Early in his career, Walt Disney was fired by an editor of the newspaper he worked at because, the editor said, “the kid had no good ideas.” Albert Einstein experienced early developmental delays, not talking until he was three and not reading until he was seven; he was also known to have social ineptness and academic failures. These factors reveal two interesting qualities of gifted individuals: they’re not understood well by others, and they demonstrate peaks and valleys in functioning—called asynchronous development.
While we expect the intellectually brilliant person to be skilled in all areas, this is not the case. It is difficult for us to understand why someone with an IQ of 160 cannot make a sandwich or remember to brush her teeth. Moreover, due to their ability to compensate for their weaknesses, learning and emotional disabilities may go unidentified in gifted individuals. While mental illness is not more common in gifted individuals than “typicals,” life can be very challenging for eggheads, nerds, geeks, or little miss smarty pants. I use these disparaging terms intentionally as we all have a bit of contempt for those who are smarter than we are. This is because we don’t know what they know, or the way they experience the world, and we cannot always understand their novel ideas. (Think of Walt Disney’s boss. “You want to make mouse cartoons that move? I don’t get it.”)
What is “gifted?”
It is in early childhood that the differences in gifted children typically become apparent. Identification of intellectual giftedness in early childhood is controversial and complicated. Giftedness is usually determined by performance on a standardized intelligence test. An average IQ score is around 100; an IQ of at least 130 is generally considered gifted. IQs can be as high as 160 or above. In addition to high IQ scores, gifted children have excellent memory and a wide range of interests.
Early on, gifted children may the attention of parents and teachers—and not always for positive attributes. Often these children stand out as being withdrawn, spaced out, oppositional-defiant, quirky, or “overly sensitive.” Consequently they may be referred for ADHD, behavioral counseling, or autism testing (it is possible to be twice exceptional which means intellectual brilliance with autism or ADHD). What these behaviors may reflect is perceptual differences related to the “brilliant brain” and how it works. Gifted children have more channels open in their brain to understand and experience the world. In other words, they are more aware of things and may be overly sensitive to sensory stimulation such as sound and touch. [editor’s note: Dr. Blackwell wrote about sensory-sensitive children in her last Learning Years column.]
The gifted child may also possess a heightened awareness of the feelings and emotional expressions of others. They may have their feelings hurt easily, worry about their parents’ safety or think about their own mortality. Emotionally they can become tearful, overexcited or sullen. This may lead them to be negatively labeled, misunderstood or isolated. Sometimes bright children will intentionally “dumb themselves down” with peers in order to fit in. This is especially true with girls and minority youngsters.
Where to start?
As with any other developmental exceptionality, gifted individuals first must be identified—a score on a standardized test should be part of the process. Observation and identification of the child’s abilities, learning style, special talents, and his or her “disabilities” if they exist must also be evaluated. Special consideration of the child’s educational environment is essential; however bright children need more than extra work. In fact a rigid, drill oriented classroom can lead to emotional and behavioral difficulties and can stifle intellectual growth.
A common characteristic of gifted children is their creativity. In early childhood, this can be nurtured through play and hands-on exploration, pretend play, arts, construction, science, movement and access to other bright children and adults who understand the way they think and feel. Special talents must also be identified and encouraged, including nonacademic skills. While exceptionally gifted children do not need to be educated with their same aged peers (they may do better with older students), they do need to have access to them for play and social development.
All children need balance in their schedule with plenty of down time to think, process, create and generalize ideas and learning. Most important, the gifted child must be understood and accepted.