Pathologizing Normal Gifted Behavior

Excited boy in classroom

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I learned about this concept when my son was young and teachers kept telling me he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The first time anyone told me he probably had ADHD was when he was about 6 years old and in first grade. He was a self-taught reader and by the time he was in first grade he was already a fluent reader, reading books meant for kids ages 8 and older.

He wanted desperately to read books about science at school as he did at home, but the teacher wouldn't allow it. She insisted that he first read the required material and then pass the comprehension tests on it before he would be allowed to open other books. It was like torture to him, and he had a very hard time sitting still through books on bunnies in the back yard when he knew he had books about black holes waiting for him at home.

Later, when my son was 8 years old, I had him tested by a psychologist. When I went back to discuss the test results with him, we had a very interesting discussion about gifted kids and ADHD. He was the first one to introduce me to the idea that we were beginning to pathologize normal childhood behavior. That was back in 1998. We've come a long way since then, finding more ways to pathologize normal behaviors.

What Does It Mean to Pathologize Behavior?

Pathology is the study of disease. It is also the deviation from the norm, something "abnormal." Pathologizing a behavior is labeling a perfectly normal behavior as a problem, a behavior that requires intervention, treatment, or drugs. Unfortunately, this is what many in our society are doing to behavior that is perfectly normal for children.

For example, it is quite normal for little boys to get restless and fidget when asked to sit still in a classroom. Today, any little boy who fidgets in class is now immediately suspected of having ADHD. While some children do have ADHD, not every child who fidgets or doesn't sit still has it.

In the same way, every moody child is believed to have bipolar disorder. Again, while some children do have it, not every moody child has it. This kind of pathologizing of normal behavior is more common with gifted children than it is with non-gifted children.

What is Normal Gifted Behavior?

It's hard enough to define normal behavior in general; defining normal gifted behavior can be even more difficult because so many behaviors of gifted children can match the symptoms of some disorder or another.

A gifted child who is unchallenged in the classroom will often act out and that acting out can be physical. The child can fidget and fuss. They will seem to have a hard time focusing and paying attention. they might daydream. However, once that child is provided with an appropriate challenge, the behaviors disappear, sometimes overnight.

Unfortunately, schools may be unwilling to provide challenging work, citing reasons like "immaturity" or inability to do the work already given.

Other normal but misunderstood behaviors of gifted children involve their emotions. Gifted children can be emotionally intense, in Dabrowski's terms, emotionally supersensitive or overexcitable. That means that when they are sad, they are very sad, and when they are happy, they are very happy. That leads people to believe such children are bipolar. They aren't. They're just intense—they feel things deeply.

Another of the overexcitabilities common to many gifted children is the sensual supersensitivity. Children with this overexcitability may be bothered by loud noises or seams on their socks, or the texture of some foods.

Because they may react strongly to this kind of sensual input, they are often misdiagnosed as having sensory processing disorder (SPD). This statement seems to describe gifted children with the sensual supersensitivity: "One person with SPD may over-respond to sensation and find clothing, physical contact, light, sound, food, or other sensory input to be unbearable."

If your child has a sensory overexcitability, you may notice that he puts his hands over his ears at the movie theater, takes his socks off because he hates the feel of the seams, pulls on the tags at the back of his shirts, or refuses to eat certain foods because of the texture or smell.

Many gifted children are also perfectionists. They not only want to do everything themselves perfectly, they may also expect others to be perfect. They may, therefore, correct a teacher who has made a mistake. Their intent is not to defy a teacher, but to correct the information. That doesn't stop some people from claiming that such a child has oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).

Or a gifted child's perfectionism might cause her to want everything in perfect order: everything organized by shape or color or size. That behavior may lead some people to believe that child has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Why Does The Diagnosis Matter?

Some people have told me that the diagnosis doesn't matter since, they believe, a child will get treatment for the "problem" behavior. In fact, some parents seek out these psychological diagnoses because when a child has one, he or she qualifies for an Individual Educational Plan (IEP).

Since an IEP must be designed to meet a child's individual needs, the need for more challenging work will be included in addition to the accommodations made for the diagnosed "disability."

This approach has numerous faults. For one, the treatment is often ineffective. Above all, gifted children need special accommodations designed specifically for their abilities, just as any special needs child does. Any treatment designed to accommodate a condition a child does not have while ignoring the needs based on his being gifted cannot be effective.

Another fault is that some of the diagnoses come with a treatment that includes drugs. That is true of ADHD for which Ritalin is often prescribed. Ritalin is a class 2 drug, which means it is a narcotic, just like cocaine. It is not without risks, so why give that drug to a child to treat a condition he does not have?

A final fault of this approach is that it tells the child that what is perfectly normal behavior is not normal. It's like treating a child for having blue eyes. Rather than helping a child understand himself, it tells a child there is something wrong with him. If a child really does have one of these conditions, then we definitely want to see him get help.

Being gifted doesn't make a child immune to having one of these disabilities, but a careful diagnosis should be done. This is especially true because the diagnosis will follow a child around through school and for the rest of his life.

Once that diagnosis is made, it is very difficult to get rid of it. And that makes it difficult to deal with the real issues a gifted child has that are related to his giftedness. We should all want what is best for every child, and that includes all gifted children.

1 Source
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  1. Beckmann E, Minnaert A. Non-cognitive Characteristics of Gifted Students With Learning Disabilities: An In-depth Systematic Review. Front Psychol. 2018;9:504. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00504

By Carol Bainbridge
Carol Bainbridge has provided advice to parents of gifted children for decades, and was a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted.