I’m not “gifted”.

[Author’s note: I’m kind of less happy with this article the more I reflect upon its subject matter. I fully acknowledge it’s not entirely credible from an ‘academic’ standpoint – I kind of didn’t get what “gifted” meant in technical/clinical terms. I’ve had a few conversations with folks more tapped into the research behind, and personal experience of, “giftedness”/asynchronous development/twice-exceptionality and so on, and I realise things aren’t as clearcut as I thought (and actually, there are ways in which I, myself, DO fit this profile). Still, this piece is mostly about emotional response. And in that respect, most of it still stands.]

[Trigger warning: discussion of ableism, and mention of applied behavioural analysis (ABA). Also a hefty dollop of snark, because, well, this topic brings that sort of thing out in me.]


A few weeks ago, a friend shared on Twitter a very annoying graphic she’d come across in a parenting group, featuring an acrostic using each letter of the word “Aspergers”. Now, I could write a whole series of posts about all the separate problems I have with this image, but my fellow autistic Tweeps have those things pretty well-covered, so I’ll just focus on one.

Gifted.

I’m not gifted. I’m bloody clever, certainly. I’ve always managed to succeed academically – for many years with comparably little effort, until it got harder in secondary school as I got older and life made things a little too complicated for me to easily focus and apply myself.

I’m not gifted. I am, however, bloody good at some stuff. Some of it is natural ability – I was drawing far more accurate depictions of human beings at the age of three than pretty much any other preschoolers I, my parents, or anyone in their extended familial and friendship network knew of. Even so, with anything I’m good at that I was naturally able at, I’ve worked hard to shape, hone, and nurture through conscious effort. Hard graft, if you will.

(Not always willingly. I had some natural talent at playing the trumpet but only got properly good at it through playing very regularly and frequently in orchestras and bands. Intentions to diligently practice at home fell victim to my procrastination demons. And as for the visual arts, well, my lifelong – until the age of sixteen – intention to pursue a career in such a field got thoroughly shat upon by a terrible GCSE Art experience that forever tainted that particular special interest of mine. You never forget a good teacher. Or a bad one.)

I’m not gifted. And neither am I a superhero.

I don’t actually mind using the notion of super powers to encourage autistic and other disabled or otherwise neurodivergent children to value, own, and be proud of the strengths that might come with their particular way of being. But for me, it’s not logical to call those strengths “super powers”.

Yes, I have awe-inspiring pattern-finding abilities, super-acute visual and auditory processing capabilities, and sensitivity to even the slightest touch. I can detect many things that others around me cannot see. My capacities for imagination and longterm memory are vivid, multisensory, and three-dimensional. These things feed into my attention to detail and research abilities, my capacity for creativity and ideas generation, and – when I’m not tired – make my view of the world an utterly beautiful one.

My reality would seem, to someone who isn’t autistic, an augmented reality.

But none of these things are super powers. They are just a simple fact that comes of having a brain with vastly more synaptic connections in some key areas, at the expense of “underdevelopment” in others. They just…are.

So when, on the very rare occasion that someone, in a condescending tone, tells me I’m “brave”, “inspiring”, or, indeed (and yes, it has actually happened), a “superhero”, I get pretty riled.

But back to giftedness.

This usually just means “being really good at something”. And one beef I have with the word “gifted” is that it implies that any strengths or abilities that we have are simply freakish aberrations; artifacts in a stream of codified disorder, deficit and deficiency. They can never simply be thought of as things we got good at through hard work, dedicated learning and application, or just natural strengths associated with our particular character, personality, or neurotype. Oh no. They’re “gifts”.

But another problem I have with the word, especially as it appears to be used on the image shared on Twitter but also more generally, is that it implies that unless an autistic person is “gifted” – blessed with some extraordinary “super powers” – they aren’t valid, and there’s no real point in their existing. (See also savant abilities.)

This is dangerous. Autistic people, in descriptions, are often reduced to a list of “symptoms” (I’ve bemoaned this before), and the narrative leads towards an implication that that’s all there is to us. Let’s not forget that Ivar Lovaas, the founder of that aversion-therapy-for-autistics that is applied behavioural analysis (ABA), considered autistic children not even to be fully-formed people. They had to be moulded into such.

But yeah, it’s okay for Aspies, because they’re “gifted”.

Neurotypicals get away with being ordinary or unremarkable. They are the default. And whilst there’s increasing pressure on so many people in post-industrial societies to strive for the best, and continually excel (a paradox if ever there was one), it’s still a darn sight easier to be average if you’re of the predominant neurotype.

But what if we framed it the other way round? Dr Luke Beardon does this very neatly. Neurotypicals have their impairments too, you know.

And just like we amazing, inspiring, courageous autistic and neurodivergent superheroes, neurotypicals have their very own “super powers”.

Look at you, with your ability to read and respond to a social situation within conscious effort! Aren’t you amazing! Your ability to cope with interruptions is so inspiring! I’m totally in awe of how you continue to be so unerringly polite in the face of awkward or even infuriating interactions with others! Your ability to multitask, and also to sit still, are utterly astounding!

You’re my hero!

The truth is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. It’s just that some combinations of these tend to be pathologised; others do not.

And another truth is that someone of any neurotype can be unremarkable. Ordinary. Average. And that really is okay.

None of us should need to be “gifted” to be permitted to be ourselves…or even to exist.


[Featured image description: a bright green Moleskine notebook with elasticated strap, and ribbon bookmark just visible, laid flat against a black background. A pair of glasses is folded and laid on top of the book.]

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13 thoughts on “I’m not “gifted”.

  1. The way you are using the word “gifted” isn’t the way that neuroscience uses it. It’s not about superpowers or being gifts. It’s about brain wiring, and it’s common for gifted and other diagnoses (including autism) to show in the same person. It’s called “twice exceptional”, meant in a literal sense: an exception to the norm in two (or more) ways.

    I’m sorry you’ve been subjected to the same crap actually gifted people have to deal with regularly. I know it sucks. I’m both gifted and autistic, too, and so are both of my kids. Their twice exceptionality made them so not ‘normal’ that K12 school was never an option for them. Asynchronous development doesn’t fit in the mainstream very well. (I also know because I have written two books, a textbook chapter, numerous papers and articles including one published in TPGA and done research on this subject. I also run a huge virtual non-profit representing families of gifted/2e kids who struggle with this.)

    I guess my point is that if I only knew the garbage spewed about gifts and whatnot I would probably agree with you. I do have significantly more information though, and I think you’re doing a disservice to an awful lot of kids and families with this post.

    I’d invite you to do a little research on giftedness in neuroscience and how it aligns with other brain wiring differences. You could start here: https://giftedhomeschoolers.org/resources/parent-and-professional-resources/articles/twice-exceptional-issues/

    I’d suggest the GHF: Gifted Homeschoolers Forum website and Facebook page, as well as TECA (Twice Exceptional Children’s Advocacy), 2e Newsletter, Bright Not Broken (the book and the institute), The 2e Center for Research and Professional Development, or just Google “2e.” It’s a thing, and it’s a struggle. The better the differently wired understand each other, the more we can work together. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comments. I’m always happy to do more research (although, I work full time, have two small children, and limited downtime).

      My own daughter is hyperlexic (she was reading from age two), and it could be argued that she is “gifted” in some ways, along EXACTLY the lines you describe. I have heard of 2e.

      However, my post comes very much from my experience as an autistic person, and one who has experienced firsthand the ableism associated with being so. And the many accounts I hear/read from other autistics suggests that this is a VERY common experience.

      The way neuroscience uses the term may be different from the way I’ve used it here, but I’ve written SPECIFICALLY about the problems I’ve had with the way it’s used, informally on social media and the like, to talk about autistic people.

      Plus, there are an awful lot of autistic people are AREN’T gifted. And often they’re made to feel crap in an entirely different way from those of us who do have particular talents and abilities. The use of “gifted” in the Aspergers graphic I referred to implies that ALL Aspies are gifted, which isn’t necessarily the case, at least not in any obvious way. A lot of us struggle enough already, especially if we’re late-diagnoses or fall outside the stereotypes, of feeling that we’re not “autistic enough”, and being criticised as such by others.

      Plus, it feeds into stereotypes that are unhelpful for girls/women, non-binary folks, and a whole host of others from marginalised groups who are less likely to get a formal autism diagnosis.

      Can I ask as well: are you yourself gifted, or neurodivergent in any way?

      It’s just that I’m speaking from firsthand point-of-view in this personal blog post.

      And I’m sorry you think I’m doing families and kids a disservice. I’m writing from one particular perspective – this is a reality for many of us, and the people using “gifted” in this way towards us may be using the term incorrectly in neuroscience terms, but it’s what I, and many others know, from our lived reality. I’m now, because of my anxiety problems, likely to spend a hefty portion of today wasting mental energy dwelling upon the fact I’ve done some people a disservice and upset someone.

      I don’t want to create any kind of “divide”. I really don’t.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This: “I’ve written SPECIFICALLY about the problems I’ve had with the way it’s used, informally on social media and the like, to talk about autistic people.”

        Yes, I agree – and I’d add that most gifted people would agree with you. The misconception that giftedness has anything to do with gifts – or that giftedness is all unicorns and flowers – is a misconception that many of us have been working to correct for decades. It doesn’t do anyone any good. It leads to exactly the kind of response that you are having, which is just one of many reasons it needs to be corrected. There have been attempts to change the term “gifted” to something else but it never catches on. Personally, I prefer asynchronous development because it’s much more specific and accurate, but the general public doesn’t really understand what it means. :-/

        The reason asynchronous development is a better choice, imo, is that it is a representation of what is actually happening neurologically. Being globally gifted is a myth; gifted people generally have brains that have developed asynchronously which means strengths in some areas but relative weaknesses in others. There is a high comorbidity with all kinds of other anomalies, including autism, adhd, dyslexia, various processing issues, SPD, allergies, asthma, GERD, autoimmune issues, and more. It’s all related to the nervous system (brain, immune system, etc) so it makes logical sense, too. Not surprisingly there is a huge amount of misunderstanding and misdiagnosis going on, as well. Memes like “all children are gifted” have no basis in neuroscientific understanding and completely miscommunicate what it means to be gifted, to the detriment of all.

        Fwiw yes, I am gifted and autistic – I was dxed as gifted early, and the lack of an autism diagnosis as well was a big, big problem, although back in those days the understanding of autism was so minimal that it would have been just as harmful in many ways.

        Both of my biological kids are profoundly gifted, both are autistic, both are a flavor of LGBTQ+. I’ve spent years fighting this fight for their right to be who they are and succeed in whatever way they define as success. I’ve fought schools, family court, their biological father, and society to improve understanding for them at every level. I do this work professionally in order to make a difference for the million plus families who are reached each month by the organization I run. I am really saddened to find this misconception and pushback coming from within such a closely related and frequently overlapping community. No, not all autistic people are also gifted and not all gifted people are autistic, but there is a significant overlap and many, many good reasons for each to make the effort to better understand each other. Neurodivergence comes in many flavors. Internal bickering over outdated terminology only makes all of our lives more difficult. 😦

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I much prefer asynchronous development too. That’s definitely my daughter, and to a lesser extent me too. I know for example that aspects of my frontal lobe function are seriously out of whack/underdeveloped in comparison with what happens in my temporal and occipital lobes, but my understanding is limited. I’ve also heard the term “higher learning potential” which may or may not mean quite the same thing…?

        Part of my anxiety over the uses of these terms comes from a lifetime of being a highly intelligent, “bright” polymath, but one who didn’t quite meet either my own or others’ expectations. I was a straight A student until late high school, then slipped a bit. I suppose I was *verging* on gifted with art, but probably not quite, but I had my love of it squashed out of me (I might write about it at some point).

        It took me *years* to find an area I wanted to specialise in, and I still suffer massively with an inferiority complex as I’m surrounded by a whole load of very clever people all day every day at work. I’m no less able than them at what I do, and more so in some ways, but I do have other difficulties that they don’t have. I do wonder how different things might have been if I’d understood earlier in life why I found certain things difficult. And though on a day to day basis *no-one* questions my competence because I’m autistic (most people I work with are just politely interested or ambivalent), I do come across the patronising ableist bollocks in wider contexts. And I do have a hefty dose of internalised ableism and low self-confidence which I’m working on, but which still beat me down from time to time.

        I suppose I also find the word “gifted” problematic because it implies that those who *are* gifted are special and the rest of us aren’t, which I suspect is harmful to ALL concerned. And it makes some of us feel like we “don’t Aspie properly” (though personally I just prefer the term “autistic” anyway – my assessment was only last year, and the report refers to Asperger syndrome as a useful descriptive term, but ASD/ASC is my formal dx).

        I actually find neuroscience (what very little I know of it) utterly fascinating. I wish I had time to learn more!

        All in all, I wish the world more readily understood, accepted, and appreciated neurodiversity in ALL its shades. And yes, a fair few of those comorbidities I have myself, as well as others in my neurodivergent family!

        No worries about the delay in responding – I have my own family who come first too! But this has been a very interesting discussion. ☺️

        Like

      1. No worries!

        And I really really appreciate that you are willing to consider my perspective and have a respectful dialogue! ❤

        (I'm currently in an area with limited internet access, so please don't feel like I'm ignoring you if it takes me all day to reply. My primary focus ATM is on the needs of my kids, not finding wireless while traveling 😀 )

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This resonates with me. Thank you so much for writing. I also have this same feeling when I’m told I’m so ‘brave’ or ‘strong’. I’m scared shitless most of the time I just chose to push through it because I don’t like the alternative. 🤷🏻‍♀️

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, and there’s a lot I agree with.
    I’m not gifted either, although like you I had enough academic ability to go through primary school without much effort. Secondary school was more difficult, and I grudgingly had to put some effort in. I also had some aptitude for music (my instrument was the piano). Art was never my thing, though.
    I quite like using the word “super powers” in a non-serious, jokey way, like “vulcan hearing”, but when I do use it, I don’t mean they are actual super powers, and I would hope that the others would realise that I’m speaking in a humorous way.
    I can see why some people would talk about “gifts” because they want to flip “impairments” into their positive opposite. This might stem from an effort not to see autism in a negative way, and the sentiment is laudable, but as you so rightly point out in this post, the notion of gifts does not help anyone. Certainly not the people who are gifted in the other sense (like twice exceptional etc.) I fear that talking about Aspie gifts can be a slippery slope which at its extreme end leads to notions of “Indigo Kids” and “the next stage in human evolution”, and that’s somewhere I really don’t want to go!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I love this post. I too am aspergers and am a professional mathematician. I studied very hard for my MSc. it didn’t come easy. I’m good at math, I understand its nuances and structure. I’m a good mathematician.. I’m not “gifted” however.

    my hearing is above average. my pattern noticing skills are good, I’m a whizz at Rubik’s cube solving. still not gifted.

    I fall apart in crowds, I don’t get jokes all the time. my sense of humour is mostly pun based.. subtle humour is over my head. Definitely NOT gifted.

    Thanks for writing this.. I relate to this so much.

    Liked by 2 people

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