SAN FRANCISCO – Gifted children are far too commonly misunderstood, mislabeled, and misdiagnosed, leading to a mismatch between their needs and others’ perceptions of their needs, Dan Peters, PhD, a licensed psychologist and executive director of the Summit Center in the greater San Francisco and Los Angeles areas, explained at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Too often, one or more of these children’s health, developmental, social-emotional or learning needs are overlooked, or they receive an inappropriate mental health, developmental and/or learning disorder diagnosis. In fact, many of the risk factors for giftedness resemble those of other conditions: underachievement, difficulties with peers, social isolation, power struggles, perfectionism, anxiety, and depression.
Further, those who are culturally or linguistically diverse may not be recognized if a non-English first language obscures their performance ability or their socioeconomic status or lack of resources and enrichment opportunities leads them to be overlooked. It’s therefore important that practitioners understand what giftedness actually is and the characteristics gifted children might exhibit.
A simple definition of giftedness is demonstrating a performance or the capacity for performance that significantly exceeds age or grade-level expectations, according to one school district’s gifted and talented education program.
A more involved description provided byin 1991 defines giftedness as an “asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm.” This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity, they wrote. “The uniqueness of the gifted renders them vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching, and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.”
The level of a child’s giftedness makes a difference in their needs as well; these levels include advanced learners (IQ of 120-129), moderately gifted (130-144), highly gifted (145-159), exceptionally gifted (160-179), and profoundly gifted (180 and greater). Different spheres of giftedness can include intellectual ability, creative or productive thinking, leadership ability, and visual or performing arts. Consider the list of common characteristics of gifted children that Dr. Peters provided:
- Rapid learners.
- Strong memory.
- Large vocabulary.
- Advanced comprehension of nuances.
- Largely self-taught.
- Unusual emotional depth.
- Abstract/complex/logical/insightful thinking.
- Idealism and a sense of justice.
- Intense feelings and reactions.
- Highly sensitive.
- Long attention span and persistence.
- Preoccupied with own thoughts.
- Impatient with self and others’ inabilities and slowness.
- Asks probing questions (able to go beyond what is taught).
- Wide range of interests.
- Highly developed curiosity.
- Interest in experimenting and doing things differently.
- Divergent thinking.
- Keen and unusual sense of humor.
Dr. Peters cited Kazimierz Dabrowski, MD, PhD, a Polish psychiatrist of the mid-20th century, as explaining the sensitivity and intensity experienced by many gifted individuals in terms of overexcitabilities – a “greater capacity to be stimulated by and respond to external and internal stimuli.”
“Overexcitability permeates a gifted person’s existence and gives energy to their intelligence, talents, and personality,” Dr. Peters explained of Dabrowski’s ideas. This enhancement manifests in psychomotor terms as a strong drive, a lot of energy or movement, or extended bouts of activity. Intellectually, gifted children have an “insatiable curiosity, and voracious appetite and capacity for intellectual effort and stimulation,” Dr. Peters said. They may have heightened sensual experience in seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, or hearing, and they have an active imaginary and fantasy life. They also exhibit a capacity for great emotional depth and empathy – they deeply feel their own and others’ emotions.
How giftedness can be misdiagnosed
It is the combination of these very characteristics that can lead gifted children to receive an inappropriate mental or developmental diagnosis instead of being recognized as gifted.
“By current estimates, at any given time, approximately 11%-20% of children in the United States have a behavioral or emotional disorder as defined in the DSM-5,” Dr. Peters cited. Further, one study found that diagnoses of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder have increased 66% between 2000 and 2010, with 90% of those children taking psychostimulant medications – yetin the Journal of Health Economics estimated that one in five children diagnosed with ADHD are probably misdiagnosed and are receiving those medications.
Other incorrect diagnoses besides ADHD that gifted youth may commonly receive include anger diagnoses, ideational or anxiety disorders, developmental and personality disorders, mood disorders, and learning disorders.