The Ins and Outs of the Gifted Mind

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Part 1

By Dr. Allison Kawa

If I had my way, intellectual giftedness would be a formal diagnosis in the family of neurodevelopmental disorders that also includes intellectual disability (ID), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism among others. There are many different definitions of intelligence and areas in which people can be gifted and talented, but that is a discussion for another blog. In referencing intellectual giftedness here, I am referring to those individuals who score above the 98th percentile on a garden variety IQ test. When your critical thinking, reasoning, and processing skills are higher than 98% of the population, your brain is different by definition. Yet, most people do not understand the neurodivergent issues that accompany having such a unique brain. When one’s thinking and processing skills are turbocharged, other aspects of neurological and psychological makeup are similarly amplified. If Gifted children and teens are simply looked at as the “lucky ones” who will probably sail through school with one hand tied behind their back, they are being set up for unnecessary challenges and even trauma as they try to understand and cope with their neurodivergence. 

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Pump Up the Volume

Gifted people can be highly sensitive and intense because they are attuned to subtle cognitive and emotional stimulation coming from both their environment and from their internal world. Heightened sensitivity combines with intensity to generate something our Giftedness literature calls “overexcitability”. There are several different types of overexcitabilities (OEs) that each exist along a spectrum of intensity. Gifted people can have all, some, or just one OE, and their OE expression might change depending on their age, circumstances, or experiences. Children and adolescents also tend to be inconsistent or uneven in their development, which complicates the picture even more. Having asynchronous development means that a Gifted first or second grader might have the intellectual ability to grasp existential concepts like global warming or genocide, but their ability to process that knowledge is age-appropriate and therefore woefully insufficient to allow them to maintain emotional equilibrium as they contemplate these very adult issues. 

Misdiagnosis or Missed Diagnosis

Parenting a Gifted child or adolescent can be confusing, especially if the parent is not also Gifted and therefore does not have shared experience to help frame what they observe in their child. When parents recognize that something is different about their child, they might inadvertently go down a pathway with therapists or doctors who mean well but are not sufficiently versed about the special needs of the Gifted population. It is not unusual for Gifted individuals to be misdiagnosed with one or more labels when the worrisome symptoms represent features of Giftedness. The most common misdiagnoses are: attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism (ASD), oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD), bipolar spectrum disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

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On the other hand, often Giftedness co-occurs with other diagnoses, in which case the individual is referred to as twice-exceptional (2e). It is possible to be both Gifted and an ADHDer or Gifted and dyslexic for instance. Sometimes Giftedness is identified while assessing these individuals for academic or attentional challenges, but when Gifted children are identified through routine screening in school, other issues they might be struggling with are less likely to be uncovered. Many young children experience delayed diagnosis because their intellect allows them to compensate for challenges, but this comes at a tremendous emotional and self-esteem cost. Research also suggests that Giftedness is a risk factor for anxiety and depression as well as autoimmune disorders including asthma and allergies. Finally, Gifted individuals in typical academic or vocational settings sometimes go to great lengths to mask their differences in an attempt to fit in; living inauthentically is unbelievably stressful and demoralizing.

Giftedness also has many upsides since as a group, Gifted people tend to have more academic, vocational, and financial success in adulthood. Within appropriately challenging schools or stimulating careers that are structured to support their OEs, Gifted individuals often enjoy high levels of emotional satisfaction while accomplishing tremendous academic or professional feats. However, the notion that genius comes with madness has persisted through the ages for good reason. Overexcitabilities are a double-edged sword, and gifts can sometimes morph into debilitating overwhelm. Having a complete and accurate understanding of a Gifted child’s neurocognitive and psychosocial profile is imperative for helping them avoid a lifetime of feeling misunderstood, defective, or isolated. For this reason, parents and professionals interacting with the Gifted population need education about OEs as well as tools to nurture this special needs group.  

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