Gifted children are often the most emotional and empathic toddlers in the room. They are the kids who cry when the ASPCA runs those tearjerker commercials. They are the teens who want to develop an NGO to provide clean water in developing countries. Gifted children don’t do this to get a boost on a college application, but because it physically hurts them to think of another’s suffering. Your gifted child’s mind cannot help but to feel strongly and care deeply.
How can you help your child navigate these feelings without crushing their altruism and energy? The first step in helping these children to handle their sensitive social and emotional nature starts with adults understanding that this isn’t a personality quirk; it’s a neurological bias that accompanies an impressively active and intense brain that doesn’t “turn off”.
Sensory Sensitivity, Autism, and Gifted Sensitivity
When OTs usually refer to sensitivity, we usually speak about the physical sensitivity that our clients may experience. We know that sensory sensitivity can lead to avoidance of sensory input and poor modulation of arousal. The poor modulator is the child who has a hard time staying in an optimal state of calm, struggling to focus attention on accomplishing their daily activities. This can be true with gifted children, but is not always a feature of giftedness.
We also know that children with ASD find it difficult to connect with another’s emotional experience due to their neurological wiring. It is not that they choose to misinterpret other’s emotions. They may long to know what others are thinking and what to do and say in interpersonal relationships. Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison have written about their difficulties and discomfort in understanding how friends and family feel.
The gifted client is swimming at the other end of this pool: they have profound emotional connections to people (and sometimes feelings for objects as well!), even strong connections with the imagined emotional experiences of strangers! Again, this is not just their temperament or their personality; the emotional flood is coming from their brain wiring that generates deep connections between profound concepts and expansive comprehension of situations. Gifted kids see very clearly how the human race is all one, how affecting a part results in affecting the whole, etc. It can be overwhelming for them to know this at 4. Or 14. Gifted children are not little adults, even when testing indicates amazingly advanced mental abilities. Their asynchronous development means that they may understand concepts but still cry when they lose a game. They are still children.
There is some science behind the idea that gifted children are emotionally advanced as well as academically advanced. Researchers on giftedness are eager to display their fMRI views of the gifted brain as it thinks, showing it humming along at warp speed, lighting up like a Christmas tree in areas that are mostly quiet for other people. I would guess that those mirror neurons (proposed to support empathy and interpersonal skills) that seem inactive in ASD are probably switched on 24/7 in gifted individuals.
Parents get their first taste of this quality when they see how attuned their baby is to their speech and their movements. “She would just watch our faces all day long!” is a familiar report when asked about early development. Toddlers begin to be aware of their own emotions and the emotions of others, and the gifted toddler can be quite a handful as she sorts this out. The gifted child may want to volunteer, may become upset when reading news stories, and may insist that the family participate in activities for social causes. On the other hand, a gifted child may become sad and overwhelmed by situations that other children are unable to comprehend. It can lead to feelings of powerlessness and anger when the adults in their world don’t respond in kind or disregard their concerns.
My message to parents and teachers of gifted children, and those who work with children showing strong emotions and advanced skills without a gifted label is to consider that the strong reactions that you see may be a brain effect, not a personality defect. Your next step: supporting a child to handle the flood of emotion, and help them channel their feelings into productive actions and interactions that build social skills, not isolation and a negative self-image.