Tag Archives: behavioral problems and gifted children

Sensitivity and Gifted Children: The Mind That Floods With Feeling

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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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.  The perspective from their gifted child is 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!