Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Gifted . . .You Know What That Means, Right?

Every now and again, more often than I am comfortable with, various memes pop up in my news feed. They're usually positive, with a cute picture - a happy child, a beautiful baby, a rainbow over a lovely green field. Rinse and repeat.

And you know what? I love the pictures. They're cute, they make me go 'awww'. But it's not the picture that's the problem. It's the words.

It's usually a variation on,

"Every Child is Gifted, They Just Unwrap Their Presents at Different Times"


"Everyone Can Be Gifted, They Just Need To Work Hard"

I know. What's wrong with that? There's some pretty solid evidence that kids who work hard do well [1]. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with the idea that each child is unique and special. That each human is valued and valuable and that they deserve the chance to be appreciated.

Thing is, that's not what these memes are saying. Oh don't get me wrong, it's probably what they think they're saying. But these memes are like the awkward uncle at a family get together who keeps trying to say nice things and just ends up being unintentionally offensive.

The problem is the word gifted.

Because that word ... does not mean what the writers think it means. 

But wait! You can go look up gifted in the dictionary - gifted, gift, present  ... doesn't gifted mean to be given a gift?

Well ... it can. Except when it refers to people. Particularly in the fields of education, childhood and neurological development.

I really wish it didn't. I really wish the psychologist who coined it in the 1920s [2]  had been a little more creative. Decided to make up a different word - a non-english language word.

But they didn't. They picked gifted. (And honestly, it's better than some of the alternatives, like 'superior', which you can still see whenever you go and read the categories in a WISC IQ test [3]).

It's been almost 90 years since the word gifted was first used to describe a behavioural and neurological difference in a small part of the population. Ninety years.

And yet, people are still getting their knickers in a twist when it's pointed out that calling every child gifted, or saying giftedness is just a matter of hard work is inaccurate ...

So what is giftedness?

Giftedness is defined clinically as people who score in the top 2% in a norm-reference IQ assessment tool, administered by a qualified psychologist [4][5].

But, due to problems in norm-referencing large, diverse, multi-lingual populations, it is usually, in educational practice, defined as people (particularly children in school), in the top 5 - 10% [6]

But that doesn't really tell anyone what gifted means.

Gifted means asynchronous development.

A gifted child will develop different abilities at different times to the norm [7]. Their intellectual age may be greater than their emotional age, or their physical ability. They will be able to comprehend ideas that are beyond what is expected of a child of their chronological age. But their emotional maturity may or may not be advanced. In fact, in some gifted children, it can be behind their expected development for their age. If you think that looks a bit like Autism, you are right . . .

Giftedness comes with a higher risk for developing Autism. 

There is a positive correlation between high IQ boys and incidence of autism [8]. There is also a possible genetic link between prodigy (which can be defined as a sub-set of giftedness) and autism. Admittedly this is from a small-scale study [9], but with statistics suggesting a 50% chance of either a prodigy or a member of their close family having autism, as well as an identified genetic marker for risk on Chromosome 1, it is not a result that can be easily dismissed.

Giftedness can look like ADHD

This can lead to either an over-diagnosis (misdiagnosis) [10] when professionals are unaware of gifted characteristics, or as has been shown in other studies, an under-diagnosis (missed diagnosis) [11] when professionals are aware of gifted characteristics. It can be hard to separate the two conditions.

Giftedness comes with a greater risk of developing mood disorders

There has been a lot of studies done on whether gifted people are more vulnerable to developing anxiety [12] or other similar mental illnesses. And the findings so far indicate that people who are gifted and creative (particularly writers!) are at a greater risk of developing bi-polar disorder [13]. Interestingly, the families, particularly siblings and first-degree relatives, of highly creative people were more likely to have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa [14].

Giftedness comes with greater risk for crippling perfectionism.

Crippling perfectionism seems to be observed at higher rates in gifted populations than non-gifted populations [15] - and can be used as one of the markers to identify gifted children [16].

Giftedness comes with the ability to understand new ideas faster than most people.

These children learn faster. They take less explaining to understand, and are often able to extrapolate and elaborate on the ideas they learn in complex ways.

Unfortunately the flip side to fast learning is that gifted kids who have to keep repeating concepts they have already mastered can become disengaged and unwilling to learn at school. [17]

This means that gifted children need to be taught in different ways - and some of these ways include acceleration and compacting curriculum [18].

Giftedness is different. Giftedness is complicated.

Gifted People Are Orchids

If given an appropriate education, an adult who cares about their well-being (say parents, a teacher or mentor) and parents who have a middle to high level of income [19], they tend to have greater levels of attainment than children who have all of the above, but are not gifted [20].

If they have an inappropriate education [21], and/or come from an economically or socially disadvantaged situation [22], or are a member of a minority group [23] the outlook isn't so good. If they are even identified in the first place [24].

Some Gifted People Do Amazing Things

Want to see what is possible? Go have a look at the Davidson Institute. Really. It will blow your mind. [25]

But you know what?

Some Non-Gifted People Do Amazing Things Too. 

The first long time-scale study of high IQ people was done by Lewis Terman. None of these people in the study, which lasted most of their life, won an Nobel Prize or other equivalent award. But William Shockley, who was tested but not included in the study as he tested as not gifted, went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1970 for co-inventing the transistor [26].

Why pick him? Because in our society, we have a thirst to find an 'arrow of destiny' that 'shows' famous people were certain to do great things. As a result, a lot of time is put into showing that there was a quality innate to these people, generally in their childhood, that destined them for greatness. It's a kind of post-applied 'predestined for greatness' filter. And the most common label that is post-applied to people that do exceptional things is to say they were gifted. William Shockley did great things, but he was tested in childhood by one of the best psychologists in this area for the time. And he was not gifted.

We don't need to artificially 'lower the playing field' or 'crush the tall poppies'. We don't need to make 'all children gifted'. Because being gifted is no guarantee of success (however we wish to define success), and there is no 'arrow of destiny' that marks gifted children as 'destined for greatness'.

Gifted people can do great things, but giftedness also comes with a collection of challenges that are far outside the norm, and are very similar to other special needs. These difficulties need to be acknowledged and supported, not ignored and minimised.

Further Reading

GHF also has a large number of articles on 'Are All Children Gifted?'. Please consider reading.

[1] The Key to Success? Grit, Angela Lee Duckworth,
[2] Leta Hollongworth, 'Gifted Children: Their Nature and Nuture".
[3] Wechsler Classifications
[4] Making Sense of IQ, SENG
[6] Definitions of Giftedness, NAGC
[7] The Columbus Group, Gifted Development Center
[8] Autism risk genes also linked to higher intelligence, Science Daily
[9] The results can be read in the Journal of Human Heredity, "Molecular Genetic Evidence for Shared Etiology of Autism and Prodigy" by Ruthsatz et al
[10] "Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children", by J. Webb et al.
[11] Gifted or ADHD? The possibilities of misdiagnosis, Harnett et al. , Roeper Review
[12] Behavioral Profiles of Clinically Referred Children with Intellectual Giftedness, PMC
[13] The Impact of Giftedness on Psychological Well-Being, Roeper Review
[14] The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness, Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific American.
[15] Multidimensional Perfectionism Within Gifted Suburban Adolescents: An Exploration of Typology and Comparison of Samples, Mofield et al., Roeper Review
[16] Gifted and non-gifted students’ perfectionism, school motivation, learning styles and academic achievement, Altun et al., Croatian Journal of Education
[17] The underachievement of gifted students: What do we know and where do we go?, Reis et al., Gifted Child Quarterly
[18] What Works in Gifted Education, Callahan et al., American Educational Research Journal
[19] See my previous reasoning on why the John Hopkins study is flawed in Darn Those Mythological Gifted Kids ...
[20] Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth After 35 Years, by D. Lubinski and C. Benbow
[21] Exceptionally Gifted Children, Miraca Gross
[22] Identifying and Nurturing the Gifted Poor by P. Slocumb and R. Payne
[23] What is the Excellence Gap?, Closing the Excellence Gap.
[24] Talent on the Sidelines: Excellence Gaps and America's Persistent Talent Underclass, Plucker et al., NEAG School of Education, Center for Education Policy Analysis
[25] 2014 Davidson Fellow Laureates, Davidson Institute for Talent Development
[26] The Truth About the Termites, Scott Barry Kaufman, Psychology Today


  1. Great overview. So well-written and comprehensive. Will share widely.

  2. Kathleen. I love how many of your posts that I've seen have links to articles supporting your statements. What a wealth of resources. I like how you address this idea that achieving "greatness" is what people think giftedness means. I'm sure there's more to say about this. Thanks for tackling it!

    1. Thanks Paula. I do like to make sure ( where possible) that my writings are supported by evidence - that helps people make up their own minds. And yes, I do have more to say on this idea. ;)

  3. You're spot on. Not many people get what it really means and those who have it often won't talk about it, because it's seen as boasting. Thank you for writing this.

  4. ...But I don't get it. Is giftedness having a higher IQ, or is giftedness having a talent, or is giftedness a source of both shame and pride? Is giftedness misunderstood, and if by many, then isn't the original definition wrong? After all, words in a language mean what people accept the words mean. For instance, for hundreds of years "they" meant many people who have neither you nor me among them; now they means "he, or she".

    Giftedness may have a clinical or an operative definition that psychologists use, but in the mainstream language it means something different. Instead of trying to make judgment who is using the word correctly and who is not, may we perhaps say, "in clinical and professional psychological use the word means X and in colloquial use the word means Y"?

    Not to make light of the topic, but in a gathering of allegedly smart people, my girlfriend said, "in Toronto, at around Christmas time, there is a surge in the number of gifted children." People looked at her as if she was an imbecile.

    1. I think, in this, it is important to remember the context when using the word gifted. If a person is using the word to describe a child's capacity to learn, or is in an educational or clinical setting, and that includes schools, education-based forums and articles on education and child development, then I don't think they should get to use that word if their desire is to state that 'all children are gifted', because it is simply not true. There are many words in English which have different meanings in different contexts, that's one of the joys and troubles with English.

      As well, if you are unsure about the definition of giftedness, a good place to start is to read through the various links in my article. It is also worth going and reading through the many credible articles on SENG, Hoagies, and GHF and the NAGC and there are many other great informative sites out there as well. And yes, giftedness is deeply misunderstood in our society, and I believe that the misuse of the word gifted is one of the symptoms of that misunderstanding.


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