Gifted teens with autism connect with like-minded kids at math and science camp

Jon Hamilton

Educators refer to teens like Alex as "twice exceptional."

"I have a large degree of skill in almost every subject of learning," says Alex, who is 16. "But I also have autistic spectrum disorder."

For Alex, this dual identity has meant both opportunity and frustration.

He has skipped two grades so far, and began taking college math courses last year, when he was still 15. But when he was younger, Alex's underdeveloped social skills caused him a lot of grief.

"I was constantly getting into fights and normally losing them," he says.

At the end of each school year, Alex didn't know what to do. "I was always that one kid who was unhappy whenever summer vacation came around," he says.

That changed when Alex's parents learned about the the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa's College of Education.

Belin-Blank's mission is to identify and nurture young people who excel at math and science and the arts. And they have made a point of reaching out to, and accommodating, twice-exceptional kids.

The result, Alex says, are programs – many of which take place over the summer — where he has felt both challenged and comfortable.

"Kids that go to the summer programs here tend to be more interested in sitting down and playing a game of chess or talking about the intricacies of a certain fantasy series," he says.

The term twice exceptional, or "2e," applies to any student who is gifted and has some form of disability. Many, including the teens in this story, have autism. In order to protect their privacy, we're using only their first names.

Clark, who is 13, likes to write stories and computer code when he's not playing Minecraft or Fortnite.

But having autism makes talking to people a bit awkward, he says. It also affects how his mind works.

"My thoughts are kind of like a disorganized bookshelf and maybe like books or thoughts that are scattered around the floor," he says.

But he can focus when he's writing or coding, which is what he did in a Belin-Blank class called robot theater. Clark spent a week writing a play and then programming robots to perform it.

"It was about a young robot who wanted to be a gamer but couldn't because he didn't have any hands," Clark says.

Autism is just one of the challenges Clark has faced in life. He's also a cancer survivor.

But he doesn't mention either of those when I ask him to name a big obstacle he's overcome. Instead, he describes his difficulties programming the robot in his play to "lift its arm and move at the same time."

Clark eventually figured that out. And his time at the university had an unexpected benefit.

"My roommate, who stayed in the same room with me, he kind of became my friend a little," he says.

One reason the Belin-Blank sessions work for kids like Clark and Alex is professionals like Dr. Hanna Stevens, a child psychiatrist and developmental neuroscientist at the University of Iowa's Carver College of Medicine.

During the summer, Stevens mentors 10th and 11th graders selected by Belin-Blank in her lab, which studies the links between early brain development and disorders such as autism.

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