Unlocking the Autistic Child’s Potential

Unlocking the Autistic Child's PotentialI’ll admit that when working with children with ASDs (Autistic Spectrum Disorders), it’s too easy to immediately see what the child lacks. Children on the Autistic Spectrum often struggle with a myriad of challenges in school: Rigidity (a strong dislike for any kind of change), following directions, peer interaction, learning disabilities, hyperfocusing on a topic to the point of blocking everything else out, sensory integration problems, and emotional meltdowns, due to anxiety.

As I get to know children with ASDs, however, I enjoy trying to find their “niches.” Anyone who’s worked with children on the Autistic Spectrum can tell you these kiddos are often smart…very smart. In fact some of our greatest minds in history might have been labeled “Autistic” if they’d had such diagnosis at the time. It just takes time to see these hidden treasures, and unfortunately, many people don’t want to take that time to unlock the potential these kiddos have. Children with Autism are like combination locks; you just have to listen long enough to discover what clicks, and you’ll be rewarded with a treasure inside.

What do Kids with Autism and Genius have in Common?

 A recent study has been popping up all over the place, revealing that children with Autism and children labeled “genius” have much in common…and many of them have both.

TIME Magazine article, “What Genius and Autism Have in Common,” reports that the study focused on 8 child prodigies. From art to music to math to computers to food, the children’s abilities ranged all over the place. The commonality, however, was a high working memory, the, “ability to hold and process quantities of information, both verbal and  non-verbal.” Also interesting, the children’s IQs weren’t all off the charts. Some had IQs just at the high end of normal.

What was really surprising, reports TIME, is that all of the children scored high in Autistic tendencies, especially in their hyperfocus and attention to fine detail. 3 of the children were actually diagnosed with Autism. And furthermore, more of the children had family members on the Autistic Spectrum.

ChildProdigiesReporting on the same study, Medical News Today’s article by Kelly Fitzgeral, “Child Geniuses And Autism Connected,” says, “The authors [of the study] say these results show that child prodigies have important similarities with autistic intellectuals, people who have the developmental disorders connected with autism combined with an exception skill set or knowledge that is well above ordinary.”

Furthermore, the articles concludes, “Ruthsatz [a study author] believes these conclusions suggest child prodigies may have some slight version of autism that allows them to possess an exceptional talent.” As Autism is a spectrum disorder, this makes sense. It’s possible to have parts of a disorder without having the whole thing. Spectrum Disorders vary from mild to severe, depending on the individual. I have OCD tendencies, but I don’t have the full disorder.

If you Google it, there are countless personal accounts of children with Autism who have done or do exceptional things. I’ve personally worked with multiple children on the spectrum, and while I can’t say they were all working on the level of a technical genius, those kiddos could put me to shame in a number of ways: piano abilities and self-taught reading by the age of 2 to name a few. I had a classmate at my magnet high school who was in four math classes by ninth grade because he’d already qualified for all of the senior classes available. (And to make it more impressive, we were considered one of the top 100 high schools in the nation at the time.)

  • Karen Simmons, founder & CEO of AutismToday.com, says her son read by the time he was 2 1/2, reading the word, “recycle” off a passing truck.
  • Greg Olear says his son displayed an unusual knowledge of astronomy by the time he was three, and had an advanced vocabulary.
  • Kristine Barnett’s son had an obsession with patterns. Now that he’s 11, his IQ has been scored at 170…higher than Einstein’s.

Balancing the IQ and Autism

While many children with Autism show incredible intelligence, the struggles of Autism are still UnlockingAutismJewelpresent in these kiddos, and this can cause anxiety, as well as misunderstandings. The lack of social interaction with peers, anxiety caused by change, and learning disabilities in other areas not encompassed in the exceptional skillset can create great challenges with children. While these children are harboring great abilities, the setup of the general American school system isn’t always conducive to the learning needs of these children. This causes great frustration for students, parents, and teachers alike.

The conundrum is that the traits of Autism that can make a child so successful or knowledgeable in an area can also be drawbacks. The two traits I’m thinking of now are the ability to hyperfocus and obsess. When a child with Autism finds a topic he’s interested in, he’ll throw himself into learning everything about that topic that he can. The National Autistic Society says these obsessions are one of the most common traits of the disorder. On one hand, this means he’ll become an expert in that topic. The downfall, however, is that he’ll forgo all other areas of education in order to pursue that interest.

For example, my mother once taught a fifth grader with Autism who was obsessed with plumbing. When the class was learning about grammar and spelling, this little girl insisted on following my mother around the classroom, telling her everything she knew about plumbing. She knew exactly how the pipes areconnected underground, and how sewage is pumped. She was delighted when a plumber came to the school to work in one of the bathrooms, and did all in her power to talk to him. It’s easy to see how this tendency to obsess can be a help and a hinderance.

So in Conclusion, What’s to Be Done?


I want to finish this article focusing a little more on Jacob Barnett, the boy with the IQ higher than Einstein. When he was very young, he was in the special education system, struggling, his mother says. He was just 3 1/2. As an educator, I have to say that as hard as special education teachers work, there are limitations to what they can do in both time and legal scope. Sometimes, they just can’t meet the needs of the children they’re trying so hard to help.

Karen was told her son wouldn’t learn to read or even tie his shoes. Today, at 14, he’s working on his master’s degree in quantum physics. What happened? Karen says she pulled Jacob out of early special education and taught him herself. She allowed him to learn in his own way, introducing him to life in the way he needed: trips to the planetarium, stargazing, and studying patterns. She guided his interaction with other children as he grew, but searched for the education that would fit Jacob best.

And obviously, it worked.

Now, I’m not saying every frustrated parent of a child with Autism should take his or her child out of school. I’ve seen children learn by leaps and bounds from early intervention. What I’m emphasizing is that there’s no, “One size fits all,” with any child, but particularly with children on the Autistic Spectrum.

I’m just saying that as long as it’s within reason (obviously nothing self-destructive or dangerous), if a child with Autism wants to read everything he can get his hands on about architecture or astronomy or sharks or patterns, why not encourage him? Why not take him to his favorite museums? Why not check out his favorite nonfiction videos from the library? You can use these avenues to help him explore other areas of life, areas he might refuse to explore otherwise. Why not let him try to learn in the best way he knows how?

These children with Autism all have something to offer, and whether it’s genius or not, it can be special. We just have to be willing to listen to unlock it, to encourage it to grow, and to let it blossom.

If you have any suggestions, questions, or comments about organizational strategies, please share them in the Comment Box below. And don’t forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter to receive extra resources I don’t include in my blog, encouragement, and a gift as a thank you for signing up. Thanks for reading!

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  • SUSHIL GAUR on March 6, 2016 at 3:09 am said:

    hi Britanny,
    thank you for your article. It’s informative and gives a lot of confidence to me.
    I am a father of a 5yr old Autistic son.
    I have 100% convinced with your statement ” Children with Autism are like combination locks; you just have to listen long enough to discover what clicks, and you’ll be rewarded with a treasure inside. “.
    How should I listen long enough to discover what clicks to him? Can you guide me more on that. My son is obsessed/ hyperfocused for Trains/ Tractors. Is he giving me signs that he would like to pursue his interest and make it into career in future ?

    Thank you,

    Sushil Gaur

    • brittanyfichterwrites@gmail.com on March 17, 2016 at 5:24 am said:

      I’m so sorry for taking so long to reply. I’ve been working on a project that I need to send an editor, and I’ve been bad about responding, so I apologize.

      No two children respond the same way to motivators. As for his obsession with trains and tractors, those definitely aren’t bad obsessions to have! It’s hard to tell what children will want to do with their futures, but you can lose nothing by helping them learn about their obsessions (as long as they’re healthy) when they’re young.

      It’s interesting that your son is so interested in trains. I actually wrote this article last year for an Autism magazine about how to use obsessions as motivators for children in education. Trains especially are a great obsession to have. You can utilize trains in nearly every part of an early education. Here are some examples of how to use trains in a well-rounded home education. (By the way, children are most benefited when they learn at home and at school, so even if your son is enrolled in a general education class at school, you can use these techniques at home with him.)

      My article: http://virtualpublications.soloprinting.com/publication/?i=243651

      Reading and Literature: Make going to the library an exciting experience. Find every book on trains that you can. Librarians can be great for helping you with this. And while you’re looking for books with pictures of trains on them, he might even find another book that looks interesting to him in the process. Bring home every book on trains. Read with him. Take him on “picture walks” (where you don’t read, but simply talk about the pictures and what’s happening in them). https://www.google.com/search?q=train+books+for+kids&rlz=1C1BLWB_enUS522US536&oq=train+books+for+kids&aqs=chrome..69i57.2768j0j4&sourceid=chrome&es_sm=122&ie=UTF-8#q=train+books+for+kids&tbm=shop
      Writing: Have him trace letters that spell words he likes, such as train, wheel, trestle, boxcar, and caboose. He may not know what they all mean, but if you match them with pictures, he will learn faster because of his interest. And honestly, even if he refuses to read his regular words at school, because he’s interested in trains, he might learn his train vocabulary much faster than you expect. You never know what will click. http://www.worksheetfun.com/2013/09/22/letter-tracing-worksheet-train/
      Math: Take his toy trains and lay them out in rows. Have him count them. See if you can find worksheets with trains and their cars, and have him count them. Begin with numbers 1-10. You can take him to museums and count the display trains with him. http://www.123homeschool4me.com/2011/10/number-trains-free-printable.html
      Science: Watch documentaries on trains. Read train books with him, even those that are too hard for him to read. If he enjoys it, let him explore that area as much as you can.
      History: Stories about trains in history, how their tracks were built, how they shipped supplies across the country, how people had to travel before trains were invented.

      Children who are hyperfocused on certain topics may seem like they’re incapable of learning in our traditional education system. If you can find that sweet spot though, try to bleed it dry. Will he still have to learn things he doesn’t understand at some point? Yes. But if you supplement his education with topics he DOES enjoy, then you can help him see that education CAN be fun and helpful.

      And when he switches obsessions? Don’t be afraid to dive into a whole new subject. I hope this helps! Please email me if you’d like to talk more in depth! I LOVE finding ways children can enjoy learning.

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