Are you hearing that your child is a management problem at school, but is a joy at home? Do you see them thrive when your older child’s friends include them in play? Does your child sustain their attention and manage their behavior well when the class goes on field trips or has speakers come in, but dissolves into troubling behavior on a “regular” school schedule? Your child may have a dual diagnosis of giftedness and ADHD, or have been misdiagnosed completely.
I know, I am not a psychologist. But I am aware of the many kids I have treated that blossom when, instead of simplifying the environment or the activity, I expand it. This goes against the standard treatment protocols for kids with sensory processing disorders and ADHD. But it is exactly what gifted kids love and need. Give a gifted kid more complex work, leave them alone to solve a challenging problem, or ask them to mine their passion more completely, and you often see better performance, not worse performance. The kids with ADHD without giftedness often struggle more and need more help under a more complex environment. The misdiagnosed gifted kids shine like little pennies when challenged. Gifted kids will show ADHD behaviors in situations that restrict or frustrate their tendencies to dive deep into a subject (intensity ) and look terrific in a setting where they are stimulated and engaged. Kids with ADHD might be happier out of school, but they struggle with the same issues of distractibility, disorganization and they show a lack of focus, not a deep absorption.
As an aside, many of the kids I treat that look like they have Asperger’s (or now high-functioning autism) are gifted, and their delays in speech or motor skills mask their gifted performance when they are between 1 and 5 years of age. What gives them away as gifted instead of disordered? They light up when someone wants to talk about their deep interests, and they would seek that interaction out. Their interests may seem quirky, but they aren’t incredibly obtuse. For example, a gifted child could be interested in ocean life, with a strong interest in squids. If you like squids, they will talk your ear off and enjoy it tremendously if you do. A child with Asperger’s will be interested in something so unique that they couldn’t find someone to share it with, like threshing machines, and they couldn’t care less if you share their interest. They won’t want to convince you of the many useful things they do, they won’t want to discuss it. Will they want to talk? Sure, but talking to you isn’t the same as discussing it. They may find your input annoying, in fact.
Grades, and even cognitive testing, sometimes aren’t enough to identify gifted kids. Some of them aren’t going to try very hard. Some will mess with the evaluator’s mind. I have heard at least one parent report that their child deliberately gave the wrong answers to see what would happen. This child is reading chapter books at 3.5 years old. He really doesn’t understand that getting a low intelligence score is going to send him to special ed instead of advancing him to a higher grade or an enriched program. Emotional maturity is one of the skills that are often not advanced in gifted kids. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie “A Few Good Men“, these kids want the truth (or the facts, or the experiences) but sometimes they can’t handle them. Young gifted kids can fall apart when their imagination doesn’t match their execution. Whether it is writing, building, drawing or another skill, they can display anxiety and anger when things don’t match their amazing thoughts. This isn’t oppositional defiant disorder or an anxiety disorder, it is an asynchronous development problem.
I can’t ignore the strong bias against giftedness in our culture. Sure, there are cultures that applaud accomplishments, especially intellectual accomplishment, but not when it is accompanied by impatience, a tendency to dominate the conversation, perfectionism and frustration with others and themselves. Gifted people of all ages become aware that it could be easier to speak about being on the left side of the Bell curve than on the right side. Whether you share your suspicions or your testing results is up to you, but know that you may get pushback from some unlikely sources, especially at school.
If your child is gifted, seek out support wherever you can find it, and learn how to discuss your child’s gifts with them. There are online sites like SENG that can offer you some strategies and some resources. You may want or need outside help to learn how to harness their overexcitabilities OT and Non-Disabled Gifted Children and handle their feelings, but a child that understands their gifts will not consider themselves impaired and will learn to accept their atypical nature with confidence.