Start Seeing the Gifted

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Two new shows on evening television, “Touch” and “Perception”, explore the idea of what it means to be gifted in modern society. In “Touch”, a young boy named Jake never speaks and is diagnosed with autism. The state is trying to place him in a special home for children with his disability. The father, played by Keifer Sutherland, isn’t satisfied with this and in his quest to keep his son, stumbles across Danny Glover’s character who has studied children like Jake. Danny Glover describes Jake’s world and says he can see connections between people the same way that nature applies the Fibonacci rule. That is, he sees connections between people, places, and events in the same way we notice the diamond pattern on the husk of a pineapple. The father is later able to communicate with his son using numbers as codes which leads him on adventures affecting characters across the globe.

Similarly, Eric McCormick plays an eccentric professor at the University of Chicago. His expertise in neuropsychology is sought by a former student who now works for the FBI. Eric’s character is an exceptional genius who figures things out because he perceives his world differently. The audience soon learns that his eccentricities and genius can be attributed to schizophrenia.

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The premise of both of these shows is that projected through another lens, one’s disability can also be one’s genius. Consider this:

  • Einstein was four years old before he could speak and seven before he could read.
  • Isaac Newton did poorly in grade school.
  • When Thomas Edison was a boy, his teachers told him he was too stupid to learn anything.
  • F.W.Woolworth got a job in a dry goods store when he was 21. But his employers would not let him wait on a customer because he “Didn’t have enough sense.”
  • A newspaper editor fired Walt Disney because he had “No good ideas”
  • Caruso’s music teacher told him “You can’t sing, you have no voice at all.”
  • Leo Tolstoy flunked out of college.
  • Verner Von Braun flunked 9th grade algebra.
  • Admiral Richard E. Byrd had been retired from the navy, as, “Unfit for service” Until he flew over both poles.
  • Louis Pasteur was rated as mediocre in chemistry when he attended the Royal College
  • Abraham Lincoln entered The Black Hawk War as a captain and came out a private
  • Fred Waring was once rejected from high school chorus.
  • Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade.

How could these gifted individuals go unnoticed? Didn’t their teachers know how smart they were?

Many people imagine gifted as the typical, but rare, child prodigy. A child who can compose symphonies at the age of five, a child who graduates from medical school at a young age, etc. But just as the autism spectrum has widened over the years, so has the gifted spectrum. The following is the definition commonly adhered to by professionals:

“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.” The Columbus Group, 1991, cited by Martha Morelock, “Giftedness: The View from Within“, in Understanding Our Gifted, January 1992

The word “asynchronous” means the child can figure out complex math problems but might have lower than average social skills. Or the child can read and comprehend advanced level texts, but he or she has lower than average math skills. A gifted child is rarely “gifted” across the board which means that, just like the people listed above and the characters in two new shows, their survival in society and their success depends almost entirely on which aspect of their personality receives the attention. Focusing only on the deficit could lead to a label of  ADD, anxiety, or autism,  while focusing on the positive leads to a label of gifted. It is worth mentioning that labeling someone gifted occurs rarely. Government resources are concentrated on raising student deficits not on catering to the gifted population. The map included in this link demonstrates the unevenness of gifted programs across the U.S.

Also worth noting in the previously mentioned definition is the “heightened intensity” found in many gifted children. While some gifted children conform easily to society’s norms, many often do not. These children are smart enough to understand what society is expecting of them and keen enough to know when they aren’t meeting those expectations. Their perception of this imbalance leads to emotional intensity that to the uneducated eye looks like they are emotionally disturbed. Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski formulated a theory called “Positive Disintegration” in which he addresses this very thing. Again, if the deficits are all that retain focus, then the other positive aspects of giftedness remain undeveloped. According to Kevin Ryan and James M. Cooper, authors of Those Who Can, Teach,  “Gifted children dropout of school at higher rates than those not identified as gifted.” How many future problem solvers and inventors are being suppressed because society only focuses on deficits. In the U.S. it would be a crime not to service someone with a disability, but it is elitist to service someone who is gifted (Ryan and Cooper, 2011).

Even if you are not a teacher, be aware of gifted individuals everywhere. When my grandmother was dying, a doctor entered without introduction. My mother and I were seated at Grandma’s bedside and we had become accustomed to people walking in and out, but this doctor we had never seen. He examined my grandmother and looked at her chart and numbers, and then he paused to look at her contemplatively. My mother and I were stone silent because it was as if we were watching the wheels of his mind click softly. He finally said, “More pain management,”and he signed something, spoke to us briefly, and left. To the naked eye, he appeared rude and abrupt. The nurse even apologized for his lack of “bedside manner” but, as if by way of explanation said, “But he is a brilliant doctor.”

My mother and I smiled knowingly and said, “We know. We’re teachers. We can sense genius.”


Lisa Quesada

Lisa Quesada

Lisa is the Reading Specialist at a middle school in Tinley Park, Illinois. She has been teaching for over twenty years and earned both a Masters in Reading Specialist and a Masters in Educational Leadership. Books, music, movies, and education are her life!

4 Responses to Start Seeing the Gifted
  1. M.Matthews Reply

    A true summation of how gifted can be interpreted as a deficit in a child.

  2. Jenn Reply

    WOW. What a great read.

  3. Lisa Sikorsrki Reply

    The sad thing is that many of our most gifted kids are overlooked or treated like they’re broken.

  4. Shawn C Baker

    SBaker Reply

    What a really fantastic article Lisa. I had no idea ‘gifted’ was even anything approaching a clinical term. You are dead on with taking us to task for focusing on deficiencies.

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