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Neurodiversity: Highly Gifted or "Profoundly Gifted" People

Updated: 5 days ago

Understanding the Differences Between Gifted and Highly Gifted individuals

Michelle L. Guy, MSW, RSW, June 2024

Giftedness is a term often used to describe people who have demonstrated exceptional intellectual capabilities or talents from a young age. However, within the realm of giftedness, there's a further distinction between "gifted" and "highly gifted" people. Understanding these differences is crucial for individuals, parents, educators, mental health professionals, and policymakers to provide/access the appropriate learning environment, career, support, and opportunities.

Defining Giftedness and Profound (Highly) Giftedness

Gifted Children: typically fall into the top 2-10% of the population in terms of intelligence and academic performance. In many school systems, Giftedness is defined to include only the top 2% of individuals, or, in testing, a GAI in the 98th percentile. Gifted people often exhibit advanced language skills, an insatiable curiosity, and a keen ability to grasp complex concepts quickly. These people may excel in one or more areas, such as mathematics, science, sports, literature, social-emotional, or the arts.

Highly Gifted Children: on the other hand, represent a smaller subset, often the top 0.1-1% of the population. These children not only demonstrate exceptional intellectual abilities but also tend to exhibit extraordinary talent in specific domains. Their intellectual capabilities and complex thoughts are significantly above their peers, often they may be capable of performing several grade levels above their age group, or they may only feel that they “fit in” with older age groups, and often struggle to find peers they can connect with in childhood or adolescence. Several factors may also lead to underperformance, particularly when they have had negative experiences of education and learning, have been made to feel that there is something “wrong” with them and other experiences of rejection.  Highly gifted individuals also have a higher likelihood of being twice-exceptional (or 2e, 3e, etc) with identification in areas such as a learning disability, developmental coordination disorder (often seen as “clumsy”, mental health issues, difficulty with interoception and proprioception, or ADHD.

Some Characteristics of Gifted and Highly Gifted Children

Gifted Children:

  1. Advanced Cognitive Abilities: They often read early, understand some complex ideas, and enjoy problem-solving.

  2. Emotional Sensitivity: These children may be more emotionally intense and sensitive, often displaying higher levels of dysregulation, deeper compassion for others (even strangers), and a deep empathy, “feeling another’s pain” for others.

  3. Curiosity and Motivation: They typically have a strong desire to learn in areas they are interested in, may self-direct their learning, and often ask numerous questions (which is often misunderstood by adults as challenging behaviour).

  4. Creativity: Gifted children tend to think outside the box and enjoy creative activities like writing, drawing, and music.

  5. Asynchronous Development: Gifted minds come with asynchronous development in areas of the brain. This means that they are exceptional in some areas, and may be age level in others, It can be confusing to them, and to parents or others who may view them as having the ability to understand and deal with adversity while they often have not yet learned how to manage the big emotions that come with it.

Highly Gifted Children:

  1. Exceptional Cognitive Abilities: These children may learn to read very early, often before entering school, and can understand and discuss abstract concepts at a very young age (for some, as soon as they are able to speak) and may feel most comfortable talking to adults.

  2. Intense Focus and Passion: They often show an intense interest in specific subjects, becoming “mini-experts” in areas like astronomy, palaeontology, or classical music through development. They may be so passionate about a topic that they have trouble focusing on other learning areas, school curriculum, or even day to day activities and interactions.

  3. Advanced and Complex Thinking: Highly gifted children may exhibit a level of understanding of the world, and society as a whole, that is more complex, have more mature thoughts and perspectives in some areas, feel and demonstrate heightened sensitivity or sensory issues, and feel intense empathy that is unusual for their age, often struggling with existential questions and concerns “beyond their years”.

  4. Asynchronous Development: As above, development in different areas of the brain is uneven. They may be years ahead in certain areas (as noted) but at the same level as peers, or behind them, in others (such as impulse control, emotions and self-regulation). In some ways, they are viewed as very adult like and in others immature. Often this can be confusing to themselves, leading to symptoms of anxiety or “behavioural issues”, or other mental health issues. Additionally, it can be frustrating for their parents and family as they are often dysregulated, and may “take over the household" through behaviour, or the classroom. 

Supporting Gifted and Profoundly (highly) Gifted Kids and Teens

Support for Gifted Children:

  1. Educational Enrichment Activities: These children benefit from activities that challenge their intellectual abilities, such as advanced reading materials, science experiments, and creative projects.

  2. Differentiated Instruction: Teachers need to provide varying levels of difficulty within the same classroom to cater to the diverse needs of gifted students.

  3. Social and Emotional Support: Gifted children often need guidance in managing their emotional sensitivity and understanding social dynamics/ developing friendships.

  4. Parents and family: Who are educated about these specific challenges for gifted children and teens, and who advocate for them to get their needs met.

Support for Highly Gifted Children:

  1. Accelerated Learning: Some of these children may require acceleration through grade levels or access to advanced coursework beyond their age group to stay engaged and motivated.

  2. Self-directed learning or non-school based learning: Some may be unable to manage in a school based environment and may learn best by self-directed learning with support or homeschool. Some may learn best through experiential or immersive learning in nature, through travel, in different learning programs and with other community based experiences that may be focused on their passions or interests.

  3. Parents who understand and advocate for them: Unconditional love and acceptance (and patience and self-care as parents), helping them feel heard and understood, and advocating for their needs, at least until they can advocate for themselves - teaching them “new language” so adults can understand their intensity.

  4. Specialized Programs: Highly gifted children benefit from specialized educational programs tailored to their unique abilities and interests, these may be hard to find depending on the area you live in.

Counselling/Therapy and Support:

Given their asynchronous development and other challenges in life, gifted and highly gifted children may need professional support through counselling and Therapy to help them understand their unique mind. These professionals must be knowledgable, and experienced in working with neurodiversity, specifically; Gifted and Profoundly Gifted individuals as well as 2e as noted above.  Further posts will explore and review “best practice” in terms of approaches and methods of therapy. Primarily, approaches that integrate elements of "textbook," evidence-based practice modalities is the most helpful and leads to life-long health and wellness. Look for providers who use a relational focus first, who use strengths based, inclusive, and neurodiversity-affirming styles. Those who may also have training in Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), CBT/DBT, Acceptance-commitment therapy, Child & Youth Care, Play modalities, art and expressive art approaches.

Recognizing and understanding the differences between gifted and highly gifted children is essential for fostering their development and well-being. While both groups exhibit extraordinary abilities, highly gifted children often require more specialized and intensive educational interventions, and professionals who understand the complexities of Giftedness. By addressing their unique needs, we can help these exceptional young individuals to feel better inside and out, and to understand that there are other people in our society who are like-minded (although they can be challenging to find). Whether you are a parent, educator, mental health professional, or policy maker, being informed about these distinctions is the first step toward providing the appropriate support for gifted and highly gifted children.

*References on request

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