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Advice from a 2e Young Adult

Imagine your gifted or twice-exceptional kid as a young adult.  If you could ask them about this current time in their life, what do you think they would say?  How will they remember school?  What advice will they have for their former teachers and their former self?  How will they look back on their strengths and challenges?  Who will they say helped them, and how?

Martika Theis is not your gifted or twice-exceptional kid, of course, but she is a twice-exceptional young adult who has thought a lot about her own learning experience.  In our interview originally conducted for 2eNews.com, she offered a helpful perspective on what worked, what hurt, and how to improve education for younger students like herself.

Introduction: Martika Theis (she/her/hers) is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa.  As an undergraduate, Martika worked as a research assistant at the Belin-Blank Center’s Assessment and Counseling Clinic, where she nurtured a passion for helping twice-exceptional students like herself. She was identified as gifted after second grade and diagnosed with autism when she was a senior in high school. She hopes other 2e students can receive better educational support than she did. Martika has spoken about her experiences as a twice-exceptional person with NPR News and as part of the Summit on the Neuroscience of Twice-Exceptionality, co-hosted by the Belin-Blank Center and the Iowa Neuroscience Institute.  Her current special interests include reading, writing, cybersecurity, fanfiction, and videogame storytelling. She will be a student panelist at the Stanford Neurodiversity Summit in November.

 

Danika:  Recent research found that high IQ was associated with higher levels of anxiety and emotional distress for autistic youth.  Can you briefly describe your experience of being a high-IQ autistic person as it relates to anxiety or emotional distress, if relevant?  From your perspective, how are these different aspects of your experience related to one another, if at all?  Do the research findings resonate with you?

 

Martika: I have dealt with a great deal of anxiety and emotional distress connected with being a high-IQ autistic person and most of it occurred in academic settings. I was one of the unfortunate 2e children whose giftedness obscured their disability so while I was identified as gifted and talented after second grade, I only received my autism diagnosis my senior year of high school.

 

Being gifted and talented opened a lot of doors for me but not all of them were ones I should have walked through. In particular, the high school AP (Advanced Placement) program was a disaster for me. The focus in my school was on high test scores, as it is in many schools in the United States, rather than actual mastery of the topic at hand. To this end, putting gifted students into as many AP classes as possible to raise the numbers was a priority for the guidance counselors. Without getting too much into the story my entire Junior Year of high school remains my biggest trauma in life and I narrowly avoided it happening again my Senior Year.

 

My high-IQ has always granted me a bit of status, for lack of a better word, in academia, but with that status comes a social pressure to appear untouchable. Gifted students are put on a pedestal that often involves constant competition for grades, prioritization of grades over things like health or sleep or socializing, and, most unfortunately, the glorification of suffering.

 

The amount of hard work and the ultimate grade earned, these two quantitative measures, were tied directly to self-worth and the idea of success as a student. There was active shunning of those who moved down a level and a general avoidance of gifted children by the general population. The idea of measuring self-worth quantitatively then bled over into quantitative measures of suffering being used to measure success as well.

 

What I mean by this is that there is competition over very disturbing things within high-IQ students such as, “who got the least hours of sleep last night?” “Who has had the most mental breakdowns this year?” “Who has cried the most before the test?” These are not examples I pulled from thin air, all three of these, and more, are what I competed with others over in high school.

 

Danika: In your experience, what have been some of the major sources of stress for you or other 2e autistic people you know, in terms of a mismatch between gifted or autistic needs and identity and the response of society, the educational system, or other organizations?

 

Martika: Having a diagnosis of ASD is incredibly lonely. I recently heard it compared to being the only sober person in a room full of drunks or vice versa by autistic comedian Hanna Gadsby and I personally resonate with that metaphor although my personal favorite descriptor of ASD is, “It’s not a processing error. It’s a different operating system,” because I have an interest in computer science.

Considering this loneliness, an increased sense of isolation and lack of belonging is the biggest stressor I’ve encountered as a 2e autistic person and that I’ve heard expressed from others. One of the most clear ways this can manifest is if the support is either not there for 2e students or if it’s not marketed enough for the students to know that the support is there. I have encountered both of these problems but the second one is the most frustrating. Finding out after the fact that you could have had support but just didn’t know how to look for it or where you could find it is infuriating and a big source of stress while you’re still unaware.

 

In general, the education system is notoriously inflexible with regards to lesson plans and objectives. A lot of this is wrapped up in the standardization of education as well as the lack of value placed on teachers. While for the most part the autistic people I’ve encountered enjoy routine, the routine often isn’t created with them in mind. To this end it can be very frustrating to be taught a topic one way in the classroom and not understand it at all and then have it explained to you differently by a close friend and immediately getting it. I believe that most of those in education genuinely want to help each and every student succeed as best as possible but the pressure put on them to, “teach to the test,” and stick to standardization, as well as lack of incentives for them to stay in their positions combined with a lack of free time results in very inflexible lesson plans and children being left behind. Overwhelmingly, those left behind are those on the spectrum.

 

Danika: Did you have experiences in which teachers or other adults seemed to misunderstand your twice exceptionality or to see your high IQ and autism as mutually exclusive? Do you think your high IQ sometimes obscured your autism (in the eyes of others), or vice versa?

 

Martika: Absolutely. I mentioned this a little bit in one of my previous answers but my high-IQ encouraged my guidance counselor to push me into more AP classes than I could handle and pressure me to stay in them. For context: my Junior Year I was taking AP Physics AB, AP Calculus BC, AP French, and AP Language and Comprehension, while playing two sports and being a part of three clubs. This affected my mental health so severely that I got a therapist that year. So when I entered my Senior Year I had a better understanding of my own mental health and was desperate to avoid this situation happening again.

 

I have a very distinct memory of approaching my guidance counselor with my premade preferred schedule and having her dismiss it. By the end of our conversation she was attempting to put me into not four AP classes like in Junior Year, but five. I also remember directly telling her, “I don’t want this, my junior year was terrible for my mental health,” and her brushing that aside. 

 

I was maybe 16 or 17, I had no idea how to assert myself against an adult who was making decisions about my education. So I just pretended to agree and then escaped to a quiet stairwell to have a panic attack. It just kept rolling around in my head, “I can’t go through this again, I can’t go through this again. If I have to, I won’t be able to take it. I won’t be able to make it.”

 

Luckily, I have been blessed with incredible parents and so during my panic attack I called my mother and she calmed me down. Then she set up a meeting with my guidance counselor, me, my mother, and my father. It took several meetings for my guidance counselor to admit that the plan she told me I, “had to take,” was actually not necessary for me to graduate the way she had made it out to be. With my parents’ help I got a much better schedule and enjoyed my senior year. But it gives me shivers to think of all the other 2e students, diagnosed or undiagnosed, who could have gone through this without parental support. Who would have had no one at their back to tell them, “this isn’t right, they can’t do this to you.”

 

Danika: Do you have any suggestions for how parents and educators can support 2e autistic youth?

 

Martika: I most certainly do and don’t get me too fired up or I’ll talk for hours.

 

For parents:

 

Take your children to be psychologically evaluated. Especially if they are identified as gifted and talented. Whether they are discovered to be 2e or not, emphasize how having a therapist or a diagnosis is not a death sentence, it does not make them “crazy,” and is not shameful.

 

Go looking for support. Do research into therapists in the area and be open to shopping around if your child doesn’t think one is the right fit. Talk to the educational administration and find out what programs they offer. An IEP or a 504 plan are especially good things to ask about.

 

Discuss disability, giftedness, and 2e with children and make sure you do research yourself to make sure your information is accurate. This will in general make your child a nicer person but can also lead to higher self-esteem and help a child find a community.

 

Don’t assume that what works for you will work for your child. Especially if you yourself are neurotypical. Oftentimes the kind of techniques discussed in self-help books or recommended by conventional wisdom will not work for 2e students because those techniques are designed for the neurotypical majority. For example, there is a lot of focus on will power in these books. If your goal is to attempt to encourage your child’s reading, these books recommend making them set aside time for reading, or reading to them. Sometimes that will work but for autistic people in general, you are much more likely to have success by finding books related to your child’s special interests and encouraging them to read those books.

 

For educators:

 

Be on the lookout for signs of a child with a disability. High-IQ can obscure disabilities so it is important to not compare the child to the general standards but to themselves. For example, if a child is excelling in math and other subjects and doing average in reading, there is a chance that statistic will be ignored because the child is doing average. However, if that statistic is compared to how the child is excelling in all other subjects, it could be an indication of a learning disability.

 

Try the best you can to provide information in multiple different forms. Some autistic students have difficulty with eye contact so if a lesson is taught visually they’ll have difficulty processing it. But maybe if they were given the information in written form, they’d retain it.

 

Unless the behavior is disruptive or dangerous to the child or others, allow children to have self-soothing behaviors. This includes fidgeting, bringing fidget toys, being given time to gather their thoughts, flapping their hands, rocking, etc. Although these activities may look odd to neurotypicals, they are a vital way to decrease anxiety in 2e students and will improve their comfort level as well as their ability to retain and process educational information.

 

Learn the different ways that various disabilities present in different genders. The vast majority of our body of research on neurodevelopmental disabilities is based on cis male subjects. But the symptoms may appear completely differently in cis females and in other genders. Currently the gap between times of diagnosis for cis males to cis females is almost 9 years! A diagnosis can open doors to so much support so it is vital to get one as early as possible.

 

A great source of suggested techniques for both parents and educators is PIP2 (Packet of Information for Professionals 2), a research publication from the Belin Blank Center that can be found on their website.