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Another Side of Giftedness

March 12, 2013

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Usually this blog focuses on the academic side of giftedness.  The main purpose of the Rochester SAGE group is to promote gifted education options in Rochester Community Schools.

The somewhat hidden side of giftedness is the nonacademic side.  The intensities.  The emotional attributes.  The qualitative differences in perception.  Why are these so rarely talked about?

First, many people have a hard enough time accepting the intellectual differences of gifted children.  Telling them that many gifted children have heightened senses, emotions, or energies would be truly unbelievable to most.  Many parents of gifted children are worried enough about being seen as bragging when we try to explain how our children are different academically.

Second, not every gifted child has these traits and not every child who has these traits is gifted.  I’ve known profoundly gifted children who are not emotionally intense, have low energy, and have made no mention of heightened senses.  Some of them are just introverts not revealing these sides.  Some are just at different points on these continua.

Third, these are often the no-fun side of giftedness.  Having children who need clothing labels cut off, who are mistaken for having ADHD because of their intensity level, or who cry for days because they read a book on cancer is not fun.  We often don’t want to tell people lest we be viewed as babying our children and be told to toughen them up.  All kids – and all people – are different and sensitivities and overexcitabilities are just as real and life-altering as allergies and ADHD even if they are less understood.

Fourth, these are not well understood by most parents of gifted children.  To us, our children are typical.  This what we are used to.  We may even be very similar.  I very much understand when someone has an extreme sensitivity to cold, wind, noise, or light.  It is much more unusual to me when someone doesn’t.  It is only when we compare them to other children that we can observe the differences.

Are there differences?  Recent functional brain magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has shown some neurological differences in brains of gifted individuals.  Some have described the fMRIs as looking like a “brain on fire”, with bright red blazes of high metabolic activity bursting out all over the scan.  These brains show planned and complex orchestration of activity requiring the coordination of diverse visual, spatial, verbal, and sensory areas of brain.  The authors of the study, Brock and Fernette Eide, consider gifted brains to be hyper-sensitive, bringing both gifts including prodigious memory and greater analytic ability and drawbacks, such as oversensitivities, distractibility, and personal disorganization.  The same neural pathways that allow greater interaction between centers of the brain and grant gifted children abilities also over-enhance stimulation for them.

A study by the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation also showed that gifted children have significantly higher rates of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), a neurological “traffic jam” that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.  This can cause problems with stimulation such as heat, cold, or touch being either unnoticed or unbearable.  It can also cause issues such as clumsiness, a oft stereotyped feature of the nerd.   According to some studies, rates of SPD were 3-7 times greater in gifted children than in the general population.

Back in the 1970s, Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski researched these traits in highly gifted individuals and classified five overexcitabilities: Psychomotor, Sensual, Intellectual, Imaginational, and Emotional.  Gifted persons may have more than one of these or none at all.  About these he wrote, “One who manifests several forms of overexcitability, sees reality in a different, stronger and more multisided manner.”  Dr. Dabrowski and other experts in the field created strategies to work with these overexcitabilities when they become frustrating.

Research into giftedness and overexcitabilities continues, albeit at a much slower pace than many fields.  As this area of neuroscience progresses, parents, teachers, and gifted individuals themselves can learn to understand themselves better.

For more information, SENG – Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted and the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation have some great resources on their websites.

Thank you for reading Rochester SAGE.  Together we can make a difference for gifted children!

Errata: In the original version, the author of the study was listed as Paula Jarrard.  This has been corrected to the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2013 2:36 PM

    I am both gifted and bipolar. As I read this, I am reminded of studies I’ve read about bipolar individuals being quite intelligent and creative. I wonder how much correlation there is between giftedness and bipolar disorder. Not a real cogent though here yet, but wondering if there is some kind of crosslink. Please understand I am an educator and have worked with many, many gifted children. I am absolutely not saying they need psychological care.

  2. overexcitable permalink
    March 12, 2013 4:27 PM

    Reblogged this on overexcitable and commented:
    Well written summary that I wish people would read without prejudice!

  3. crunch55 permalink
    March 12, 2013 5:15 PM

    I believe bipolar is ove-diagnosed in all populations. The mania is supposed to be something that causes people to do pretty outrageous things. I’ve seen people diagnosed with bipolar because they liked collecting model aeroplanes or felt happy at times with the joy of life. This is what they this person told the psychologists and automatically they met the criteria!!!. Dreaming about things that might appear unrealistic to others is not mania and nor is having very strong interests in collecting or other ideas or things. Too many people whether gifted or not are diagnosed with mental illness when we just need to accept diversity. I think it all comes down to how much it affects the actual person or is it just those around him/her who think he/she is ‘strange’.

  4. jkingsborough permalink
    March 12, 2013 7:29 PM

    It is hard to go through life wondering why others don’t “move” with passion. I have always had such a need to act and act NOW, no matter what topic. It feels as if I’m trying to run in knee deep water while others are just happy to walk along slowly. Then after getting over the disappointment that others aren’t as motivated, I have to be painfully in-tune that others are annoyed and put off by my intensity. This includes family and friends, all of my life.

    It can also take a lot of energy “blending in”. For me this means not only dumbing it down so others are not intimidated but also, dampening down my enthusiasm. No wonder a lot of gifted adults suffer with anxiety.

    Now as the mother of two gifted girls, one with SPD, I can relate to this article on a whole different level. My oldest daughter is a SENSORY SEEKER (caps intentional). I now know why God gave me the intensity and energy he did, so I could be her mother. The chaos at times can be so overwhelming. It was not until she was four that I realized that it wasn’t just a toddler thing. Having never been much of a child myself and her being my oldest, I didn’t know how to judge “normal”. I love her so much for being a hot mess and a mad scientist all wrapped up in one.

    Right or wrong, I usually share with the world the funnier moments. Like the time at three she pulled the fire alarm at a restaurant. Or the time she insisted on wearing a purple wenches costume with a pair of red devil horns to a birthday party. I don’t often share about the times where I break down in tears at the overwhelming chaos, about how she breaks everything and challenges everything any adult says. How as her mother, I am so painfully aware that she will always be different than those around her and how I hope when she figures it out too that she will still be brave enough to be authentic.

    • jkingsborough permalink
      March 12, 2013 7:32 PM

      I forgot to also say: When others make comments about how smart my girls are, I always reply with a laugh that I envy parents with well behaved children.

    • overexcitable permalink
      March 13, 2013 4:52 PM

      The first two paragraphs could have been written about me! And as for mothering a gifted and emotionally overexcitable child, well, the challenges are endless! My girl is now 8, and quite an accomplished actress at school and in one of her two homes, pretending to be “average” and almost succeeding (they buy it at school, for now, as for the other home? Well, I dont know if what they learned about her before she started acting is getting in the way, or if they actually manage to overlook it).

      With my ethical standards, I find it hard to accept this pretense, especially as I see that all the costs are born by one tiny child, in order to spare a bunch of adults some anguish. I despair (oh, yes, proper word choice!) over her not being seen and accepted for who she is, and over the consequences this might lead to.

      Except for her extraversion and possible dyslexia, I was her. Now I’m a professional and personal failure on so many levels, but at least I am definitely the best mother she could possibly have. No one person in the world stands a chance of understanding her better, accepting her more, and being more supporting!

  5. March 13, 2013 5:39 PM

    Thank you for this. As a gifted wife of a gifted spouse with a gifted child we have a life that is both wonderful to us and almost unfathomable to some who just ‘don’t get us’. I am just now, in my 40’s, understanding what is was like to be so ‘different’ as a child with a reason I didn’t know, and praying and working with our son so he can avoid that as he grows up.

  6. April 13, 2013 12:10 PM

    Thank you for posting about this important aspect of giftedness. SENG does a great job, and postings such as this one make it very clear that giftedness is not simply about being academically ‘smart’. More educators should be trained in recognizing these traits rather than mislabeling them as pathological.

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