An Educational Refuge For Gifted Teens On The Autism Spectrum : Shots - Health News A center at the University of Iowa is making sure that its programs for gifted teens include those with autism spectrum disorders.
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Gifted Teens With Autism Connect With Like-Minded Kids At Math And Science Camp

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Gifted Teens With Autism Connect With Like-Minded Kids At Math And Science Camp

Gifted Teens With Autism Connect With Like-Minded Kids At Math And Science Camp

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are lots of educational programs out there for gifted teens, but finding the right one can be hard for someone like Alex.

ALEX: I have a large degree of skill in almost every subject of learning, but I also have autistic spectrum disorder.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on a center at the University of Iowa, where programs for gifted students are designed to include kids on the spectrum, like Alex. We're using participants' first names only to protect their privacy.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Educators call these students twice exceptional. And for Alex, that's meant a combination of opportunity and frustration. He's 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 lack of social skills caused him a lot of grief.

ALEX: I was constantly getting into fights and normally losing them.

HAMILTON: And at the end of each school year, Alex didn't know what to do.

ALEX: I was always that one kid who was unhappy whenever summer vacation came around.

HAMILTON: Until his parents learned about the Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa's College of Education. Belin-Blank offers a range of programs for teens who excel at math and science and the arts. And they've made a point of including kids on the autism spectrum. Alex says it's a place where he felt both challenged and comfortable.

ALEX: Kids that go to these 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.

HAMILTON: Clark fits that description. He's 13 and likes to write stories and computer code when he's not playing Minecraft or Fortnite. Clark says having autism makes talking to people awkward. It also affects how his mind works.

CLARK: My thoughts are kind of like a disorganized bookshelf and, like, maybe books are thoughts that are scattered around the floor.

HAMILTON: But not when he's coding, which is what he did in a class called robot theater. Clark spent a week writing a play and then programming robots to perform it.

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

HAMILTON: And Clark says his time at the University had an unexpected benefit.

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

HAMILTON: One reason the Belin-Blank sessions work for kids like Clark is professionals like Hanna Stevens. She's a child psychiatrist and developmental neuroscientist at the University. She also mentors 10th and 11th graders in her lab.

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HANNA STEVENS: There you go. Now fix your optimization of the histogram. There we go. That'll get you closer.

HAMILTON: On this day, Stevens is helping a student look for brain differences associated with autism. This student is on the spectrum, though many others who've gone through the lab are not. Stevens says regardless, the teens spend six weeks doing hardcore science.

STEVENS: They've gathered some of the key pieces of data that we've used in some of our publications. They've been authors on publications.

HAMILTON: As a psychiatrist, Stevens works with children on the spectrum, and she's acutely aware of the challenges they face.

STEVENS: I see how disorders, like autism spectrum disorder, really can influence a person who has so many strengths, but they have also have a disability that keeps them from being able to tap into those strengths.

HAMILTON: The university's summer sessions and other programs are designed to keep that disability from being a deal-breaker. Instructors and other staff get a packet filled with detailed advice on how to handle everything from bullying to personal space to hygiene.

Martika Theis is a college student who works as a research assistant at the Belin-Blank Center's assessment and counseling clinic. She also has autism spectrum disorder. And the first time she read the center's advice packet, it was a revelation.

MARTIKA THEIS: I felt as though I was going to cry. It was just so insightful - all the things that I sort of was unconsciously desiring as a person on the spectrum written out in front of me and promised to be provided to people like me.

HAMILTON: Theis wishes she'd known about the summer programs when she was in high school. Now, she says...

THEIS: I just want to help kids like me not have to go through the difficulties that I had.

HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News, Iowa City, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "CANYON WALLS")

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