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Genius with learning disability?

March 8, 2014

Cameron Thompson is an interesting poster-boy for our case study analysis of Child & Adolescent Psychopathology at UWA this semester. As the 13 year old protagonist in a BBC documentary, and proclaimed in 2013 the youngest Open University graduate for earning a degree in Maths while aged 16, Cameron is seen explaining in the original doco that he has

the social ability of a talking potato.

Humour as a protective tendency or coping mechanism? Perhaps.

Being an atypical teenager obviously makes social interactions difficult. Or, in the language of deficit models which seem to prevail in psychopathology, Cameron is perceived as socially maladaptive or impaired.

Perhaps we could all be placed somewhere along this continuum.


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My daily experience with teenagers in the workplace and young adult daughters still-living-at-home suggests that gauche or tactless expressions of beliefs and ideas are not restricted to those with learning disabilities; often, it is the unrestrained expression of what is at the front of any mind that yields rich teaching/ learning/ coaching/ clarification moments.

If you are forbearing as an adult, of course.

And Cameron’s parents, Alison and Rod Thompson, are up for it. Whatever it might entail.

Parental acceptance of their son’s quirky nature is inspiring. Their own idiosyncratic tendencies also endear viewers. While inevitable questions about contributing genetic factors will arise, research shows that

it is impossible to determine incidence rates [of learning disabilities] with any reliable degree of accuracy at present because of the plethora of definitions and the lack of uniformity and standardisation of assessment instruments and criteria (Butler & Heikkinen, 1990, p. 419).


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Reassuring, I think, as well as life-affirming, organic, flexible. And entirely at odds with the medical system’s forced rigidity. Especially when emotions are added to the mix… and Cameron does appear to be suffering from performance stress and anxiety in the film.

Here’s my draft introduction to our case study:

The primary aim of this paper is to explore a conundrum underlying the documentary The Growing Pains of a Teenage Genius: Can the film’s thirteen year old subject, Cameron Thompson, be a genius while suffering from a Learning Disability (LD)? Cameron’s LD diagnosis seems unusual considering his prodigious mathematical ability, yet he has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome – a classification which no longer exists according to DSM-5 published at the end of 2013.  The disorder is now redefined as Autism Spectrum Disorder and presents as “Persistent difficulties in the social use of verbal and nonverbal communication” (DSM-5). On occasion, especially in social situations, Cameron demonstrates impairment in changing communication to meet the needs of the listener.  Of greatest concern is Cameron’s inability to structure information in a step by step sequence; anxiety is induced by less than excellent academic achievement, and his subsequent emotional reactions are seen impacting on both his family and his ability to perform in the Open University course he is studying. This becomes an unwanted, intrusive and negative spiral which could perhaps be indicative of OCD thought patterns since, on one particular occasion, struggling to meet an assignment deadline seems to cause a panic attack. The literature suggests that anxiety disorders are the most common psychological disorders among children and adolescents, and early onset of symptoms generates a continuum across the lifespan. Prompt initiation of management seems warranted. Cameron is also seen struggling with social exchange where emotional and social deficits manifest. Overall, his greatest challenge lies in social functioning, and there is sufficient evidence in the documentary to suggest that genetic factors contribute to his unique situation. This paper will outline academic performance and family dynamics along with social factors which are seen shaping the expression of Cameron Thompson’s genius, most noticeably in light of his diagnosed Learning Disorder.

Looks a little blocky in that indented format, but there’s my argument.  In a nutshell – it depends.

Selected reference

Butler, S.R. & Heikkinen, A. (1990). Specific learning disabilities: Overview In Butler, S.R (Ed). The exceptional child: An introduction to special education. Australia: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Limited, pp. 415-432.

photo credit: <a href=””>elod beregszaszi</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;

One Comment leave one →
  1. Janelle Orman permalink
    October 10, 2015 10:28 am

    Hi Sam, I have found watching Cameron’s story really fascinating and went and purchased the book his parents wrote. Very interesting kid. Presented very oddly in our UWA lectures but I suppose Stephen just wants to make us think!

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