The Smarter They Are, the Harder They Are…or Are They?

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the effect of words used in psychological diagnoses; particularly for the diagnoses of ADHD and Gifted.   Yep, “Gifted” is a diagnosis.  I was surprised too. When my 5 year old was diagnosed ADHD and Gifted, I didn’t think the Gifted part was a “diagnosis.”  I thought, “Ok, so he’s smart, he scored high on the IQ part of the testing.”  This wasn’t a surprise; I knew he was smart.  Being eight months pregnant with our third child, I decided to focus my time on learning about ADHD, which I had heard of, but didn’t know much about.

For three years I concentrated on ADHD.  I travelled to conferences, attended lectures, read books, subscribed to magazines and eNewsletters and became a member of ADHD associations.  I learned a lot about ADHD, but I found, with very few exceptions, that the spin on ADHD was by and large, pretty negative.

The authorities told me, a person with ADHD, particularly the combined type my son has (hyperactivity and impulsivity), will get into a lot of trouble during his lifetime, won’t progress as fast or mature on the usual curve, will have social issues, is more likely to do drugs, drive dangerously, have sex early and statistically is more likely to get divorced.

Sigh.

Only my reaction was much bigger than an exhaled breath, and it was pervasive.  My husband and I began to question our own and each other’s parenting styles.  We blamed each other for our son’s diagnoses.  We felt each day was a mountain to climb just to do it all again the next day.

Then one day, a friend asked me why I was ignoring my son’s giftedness.

Head tilt.  I didn’t understand.  “What is giftedness?  Yes, he’s smart, but what is there to think about, manage, understand?”  That afternoon my life and our family’s life and certainly our son’s life, changed forever.  I began reading about giftedness and learned that giftedness has similar or even the same characteristics as ADHD.  An indication that it is complicated to define giftedness is that each state has a differing definition and it is separately defined federally.

The curious thing about giftedness, though, is that unlike ADHD, when someone talks about their Gifted child, often they are thought of as elitist or bragging.  They are considered lucky and special.  Yet Gifted children often suffer the same challenges that kids labeled with attention deficits do.

The truth is, take a Gifted child and put them in a classroom or any situation in which they are not significantly challenged, and you will find yourself with a restless, frustrated and potentially impulsive and disruptive child.  Few people question the need for support for the learning disabled child.  But as we move the same number of standard deviations away from the norm on the right side of the curve, accommodations are needed to provide meaningful, deep, and thoughtful experiences to allow these brains to reach their full potential.

How do we achieve the positive spin of giftedness but maintain the persuasive argument that gifted learners need support?

The important thing for teachers and administrators to understand is that with the “gift” of giftedness comes a challenge to equalize.  It’s amazing how nature loves balance.   So the farther away from the standard deviation a gifted person is from the “normal” bump of the bell curve, the more challenged he or she may be in another area.  This may present in one or several of the following ways:  emotional challenges, intensity, anxiety, sensitivity, rigidity, acute sense of justness and fairness or high levels of frustration.  Such intensities are difficult to contain, let alone within small bodies.  Your child may read at two or three years of age but she may also have pulsating temper tantrums that make you long for your neighbors’ child’s plain old ‘terrible twos.’   

At the same time, parents must capitalize on the upside of giftedness with their child.  Tell your child the positive flip side to the challenges they face.  For the impatient child, praise him for absorbing information quickly and before others.  For the strong-willed, excessive questioner, she has incredible curiosity and inquisitiveness.  For the child who must tell others what to do and how to do it, he is probably highly organized and excellent at systemizing.  The child who cannot relate to her peers may have an enormous vocabulary and ability to retain and understand high levels of information.  The child who is perfectionistic is a critical thinker with high expectations.  A child who does not answer, seems distracted or disinterested, may have the ability to intensely focus on a highly interesting task.  The child who wants to change the rules of games or alter plans is creative and likes to improve upon typical scenarios.  The child who is self critical and sensitive often has deep empathy for others.  The “hyper” child who is challenged by inactivity, is also high energy, alert, and can often sustain effort for long periods of time.  (Comparisons adapted from Clark (2002) and Seagoe (1974)).

The argument for differential treatment in the classroom, at home or anywhere a Gifted child is expected to attend, is that to achieve the positive flip side of these typically gifted characteristics, the child with special needs, must have well thought out accommodations and support.

Yes, giftedness comes with “specialness” unparalleled.  The Gifted child experiencing challenges needs to understand the great strengths with which he is blessed.  But it is equally important that the adults around him understand the challenges he faces and strategies that allow him to succeed.

Six years after my son’s diagnoses, I now have three Gifted children, two of whom are also diagnosed with ADHD.  While there are still times when we all feel as though we are climbing a mountain, with our “flip side” reframe, we also experience exhilarating, fun, wind-in-the-hair runs down the other side.

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About Author

Julie F. Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC. She supports parents of gifted and distractible children through education, strategies and advocacy.

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