Note how many traits of gifted children are considered to be “symptoms” of Asperger diagnosis.
Beyond Their Years
Linda Kreger Silverman on Understanding Gifted Children (edited for length)
SUN Magazine online / by Mark Leviton
For fifty years psychologist Linda Kreger Silverman has been an outspoken advocate for the gifted, who she feels have been neglected in schools and misunderstood in society.
In 1979 Silverman founded the Gifted Development Center (GDC), which is now a subsidiary of the Institute for the Study of Advanced Development. (She directs both organizations.) Based in Denver, Colorado, the GDC is the largest organization of its kind, with extensive data on more than six thousand children and their families (gifteddevelopment.com).
Giftedness isn’t a popular field of study, and Silverman hasn’t always had a smooth career path. At times she has struggled financially, and she’s clashed with entrenched university bureaucracies, the IQ-testing industry, and the not-so-subtle sexism in the predominantly male world of science. Her approach, which involves not just testing, but also getting to know children, is controversial to some.
Silverman received her undergraduate degree in elementary education from SUNY College of Education at Buffalo and her PhD in educational psychology and special education from the University of Southern California. She served on the advisory panel for the fifth edition of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale and has been instrumental in raising the ceiling of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children so that it can test for IQs above 160. She coined the term “visual-spatial learners” for children who think in pictures and find it challenging to conform to written class work and tests.
Leviton: What does it mean for a child to be gifted?
Silverman: We say children are gifted when their intellectual ability is advanced beyond their age. A four-year old girl who can pass all the items on an IQ test that an eight-year-old is expected to be able to do would obtain an IQ score in the 200 range. Children who are developmentally advanced are out of sync with their peers, and also out of sync with the expectations of teachers and parents, which leads to vulnerability. They need individualized education and counselors who understand how to work with these children.
Gifted children are wired differently. They have powerful emotions and may cry easily. They form deep attachments to people and animals. Some have a need for physical activity. Others might be like the Peanuts character Linus and his blanket: they respond much more to touch and texture. Annemarie Roeper noted that they have greater awareness and sensitivity. A five-year-old boy, for example, might become extremely concerned with global warming. They show aesthetic appreciation for nature and music. These over-excitabilities continue throughout their lives.
Leviton: What other signs of giftedness do you look for?
Silverman: When I started the Gifted Development Center, I created a list of sixteen characteristics of giftedness, including personality traits such as perfectionism. I’d noticed that gifted people set higher standards for themselves and tend to be fussier than others; they may eat their M&M’s in a certain order, or have to write with a particular pen. That list has since grown to twenty-six items. When parents want to know whether they should have their child tested, they can go to our website and see how many of these descriptors fit their son or daughter: learns rapidly, has a large vocabulary, is morally sensitive, has excellent problem-solving abilities and a strong desire to learn, is an early or avid reader, is concerned with justice or fairness, is a keen observer, and so on.
Testing is necessary for schools to take the needs of these children seriously. The educational system often fails to recognize giftedness or does so inconsistently. A child may be put in advanced mathematics one year and the next year be forced to relearn the same material with the rest of the class.
Leviton: Do you think gifted children have different educational needs?
Silverman: Definitely! When I was seventeen, at Buffalo State Teachers College, I believed that gifted children were wasting most of their time in school waiting for the rest of the class to catch up with them. I remember interviewing Rita Dickinson, who pioneered gifted education in Colorado. She said that she’d observed her son’s classroom and watched him wait with his hands folded for forty-five minutes after he had finished his assignment. There was nothing else for him to do.
Leviton: Are most gifted children affluent?
Silverman: No. Giftedness is found in every culture. I’ve had the good fortune to speak all over the world, and everywhere I go, there are children who develop at a faster rate and pass developmental milestones at earlier ages. They may never take an IQ test, but they are certainly gifted. When giftedness is seen as the capacity for complex thought rather than as high achievement, it is observed in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups
The characteristics of the gifted appear irrespective of gender, too. At the GDC we have documented as many gifted girls as gifted boys. It was IQ tests that actually established the existence of giftedness in females. There are those who still maintain that males are more intelligent than females because there are more men in prominent positions, ignoring the fact that in a patriarchal society the deck is stacked in favor of men.
Leviton: Are many gifted kids introverted?
Silverman: Yes. At the mildly to moderately gifted level there are many more introverts than there are in the general population. In the exceptionally and profoundly gifted range, most children are highly reflective and introspective. Parents and teachers may find it more difficult to understand a child’s introversion than to appreciate his or her level of intelligence.
Leviton: Are most gifted kids unhappy misfits?
Silverman: I wouldn’t say that. I’ve met a lot of gifted kids whose parents really understand them and are supportive and can invest energy in home-schooling or mentoring. There are many schools for the gifted and distance-learning programs designed for gifted students. Those gifted children who find others like themselves and are allowed to learn at their own pace are socially well adjusted and happy. But those who aren’t identified and who are not engaged learn how to underachieve and may get into trouble because they’ve got all this mental energy that has nowhere to go.
Some gifted kids hide their abilities. They do whatever other kids are doing, even if they don’t have any interest in it, because they want to have friends. A lot of girls, especially, don’t reveal that they are gifted. They may look happy, but when you put them in their element, then you’ll see them become really happy! I’ve worked with girls whose vocabulary jumps six grade levels when they get in a group of other gifted children. Even their body language changes. They are enthusiastic and animated. They didn’t appear miserable in the regular class, but only because they wore facades.
Gifted children might express their boredom by acting out. They might behave especially badly in the classroom of a teacher they don’t respect. It’s not just a matter of intellectual stimulation. Gifted children need teachers who are fair. If the child thinks the teacher is giving out inaccurate information to the class or showing favoritism, he or she will sometimes become rude and disruptive. The gifted possess a well-developed sense of right and wrong and react strongly to injustice.
Leviton: Do you ever see gifted children with learning disabilities?
Silverman: Yes, I work with many “twice-exceptional” children — intellectually gifted children who also have disabilities. Some can’t write, or they hate writing by hand. You can tell how smart they are when they talk, but they won’t pick up a pencil. There are kids who love being read to but can’t read, because they are dyslexic. Sometimes they are told they aren’t trying hard enough or they are called “lazy,” though they may be working twice as hard as their classmates. Bright children who can’t read, or hate to write, or can’t memorize math facts, or can’t spell often feel stupid. But from the moment they realize that their parents and other adults believe in them, their self-image changes, and they start to believe in themselves. If the school gives them more time for tests or lets them use a computer keyboard instead of insisting on having everything written by hand, they can be successful.
Specific learning disabilities can pull down gifted children’s IQ scores, so that no one realizes how smart they are. Giftedness also masks disabilities, making it more difficult to detect even serious deficiencies. Twice-exceptional children use abstract reasoning to compensate for visual- or auditory-processing disorders until the work gets too hard or the print gets too small. I am able to unravel complicated cases in which one psychologist says attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, another says Asperger’s, and a third says there’s no learning disability because the child’s test scores are average. My forte is figuring out these conundrum kids.