when we’re looking at whether something is just. A part of who they are or is it something that we need to see a professional about? I always like to think about, is it over the line of effecting our daily or our family life and our functioning, so that way we can really try and get
on, is it something that we really do have to have accommodation of support for?
They’re not really able to navigate very easily on their own. Another thing that I always like to consider when we’re looking at a child or supporting a child who’s gifted and may have other things going on as well, is that there can be some considerable crossover in presentation. So things like The.
Robust intellectual curiosity can turn into very passionate inquiry and something that our little people loved talk and explore and go deep into just the same as the passions for somebody who’s autistic, where they love to go deep down and talk about and, you know, sort of roll around and, and, and, and just explore their passions in, in depth.
Those two things can look very similar. So sometimes people might be like, Oh wow, that kid might be autistic because they don’t understand giftedness very well. So it could be giftedness, but it’s when you start putting all the dots together, when your child has a lot of the traits, say such as, you know, sensory processing differences that are quite significant and need support when they sometimes are confused or misunderstand other people, or they struggle to either make friends, or if they can make friends, sometimes they struggle to maintain friendships.
And you’re just starting to put these puzzle pieces together. When my daughter was quite small, I was off, I would go to professionals, go look, I’m concerned about this. And then she might’ve got it. You know, she got diagnosed with hypermobility. So I was like, okay. So that’s explaining some of, of the fatigue issues.
It’s explaining some of the things that are going on, but then she also got gut issues, which are not neither of these things are part of the diagnostic criteria, but they’re quite common in kids who are autistic. So we started to get a bit of a collection of things that there were enough dots for me to kind of go, actually, I feel like we need to do a bit more thorough investigation.
So when we were putting some of the sensory stuff together, some of the friendships. Troubles together. Some of the extra things that autistic people experienced research does show there is more gut issues in our kids who are autistic. There’s more prevalence of hypermobility and other muscle related issues.
So for me as a parent, I kind of went, I’m going to these individual people and, and I’m getting these dots, but they’re not joining up and they’re not making, they’re not all these dots together and making everyday life really challenging. So that’s when I kind of was like, right, I need to be really robust because I’m not getting the answers as a parent that I feel my daughter needs to be able to get the support she needs and to be able to thrive.
So we went interstate , found somebody who understood these dots individually and could put them all together for us. And I have two very complex children with multiple things going on. But I really needed to find the right professionals to be able to put all those dots together and find a path and advise us on how to move forward.
Sophia Elliott: [00:30:08] Yeah, it’s really complicated, isn’t it? And it’s not simple. And I’ve found as well. You do need to keep looking, like you say until you find someone who would you say response to your gut instinct? Do you know, like as a parent that you’ve clearly followed your gut until you found those, those answers and someone who’s familiar enough with everything that needs to be known and and got the answer.
Kate Donohue: [00:30:37] They need that, but they also need to be able to comprehend our children. Some people just cannot comprehend how diverse our kids are because the giftedness skews all of the disability. So the disabilities don’t present the way they’re doing the textbooks. So our kids are complex. So you, they need the clinician needs to have an understanding of the interplay between the disability and the giftedness and sometimes multiple disabilities and giftedness.
So it’s this really unique profile.
Sophia Elliott: [00:31:13] absolutely that understanding of giftedness. I’ve definitely encountered that myself. It’s a must. Isn’t it.
Kate Donohue: [00:31:19] Yes. And really being a person centered therapist, someone who looks at your child for exactly who they are and how they’re presenting, rather than trying to fit our children into boxes because our kids do not fit the boxes. They are the kids that are, are different in their presentation. So finding someone who’s willing.
To go outside of the boxes and see, and to really go deep with you in terms of exploring what does your child need? What are their needs? Where are there gaps? What supports do they need? And sometimes often tailoring therapeutic approaches to fit and meet your child.
Sophia Elliott: [00:31:59] Absolutely. And I love that as a way of ending the podcast on a note where we’re seeking people who will see our children for who they are, because that’s the crux of it. Because if we can find people to help us see them, understand them, then we can help them to understand themselves and avoid hopefully many of those adult scenarios and decades.
It might take otherwise for those undiagnosed individuals who have to then figure it all out as an adult thinking the whole time that there’s something wrong with them when actually they just need to understand that their brains work a bit differently from most. Yeah. Thank you so much for coming in today and having a chat.
It’s been really interesting. I love talking about this topic. Because it’s like you just said so interesting how giftedness affects the way that other quirks look. And it’s a whole other level of understanding those quirks and, and it’s harder to dig into that as well. So I really appreciate your time today and coming to talk to us about that.
Kate Donohue: [00:33:10] Thank you. Absolute pleasure.