Monday, October 20, 2014

It's all in the wiring: Gifted development that doesn't fit the norm

It's all in the wiring

A recent blog post poignantly described the asynchronous development commonly seen among many highly gifted children. Striking differences in abilities make it hard to grasp what is going on. How can children who are so bright struggle so much? Why would such perceptive children have so many emotional blind-spots? How can a child be gifted and developmentally delayed?


Gifted children have been labeled non-neurotypical or neuro-atypical. And put simply, their thinking is atypical. They don't fit the norm. There is still much we don't understood about how they process information, how they view the world, and why there are so many contradictions in their development. Their wiring just seems different.

An Example of Wiring Differences

Years ago, I read an innovative and controversial book, "Late-talking Children"* by economist Thomas Sowell, which described a unique group of children who developed speech and expressive language much later than expected, yet who eventually caught up and often demonstrated exceptional intellectual and/or musical abilities as adults. His very unscientific surveys would make most researchers cringe, but were nevertheless eye-opening, and highlighted several striking trends.

The late-talking children in Sowell's survey had several traits in common: 1) they frequently went on to develop successful careers in the STEM or music fields; 2) they often had genetic ties to family members (parents or grandparents) who were mathematicians, engineers, or musicians; and 3) approximately 80% were boys.

Sowell theorized that these children had highly developed spatial skills that occupied much of their time and attention. In fact, it was assumed that they were so preoccupied with spatial interests (e.g., Legos, building forts), that their developing brain needed time to "catch up" in the verbal arena. Speech and language development would just need to wait. Sowell also suggested that the reason for the much lower percentage of identified girls might be due to the greater fluidity of communication across hemispheres in the female brain. This would permit verbal and spatial abilities to develop at an equal rate, even among spatially talented young girls.

How does this relate to giftedness?

Although Sowell did not use terms such as twice-exceptional, asynchronous or neuro-atypical,  his theories are worth considering. We know famous examples of brilliant innovators (e.g., Einstein, Edison) who did not speak until a late age. We know that many gifted children do not follow the expected developmental path. Many lag in motor skills and suffer from dysgraphia. Some do not necessarily read at an early age, despite eventually becoming prolific readers. Many are socially immature, and have meltdowns because their overexcitabilities, oversensitivities and intensity get the best of them. They cannot regulate their highly excitable emotions and lack the maturity to control their behavior.

Why is this important?

Many theories of gifted development are, well... theories. Useful, informative, even brilliant, but theories nonetheless. Dabrowski's theory of positive disintegration, for example, includes a framework for understanding the emotional overexcitabilities gifted children (and their parents) have to manage, and emphasizes that giftedness encompasses much more than exceptional intellectual abilities.

What we don't understand is the reason.

Why are these children more excitable? Why are they more reactive? Why is asynchronous development a part of the package? Why, in fact, would a brilliant child, a future mathematician or musician, struggle with speech and language long past when appropriate developmental milestones should have been reached?

Clearly more well-designed, statistically sound research into the brain development of gifted individuals is needed. One blog post summarized some interesting research, but there is not a lot out there. Let's encourage and support research efforts that will unravel these mysteries and help us understand the complexities of gifted thinking.

Did your gifted child show any delays in development? What wiring differences do you think exist among gifted children? Let us know your thoughts!

*Sowell, T. (1998). Late-talking children. New York: Basic Books.