The many faces of the gifted, to borrow the theme of the 2003 SENG Conference, can cause what has been labeled a modern tragedy. Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults is a book, hot off the press, which addresses this.

The term “gifted” is a broad category used to describe a diverse population of persons who, according to the National Association of Gifted Children, “show, or have the potential for showing, an exceptional level of performance” in one or more of the following areas:

General intellectual ability
Specific academic aptitude
Creative thinking
Leadership ability
Visual or performing arts

Seldom is any one person gifted equally in all areas but many show quite unusual abilities and potential in two, three, or sometimes even four of them. Complexity is added to identification of these individuals by the profoundness of their abilities. And this complexity is compounded by those persons who have exceptional potential but do not exhibit it. Thus gifted children and adults wear many faces, which can cause the serious problem of misdiagnosis and wasting of lives from the inappropriate treatment that follows.

High degrees of intensity, sensitivity and overexcitability are characteristics that most gifted children and adults have in common. These people tend to be intense about everything to the point that they are labeled “excessive personalities.” Leaders in the field of gifted education have observed that children and adults with high intelligence are more likely to have inborn intensities that result in heightened responses to stimuli. They may love movement for its own sake and show a surplus of energy exhibited by rapid speech, wild enthusiasm, intense physical activity, and a need for action. This behavior can be misdiagnosed as ADD/ADHD.

Children’s intensities may also frequently be played out in strong-willed behavior or an exaggerated sense of justice, which lands them into debate that can be mistaken for Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

Divergent thinking and learning styles can also lead to misdiagnosis. If a child is an auditory-sequential learner the curriculum and most teaching styles will fit his style. If a child is a visual-spatial learner she can be out of step with a curriculum that is highly sequential because she needs to see the whole picture first and then add the pieces in a way that makes sense to her. Gifted children who prefer the visual-spatial thinking styles use a different kind of logic than their auditory-sequential thinking style peers. If their high intelligence is masked by reading problems, poor writing skills and problems with small motor skills, the resulting misdiagnosis may have these visual-spatial learners spending their time only in remediation. Their talents and intelligence may be wasted. Visual-spatial learners do best when they are presented with rigorous, complex curriculum. If their intelligence is misdiagnosed they may not have the opportunity for higher curriculum that will be best for them. The special skills exhibited by visual-spatial learners are the skills that fit the world of technology we are moving into. Without appropriate challenge and direction their gifts will be unrecognized and lost to society.

Many highly gifted people lead lonely lives during their school years because their thought processes are advanced beyond that of their age peers. They may think and act on such a different level that they have difficulty in social interactions. This can be misdiagnosed as Asperger’s. But while the person with Asperger’s does not realize that he has difficulty with social interaction, the highly gifted person realizes that he is a social misfit and feels terrible about it.

James T. Webb, Ph.D., Edward R. Amend, Psy.D., Nadia E. Webb, Psy.D. Jean Goerss, M.D.M.P.H., Paul Beljan, Psy.D. and F. Richard Olenchak, Ph.D. have co-authored Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults(Great Potential Press, Scottsdale, AZ). It covers a wide spectrum of characteristics and the misdiagnoses that can accompany the many faces of the gifted. It is written in an easy to read and interesting style with many stories of individuals. The authors, several of whom are affiliated with SENG, are donating half of the royalties from the sales of the book to SENG. This is a book that parents of gifted children, educators, psychologists, and physicians need to read. It can be purchased through the publisher or wherever books are sold.

For further reading about misdiagnosis, SENG recommends these articles from our online library:
Gifted Students with Attention Deficits: Fact and/or Fiction? Or, Can We See the Forest for the Trees?

Misdiagnosis and dual diagnosis of gifted children

Misdiagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder in gifted youth: An addendum to Mis-Diagnoses and dual diagnosis of gifted children by James Webb, Ph.D.

Ruth Carlstrom is a Gifted Education Specialist in Great Falls, Montana, and has taught for 30 years. She is a parent and grandparent and has served two years on the SENG Board.

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