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Autism and Genius; Is there a link between them?

Is your child with autism secretly a genius?

The question that popped into my mind as I pondered over this was:

“What exactly is a genius?”

In the very short span of human history, individuals widely regarded as geniuses include people such as Albert Einstein, Michael Faraday, and Isaac Newton. I remembered studying about them and their life-changing discoveries in school (which then worked like a charm against insomnia). But what was it about them that made society consider them geniuses? Was it their scores on an IQ (Intelligence Quotient) test? Was it their discoveries that heralded new technologies and development in our day-to-day lives? Or was it the identifiable traits that geniuses tend to embody, whatever age they appeared in?

Let’s briefly look at the Oxford English Dictionary to see how the term “genius” is defined.

  1. Exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.

  2. An exceptionally intelligent person or one with exceptional skill in a particular area of activity.

In modern society, the term genius seems to be applied most to individuals who tend to excel scholastically or those who have achieved a high IQ score. In other words, students who excel within our education systems or those who managed to do well on tests designed to measure “intelligence”. Yet, it would be prudent of us to take into consideration that our education systems or the tests were designed precisely to measure a pre-defined concept of intelligence.

Take Nicolaus Copernicus for example. When he first suggested that it was not the Sun revolving around the Earth, but rather the other way around, people found it hard to get on-board with the idea. I am sure it was the same for many of the others who suggested things that were beyond the scope of knowledge available at any time in history. Similarly, our education system and intelligence tests were designed with certain assumptions regarding the concept of intelligence.

Interestingly, notice that the definitions above took special note that “genius” can also be used to refer to one with exceptional creative power, natural abilities, or skills in a specific domain. This has a much wider scope of interpretation. Furthermore, we should remember that creativity often eludes objective measurements.

So, I would think it’s fair to say that it is not just one’s IQ that determines if they are supposed “geniuses” or not.

Then, were geniuses considered so because of the advancements they brought to society? This would make the word “genius” a much larger social idea that considered their societal contributions. This is probably unlikely. The more plausible explanation is the greater likelihood for a genius’ work to be remarkable enough to spur a revolutionary change, and thereby attracting more social attention to itself. However, it is true that we tend only to recognise “geniuses” that have made overt contributions to society. Without a shadow of a doubt, I am certain that there were other essential contributors that escaped society’s notice.

How about inherent traits of a genius? Are there really any?

Back when I was still in school, I noticed that there was always a small population of students who seemingly excel without working hard or was able to grasp challenging concepts in the span of a snap of the fingers. They were also likely to leave work to the last minute but still managed to ace their assignments. They are quite probably more intelligent than the average population. However, I am unlikely to call all of them geniuses.

I do, however, believe that there are a handful of our population who are true geniuses; the ones who can literally change the world with their thoughts and ideas.

Popularised by well-known television shows such as “The Good Doctor” which stars an autistic surgeon, the idea of Savant syndrome should not be unfamiliar. For those who are first encountering this term, Savant syndrome is defined as a condition in which someone with significant mental disabilities demonstrates certain abilities far in excess of average.

Certainly, this idea that our children are gifted with something more in another area, while lacking in others (such as social skills) is an attractive one. But even I have to admit that there is something overly positive and simplistic about such an interpretation. This is because there are not many true savants around.

What about the rest of our children? The ones who perhaps, are not as gifted?

Here, I am reminded poignantly of what Thomas Edison said.

“Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

I pause to consider the possibility that there is more than just one kind of genius.

If we took Edison’s interpretation to heart, a genius is largely made up of an ability to persist in spite of challenging odds. Reading this line as I typed it, I was immediately reminded of the autistic children we work with daily. They are in precisely that situation every second of their lives – they were born into wildly challenging odds and are persisting in spite of it.

So perhaps, we don’t all have to be born geniuses. Perhaps, we can grow into it as we persist on despite the many difficulties stacked up against us.

A genius, I believe, needs an unwavering dedication to learning, understanding, and applying knowledge.

How does this all relate to autism?

If you have read my article on fixations here, you may already be seeing the connection.

Long-term persistence, and often, an immovable dedication to their topic of interest, can sometimes be a defining trait of people with autism. Thus, I do not think that it is too far-fetched an idea to say that our children may one day be recognised as a genius in a domain they excel in. And certainly, as a therapist, it is also with great hope and faith that I am taking such a leap to connect the two ideas.

I understand that this could be too far a leap, for some of you, to be convincing. However, as an educator in this field, I would like to paint our children’s future with no less than bold and vivid colours that allows the greatest imagining of the heights they could achieve.

Written by Felicia.

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