Gifted Or Disordered? The Unrecognized Behavioral Traits of Young Gifted Children

 

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Here is a short list of many common behavioral characteristics of gifted children:

  1. Spontaneous. 
  2. Boundless enthusiasm.
  3. Intense focus on passions.  
  4. Highly energetic.  This is the child who doesn’t seem to need as much sleep or downtime as peers.
  5. Constantly asking questions.  Constantly.
  6. Insatiably curious.  Everything is interesting, all the time.
  7. Impulsive, eager and spirited.  Novelty is a total turn-on, not to be feared.
  8. Persistent and goal-directed in areas that are important to them.
  9. Very easily frustrated, especially when they are unable to meet their own standards.
  10. Volatile temper when perceiving that they have failed.
  11. Chatty; absolutely a non-stop talker.

So…now are you excited to parent a gifted child, or to have one in your class or in your therapy clinic?  Or are you thinking “This sounds more like a child with learning problems, not gifts, and it sounds even be more like a child with autism”.    Or even “Children like these could be really annoying”.  Well, you aren’t alone.  Many of these characteristics exhaust adults, and create difficulties when gifted children try to navigate the world of typical kids and adults.  They may be 5-10% of the population, but they can be the source of 80% of the excitement in your home, class or clinic.  And they are often misdiagnosed as troubled rather than talented, just based on their behavior.

Welcome to the world of the gifted and those who interact with them.  It isn’t all sparkling conversation and shining rows of chess/debate medals.  Gifted children that have many or most of these characteristics may also be amazingly sensitive to others, the world around them, and to their own inner experiences.  That combination of behavior and sensitivity makes for some intense and often exhausting interactions that others find irritating or worse.   It really is the gift that keeps on giving.  And we aren’t even talking about the twice exceptional children. These children have diagnosable difficulties with learning, behavior, movement and sensory processing in addition to their gifted qualities.  They often wait years before clinicians parse out which is which.

So how could you know if the child in front of you is actually gifted, other than a psychologist’s tests?  And even if you know you have a certified smartypants, how can you determine whether their behavior is typical for gifted people or a sign of a disorder?  The answer could be to assess the quality of their behavior while looking at the level of cognition, the complexity of the conversation and the emotional depth and intensity of the interaction when compared to their age.

A three-year old that can eagerly exchange ideas regarding how tornados differ from hurricanes in their potential for damage and their source of power for 10 minutes is exhibiting a level of comprehension, intensity, curiosity, persistence and enthusiasm that you don’t typically see in this age group.   His ability to string together concepts, retain and analyze information,  respond to your own perspective and tune into your emotional tone during the discussion gives you clues that this is a gifted child, not a child with attention issues or autism.

A five year-old that paints and re-paints a picture until the colors and shapes express exactly how happy she was at the zoo may also be showing you some of these characteristics.   Her frustrated insistence on a complete representation of form and emotion, as well as her unique use of media are telling you a lot about her talents.  If you are amazed that all this focus doesn’t tire her out but energizes her more; there’s another clue.  The depth of her joy she has while creating or when opening a box of new pastels, like Christmas has come again, is another hint that she may be gifted.

When a child’s asynchronous development gets in the way, a gifted child can struggle.  Most gifted children aren’t gifted in every area of development, so a gifted artist may not be able to physically draw what she sees in her mind, a gifted writer may not be able to write his book legibly at 6, and a gifted athlete may not be able to handle her team losing.  That is where wise adults can provide strong support and education in managing their talents and explaining their struggles to gifted children.

I am frequently asked as an OT for ideas on how to manage gifted toddlers in class and at home, and I wrote a short post earlier this year in response Gifted at Preschool: How to Support The Young Gifted Child In Class.  For suggestions on how to make life easier at home, my suggestions focus more on building sensory and emotional tolerance for kids, and teaching self-awareness and self-calming skills.

If your child receives OT for any reason, this may be a place to start.  Check out this post for more information:  How Occupational Therapy Can Help Gifted Children (And Their Exhausted Parents!)  Occupational therapists that can see the difference between gifted traits and symptoms of an attentional or learning disorder can help parents on this amazing journey of discovery with their gifted child. Read Gifted and Struggling? Meet the Twice Exceptional Student and How OT Can Help for some strategies to help your gifted child who also has dyslexia, ADHD, or motor control issues.

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