By Susan Flynn
Profoundly gifted kids have different, but very real, special needs.
Early on in life, play dates could be tricky for Alex Norton. His mother recalls the time her son, at age 2, went to the home of a friend who was watching Thomas the Tank Engine on television, and innocently tried to strike up a conversation.
“‘I see you like trains. What do you like best? Diesel, steam or electric?’”
“His friend said he liked choo-choo trains, and he’s looking at Alex like he’s a Martian,” says mom, Sherry Norton. “You can imagine how isolating that is to a little kid. You always hear, ‘Wow, you are so lucky to have a child who is so talented.’ It’s a blessing, and it’s a curse.”
From a young age, Norton suspected that Alex might not be the typical kid; IQ tests at age 3 confirmed her suspicions. His score put him in the profoundly gifted category, a designation used to describe children who score in the 99.9 percentile on IQ and achievement tests.
Roughly 13 out of 10,000 people in the United States are considered profoundly gifted, according to the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a Nevada-based nonprofit created to work exclusively with this population.
These children tend to be early talkers and early readers with an insatiable thirst for knowledge. They inundate parents with questions and are not content with simple answers. They are the kids ready for algebra – instead of the alphabet – in kindergarten.
Many parents secretly hold out hope that their child will be one of the smartest kids at school, but exceptional brilliance presents its own complications. Intellectually advanced kids can have trouble making friends with children their own age, their parents and teachers say. Often, these kids prefer the company of adults.
If they’re not challenged enough at school, they can become bored and disruptive, to the point where some are even misdiagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder or other behavioral disorders.
In many states, laws require schools to make modifications to accommodate students with special needs, including those with learning disorders. But the same protections are not always in place for kids at the other end of the spectrum.
“People think you are lucky to have a gifted child. They think they will be fine anyway,” says Judy Platt, editor of the Massachusetts Association for Gifted Education newsletter. “Most people are uninformed or, worse, misinformed, when it comes to gifted students. It’s hard to raise a gifted child.”
Looking back now, Nicole Greer suspected that her son Jack may be different. But he was her firstborn; she and her husband had no other children then to compare him to. At age 2 1/2, he not only knew all his colors, he knew how to spell his colors.
“I remember one time him spelling the word turquoise, and I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’” says Greer.
By age 4, Jack was solving complicated math problems. “Stuff I still can’t do, integers and exponents,” says his mother. So the parents consulted a family doctor for confirmation that something about their son was unusual.
“I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘Wow, he’s a savant.’ I thought that was a horrible word,” says Greer. “He’s so shy and I thought, ‘Oh no, this kid is going to get bullied.’”
When the family moved and her son enrolled at a new school for first grade, Greer says she chose not to tell anyone about her son’s abilities. The surprised new teacher soon called Greer to report that her son was reading at a fifth-grade level.
It has since been suggested that Jack would be a good candidate to skip a grade, but right now Greer wants him to be with kids his age. To remain intellectually stimulated, Jack, now 9, reads constantly, participates in a book club at the library, and gets math challenges from his father. He also benefits from free services offered by the Davidson Institute and a math program through Stanford University.
“He’s happy,” says Greer. “He loves his school. He loves his teachers. I don’t think you have to go to high school when you are 10. We look at our son’s giftedness as this: his intelligence won’t go away, but his childhood will. We want him to play. Maybe that’s wrong, but it feels right.”
Determining what’s best for profoundly gifted children is a constant struggle for parents, who may mistakenly be seen as bragging or pushing their child too hard.
“Many people think parents of gifted kids are pushing them. In many cases, we’re holding them back. I’m the one saying I’m not going to let him do it. I’d rather he be a kid,” says Sherry Norton, Alex’s mom.
The single biggest challenge, she says, is finding the right school. Her son attended six different ones before they found the right fit. At a previous school, he became so bored that he started to act up in class or tune out completely. In fourth grade, he left that school and entered a new one as a fifth-grader.
“A few weeks later, his Scout leader called and asked me if we had put our son on medication. He was just so calm and relaxed. I told her no, he had changed schools and skipped a grade,” says Norton. “His brain was no longer so frustrated by the monotony of what he was learning that he could sit still.”
Alex is now in a public high school, thriving and challenged by his classes. As a freshman, administrators let him take chemistry and physics at the same time. Norton says she’s thrilled with the town’s public school, which offers so many science classes that no student could ever take them all.
Getting Outside Help
Only 20 states in the U.S. mandate services for gifted education, recognizing that – like other students with special needs – these kids will not thrive without accommodations.
Often, parents of profoundly gifted students turn to outside resources to supplement their child’s education, whether it’s a community college course or a summer scholars program, such as the highly regarded one offered at Johns Hopkins University.
The Davidson Institute provides free services to roughly 2,000 students ages 5 to 18 through its Young Scholars program. Parents are assigned a family consultant to help make decisions about the child’s educational options, whether it’s acceleration, early college admission or homeschooling. Davidson also operates the first free public school for profoundly gifted students in the country on the University of Nevada campus in Reno.
Through Davidson, children can connect with kids like them in online communities, says Shannon Harrison, the Young Scholars program manager. The nonprofit also runs summer institutes, has drafted a “Gifted Kids Survival Guide,” and also acts as a resource for parents to share stories and information.
“Like with any child with a disability or learning issue, you need other parents who know what you are going through,” says Norton. She says her son has met some good friends through Davidson – kids who understand his intensity to delve into a subject for the sake of knowledge and not just a good grade.
In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama challenged Americans to not fall behind other countries in the fields of science, math and innovation, calling this our “Sputnik moment.” Some in the field of gifted education saw this as a promising sign, a recognition that the country’s future depends on nurturing talented minds.
“Some countries treat their gifted students like we treat our gifted athletes,” says Platt. “Other countries don’t do as well with the bottom level of students like we do. But the best and the brightest [here] aren’t being educated to their potential.”
Is your child profoundly intelligent? If you aren’t sure, here are some signs to look for.
Susan Flynn is associate editor of the Boston Parents Paper, a Dominion Parenting Media publication.