Category Archives: gifted children

OT and Non-Disabled Gifted Children

I was asked to write another guest post for Therapro, the fantastic OT equipment and materials company that I have been using for clinic and home items for years.  This time the subject is gifted children:  Do Gifted But Non-Disabled Children Need Occupational Therapy?.

The first time you encounter a young gifted child, you may not know that their advanced skills could be contributing to their behavior.  Giftedness is more than advanced intellectual ability, it is a whole-brain difference.  The fMRI studies done in the last decades have proved that to be true.  Gifted kids can have sensory and behavioral responses that suggest they have ADHD, oppositional disorder, or sensory processing disorder.  Some are conclusively “twice-exceptional” , but many are just responding to a brain that is wired for intense and complex interactions.  Schools are geared to routines and benchmarks.  Let the problems commence!

Occupational therapy has always been focused on helping people achieve their best lives.  Having abilities that are on the far sides of any bell curve can make life harder, so my take is that occupational therapists can be helpful to kids that are struggling because of their talents and gifts, not just due to delays and deficits.

Read my post, then tell me about your gifted child, or the gifted children that you have seen as a therapist or teacher.  They really are interesting kids in so many ways!

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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.

When Your Gifted Child Is A Perfectionist

 

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Do you know a child who is always trying to get to “perfect”?  Being called a perfectionist is almost universally a criticism in our society.  It doesn’t have to be.  Some kids that are reaching for the ultimate aren’t unnecessarily stressing them selves out.  They may gifted.

The gifted child is capable of seeing what others do not.  They envision a wider and deeper experience, a more complete artistic expression, a better-turned phrase.  And they demand a chance to achieve it.  In this way, perfecting their performance or product isn’t psychological struggle, it is accomplishing what they can imagine.

A gifted child may not beat himself up for not immediately achieving his vision, but he may not leave well enough alone.  He may not have to.  Given the chance, he may work happily on his project for hours or days or even months, not really minding the process that requires failures and one-offs.  This should give you a clue to the source of your child’s persistence;  the gifted enjoy the process as much as the product.  This is very different from the child who tears up a picture in frustration.  There are no tears from a gifted child, but there may not be any negotiation.  They cannot leave their work in it’s current state, knowing that a better outcome is right around the corner.

What if the picture or term paper is due on Tuesday?

Give your gifted child the gift of understanding and teach them that deadlines also have value.  Living in our society requires the gifted child to bend to fit, but not break.  They can continue to work on their project when it is returned to them, or they can accept that reaching the perfect state the they see is something that doesn’t happen with every endeavor.

Let them enjoy the creative process, as this is the true joy for them.  Gifted children need your help to learn how to navigate the wider world, where often their modest efforts are celebrated.  They know that they can do more, but if they can shift off of a demand for perfection in some things, they can reach the heights of their abilities in other experiences.

Gifted at Preschool: How to Support The Young Gifted Child In Class

 

leo-rivas-micoud-30808Gifted children often cannot wait to go to preschool.  They may follow an older sibling into their classroom and cry when they have to leave.  After all, look at all those books, art supplies, and science stations to explore!   Things can go right off the rails, however, if the teacher and the classroom aren’t prepared for everything a gifted child brings with them.  And I don’t mean the lunchbox or the fidget spinner!

Gifted children are more intense, use more complex thinking, and more driven than other children.  Even at the preschool level.  This is a child who may teach himself to read, tells wonderful stories, creates wonderful multi-media art, and practices kicking a soccer ball into a goal until it is too dark to see the ball.  At 3.  It can also make a child argue about school routines,  insist on changing the rules of every game, and constantly discuss and examine every item in the room.  Imagine the average teacher’s reaction when a gifted toddler wants to grab the story book from the teacher at circle time to determine exactly which type of dinosaur is displayed.  Is that a T-Rex, a brontosaurus, or a brachiosaurus?  She can pronounce their names and knows the difference at 2, and she wants to figure this out, while her classmates are making growling sounds or picking their noses!

Here are some suggestions for teachers to understand and manage the behavior of their gifted students without crushing their spirits or allowing them to run the classroom:

  • Learn about the child’s gifts.  Knowing who you have, who you really have in your classroom: it will help you make a plan.  What they like, what they love, and what frustrates them.  This doesn’t mean that you focus the class on them, but you know that a module on space will elicit a lot of interest, and a module on the color red will not.  Unless you talk about the red planet, Jupiter.
  • Learn about the multiple sensitivities of gifted individuals.  They are not limited to intellectual gifts.  They can include physical sensitivity, emotional sensitivity, and even spiritual sensitivity.  Some will be easier to deal with than others.  But you want to teach the whole child, right?  That way, you see a three year-old’s intense need for movement throughout the day or wanting to have a formal ceremony for the recently deceased goldfish as normal, not perverse.
  • Explain the rules, negotiate the deal when possible, and acknowledge the frustration of things that seem unfair or arbitrary.  Helping gifted individuals fit into a society that says it loves giftedness but really supports conformity, without crushing their spirit, is tricky.  You can help.  Bring their awareness to the fact that controlling the game and telling people what to do and how to do it makes other children less likely to want to play.  This is real teaching.  Even if their new rules for Candyland are truly innovative.  Take a look at Gifted Or Disordered? The Unrecognized Behavioral Traits of Young Gifted Children for more on the real behavior differences in gifted children.
  • Offer real enrichment, not busywork or babysitting.  I have heard stories from parents of teachers who tell gifted children to read to their classmates, or tell them to “teach” their friends about shapes.  This alters the relationships between classmates and is not a good idea.  These kids are going to be singled out soon enough as different.  Build friendships, not mentorships.  More worksheets that they can race through isn’t better.  Find worksheets that challenge them, even if you have to look at kindergarten or first grade materials.  Better yet, make your own, following their interests.  You will be rewarded by a child that loves school and knows they are truly seen as an individual!

 

Sensitivity and Gifted Children: The Mind That Floods With Feeling

 

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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.
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Teach Your Child To Fail Today. You Can Thank Me Later

Yes, I said it: fail.  We all will fail at something sometime.  Even, and most especially, the gifted kids who experiment and explore constantly, will fail at something.  Knowing what to do with your feelings when you fail is essential for a happy life.  And that is why you will thank me later.

Angel Duckworth is one of my heroes.  Her focus on building grit is so important in this new world we live in.  In the old days, say 50 years ago, families and religious institutions provided a roadmap for children to handle challenges in life.  Maybe it didn’t always provide the widest highway for people with differences, but opportunities to learn perseverance and receive support after a failure were more available.  I don’t believe we can turn back the clock, so it is time to move forward and create new structures.  And this time, everyone will fit under the tent and get more support.

When we fail, we have the choice to feel bad or feel inspired.  The child who believes that his intelligence and his abilities are fixed will feel worse, perhaps even ashamed.  That child will be less likely to want to feel those emotions again, and will look for situations that ensure success.  At any cost.  Even cheating.  The rise in anxiety disorders and suicide in the college-age population has me worried about how these kids see failure.  It doesn’t have to be a crisis, it can be a learning experience in the truest sense.  Why you failed and what to do differently (if possible) are things you can learn, but only if you aren’t crushed or horrified that you failed.

The child who knows that failure is common to all of us eventually, and is not a sign of weakness or lower ability, will give things another try.  In fact, that child will not want to engage in a “sure thing”, whether it is a class, a sport, or an interaction in which there is no challenge.  The child who isn’t afraid of failure will welcome novelty and risk. They have, as Dr. Duckworth would call it, a growth mindset.   Failure is their clue that some variable in the experiment should change; useful information for their next attempt.

Just imagine what your child could do if she wasn’t afraid to fail!  Solve the many health and environmental challenges we have, broker peace between groups and countries, raise a family that believes in the power of failure….anything!

If you have a fixed mindset about failure, if you were raised to take the sure thing, the easy road to success, use the emergency instructions you get from the airlines.  Change your mindset before helping your child to change theirs.  You can thank me later.

Your Bossy Baby or Toddler May Be Gifted. Really. Here Are The Signs You Are Missing!

Toddlers are known to be a challenge at times.  Tantrums over broken cookies, insistence on hearing “Goodnight Moon” for the 11th time in one night, etc.  They can be adorably cute and amazingly difficult in the same 15 minute period!   But lurking inside chaotic toddler behavior may be signs of genius.  Really.  Here are two important signs of giftedness that emerge before 12 months of age:

  • Makes eye contact early and frequently.  The gifted baby seems incredibly alert and appears to be constantly aware of what is going on around her.
  • Resists being left alone without anything to do; wants interaction with you and with the world.

Yes, the gifted baby is taking notes and making plans.  Once she can move, she is into everything.  The things that fascinate her might be objects you never suspected an infant would even notice.  She may have abandoned those rattles very early in life.  She might not be interested in chewy toys or tags on toys. In fact, one of the signs of a gifted baby can be a distinct disinterest in chewing on books and toys.  They realize that these objects have another (higher) purpose!

Here are some signs of gifted behavior in toddlers:

  • Obvious and strong interest in shapes, shape sorters, containers, letters and numbers in all forms.  This is way beyond being taught to sing the “Alphabet Song” in a cute way.  The gifted toddler is likely watching, listening and teaching herself what those symbols mean!  She may even gather three sorter toys and proceed to group all the circles, triangles, etc in a pile before 12 months old.
  • Completing puzzles and shape sorters beyond age expectations for the toy.  For example:  I expect a child to place a circle in a shape sorter by 12-14 months.  If I see a 9 month-old that can manage it easily, I assess that as significantly early motor and perceptual development.
  • Is eager to please, and feelings can get hurt easily.  Yes, this is one of those gifted characteristics that parents don’t brag about.  Sensitivity, in all it’s versions, (emotions, physical sensitivities, allergies, etc.) is very commonly seen in gifted people of all ages.
  • A long attention span, with insistence on finishing things and completing tasks independently.  This can lead to tears and frustration as a child imagines actions and creations he cannot execute to his satisfaction.  His physical development isn’t at the same level as his mental capacity. The frustration this asynchrony causes is a pervasive issue for gifted children well past early childhood.
  • Other adults describe your child as bossy, stubborn and possibly spoiled.  Yup, the gifted toddler isn’t always everyone’s fave grandchild.  They can be insistent on doing things their way, and only their way.

How can you tell the difference between typical toddler behaviors and signs of giftedness?  It isn’t always that easy.  The behavioral issues of developmental asynchrony and sensitivities can mask the underlying issue of giftedness.  I look for improvement in their behavior when they are given appealing but highly complex problems to solve. I might invite a toddler to join me in a play activity that is complex and intense, but has been selected to modulate arousal states.  The gifted toddler who is given a chance to shine in this environment is a wonderful thing to observe.  A typical child with behavioral issues often becomes more irritable and bossy when given the same situation.

When I am working with a child that is reported to have sensory processing difficulties and I ask the right questions, I start wondering if I am also seeing signs of early giftedness when I hear the following comments come out of a frustrated parent’s mouth:

  1. “From the minute we brought him home, he seemed to watch everything we did”
  2. She isn’t happy unless she has something new to play with, and then she always surprises us with how fast she figures it out”
  3. “He never stops exploring, from the minute he wakes up”
  4. “She put together her brother’s puzzles and then said “Store” so we would go get her more puzzles!”
  5. “He watched his sister drawing, and before we knew it, he drew a face, right down to the eyebrows and ears!”

The gifted infant and young toddler is almost always more work for parents than a typically developing child.  That constantly curious mind likes complexity, it is driven to explore the world and the world of ideas, and their non-stop intensity seems to begin at birth.  Some parents are also gifted individuals, and they recognize the situation right away.  They may be worried about being up to the challenge of parenting a gifted child, or they are overwhelmed by their job, their other family roles, and now the responsibility of supporting a gifted child.  Daycare and preschool staff may not recognize behavior as giftedness, even if this has been mentioned.  Take a look at  Supporting The Gifted Toddler at Preschool for my suggestions on how preschool teachers can help gifted children thrive in preschool.

Some parents aren’t gifted, even if they are professionally successful and personally content.  Their perspective from their gifted child is different, and it may be hard for them to embrace.  They don’t see the world through the same mindset as their gifted son or daughter.  I believe that is because the mind of a gifted person is as different to a non-gifted individual as the mind of a developmentally challenged person appears to them.  Different processes, different problems.  Every parent can come to understand their child, regardless of brain differences.  Knowing what those differences are is the very first, but very important, step.

Do I rush to tell the parents my suspicions?  No.  I am not a neuropsychologist.  My license doesn’t give me the right to diagnose.  I watch, work, support, and trust that the truth about a child’s abilities and issues will come out in time.  And I go right on doing what I have been asked to do.  Addressing the sensory processing issues that some gifted children face is more than enough of a challenge for an OT, and I am happy to support these kids to have happier, calmer and more enjoyable lives because of my input!