You’ve seen them on tv – Reid on Criminal Minds, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory or Young Sheldon, the brothers Crane from Frasier. Gifted people, geniuses in layspeak, full of quirks and visible differences. We laugh, we marvel, we love their character… yet we rarely encounter people like them in our every day lives.
… or do we?
Statistically, no, there aren’t a whole lot of gifted people running around, forming packs in the library and taking over the local comic book stores. But they are out there, roaming, usually fairly well camouflaged. They don’t give away their locations with the tell-tale bowties and glasses you’re looking for, oh no. They’ve adapted and taken on a new form in order to better blend in with their surroundings – human being.
They look like regular people, regular kids even. They wear shirts that don’t button down and aren’t (usually) carrying briefcases, so it’s pretty hard to tell from a casual glance over the plain which solitary figures are the gifted ones. If you see a person running towards you, it’s a pretty good idea to step out of the way whether they’re carrying a travel chess set or not. It’s gotten pretty hard to spot the gifted kids, so it stands to reason that it’s gotten even harder to know what to do should you encounter one. That’s where this handy little guide comes in.
So, what should you do if you happen upon a gifted kid in the wild?
Freeze. They can’t see you if you don’t move.
Say hi. One of the reasons their human costumes are so effective at camouflaging the gifted is that they actually are human. They’re people. They’re not superhumans, they’re not freaks, they’re not innately arrogant. They’re people. They have friends and flaws and faults. They won’t ignore you if you don’t start the conversation off by quoting Stephen Hawking, so just say hi.
Since gifted kids can smell blood within a 4-mile radius, make sure you’re not approaching a gifted person without all wounds having been dressed. Also kidding.
Don’t quiz them. Seriously. If you know a kid is gifted, don’t make them prove it to you. They’re not endless trivia fountains and they don’t know everything. Giftedness has more to do with how a brain works than what a brain holds. Those brains can hold an awful lot of amazing stuff, though it’s usually not at all what you’d think to ask them about. Converse, don’t quiz. My kids aren’t novelties, they aren’t there for your entertainment or your tests. Let them be more boy than brain or more girl than gift.
Get to know who they are instead of poking around for what they know.
Immediately feel threatened by their gifted label. Also kidding, though this seems to be a horribly common reaction. Recognizing giftedness in one child does not negate the abilities or gifts in another. Gifted is a category, in some cases a diagnosis. It relates to IQ score and asynchronous development, not competition and elitism. The intellectually gifted are not an aggressive species, so there is no need to defend yourself or your children upon an encounter with one of their kind.
If you meet a gifted kid in the wild, don’t expect them to behave like Reid, Sheldon, or even the gifted kid you know next door. Because the pool of gifted people is so small and characterized by being so far removed from the intellectual norm, they’re all vastly different from one another. There are characteristics that can be recognized as typical, but remember that you are dealing with an atypical group. They don’t travel in pods or have a secret handshake. They can struggle. They can have learning disabilities, mood or personality disorders, sensory issues, physical disabilities, or none of the above. Some gifted kids get along fine in life and others wage internal battles. Some gifted kids get all A’s and some fail classes. Some love museums and some are so overwhelmed by anxiety that they can’t bear to visit one. Giftedness doesn’t look like a stereotype, so brace yourself to be surprised by the person you encounter.
Do not, under any circumstance, utter the phrase, “Every child is gifted”. This will be interpreted by the mother of the free-ranging gifted kid as a sign of aggression. Yes, every child is A gift, and yes, all children have gifts, but no, not every child is gifted. This would be akin to saying every child is dyslexic, every child is diabetic, every child is tall. Giftedness is a label applied based on IQ and how often it occurs relative to the norm. It is a quantifiable deviation, a measurable difference, and by definition cannot apply to everyone. Acknowledging the giftedness of a child is not an affront to your own precious jewels at home. Giftedness does not make a child better or worse than the neurotypical kid next to them. It’s just how their brain works, and it’s who they are. To dismiss their uniqueness by applying it broadly to everyone is to ignore the black-and-white data that proves they are different. And to be honest, gifted kids are one of the most underserved populations in schools, often dismissed as having no real needs or being “smart enough” to adapt themselves that they can be sent to a corner with a book and a high five. Gifted parents are tired of having to fight the stereotypes and feelings of elitism that get applied to their kids’ unique needs, so they’re likely to turn on you if you get snippy or dismissive.
Treat them normally. No really. Gifted kids are, in reality, kids. They get excited about stuff like Minecraft, princesses, farts, and candy. They also get excited about physics, coding, art, literature, architecture, engineering, paleontology, trains, plains, automobiles, and in my kiddos’ case, various local laws and ordinances surrounding exotic animals in the US. The odd duck still waddles like a duck. They’re not a typical kid, but they’re still kids. Intellectually they may be decades ahead of their age peers, but emotionally and socially they may be a little behind. Just because a kid has an adult brain doesn’t mean they have the capacity to know what to do with it. Imagine getting a Hennessey Venom GT as a newly-licensed 16-year-old (car reference provided by the automobile-obsessed kid). It’s a powerful, fast, expensive car that will catch a lot of looks and do a lot of stuff, but you, the inexperienced and even timid driver don’t know just how to handle it. No matter how cool and different your car is, you’re still a teenager who isn’t that great at driving it yet. These kids are in a similar seat – so much power under the hood, but little capacity to harness it yet. Let them be kids. Don’t scoff if they mess up or turn your nose up if they make a fart sound under their armpit. Having trouble tying their shoes or regulating their emotions doesn’t make them imposters, it makes them kids.
Seriously, don’t be threatened. I can’t stress this enough. While not all entirely docile, they’re also not predators. The way the gifted brain is wired means that emotions and sensations are experienced differently, intensely. Whoa. There is no disappointment, there is devastation. There is no jolly, there is elated. These kids are intense, but they’re not threats. They’re not out to make you or your kids look bad. They just are what they are, and if a child makes an adult feel insecure, then the adult is who needs more self-examination. I can’t say it enough – they’re kids. Not threats. They don’t need to be taken down a notch or knocked off any pedestals. Don’t make it a personal mission to add gifted kids’ self esteem to your trophy room. Whatever they are is not representative of what you or your child isn’t – it’s just who they are.
Don’t armchair diagnose or assume different = disorder. Yes, there are a huge number of gifted people who are twice exceptional – who are gifted and have a learning disorder, mood disorder, or some other type of hurdle. A person can have an IQ of 170 and be dyslexic, hyperactive, autistic, or even incontinent. Gifted people are not immune to the misfirings and crosswirings of the brain. But they are also not all coping with additional diagnoses. I’ve been asked more than once, “What’s wrong with him?” Apart from your rudeness, not much. My profoundly gifted child is quirky and he has struggles that make some tasks or situations hard or even unbearable for him, but that doesn’t mean what you think it means. I’m really just beating around the bush – all gifted people are not autistic. Lots are, but not all are. It does an immense disservice to the autistic community to assume different always equals autistic, or autistic always equals quirky. You can’t lump a bunch of stuff together you don’t relate to and call it autism. For every time I’ve been asked what’s wrong with my child, I’ve been asked 30 times if he’s been evaluated for autism spectrum disorder. Yeah, 4 times now. Nope, 5. If autism is an interest or a concern for you, then please educate yourself via the immense resources and willing families available now. If you want to understand more about what makes a different person so different, ask them. If a child has a diagnosis, that is his family’s journey and not one you’re entitled to. Explore instead of stereotype. Get to know someone for who they are and not any labels that may pop up.
While not endangered or protected, please refrain from making a gifted child a trophy. Remember, they’re kids, not novelties.
I hope this guide proves helpful as you resume your interactions among the people around you. Remember that all people are people, all kids are kids, and all should be treated accordingly. The gifted children sprinkled around the edges of the herd are no danger to you, so allow yourself the opportunity to appreciate them in their natural habitat – childhood. Take in their creativity and ability to think outside of the box. Note their intense emotions and, while they can prove mercurial at times, how they inspire change and empathy and passion. Drink in their humor, their sarcasm, the language that far exceeds their years. It’s okay to laugh when one trips and falls, kids do that. But let yourself appreciate just how beautiful and unique and cool they are the next time you find yourself face to face with a gifted kid in the wild.