I have a number of posts coming up about our experience with ADD/ADHD, but they are tied to “giftedness.” “Gifted” is very much a misunderstood notion, and I think an explanation of it should come before all the other stuff I’ll write. Gifted is NOT a way of saying “my kid is superior to yours.” Gifted is NOT “my kid is the smartest at school and it comes easy to them.” Gifted is NOT “my kid gets all A’s and is smarter than yours.” Yes, they are identified by higher IQs, but that does not make them overachievers or superior in any way. It’s just “different,” and in fact some have taken up the term “Differently Wired,” instead. (This is a term I like and generally prefer, but in this post, I’m going to stick to “gifted” for the purpose of explanation and awareness.) Some of things that I’m writing here can be true for everyone sometimes, maybe even something is true for you all the time. For us, it’s all of it, on a constant basis. But it is real, “gifted” does exist. In fact, fMRIs of gifted people have been described as seeing a “brain on fire.” Read on.
Three types of responses that typically come up when I say that my kid (and myself) are “gifted”:
“All children are gifted,” “I don’t like labels,” *eye roll*.
Listen, I get the sentiment there but no, not all children are gifted in this sense. When someone says a child is really good at sports, for example – “He’s a really gifted soccer player,” no one feels compelled to jump and say “All children are good soccer players!”
And yes, some labels are inherently bad. But some labels are there to get support, such as the labels that get children extra learning support in schools. Visually-impaired is a label. ADHD is a label. The “gifted” label is especially important for kids with these brain differences, because without it – and without an understanding of what it really means – then they are often mislabeled/misdiagnosed, stigmatized, and treated for a misdiagnosis that can do a great deal of damage.
Here’s the thing about being gifted: If a child’s teachers don’t know that s/he’s gifted or don’t understand what it means (I’ll get to that), the child is often labeled instead with: underachiever, lazy, difficult, problematic, too sensitive, overemotional, hyper, and on and on. (I could write a novel about the many hurtful and damaging labels that I got slapped with over my lifetime and have internalized because of this.)
As for the eye rolls… those usually come from people who believe that “gifted” is a privileged, white person thing that we made up to act like our children are superior, but here’s the thing. Here’s a few things, actually:
- White people are far from being the only ones that are “gifted.” There are just as many black kids, for example, who are gifted, and being misunderstood in this respect is FAR more damaging for them. Black children are already at a disadvantage with higher detention and suspension rates. Gifted children are frequently misdiagnosed (so much so that an entire book has been written about it) and gifted black children are left behind and mistreated more so than white. Boys tend to act out in uncontrollable boredom and get into trouble – the trouble is far worse for black boys. Gifted children act outside of societal norms for children. They may argue more, ask more questions, or have trouble regulating themselves when they feel angry or frustrated. Black children are more likely to be seen as “problems” or diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, without inquiry into their behavior.
- There are a number of papers and a growing body of research that detail the measurable, neurophysiological differences in the brains of gifted people. A very small sampling: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.
“So how much bigger is the brain of a gifted child, compared to a child with a lower IQ? Actually, not bigger at all. The key neurological differences lie in functioning and development far more than size and structure. One study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health found that, “Youth with superior IQ are distinguished by how fast the thinking part of their brains thickens and thins as they grow up … Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans showed that their brain’s outer mantle, or cortex, thickens more rapidly during childhood, reaching its peak later than in their peers — perhaps reflecting a longer developmental window for high-level thinking circuitry. It also thins faster during the late teens, likely due to the withering of unused neural connections as the brain streamlines its operations.” One of the study’s authors explains, “Brainy children are not cleverer solely by virtue of having more or less gray matter at any one age … Rather, IQ is related to the dynamics of cortex maturation.”
Gifted brains also appear to be both more active and more efficient on a neuronal level. To begin with, “The gifted child seems to have an increased cell production that also increases synaptic activity. This all adds up to an increased thought process. The neurons in the brain of the gifted child seem to be biochemically more abundant and, as a result, the brain patterns that develop are able to process more complex thought.”
Moreover, fMRI’s demonstrate that, “Gifted brains are remarkably intense and diffuse metabolizers,” capable of synchronizing the efforts of “diverse visual, spatial, verbal, and sensory areas of brain. Gifted thinkers are rarely one-mode thinkers. Rather, they are great organizers of diverse and multimodal information.””
In my experience, parents of neurotypical children get offended because there is such an obsessive push to make our kids be as smart as possible. Baby Einstein, anyone? So when they hear that a kid is gifted, they think, “I want my kid to be gifted, too.” One, you can’t “make” your kid be gifted. (See above, neurophysiological differences.) Your kid can certainly be very talented, can be a high achiever, be exceptionally smart, and be wildly successful in life, but they cannot be gifted if they weren’t born gifted. Gifted piano player, gifted mathematician, gifted writer, computer whiz – your kid can be all that. But not “gifted.” Not in this sense. It sounds stuck up, I agree. The word that was chosen is unfortunate, but it is what it is. And people who think they want their kids to be “gifted” have, quite frankly, no fucking clue how hard it is to raise gifted kids or be a gifted kid. Read on.
The “gifted diagnosis” is not given because a kid excels in school. Gifted kids are not super smart overachievers who ace every test and and are surrounded by friends. They are often socially awkward, bored and anxious, underachieve, and are engulfed with intense emotions and a hyperawareness of the world that they don’t know how to manage. Many of them are “twice exceptional” (2e) – autism, ADHD, dyslexia, etc. The Kid (as in my kid) has dyscalculia (a math learning impairment) that, before diagnosis, made his life a living hell at school. He’s great at logic and “higher math,” but he’s unable to assimilate basic math facts, and the very presence of numbers causes a panic attack. He’s extremely visual spatial, creative, and verbal. So, like many gifted kids, he’s “behind” in one academic area while far ahead in others. His math is way “behind” most kids his age, but in everything related to language, words, and writing, he’s light years ahead. He’s 9, but he aces spelling lists that are targeted to 10th and 11th grade, and he writes complex sentences that show a mastery of grammar. He reads YA novels because he connects to the intensity of emotions and social situations in them. Every Saturday, when my husband’s issue of The Economist arrives, The Kid waits patiently until my husband is done reading it so that he can read it. (And boy, does he have a lot of opinions about what he reads.) Intellectually, he can hold his own with adults; emotionally, he regulates a little younger, but his sarcasm and wit is on par with a teenager. Essentially, I have 5 year old, 16 year old, and a 30 year old all rolled into one. This is one of the keys of giftedness: wildly asynchronous development.
Asynchrony literally means being out-of-sync both internally and externally. A lack of synchronicity in the rates of cognitive, emotional and physical development creates inner tension. For example, when a five-year-old child perceives a horse through eight-year-old eyes, but cannot replicate the horse in clay with her five-year-old hands, she becomes extremely frustrated, bursts into tears and throws the clay across the room. Internal asynchrony is mirrored in external adjustment difficulties since the gifted person often feels different from, or out of place with, others. The greater the degree to which cognitive development outstrips physical development, the more out-of- sync the child feels in relation to the school curriculum. Psychologically, as an amalgam of many developmental ages (Tolan, 1989, p. 7), the child may appear to be different ages in different situations:
In terms of development chronological age may be the least relevant piece of information to consider. Kate, with an IQ score of 170, may be six, but she has a “mental age” often and a half…. Unfortunately, Kate, like every highly gifted child, is an amalgam of many developmental ages. She may be six while riding a bike, thirteen while playing the piano or chess, nine while debating rules, eight while choosing hobbies and books, five (or three) when asked to sit still. How can such a child be expected to fit into a classroom designed around norms for six year olds? (Tolan, 1989, p. 7) [read more on asynchronous development here]
Gifted kids often show high levels of sensitivity, empathy, and understanding of moral issues as compared to other kids their age. (Morality and empathy, including the regions of the brain where such things reside, occur later in “normal” childhood development.) “Sensitivity” and “awareness” are two of the most common words you’ll hear in response to “what made you suspect your child was gifted?”
Many gifted kids also have some sort of issue surrounding sleep. I’ve had trouble sleeping since I was a kid – my mom still loves to tell me that I stopped napping entirely around a year old. Throughout my teen years and adult life, sleep has been a thorn in my side. I’ve gotten so many recommendations from people about what I “should try.” None of them work. (You know what does work? Edibles. I have never slept so well in my life as I have in a state where recreational cannabis is legal.) My son sleeps even less than I do, and he’s already begun to be plagued by the stress of not being able to fall asleep. There’s no external issue causing his sleep troubles, it’s his overactive brain. When I was a kid, I was awake worrying about cancer and nuclear war or obsessing over a book I was reading. He’s already declared sleep his most favorite hobby in the world and, thanks to homeschool, he can crash out and nap whenever he needs. (He, unlike me, is a huge fan of naps.) When he was well under a year old, he napped during the day an average of one time, for twenty minutes. That’s it. Doctors were baffled. Gifted psychologists were not: this is quite common, as their wee little brains are in overdrive from the very beginning.
Lastly? He’s been tested for ADHD. You can have ADHD and not be gifted. You can be gifted and not have ADHD. You can be unsure of whether or not it’s ADHD or “just the giftedness,” since ADHD symptoms are often part and parcel of giftedness. But being 2e is that much harder than being one or the other. His (and my) ADHD is not what you think of when you hear “ADHD”, but a specific form with hyperfocus. It’s less about being bouncy and all over the place and more about an inability to regulate attention. We have obsessive, intense focus for things we love, to the point of losing track of time and everything around you. With hyperfocus, you get into a “flow state”. I’m notorious for getting absorbed in studying, coding, or writing to the point where I haven’t moved an inch for hours – I might have to pee really, really badly, and be starving, and my back screaming in agony but I WILL. NOT. MOVE. My concentration can’t be broken. I’ve learned to manage it, but it’s caused problems in the past. (I often forget to eat, and I forget to refill my water and get dehydrated, and I often miss out on doing things I needed to do because I cannot tear myself away from what I’m hyperfocused on.) My son does this – he gets absorbed in coding, in creating, in writing, and sometimes a book will cause him to lose track of the entire day. But if he and I are NOT interested in something, forget it. It’s not a matter of choice – I’ve never mastered focusing on things that I’m not interested in… I’ve just learned ways to “fake” it and do what I need to do.
Overall, boys act out, girls turn inward. Boys act out and get into trouble, girls turn inward and become depressed or suicidal. I actually acted out, as a kid, but my “giftedness” was perpetually overlooked because I withdrew and eventually dropped out of school. I failed or near-failed almost all of my classes in middle and high school… and then went on to effortlessly graduate Magna Cum Laude from UW because I was interested and motivated. I had a really, really hard time relating to kids my own age and as soon as I escaped high school, I was much happier being able to spend time with people older than me and have the conversations that I wanted to have.
Gifted children frequently have one of what Dabrowki termed the “five overexcitabilities” – a sensory overload that manifests as psychomotor (rapid speech, inability to stop moving, etc), sensual (tactile, disturbed by clothing tags, rough materials, etc. – my son used to FREAK OUT when wind blew in his face, for example, and he demands that all tags be cut out of his clothing), imaginational (space cadets, daydreamers), intellectual (loves to learn, constantly seeking out new information – this is my constant drive to immerse myself into new passions, what some people see as flighty), and emotional (painfully intense emotions that often seem “over the top” and are hard to regulate). Read more here.
In a way, Morgan was lucky she was such a pain in the ass. Gifted boys tend to act out much more often than gifted girls. Young males tend to combat their boredom by disrupting the class. Often their frustrated teachers send them to be tested for behavioural problems only to discover that the little monsters have off-the-chart IQs. Gifted girls, however, are more likely to turn inward. Their silent brooding may be interpreted as nothing more than feminine coquettishness, and their giftedness may be overlooked.
In short, no, “gifted” is not “super smart” and things come easy to you. There’s a great intellectual capacity and an ability to learn things quickly, but there are so many internal hurdles that they rarely work to their potential without a lot of help. Really, “gifted” just means “wired differently from one’s peers.” But it IS a very real difference.
If you’re interested in reading more (or suspect you might have a gifted kid on your hands), here are a few great blogs and resources. The GHF (Gifted Homeschoolers Forum) is an amazing support community that has truly saved my sanity over the last year.
Gifted Homeschoolers Forum: Online classes, Facebook discussion/support group, research, blog, and resources.
Hoagies Gifted Education Page: Everything gifted under the sun. Links to bloggers, groups, latest research, books, conferences, educational resources, and “gifted 101” information.
Crushing Tall Poppies: Blog by a school teacher turned homeschooler to her gifted kids.
My Little Poppies: Blog and resources for creative gifted homeschooling.
Ramblings of a Gifted Teacher: blog (and resources) of a veteran Teacher who understands the needs of gifted children
Mind Matters Podcast: podcast that features educators and researchers to discuss various “gifted” issues (2e, education, regulation, etc)
Tilt Parenting: Resources and blog by the author of “Differently Wired,” (a book about giftedness).
SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) and NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children): organizations dedicated to research and education of the gifted population. They have frequent conferences and post information on the latest research on giftedness and 2e.
John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY): Education for gifted kids – they offer online classes, face to face classes, and summer camps. Kids must test for eligibility (they must demonstrate ability in verbal and/or math reason above their grade level).