Gifted, ADHD, or Both?
By the way, if your child was diagnosed with ADHD, or is labeled an underachiever, he or she is in good company. Famous ADHD-ers include Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Ann Bancroft, and many more. Underachievers (in school) included Charles Darwin, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Gauguin, Turner, Edouard Manet, and Rodin. These are but a few examples!
A few days ago, my wife of 31-years proclaimed to me that I was “borderline gifted.” Now depending on your own self-image, you might have received such a pronouncement as either an insult, or a compliment. Coming from Sue, who is a “show-me” kind of gal, it was indeed a compliment, and my response was hearty laughter. What did I do to earn this borderline gifted status? What did I need to do to achieve full-fledge “gifted” rank? It was just too-funny.
Still, as quickly as these playful thoughts faded, I remembered a time when no kind of “gifted” label was a welcome one for me.
Yes, there was a time when my teachers wondered, “Who is this kid who did so well in Science and Honors English, but didn’t even try in Social Studies or History? Who is this wise-cracker, interested in so many things, but who turns into the ‘class clown’ whenever he is bored? Who is this kid who can’t seem to sit still, and who broke into the school to get first-aid on behalf of a classmate who badly gashed his arm in the school playground after-hours?”
I was tested (surprise!). The tests revealed some data. The interpretation? I was “Talented and Gifted,” and admitted into the “Talented and Gifted” (T.A.G.) program. What did this mean?
As it turns out that there were at least two kinds of gifted students: ones that were a “fit” in school—applying their gifts in expected ways—and those who (like me) were… “different.”
- I was able to get out of class in the middle of the day and do cool stuff like shoot off model rockets and debate other T.A.G. Students
- I was branded an “underachiever” whenever I didn’t perform in a way that agreed with official interpretations of my test results.
- I still got into trouble when I was bored, and that was mainly when I wasn’t in T.A.G.
These "different" kids would experiment and test everything a little too much—often in ways not appreciated within the accepted curriculum. They’d challenge their teachers. They might have short attention spans, fidget too much in class, or talk out of turn. Maybe they’d hand in homework late or not at all—yet still achieve good test grades on subjects that interested them.
Certain of these different students held a very conceptual view of reality, and one that most of their teachers found distracting, even troublesome, to the linear, wrote, learning approach customarily taught in the schoolroom. Some “different drummers” were seen by teachers as undisciplined, stubborn or “refusing to sit still.”
The kind of different I’m describing is nowadays what doctors might diagnose as ADD or ADHD (based on the American Academy of Pediatrics description issued in 2002), and now, according to the Wall Street Journal, ( Mind Games, Tuesday 4/6/2010), more and more adults are getting the label. WSJ reports the estimate for ADHD at 4.4% of the US population—some 10 million people—with less than one-quarter of them “aware of it.”
Now, thorough discussion of ADD and ADHD is beyond the scope of what I am either qualified, or want to do in this blog. What I will question, is if the societal need of syndromes and diagnoses to label children who don’t seem to fit into the institutional “norms” is really serving us. I’ll also note that, in the presence of strong desire and deep interest, ADHD symptoms seem to disappear for many.
(Click here to go directly to my suggestions for working with students like these...)
But before I do that, let’s clear something up: there is only one medical "shorthand” for Attention Deficit Disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and that is ADHD. All subtypes of the supposed difficulty, whether including hyperactivity as a symptom or not, are referenced by those initials.
We have that bit out of the way, so let’s move on…
What goes ‘round, comes ‘round?
What goes around, can come around, and these days I’m mentoring a gifted 10-year-old (let’s call him David) who finds some things in school boring and, well, reminds me of me when I was his age. He’d rather be in his room inventing stuff with electrical components and parts he found in his garage; or doing chemistry experiments with household ingredients in the kitchen; or seeing if he can catapult off a bent young white birch in his back yard… or whatever… and not listening to Social Studies facts.
In school, David’s “symptoms” make him a candidate for an ADHD diagnosis. In my home studio—where I am teaching him to compose music using a MIDI controller, wavetable samples, and Logic Pro 9—he is focused, polite, energized, creative, and a real pleasure to have around. Here, in an environment of understanding, with desire and a deep interest in investigating the stimulating and challenging activities I am providing, David is anything but ADHD.
Does this mean that he shouldn’t have to take social studies? Maybe, but that’s not where I want to go. There’s a good argument that training in multiple subjects literally helps the brain grow the “wiring” to handle a greater depth and breadth of learning later in life. Moreover, earning a range of diverse subjects can serve to enrich both the skills, and the backdrop of knowledge on which persons with talent and skill may draught innovation.
No, I can’t make a sweeping judgement that school is not right for kids like David, but I do think that we need to take a closer look at what children like him are telling us about school and life before we label them with any syndrome. More about that later.
“What kind of job do you think that will get her?”
Let’s take another example. According to the Jungian-Meyers personality typing, my wife, Sue is a “Dominant Feeler,” and this seems to match up with her deep interest in “emotional stories.” What some have called the most empathic of all Jungian types, she’s not just interested in the mood someone is in, but in a sense “reads” them for what makes them tick, emotionally. It isn’t a purely intellectual interest; it is a cognitive-emotional interest. It is her kind of intelligence.
Sue is able to help others with, practical, right-now solutions that come from using her emotional intelligence. That kind of ability is a big plus in many situations, and has made my wife a pro at knowing where other people are with their feelings in any given moment. Sue can tell when someone’s emotions or expressions aren’t lined up with what they are saying or doing. Sue is very smart, but her smarts aren’t expressed in equations or entrepreneurship. She remembers feelings easier than facts. She is anything but ADHD when applying her kind of intelligence.
Why am I telling you this?
Well, do you remember anything in all your primary or secondary school curricula that would deeply interest someone like Sue? If you thought, “Psychology,” I'd say you're on the right track, but psychology still doesn’t match up quite right. Psychologists are closer to “scientists working with people.” Sue’s an “artist with people.”
No, Sue didn’t have the benefit of any course that would help her develop skills that were innate and powerful in her. Her particular gifts were put to use everywhere else but in the classroom. Is it any wonder that it was difficult for her to find anything interesting for her in such an atmosphere of linear, logical thinking? The irony is this: these days, companies pay big bucks for professional services consultants to work with them about Emotional and Social Intelligence, while most schools continue to overlook consideration of activities, courses and study strategies that might engage my wife’s kind of smarts!
Of course, Sue is another example of someone who didn’t fit the model student profile. I am not calling that good or bad, but I will say again that perhaps there’s a message in that for us. So, please bear with me, as I tell you about the humble dandelion, whose name comes from a distortion of the French, “dent de lion”, or “lions tooth” (describing dandelion leaves). I am going somewhere with this–I promise.
If you’re like most folks reading this, you think of the dandelion as a lawn weed whose only redeeming feature is providing spring and summertime entertainment for children, who love to blow the virtually weightless seeds off downy, mature blossoms and watch them float on the wind to another lawn or field.
Why don’t we take another look?
Dandelions have been around an estimated thirty-million years. All parts of the plant are edible. The root can be sautéed, or dried and ground and used as a coffee substitute. The blossoms can be sautéed or used to make dandelion wine. The leaves are salad greens, and contain so much potassium, that even though they are a diuretic, consuming them will not deplete this important nutrient from the blood.
I could go on. A cup of the leaves will give you far more vitamin A than a similar helping of carrots, plus significant amounts of vitamin C and calcium. Dandelion tea is a great liver detox. Dandelions are loaded with micronutrients. In short, these nutritional powerhouses, according to the USDA Bulletin #8, "Composition of Foods" (Haytowitz and Matthews 1984), rank in the top 4 green vegetables in overall nutritional value.
The fact that most of us shoot weed killer at them or ignore them instead of seeking to understand and utilize their value says more about us, then them. The value is there, though we don’t always get-it.
Are we treating our gifted, creative kids like dandelions? When they pop-up in our lawns (classrooms) with their bright faces and tenacious will to fulfill their natures, are we branding them as weeds (ADHD) and treating them with weedkillers (Ritalin)?
I think the answer is too often, yes. And when we do, we miss the chance to better understand them and realize their value to themselves and to us. They have something to teach us—all our children do—and in this case, part of that something is about making our schools better. There’s also a message there about desire.
But before we take a look at what kids are trying to say to us, what about the message we are giving our supposedly ADHD children and their parents?
If I had to summarize it, I would offer the following:
If you have difficulty concentrating on stuff that bores you and stresses you and/or doesn’t take advantage of your natural gifts, and this difficulty is disruptive enough that it is negatively impacting at least two areas of your life, for at least six months, you may have ADHD.
If you have ADHD, one option is to take stimulants (that’s right, the medication that doctors describe for ADHD are psycho-stimulants). These will help you get through your day and concentrate better on stuff that bores you and stresses you. This is recommended so that you can meet the expectations of others.
To complicate things further, there are conditions—like high stress and depression—that mimic ADHD symptoms.
Does this make sense to you? Because it doesn’t make complete sense to me. I can’t deny we’re all going to find at least some parts of school and life uninteresting to us, and we are the most successful in the current system if we can buck-up and make it through those times. Still, I am not sure I agree that medicating our children or ourselves is a long-term solution to making anything better. I am also quite confident that some personality types/talent combinations have more trouble with focus and detail than others, especially given particular subjects and activities.
I’ll allow that there are folks who really would benefit from some kind of drug therapy for their symptoms, but I’ll also venture that we don’t have to see someone else’s combination of specialized, focused desire and extraordinary gifts as a “syndrome”—at least not in all cases.
Did I just suggest that ADHD symptoms might have something to do with a combination of gifts and specialized, highly focused desire?
My definition of “gifts” includes any combination of intelligence (some researchers believe that there are 8 or more kinds of intelligence), personality type, and talent that manifests in an extraordinary, observable ability.
When we put extraordinary ability together with a very focused desire to express that ability, and use it in specific ways (e.g., invention), it’s also highly possible that we have an individual who has little patience or attraction for activity outside their focus. It’s not that they can’t focus; it’s that they are extremely uncomfortable focusing on things that don’t fit them or interest them. In fact, certain personality types are actually drained and stressed by detail work even under normal conditions, and in such cases, extraordinary intelligence or talent might only serve to amplify this personality feature.
This doesn’t mean that such an individual can’t concentrate on detail. What I’ve noticed is that quite often someone who is “not paying attention in class” will demonstrate almost hyper-attention to detail in subjects and activities that are emotionally and intellectually alive for them—ones that they want to do.
I would suggest however, that this does mean that if more teachers and parents were trained in identifying personality type, types of intelligence, and understanding what it is like to have such intense (sometimes narrow) focus, they could then work with gifted students—and “underachievers”—in more knowledgeable, more effective ways.
So what are our kids telling us?
In my opinion, that we could better understand them.
Teaching recognition of, and communication strategies for, personality type to parents and teachers would help. The use of Jungian personality typing (Meyers-Briggs, Keirsey, SRP) would provide a great, accessible, start. Jungian personality typing makes an effective compromise between the complexity of something like the Enneagram of Personality and behavioral-level simplicity of DISC. It’s complex enough to offer depth of understanding, yet not too deep to make it impractical to learn and implement with effective results.
Is she a “dominant feeler,” or a “dominant Intuitive?” Is he an “NT,” “SP,” “SJ” or “NF” Temperament? The answer could make a difference in a child seen as ADHD or simply a gifted Intuitive or Feeling type looking for something more than what is customarily offered in the classroom.
They’re telling us that we could do better in how we support them in achieving what they want, and not what we want for them.
We need to listen, really listen, to what our children are interested in, and support them in their dreams no matter what we think of those dreams. I’ve noted before how supposedly difficult kids can focus and perform significantly better when working on subjects and projects that truly interest them. So let’s help our kids achieve what THEY want, both short and long term.
In my experience, when someone finds their inspiration, their bliss, all you have to do is get out of the way. Some kids just need more than the chance at some Pavlovian reward like “getting a good grade” to their engage their imagination and attention, and that something-more is most often more time with what they enjoy and are good at.
Since, by the time our kids enter the workplace, many will go for careers that won’t even exist until sometime in the future (new technologies, trends, and economies will create them), it makes sense to me that we listen carefully to any new direction our young learners are going for, and support them in that direction whenever possible.
Our children are also telling us not to label them.
Do we really need to label anyone “gifted,” or “underachiever,” ever again? How does it help anyone but a government bean-counter to label a kid? How does it help to paste ADHD on a young learner? Yes, we need a common language for the teachers-lounge and for parent-teacher conferences, but when we take that language too seriously; when it drives our emotional attitude about the person, we are doing ourselves a disservice. And kids should never, ever hear that stuff. They are themselves. Period. Plus, in a very real sense, we are ALL gifted underachievers. Who among us can say that we have absolutely realized 100% of our full potential?
It makes more sense to me to teach all children (regardless of ability) how to honor their particular gifts and to share them (without labels). Let’s guide them to appreciate themselves and others; to connect and not compare. Let’s emphasize appreciation for diversity, instead of separateness (or worse, trying to make everyone look and perform the same). Appreciation for diversity extends beyond racial and cultural consideration. We need to extend our “appreciation culture” to include different cognitive abilities and intelligences. It’s about time, isn’t it?
We’ll have happier learners when they’re enjoying and applying their natural gifts—without comparison and designations.
Our children are asking when we are going to start teaching them effective ways of alleviating and working with stress.
It’s astonishing to me that we don’t (universally) teach stress management and coping strategies in our schools, leaving our learners bereft of some of the most important skills for moving through the world!
Have you ever been too stressed for full to eat a salad, but then someone puts your favorite desert in front of you, and suddenly you have room for the whole sweet thing? This is how it is for stressed, gifted kids. They might not have the calm or patience for details or thoughts outside their area of interest, but give them their particular “sweet,” and they are all over it. If we can help kids relax more, they’ll have more capacity for a breadth of topics and activities. They’ll have some reserve to try new things. I am not talking about counseling either. Oh, and yes, counseling has its place, but kids need doable, effective techniques they can use anywhere, not just in someone’s office.
We need to teach our kids coping strategies, stress relief, and resiliency thinking (from an early, appropriate age). Nobody can do effective, high-level learning under stress, and gifted children get a double-whammy in the stress area, because often they’re more aware and have more unanswered questions than others their age. Very often, adults aren’t prepared to work with children who are asking questions and sharing concerns that are beyond others in their age group. Parents and teachers need assistance in how to best handle these situations.
I believe that if we did some of these things, we’d have far, far fewer “syndromes” to medicate in school. We’d have more focused, happier learners. I’m sure you can add to my list, as it is by no means, complete.
So what can we do?
I’m sometimes accused of pie-in-the-sky thinking (a compliment, I’m sure), and I know that anything near a universal implementation of the above is improbable, if not impossible. Nevertheless, parents and teachers who are interested in making a difference can still work in creative ways and attitudes within the current system—while we wait for the rest of the world catch-up.
Most of us have developed some powerful strategies for getting through difficult life challenges, and these will often include spiritual practices and reaching out for professional guidance and support. I’d like to add a few (perhaps) less common perspectives that I’ve found helpful over the years. You might find that you practice one or more yourself. Maybe you can add to the list in a response to this blog. I would love to hear from you!
Be “for your child” as a person.
Seems obvious, but we need to keep it front and center. We need to be for our kids as people. Supporting who they are even when it’s appropriate to give critical feedback on what they are doing. Most kids I know are pretty good at sensing intent. They know when we are coming from a loving place when making decisions that affect them—even when they don’t agree with those decisions. There are resources out there that can assist with such an approach. The Love and Logic Institute is a good one. Love and Logic is one of the few systems that sees children as capable of, and empowered to, develop a connection to their own inner guidance for making choices.
Refuse to see your child as “broken.”
No matter what the perceived situation, I never see anyone as broken. I love them where they are. One of my all-time favorite inspirations is Helen Keller. One of my favorite quotes by her is:
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
The words of someone who lost her sight and hearing at a very early age, but not the words of someone broken.
By the way, if your child was diagnosed with ADHD, or is labeled an underachiever, he or she is in good company. Famous ADHD-ers include Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Ann Bancroft, and many more. Underachievers (in school) included Charles Darwin, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, Thomas Gauguin, Turner, Edouard Manet, and Rodin. These are but a few examples! For a list of 450 underachievers who have reached world fame, consult R. S. Illingworth’s book, Lessons from Childhood.
Learn about personality type.
Sue and I learned the Enneagram of Personality and Jungian personality typing systems when our kids were but tots. It helped us immensely with our parenting. There really are different ways of seeing the world, presenting in the world, and deciding in the world, and we all benefit from that diversity. Our kids will benefit from our appreciation for how they see things. We benefit from mindful attention and appreciation of their individuality and separateness from us. We benefit from what we learn from them when we’re listening. Some of what others call ADHD or underachieving, I call a diversity of personality+talent that is simply undervalued by conventional thinkers.
Teach your child one or more of the following: breathing techniques, the relaxation response, the value of physical exercise in relaxing them.
Controlled breath is a gift that most of us waste. As I write this, I pause occasionally to do long, deep breathing technique, which relaxes me, increases oxygen to the brain, and focuses my mind. There are two or three simple techniques you can teach your kids to help them relieve stress in inconspicuous ways when they need to, thus helping them feel more in-their-power and capable in all situations.
You might also want to investigate the relaxation response, a powerful technique for positively influencing brain and metabolic activity with a combination of breathing and repeating word the word “one” as described here. Yes, it is a form of meditation, and many of us who have extremely active minds have found meditation, yoga, or qigong practices invaluable in relieving stress and enhancing our health.
Of course, any kind of exercise will provide a balancing experience to that of the classroom. What many people don’t realize, is that the brain directly benefits from exercise. According to brain researcher Dr. John Medina, exercise helps the brain in at least two ways:
- Exercise increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. One of the most interesting findings of the past few decades is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental sharpness.
- Exercise acts directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself. It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress.
From Dr. HJohn Medina’s site, Brainrules.net
Here too, children benefit most by exercise that they enjoy and that fits who they are.
Help your child connect the importance of something they are NOT interested in, with something that they ARE interested in.
This is a simple and important step that we can coach our kids through, but we rarely take the time to do it. Most careers and projects have some sort of drudge work associated with success, but we can lighten the load, and even make drudge lighter with the right approach. Sometimes, an understanding that the contrast of difficult tasks is a part of a larger choice we are making, is all that is needed to lighten our load. Other times more thought is necessary to connect our long-range goals with short-range efforts.
Most often, it’s a combination of approaches that will work towards getting through the boring and routine parts of our lives. I use a combination of breath work, mindfulness, instrumental music, and time-of-day to get through my most routine tasks. Interestingly, in a state of mindfulness, with a focus in the present, I often get to the point where I’m enjoying a task that I find otherwise draining.
See life as a continuum…
Have you ever heard the tale of the Chinese Farmer? If not, you can find it at this link. It’s a nice illustration on how judgement—of either “bad” or “good”—discounts what the future may hold for us. When we judge something either way, we are limiting our further experience and awareness of it. We are limiting our ability to assess further.
Instead, try assessing with an attitude of openness. Replace bad or good judgements with the question, “Is this what I want?” Frame answers with the acknowledgement that there’s always more life coming; that there are always more choices in front of you.
Whenever possible, reach for solutions with your thinking. See life as a continuing process, with ups and downs, but know that you can raise the level of each, so that downs grow ever more shallow, and highs just get better and better.
Dare not to compare…
Comparison is the happiness killer. It’s utterly useless except as a way to make your ego feel either superior or inferior to someone else. Think it through: do you really have enough information about the life of another to make an accurate assessment about whether you are better or worse off?
What about how your child is doing? How do you know if he or she is doing well enough? You are not going to get the answer through comparison. You’re just not... You are better off exploring, with a sense of fun and purpose, just how far you can go together, and doing this with complete disregard for comparison, or even caring what others think about you. Everyone is on their own journey. Dare not to compare.
Consider an outside mentor.
Outside the family or school, that is. Someone who can add perspective and richness in a pressure’s-off kind of way. Someone who will see your child with fresh eyes, and someone without an agenda of making test scores. Mentors can bring amazing uplift and opportunity to kids starved for both.
A final word…
With my longest blog to date, I hope I’ve challenged some basic assumptions regarding the use of ADHD as a diagnosis, and have also provided some additional perspective in how we can approach diverse combinations of intelligence, personality-type and talent.
Far from a scholarly work, this an opinion piece that I hope will stimulate further, mindful thinking on the topic.
Under the heading, “Full Disclosure,” I’ll point out here that I can facilitate SpeedReading People. Give me a day, and I can teach each person in a room full of people to assess personality type on the fly, and then adjust communication and listening to match. By the end of a six-hour training, I’ve seen a room full of 80 people do it, from videos, with near 100% accuracy. If you are interested in hiring us to deliver a SpeedReaching People workshop, please use the contact page on this Website to reach me. Serious inquiries only, please.
I also have formal training in the Enneagram of Personality, a complex and powerful way to better understand personality drives, and so much more. As I mentioned in this blog, Sue and I have used our study of the enneagram to great advantage over the years.
For those of you who are interested in more regarding personality type and raising children, I highly recommend Nurture by Nature by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Teiger. For Enneagram of Personality information, I recommend Riso-Hudson materials, particularly The Wisdom of the Enneagram.
Finally, the article is somewhat colored by my own personal experience in private and public schools, together with my experience as a parent working with school officials.
Needless to say, I believe our education system needs change—more radical than some suppose—in order to help our kids meet the future. Right now our schools are not “brain-friendly” as pointed out succinctly, and convincingly, by Dr. John Medina, and there’s no place in them to develop diverse affinities, intelligences and talents that don’t fit into the world of linear/Newtonian thinking.
That’s it for this “maxi-blog” installment!