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There are many reasons to shatter misconceptions about giftedness; one of the most alarming is the frequency with which gifted children (I call them kite kids) are misdiagnosed with behavioral, emotional and mental disorders.
Much of this stems from unfamiliarity with their social-emotional traits, including:
- asynchronous development (higher-than-average intellect and average, or below-average, social-emotional development)
- five types of overexcitabilities, or intensities, identified by Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski in the 1960s (intellectual, sensual, emotional, imaginational and psychomotor)
As a result, some of these characteristics and behaviors are incorrectly attributed to pathology and disorder, rather than recognized as common traits of giftedness.
Ways giftedness can be misconstrued
In 2011, the non-profit organization SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) conducted a survey of more than 3,000 parents of gifted children, regarding their experiences with health care providers. Among the findings:
- More than three times as many gifted children were diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder. This should raise eyebrows because, often, kite kids have sensual overexcitabilities, meaning they have heightened experiences – and responses – when it comes to one or more of the five senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste). Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski identified this, and four other types of intensities, in the 1960s. (Some call them “supersensitivities.”)
- Nearly three times as many kite kids were considered or treated for ADHD as the pediatric population in general. This is concerning because two kite kid characteristics that, on the surface, mimic ADHD traits are: an inability to ignore other stimuli (a common challenge due to more – and smoother – connections in the gifted brain), and having a harder time sitting still – or even, sleeping – than most kids (a psychomotor overexcitability). There’s a good chance this started to play out with my rising second-grader, when her preschool teachers questioned if she should stay in preschool for another year rather than move on to kindergarten, even though she sat at the table for students who were ahead academically and didn’t need much assistance.
- More than eight times as many gifted kids were considered or treated for Asperger’s or autism spectrum disorder. I also experienced this one firsthand. After one appointment with my son, a child therapist told me Asperger’s, or some type of high-functioning autism, was a strong possibility because: he’s so analytical, has poor eye contact, and struggles to successfully interpret and respond to social cues.
(For more on that first visit and my early experiences with this, see my building social smarts and the day I knew articles.)
- Almost four times as many gifted kids were considered or treated for OCD. Intelligence and OCD do seem to be linked. Here’s the thing, though: some gifted children are simply idealists or perfectionists. In addition, many place high value on rules and order, and when these needs aren’t met, they can become very anxious. Sounds like what people refer to as “OCD” or “OCD tendencies,” doesn’t it? Well, sometimes it is; in other cases, however, it’s just that pesky “differently wired” component of giftedness.
One way to tell with kids who have rituals is how they perceive those routines. Apparently, children with OCD or OCPD often know certain behaviors are excessive or unproductive, but they can’t stop doing their nervous habits. A kite kid will not only justify in his own mind why the ritual is necessary; he can likely make a compelling case for it to others!
It doesn’t stop there
There are many other examples of how muddy the waters can get. Some include:
- eating disorders
- oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
- bipolar disorder
- various types of sleep disorders
And when gifted children are misdiagnosed with conditions they don’t have, the clinical treatments they receive are unlikely to be effective. What’s more, they often end up taking psychotropic medications they don’t even need. Disturbing, right?
Understanding giftedness and preventing misdiagnosis
Thankfully, there are ways to avoid these types of misdiagnosis. Michael Postma, Ed.D., Executive Director of SENG, says it’s essential to look at the whole child; not just what’s obvious clinically.
“Look at any and all assessments previously completed on the patient, and if there’s any evidence of high intelligence, rethink your approach,” he explained. “Gifted, especially highly-gifted, children display similar characteristics due to hyper-brain/hyper-body tendencies.”
Postma said that’s because gifted and twice-exceptional kids experience atypical neurodevelopment.
Limbic system delays contribute to misdiagnosis
One of the most notable developmental differences is a delay in how the limbic system matures. That’s the part of the brain responsible for:
- emotional regulation
- executive function
- language processing
- other basic survival instincts
Because many kite kids’ responses and behaviors stem from limbic delays (rather than conscious choices), Postma stressed it’s essential to review the research and recommendations of professionals “in the know” before prescribing any mood- or mind-altering medication.
“This is clinicians’ moral responsibility,” he added. “I’m not against medication; however, I only support it when it’s really needed.”
More info about misdiagnosis in “gifted” children
An excellent way to gain a better understanding of this topic is through a book co-authored by James T. Webb, PhD, founder of SENG and one of the most recognized experts on kite kids. Called Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Asperger’s, Depression, and Other Disorders, the book provides a more detailed look at each type of misdiagnosis, and the reasons behind it.
In addition, SENG has a Misdiagnosis Initiative to help combat this problem.
We’re a team
Also, please don’t misinterpret the sentiment here. Clinicians rarely receive any formal training on the traits of giftedness; yet, nearly all of them have at least a few gifted patients in their care.
How can we expect anyone to recognize – much less understand – something they’ve never learned about, but almost certainly will encounter? (The same is true for general-education teachers, school counselors, play therapists and other professionals.)
That needs to change, of course; however, that’s a whole other topic. And this article is already quite long!
How to help patients now
In the meantime, here’s some immediate assistance: a free cheat sheet for you that summarizes various misdiagnoses (and why they occur).
Please familiarize yourself with its content and share it with others who need this information.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I realize this is a lot to take in, but it’s so important. Together, we can start to understand these kids, as a whole, for who they really are.
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