How Occupational Therapy Can Help Gifted Children (And Their Exhausted Parents!)

rockybeachGifted children have abilities that make them more sensitive to their bodies, their world and the people in it.  They notice sensations, emotional states and the interplay between the physical and the non-physical world in ways that non-gifted people do not.  Exquisite sensitivity often comes at a price for gifted children and their parents.

Think about this in the same way an electrical device cannot support additional volts of current.   A parent’s pride in her child’s amazing abilities can be overshadowed at times by the fatigue and frustration in dealing with tantrums, rigidity, sensitivity, and a child’s seemingly inexhaustible energy.  Occupational therapy can help manage the current and “keep the lights on” without power surges destroying the functioning of the computer.

Particularly in the early years, gifted children can become easily overwhelmed when their emotions, their impulses and their perceptions exceed their ability to process everything they experience.  They may feel clothing or food as intensely strong sensations.  They may want to swing for an hour, then cry when it is time to leave the playground. They might be aware of a parent’s sadness or another child’s frustration more acutely, but have no idea what is happening or what to do.  They really “get” the plight of the polar bears on the disappearing ice sheets.  After all, they can read the New York Times at 5!    They just don’t know what to do with all these feelings, thoughts, desires and sensations.

Some abilities in gifted children are advanced by years, such as reading or math.  The ability to share with a sibling?  Not advanced at all!  This “asynchronous development” can cause internal conflict and may result in more frequent and more intense outbursts, refusal to participate in school or playdates, sleep issues and more.

OT’s with a strong sensory processing background can help gifted children and their families navigate the complex sensory-motor, cognitive and emotional/social overload that happens when brainpower exceeds management capacity.  What unique skills does an OT bring to the table?  The ability to assess and implement a whole-person approach.    Talking about behavior, making a rewards chart, and cognitively understanding where all that energy comes from is simply not enough to make the days and the weeks easier for a gifted child.  The occupational therapist’s toolbox is deeper and wider, and includes physical interventions that look like play, social/emotional mastery experiences (not just talk), and sensory-based activities that support self-regulation as a child grows into their amazing abilities.  Take a look at Gifted and Struggling? Meet the Twice Exceptional Student and How OT Can Help if your child is gifted but dealing with issues such as sensory processing, ADD, learning issues or ASD.

Occupational therapists do use cognitive strategies such as the “How Does Your Engine Run?” program by Williams and  Shellenbarger.  A cognitively gifted 4 year-old may be fully capable of engaging in this useful program.  A sensory diet, one of the core concepts of most sensory processing treatment programs, can help children discharge and manage sensitivity and excitement throughout the day.

Parents that know how to help their child regulate their arousal feel empowered, not defeated, when their child becomes overwhelmed.  Children learn that their parents “get” them, and that they can turn to them for support instead of criticism.  Feeling understood and feeling capable is the bedrock of self-confidence and self-esteem.  Gifted individuals need to know that they are more than their stratospheric IQ, and this is where it begins.

Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Toddler on the Block program is amazingly effective at teaching children how to handle the strong emotions of early childhood, and teaching parents how to support their children without crushing their spirit.  I use his incredible techniques with every gifted client I see.  Children with ASD respond, children with SPD respond, and gifted children respond.  Dr. Karp’s strategies allow children to learn how to express their feelings without judgement, and teach parents to set limits and place consequences on behavior without crushing a child’s spirit.  Isn’t that what we all want for our children?  Check out Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today! even if your child is not a toddler.  It turns out that Dr. Karp’s easy technique for handling demands works on impatient people at almost any age.  You just alter your presentation to fit their emotional state and communication level!

Research suggests that the way a gifted brain functions is always going to be different than the typical child.  I believe that therapy for gifted children effects change in a very similar manner to therapy for the autistic child; therapy can make daily life easier, and it can help a child learn to handle their thoughts and experiences with greater comfort and ease.  Brain function changes as it learns to adapt and make better connections, but the structure remains unique.  Occupational therapists support gifted children and their families in exactly the same way we support people in the special needs community:  without judgement or dismissing problems that arise in living.

If you are the parent of a young gifted child, and you would like more support, take a look at some of my previous posts:Supporting The Gifted Toddler at Preschool   and Your Bossy Baby or Toddler May Be Gifted. Really. Here Are The Signs You Are Missing!  .  You can use these concepts today to help your gifted child!

Want more personalized support?  Visit my website tranquil babies and purchase a phone consultation.  You will have a chance to ask questions and get answers that directly give you more calm and more joy in your home…today! 

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