Highly intelligent, highly sensitive, socially withdrawn child: is there a term for this?
May 3, 2010 5:07 PM   Subscribe

Highly intelligent, highly sensitive, socially withdrawn child: is there a term for this?

In my volunteer work, I've encountered an unusual child (hell, they're all unusual, but I can't wrap my head around this one). Lets call him J. He's eleven years old. I was wondering if you have encountered or heard of a similar pattern of behavior.

Most of the day, J sits by himself reading, with a book very close to his face and ignores the other children. Sometimes he paces back and forth while staring at the ground. On more than one occasion, he was standing looking at the ground when I entered the room, and when I said hello, he screamed and began pacing back and forth.

One time, he entered the room I was in, holding a pencil and notebook. I was at a desk drawing and asked him if he'd like to join me. In a sad tone of voice, he said he wouldn't know what to draw. I said I could give him an assignment - to draw his dream house. He said he wasn't interested, but still stood near me. I suggested drawing the animal that could beat any other animal in a fight. He smiled a little and said that that is a little bit like what he draws, and showed me some incredible drawings he'd done of soldiers in elaborate suits of armor.

He also told me that he likes to create codes and new languages, but has nobody to share them with. He sounded so incredibly sad.

J had previously attended a school for students with developmental disabilities, but his parent's haven't shared his medical or educational history with the staff of the program I work with. Staff members tell me that J has come a long way, that for the first few months at the program, J rocked back and forth in the corner, and would not speak to any of the students or staff.

From a distance, J's behavior resembles behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorders, but he seems to be very sad, and aware of social cues - possibly hyper aware. His behavior seems to resemble the phenotype described in this thread on "opposite autism".

I've never encountered this behavior in a young person before, and was wondering if young J fit any known phenotype. He seems to gradually be coming out of his shell, the staff at the program are committed to supporting him him, and he is gradually developing friendships with some of the other students.

I was wondering if there is a term for his sensitive yet withdrawn behavior, and if anyone could recommend resources that might be helpful.
posted by ladypants to Education (33 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
IANAD, but I knew a child with Asberger's Syndrome who exhibited a number of the traits you listed.
posted by rancidchickn at 5:11 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: I just asked my psychologist father about you question. He suggests you look into social anxiety disorders, and how they manifest in children. He also advises that you get the school psychologist/counseler/social worker involved.
posted by Sara Anne at 5:14 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: The first thing that comes to mind is highly sensitive person.
posted by Nattie at 5:17 PM on May 3, 2010

You know, he could just be a very bright child with a shitty home life and a history of being bullied. Don't jump to armchair diagnosis - his behaviour sounds odd, but it could be a reasonable response to the circumstances he finds himself in.
posted by embrangled at 5:30 PM on May 3, 2010 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks Sara Anne. I talked to the Social Worker at the school, and she has been working with J. She said that he seems different from autistic students she's encountered in the past who could wander into a room oblivious to the conversations around them. She said that J seems hyper-aware of everything happening around him, and is easily hurt by perceived social slights, but maybe this is just a different flavor of autism?
posted by ladypants at 5:32 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: I have to say that this sounds a lot like Asperger's to me, as a person who is borderline Asperger's (bordering on neurotypical) and who has a sister who has high functioning autism bordering on Asperger's.

I was a lot like that as a kid, minus the savant-like artistic passion. I hated drawing from prompts, as I thought it was uninteresting and served no point. Plus, a lot of people with Asperger's, at least in my experience, have good social skills, but they work so slowly that they're pointless in conversation. Thus, they get the subtexts and know what's going on, but can't act appropriately in a timely manner. Hence, the fact that he's quiet, but looks like he knows what's going on.

Creating codes and languages was not really something I was into, but it's common for children with (probably more severe) Asperger's to do that. It works well with their desire for order and obsessive tendencies.

Very sad is also par for the course, unfortunately. Asperger's has a high co-morbidity with depression. I was always kind of a melancholic child, and after high school, I was diagnosed with major depression, and later bipolar disorder.

Definitely talk to the school therapist. It sounds like you have a smart kid, but who's prone to develop emotional issues or become alienated with the educational system. Make it clear to his parents that they are going to need to push the school to give him the education he needs.

Of course, this diagnosis may be bunk. I'm a college student speculating based on something you've posted on the Internet, so don't think I'm right without more evidence, preferably from a psychiatrist or (better yet) neurologist.
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:37 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: Asperger's is kind of overdiagnosed but I can certainly see some of the key elements here. One one hand, its diagnosis hinges upon a constellation of symptoms. On the other hand it is a spectrum disorder, so some of the signs may be too difficult to diagnose. Awareness of social cues is probably not the best indicator since many of those low on the Aspergers spectrum are functional and smart enough to deftly handle familiar social situations. Perhaps a better question is whether he can clearly empathize with other people, fully understand the emotions of others, and adapt readily to new and unusual social situations. If so, it may not be an autism disorder but some sort of depression or other problem. It does look like a good psychiatrist may be of help here. I'm not a professional so I'm just throwing out some ideas.
posted by crapmatic at 5:40 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: I don't know the name for this either - though I bet there is one. It is a stereotype, isn't it? The sensitive, very intelligent child, with great needs and few social skills. I agree it is Asperger's children that, in part, gave rise to the creation of the stereotype, but that doesn't mean that all such children have the syndrome. Some have just been hit by Gamma Rays, or whatever, in the wrong way at the wrong time. (I have heard them called rainbow children, of some such, but that smacks too strongly of New Age for me.)

But it doesn't really matter. Weather borderline Asperger's. or new age heralds, or wise children, or Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, the needs are the same. Acceptance & Smiles. True, instruction in social skills are needed, (especially if it is Asperger's, but only so much and to such a degree as is comfortable. Being an alien is hard, but being required to be an alien that pretends to always be the others is harder. Being apart of a group, a clan, a class is nice, but only when that doesn't remove all that we ourselves are when alone. Help the child to be comfortable alone and with others,but also employ this child to teach other children to be comfortable with those that are among the others.

Acceptance and smile, from you, from the other kids, from himself. Those are the lesons that are needed. Diagnoses, names, not so much. (perhaps for others, but not for a volunteer, whose best gift is friendship.)
posted by Some1 at 5:42 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: Could just be a very bright, very sensitive child who has gone thru some semblance of hell. For that matter, not that different from me as a child, honestly. I just wanted to be left alone because all social interaction was painful. I grew out of that and am now quite social but...let's just say labels aren't as important as just supporting someone.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:49 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all!

Thanks Mccarty tim for sharing your moving story. I've been trying to think of activities that J might like to join in, but it seems that talking to him one-on-one might be the best way to engage with him.

And thank you Some1. On some level, I was hoping that a magic word would reveal a sliver bullet that would fix everything. But yes, smiles and acceptance it is.
posted by ladypants at 5:51 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: This reminded me of a lot of kids I know, both with diagnoses and without. As for activities, one-on-one is good, but small groups and side-by-side activities are good, too. Drawing, building with legos, etc. - it gives you something to do with your hands, a chance for self-expression and even cooperation, but there's no real pressure to talk or make eye contact, so it's comfortable. Sometimes you can help facilitate by starting something and then inviting one or two other simpatico kids to join in.

Some1 really nails it, though. Just hang out, be yourself, and show that it's ok for him to be himself, too.
posted by Knicke at 6:07 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: J rocked back and forth in the corner, and would not speak to any of the students or staff.

Many individuals with autism spectrum disorder engage in simple, repetitive actions such as rocking or spinning objects.

but maybe this is just a different flavor of autism?

It is a spectrum and not everyone has the same behavior patterns. Could be PDD-NOS.
posted by mlis at 6:09 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: Is it possible that he is simply very, very shy? You description reminds me of myself at that age, especially the pacing. I used to pace a lot during elementary school recess and other free times because I was too shy to try to play with other children.

I have pretty much always made my friends by working on things with them, rather than free-form socializing. Are there other kids around who like drawing or codes or languages? If you could set up a drawing table or something, where kids can sit together to quietly draw (or play with codes or whatever) without necessarily having to directly interact with each other, that might be a good way for him to get some interpersonal interaction and maybe (in the long haul) make some friends.
posted by Commander Rachek at 6:10 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: Is it possible that he's just sensitive, intelligent, and really shy? I was a weird, awkward little kid who mostly liked to play by myself and make up stories and read. I wasn't socially unaware, which made it more painfully obvious when I couldn't always relate to my peers. It's also entirely possible that he does have some sort of autism spectrum disorder, but finding a diagnosis which he seems to fit doesn't guarantee that you'll suddenly find the key to understanding him.
posted by MadamM at 6:27 PM on May 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: He's old enough to learn chess and any number of board and card games.
posted by mareli at 6:40 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: I was a lot like this as a kid. He might just be extremely shy, prone to anxiety and depressed. In my case, I was all of these things *and* very poorly socialized, which is the deal-breaker. If you are a kid who comes from a family where there's never been any daycare or playdates or organized activities with other kids, then add in parents who don't understand or don't care about gifted/shy/depressed and mix in some poor parental behavioral modeling/verbal abuse/neglect, you will have yourself a child who acts pretty weird.
posted by pluckysparrow at 6:49 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: I suggested drawing the animal that could beat any other animal in a fight. He smiled a little and said that that is a little bit like what he draws, and showed me some incredible drawings he'd done of soldiers in elaborate suits of armor.

Total layman's advice here but I'd go to town with this. Sounds like something he's genuinely enthusiastic about, and it's a form of expression, so why wouldn't you encourage it?
posted by philip-random at 6:49 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: He may just not fit into a box. Some friends of mine have a son like that. He has behaviors that might remind you of kids on the autism spectrum, but he's not autistic. He is extremely sensitive (can't tolerate sharp tones of voice or loudness, for instance) and very passive in relationships, in part it seems because he's afraid of creating conflict but sometimes maybe also because he doesn't quite recognize that he's being picked on. He loves to read, loves his new iPod Touch, spends a lot of time alone, likes to go outside and pace under a tree. He is pretty anxious and a touch on the depressive side of things. But he's been evaluated and doesn't really rise to a diagnosis of any kind; he's just a quirky bundle of personality traits that have to be figured out and dealt with as best his parents and other loving adults can manage.
posted by not that girl at 6:53 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: He sounds like a lot of the highly/profoundly gifted children that I work with. Intelligence is just one small piece of the pie - they tend to be highly sensitive, prefer the company of adults to peers, perfectionists (which often shows itself in an unwillingness to try something new b/c they won't be 'the best'), often socially awkward, and with many 'quirks'. One interesting theory to look at is Dabrowski's Theory of Overexcitabilities - it may give you a little insight into how he ticks. If you want to talk to me about this further, feel free to mefi mail me.
posted by true at 6:55 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Can you give him some options to find something he likes/excels at (math, science, chess, art) then put him in an adult atmosphere (college class, community chess club, etc) where he can learn and improve on his natural gifts? These kinds of kids often do much better with adults who will teach and challenge them but overlook their odd social behaviours as opposed to kids who are more likely to pick on him for being different.
posted by MsKim at 7:22 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You could be describing me as a child; including that many arm-chair psychologists have half-assed diagnosed me as border-line autistic or border-line Aspergers. But, in my case, it was very much like embrangled said - my home life was dark dark dark. I was considered extremely intelligent, once the school managed to test me when trying to figure out just how retarded I actually was (Oh, EVERYONE was surprised!) Being a victim at home made me give off the victim-vibe so social anxiety certainly played it's part. Art & drawing was my safe place and I didn't care to have it directed by others. Eventually, my talent helped create a safe place among my peers once they were old enough to want me to draw stuff for them. But I was still left having poorly learned coping and social skills.

If this is the case with the child, he may open up the more he trusts you - don't mock or tease him and don't make promises you cannot keep (not assuming you would, but these are things that would send me back into withdrawing from others). When my (smarter even than me) oldest child displayed similar behaviors we went to family counseling and were eventually informed that her IQ was extremely high but her EQ was really low - possibly because I, with my own poorly learned social skills, was the one raising her. We learned how to develop appropriate coping and socialization skills together!
posted by _paegan_ at 7:40 PM on May 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and I TOTALLY had my own language! It made the school officials think I was batshitinsane. *sigh* School, what a lovely meat-grinder!
posted by _paegan_ at 7:42 PM on May 3, 2010

Best answer: showed me some incredible drawings he'd done of soldiers in elaborate suits of armor.

Suits of armour? Seems he's told you something about himself right there. He's found, or developed, ways of protecting himself, but he's open to sharing and he's open to friendship. The best gift you can give him is to be that friend, and accept him for who he is. (I was another weird kid who spent all her time reading.)
posted by jokeefe at 7:44 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This kid sounds a lot like me as a kid. Instead of drawing, I was writing. (Dark stories about an abused cat. The story got handed over to my father. I wrote a lot less after that, because he interpreted the literary subtext, whether my teacher did or not. There were consequences.)

I was off the charts smart, and very shy. I think I understood social cues, but I couldn't meet the expectations/needs of my peers, and was so broken that my peers couldn't meet my needs.

I'm pretty sure I don't have Asperger's, but I have been diagnosed with ADHD as an adult and I struggle with depression for as long as I can remember.
posted by bilabial at 8:14 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was this child. I wasn't autistic. But, due to my early isolation from other children, I had no idea how to interact with anyone. I read. I wrote. I drew. But my life was internal. I could not share myself with other children.

I had reactive attachment disorder. I hope your J isn't as broken as I was.
posted by SPrintF at 9:29 PM on May 3, 2010

Listening to him, responding to the needs he expresses to you, and generally showing him positive regard, is infinitely more important than pathologizing the behaviors you happen to notice. I want to caution you very strongly against applying any labels to this kid, because 1) you're not in a position to do so, and 2) it doesn't matter--even if he were autistic or had PDD or whatever other DSM disorder, you would still need to attend to his specific needs and personality, not a textbook list of "How To Deal With _____ Kids".
posted by so_gracefully at 10:16 PM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This kid sounds an awful lot like me as a child too. Listen to other MeFites who've said something similar: I'm in therapy currently, and my analyst tells me that the behaviors I had as a child were indeed my way of coping with an incomprehensibly painful childhood. It was not autism or Asperger's, it was being raised by parents who never wanted me in the first place, and once they had me, they did everything they could to stunt my social growth. I never had a birthday party with friends, for instance, because my parents didn't allow friends to come over. There was physical, emotional and mental abuse, not just from my parents, as I was the family scapegoat, since, in large part, none of them could understand me and I couldn't figure out what on earth they were all on about since quite a few of them were, in addition to being abusive, pathologically manipulative liars.

I would have been moved a grade up if it hadn't been for my parents refusing; as it was, teachers nonetheless put me a year ahead in reading and math. In middle school they gave us all IQ tests; I finished before everyone else and helped other kids (heh, no one had told me not to). My score was so high that they called in my parents and asked them why they hadn't mentioned how intelligent I was... good grief I wish they hadn't. I never heard the end of how "prideful" and "entitled" I was; how I "had a superiority complex" and "needed to learn humility" (that meant they treated me like shit on purpose since they figured they had to "balance" my success in school).

I dealt with the pain of my incomprehensibly abusive family by being extremely quiet, not wanting to take risks when someone told me to do whatever I wanted ("how on earth could I choose?! what if I choose wrong and ruin everything??" was my thought process), sought out peace and quiet (you don't want to know how chaotic the screaming and irrational shouting got at home), and wrote poems about a rock that cried because it was lonely. The rock couldn't say anything; it couldn't move; people walked past it thinking it was just a feelingless rock when in fact it dearly wanted friendship and love... you get the picture. Those heavily-armored drawings he does are quite similar. Once or twice a year I'd burst into tears and was unable to explain it — had to do with how my parents punished me physically; if I cried, it was "the devil talking" and meant they had to hit me harder, so I bottled it all up and only let out the emotions once they got the better of me...

Were I to give advice on how to approach him, I'd ask him questions about those armored soldiers. Does he have stories about them? Don't ask directly about his home life unless/until he offers that up himself. I had already learned by age 8 that there was no point in talking about my family life since no one could do a damn thing about it (no bruises = no child abuse reports). Instead I found solace in teachers who listened to me and encouraged the things I truly loved, no matter how bizarre my peers thought those things were (music, foreign languages, reading, computers... I coded too!).
posted by fraula at 5:38 AM on May 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for your touching stories and suggestions. Chess and card games are excellent ideas - I'll see if he's interested in playing games - he might be interested in teaching me games, who knows? The codes he creates are a form of games, and I can see if he'd be interested in sending coded messages back and forth with me. In the past I've found that some kids respond positively to drawing assignments, but since he doesn't care for them, and many people have shared their lack of enthusiasm for assignments, I'll sit next to him and draw, but let him choose what he wants to do (draw, talk, anything really).

This has also been instructive in learning which answers I fond most helpful. The answers I found most helpful were the personal stories, experiences and suggestions from MeFi-ites who have known shy children, or been shy themselves. Through the variety of moving experience that you've shared, I have a better understanding of the ways home life and school environment can shape a young person's life and behavior, and how unique each person's experience is.

The answers I found less helpful (but they were frequently favorited) were the ones that scolded me for attempting to pathologize a sensitive young man or play "arm-chair" diagnostician. I was curious whether a set of behaviors which seems to fall into a pattern fell under a specific term ("shy" seems to be the most fitting), but reading some of the answers hurt a little. I understand that commenters were trying to help me see the young man as a complete person, and not to reduce him to an arbitrarily chosen label, but there seemed to be an underlying assumption that I didn't appreciate him as an individual, and that I wasn't offering him the same kind of gentle support I try to extend to all the kids.

The stories that many people shared are what ultimately helped me reframe the question - from "does this pattern have a name?" to "what have people with similar experiences found most helpful?" Thank you for sharing your stories, and I will keep your stories and advice in mind when I work with J.
posted by ladypants at 6:17 AM on May 4, 2010

Best answer: This:

On more than one occasion, he was standing looking at the ground when I entered the room, and when I said hello, he screamed and began pacing back and forth.

and this:

for the first few months at the program, J rocked back and forth in the corner

are the behaviors that are worrying to you, right? From my experience with kids of all types on the spectrum and off, this is not typical behavior from a child who is simply gifted or shy. There is something mis-wired in his brain and that's okay, as long as he's getting help.

Is there any way for the director of your program to ask the parents for the boy's medical/educational history? It seems to me that they're doing him a bit of a disservice to withhold that information from the people who could be helping him. The director could approach it like, "We've noticed that J. sometimes has a hard time socializing with the other kids; is there anything you'd like to share with us about J. that would help us help him?" Their reaction (or lack thereof) could itself tell you guys a lot about J.

Good luck; it sounds like you genuinely care about him. That's going to go a long way in making him feel comfortable and accepted.
posted by cooker girl at 8:11 AM on May 4, 2010

Best answer: i found a lot of your description familiar to my own experience, though not to the intensity described in the child. i was definitely shy and other people's emotions were overwhelming. it took a long time to figure people out and to build models internally by which to understand individuals. so in a new environment i would hold back for a long time just watching people before attempting to interact. I probably confused a lot of people because i'd watch but not know how to communicate what i felt. interactions with people, when i was spoken to directly, would provoke reactions so strong it would feel like the emotional part of my self completely shut my logical/reasoning self down. i'd stammer or just stare until my mom would intervene supplying answers for me.

i had brothers, 1 older and 1 younger, which was a help occasionally because there were few situations when i was very young that i had to endure strange places completely by myself. I also had very loving parents and an amazing mom who understood early childhood development very well, both of which may have given me a leg up on over coming my shyness and hyper awareness of other people's emotional states.

i'm 32 now, and though still a little shy i'm well adjusted. I still get into situations, when emotions run high, where i feel like i'm going to loose myself. I have a lot of coping mechanisms now that i didn't have as a child.

i don't really have advice to give exactly. I remember that it was easier when i wasn't the center of attention, when the rules of conduct were clear, and when people didn't try to be too direct or too excited. like, when i'd go to VBS at church and i'd be met by someone super excited and their emotional intensity would over whelm me. I preferred lower key people, not necessarily someone who was as shy as i was (because that could be awkward too). I also would get frustrated when people didn't give me time to think when asked a question. I processed things much slower and didn't have a ready set of standard replies to hand out. It was hard, because if the silence went on too long i'd become aware of the awkwardness and that would make me nervous and i'd not know what to do and then i wouldn't be able to think about the original question so i'd just not say anything.

the suggestions about making friends through the course of "doing something else" as opposed to "direct socializing" rang really true for me.

also, i process everything emotionally. i frequently can't explain why i pick up on stuff and often don't know exactly what it is i'm picking up on. that confusion plays into the shyness, because frequently i wouldn't understand what was going on internally myself. it has taken a lot of time and practice to learn to understand what my emotions are trying to tell me, and the more accomplished i get at that, the less shy i became as i grew older.

so, um, maybe that provides a little insight into whats going on? maybe you can use it come up with ways to relate to J that will draw him out of his shell and make him feel comfortable.

good luck!
posted by walljm at 2:24 PM on May 4, 2010

Best answer: Perhaps because there is such a similar overlay among the suggested background reasons (difficult home+highIQ, border-line autism, border-line Asperger's, Reactive Attachment Disorder, etc) for the boy's behaviors, I found many of the suggestions and informative links provided about those other options to follow along the work our family counselor did in my daughter's and my situations. The link provide by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 focuses on most of the same core issues we did.

I can see now why, with so many of the same symptoms, it was suggested at many times in my life I was autistic of some sort. Even if my diagnosis isn't fine tuned, I've still managed to help myself.

Plus, I don't know why MetaFilter still surprises me, but it never occurred to me that there was so many of us that were "weird kids"*. Can we have a club, but buttons and flags?

*Is now a weird adult.
posted by _paegan_ at 3:31 PM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Grrr... but WITH buttons and flags?
posted by _paegan_ at 3:32 PM on May 4, 2010

Response by poster: update: In the past weeks, J. has shared some of his language with me. It has an incredibly lush calligraphy, is based on phonemes, and includes several sounds which are not present in spoken English. It's incredible! He lights up when talking about the language, and is very patient in explaining how it works.

The times I've seen J, he's mostly been chatting with his new friends, working on his language along side them, or working or reading on his own. The times I've seen him, he's seemed happy and content, and I haven't seen him rocking or pacing. I've invited him to join the other students in activities I've led, and so far, he's politely declined, but with a smile, and said "maybe next time".

He also seems to favor the same locations that I do, the sunny quiet corner of the art room, the sunny quiet couch in the library, the comfy couch in the light filled lounge. These all seem like the best spots for quiet contemplation, and to my mind just seem like the most attractive locations objectively, although most students congregate in the dark and noisy rooms activity rooms. I see a lot of myself in him (and vice versa), and from your posts, it seems that many MeFi-ites have similar feelings. Thank you all for sharing your stories and advice.
posted by ladypants at 12:59 PM on May 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

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