Two weeks ago, I gave a talk on the characteristics of gifted children to a group of 25 mental health professionals in an inner-city setting. For those of you who know X-Men, you’ll understand when I say that I have an Xavier complex. My dream is to identify youngsters with special abilities and potential, so that they can flourish and reach their full potential. I have had the opportunity to come across these children in rich schools and poor schools; I have met some with behavior challenges and others who have long since stopped protesting. I want to expand my influence by training other professionals to notice the traits of giftedness. In preparation for and as a result of this talk, I’ve had a lot of thoughts I’d like to share.
First of all, I had prepared myself to face the typical defense of multiple intelligences theory, a model that differentiates intelligence into specific “modalities”, rather than seeing it as dominated by a single general ability. Multiple intelligence theory is often used to deny giftedness, including inaccurate statements like “all children are gifted.” While I acknowledge that all people have value and dignity, it’s important to note that some people have beyond-typical sensitivities and developmental potential in addition to a generalized intelligence. We best serve vulnerable communities by helping the gifted youth in them reach their full potential, and this first requires acknowledging that they exist and that they are different.
Many gifted children go unrecognized and underserved, and this is especially true in underprivileged (read: poor) populations. In fact, it’s unfortunate, but there are very few people or organizations that would apply Dr. Linda Silverman’s list to such populations. During my talk, I asked my audience to take these types of lists (even my own) and consider how each characteristic might show up differently if complicated by trauma, poverty, or institutional discrimination. For example, a child with a strong curiosity is likely not to receive much positive reinforcement for asking questions in a household that is struggling to get food on the table. Similarly, questioning authority may be culturally frowned upon instead of nurtured.
This is even further complicated by issues of trauma. We do well not only to consider the impact of trauma on the expression of giftedness, but how giftedness impacts the experience of and hopefully the recovery from trauma. When an especially aware and precocious child is faced with abuse or neglect, the impacts can be particularly difficult. This child is likely to know too much too soon anyhow, with curiosity about how the world works. Precocious intellect met with early sexual or physical abuse does mysterious things to a brain. Much trauma research talks about the impact on memory, how some memories can become embedded in the body, and a person may develop hypervigilance about mood changes, micro-expressions, and precursors of aggression. If a typical mind develops both enhancements and gaps in memory in response to abuse, how much more impacted would a person be who already has a predisposition for exquisite memory and attention to detail? When does intelligence contribute to resilience, and when does age-typical obliviousness contribute to resilience? I am not trying to say that a typically functioning child does not deeply know the pain of abuse, but I am saying that the capacity for cognitive complexity can force or allow a child to understand deeper levels of pain. For example, how crazy-making might it be for a child to compassionately understand, like a trained therapist, the pain behind a perpetrator’s actions? People who have experience working with vulnerable families, if bolstered by an understanding of giftedness, can help us address these questions.
Within the broader call to action to identify and serve gifted children, I prioritized an initial step of training these professionals on how to notice them. I advised discussing these characteristics in their clinical supervision and consulting with me. I provided resources on gifted theory and encouraged reflection and dialogue about what it might be like for an adult professional to work with a client who is more perceptive than them. I’m not just talking about academic abilities, but also suggesting that they can recognize patterns enough to describe the chapters that trainee therapists learned their techniques from. This means an unsuspecting therapist may be played with like a toy, and a jealous therapist may do great harm by diminishing or ignoring a client’s gifts.
With or without trauma, these children may carry their giftedness with a certain amount of pain. While I hope for all gifted children to retain a sense of childlike wonder about how their minds work, a pattern of loneliness and isolation may mean they wear their gifts like armor and daggers. They will likely stab at a professional unless that adult can accurately reflect and compassionately understand their giftedness.
Since my talk, I have received feedback that people have reached clients in new ways, achieving a level of understanding and recognition that greatly advanced the therapeutic relationship. Some colleagues have already begun advocating within the school district for independent projects and other accommodations for gifted learners. I have been invited to give further presentations, and I am enjoying this work so much that I am gaining clarity about my career trajectory. I want to focus exclusively on my work with gifted individuals, and this can include both day-job work in underserved communities and private practice. I have not yet, in X-Men tradition, prepared yellow and black uniforms in which they can join forces to fight supervillains. I leave them to find their own paths to joy and contribution.