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The Gifted: the Myth of the Overachiever

The Gifted: the Myth of the Overachiever
Giftedness, just like ADHD, autism and highly sensitive people, represents a spectrum of characteristics. Two gifted people are not alike. HSP are often gifted, but not all gifted are a HSP. There is no consensus as to how “gifted” should be defined, but one definition that resonates for me is the following, which is based on the gifted child’s differences from the norm:

“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.”[1]

Giftedness has an emotional as well as intellectual component. Intellectual complexity goes hand in hand with emotional depth. Gifted children not only think differently from other children, they also feel differently. The theories of psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski have greatly informed our understanding of the social and emotional aspects of giftedness[2], [3].

One of the basic characteristics of the gifted is their intensity. Intensity is not a matter of degree but of a different way of experiencing the world: vivid, absorbing, penetrating, encompassing, complex, commanding – a way of being quiveringly alive. Intensity means that they process emotions and thoughts at a much deeper level and as a positive consequence can see patterns others can’t, but also get affected by negative or positive emotions much more deeply. Closeness for these people is therefore often very difficult as it can be very painful physically and emotionally to be close to someone else’s feelings.

HSP and gifted children are at an extremely high risk of being misdiagnosed with a learning or mental disability as when over-stimulated their behaviors reassemble those of autism or ADHD. According to the article Gifted or ADD[4], most people, including most medical professionals, do not realize giftedness is not the same as high achievement and that it is often associated with the following behaviors:
• underachieving
• anger and frustration
• high energy, intensity, fidgeting, impulsivity
• individualistic, nonconforming, stubborn
• disorganization, sloppy, poor handwriting
• forgetful, absentminded, daydreams
• emotional, moody
• low interest in details

Adults often do not realize a child is gifted under the assumption that a gifted child is automatically an overachiever. As a result, many gifted children are being medicated for a brain defect they probably don’t have.

Instead, they may be experiencing what the psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski (1964)[5] intensities related to one of the various type of heightened abilities he identified:

Psychomotor – surplus of energy: rapid speech, pressure for action, restlessness impulsive actions, nervous habits & tics, competitiveness, sleeplessness.

Sensual – sensory and aesthetic pleasure: heightened sensory awareness eg sights, smells, tastes, textures, sounds, appreciation of beautiful objects, music, nature, sensitivity to foods and pollutants, intense dislike of certain clothing, craving for pleasure.

Intellectual – learning, problem solving: curiosity, concentration, theoretical & analytical thinking, questioning, introspection, love of learning and problem solving, moral concern, thinking about personal and social moral values.

Imaginational – vivid imagination: creative & inventive, a rich and active fantasy life, superb visual memory, elaborate dreams, day dreams, love of poetry, music and drama, fears of the unknown, mixing of truth and fantasy, great sense of humour.

Emotional – intensity of feeling: complex emotions, extremes of emotion, empathy with others, sensitivity in relationships, strong memory for feelings, difficulty adjusting to change, fears and anxieties, inhibition, timidity, shyness, self-judgment, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, heightened awareness of injustice and hypocrisy.

Why do gifted people get misdiagnosed?

A first reason is that gifted people become bored easily in settings that average people find tolerable (like school or work). Boredom leads to restlessness, and restlessness leads to all sorts of problems. Fast thought processes can lead not only to boredom but to poor handwriting, errors in simple work, disorganization and sloppiness. Add to this sensory giftedness and a person can become overwhelmed in these settings as well, uncannily ressembling an ADHD bahavior.

A second reason for misdiagnosis stands in that gifted children often go through asynchronous developmental process. Asynchronous development refers to uneven intellectual, physical, and emotional development. In average children, intellectual, physical, and emotional development progresses at about the same rate. That is, the development is in “sync”. However, in gifted children, the development of those areas is out of “sync”. They do not progress at the same rate. Their development in certain areas is so fast that it becomes very slow in others.

A third reason is that if these children are emotionally intense. People often believe that sensitive children are simply being melodramatic. But these children often have an emotional super sensitivity or over excitability and they experience emotions deeper and more intensely than others and they do not know how to regulate them.

Emotionally intense gifted children exhibit a super sensitivity of the nervous system that makes them acutely perceptive and sensitive, more discriminating of external stimuli and more analytical and critical of themselves and others. This accounts for the tendency for young emotionally intense gifted children to be described frequently as “hyperactive” and “distractable”.

Emotional intensity is expressed by the gifted through a wide range of feelings, and attachments. Compassion, heightened sense of responsibility and scrupulous self-examination. While these are normal for the gifted and appear very early in gifted children, they are often mistaken for emotional immaturity rather than as evidence of a rich inner life. Feeling everything more deeply than others do is both painful and frightening and sensitivity to society’s injustice and hypocrisy can lead many emotionally intense gifted children to feel despair and cynicism at very young ages. While these feelings can be frightening to their parents, they can be part of a normal process for the gifted. According to Dabrowski, gifted individuals need to go through process of positive disintegration to grow and evolve. They need to go very deep within themselves, deconstruct their identity in order to transform their selves.

These children are often perfectionists, extremely hard on themselves and often underachievers as they often prefer to not engage rather than not be perfect. And they are also often depressive.

Finally, these children intensity and overexcitability means they often become anxious and/or act out in social settings they are not familiar with or when their sensitivities are triggered. Over-excitability is an expanded awareness of and a heightened capacity to respond to all stimuli such as noise, light, smell, touch, emotions, chemical toxins, etc. The term ‘over-excitability’ conveys the idea that this stimulation of the nervous system is well beyond the usual or average in intensity and duration. As we will see in a following section, this over-exatibility, coupled with a particular temperament type can lead to behaviors resembling AHDH or autism.

The gifted and Sensory Processing Sensitivity

According to the Sensory Processing Disorder foundation[6], research is beginning to indicate that sensory processing “disorder” or sensitivity symptoms occur more frequently in populations of children identified as gifted than within populations that are not.

Paula Jarrard, MS, OTR, a doctoral candidate at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions, conducted a review of research into this question. Jarrard learned from her review that “as many as one-third of gifted children may exhibit sensory processing disorder features, significantly impacting quality of life.“[7]. As she explains: “The ‘double-edged sword’ of giftedness often bestows, among other features, a global heightened awareness to sensory stimulation, an endowment of amplified mental processing speed and attention capacity, and unusual challenges with frustration, pain, noise, and emotional hypersensitivity“. [8].

Sensual giftedness can lead to sensory processing sensitivity and to over-excitability of the senses. Dabrowski[9] described patterns of over-excitabilities consisting of heightened sensitivity, awareness, and intensity to receive and respond to stimuli. Mendaglio (1995)[10] and Lind (2000)[11] offer similar views. These authors do not describe these over-excitabilities as “disorders,” rather as characteristic features of the exceptionally creative and point to a higher than average sensitivity of its receptors (Dabrowski, 1964 p.7). The unusual sensory reactions are seen as an integral part of the individual to be accommodated and to be worked with. In fact, many of the strategies offered by Lind (2000) for dealing with “over-excitabilities” are similar to sensory integration strategies and can be easily misdiagnosed as a “disorder”. This seems to be particularly true for another subgroup, the highly sensitive children.

Previous:The Sensory Connection,  Next: Highly Sensitive Children


[1]The Columbus Group, 1991, cited by Martha Morelock, “Giftedness: The View from Within”, in Understanding Our Gifted, January 1992.

[2] Dabrowski, K. (1967). Personality-shaping through positive disintegration. Boston: Little Brown & Co.

[3] Dabrowski, K. (1967). The Theory of Positive Disintegration. In O. H. Mowrer, Morality and mental health (pp. 152-165). Chicago: Rand McNally. [A reprint of pages 1-32 of Positive Disintegration (1964)].

[4]Gallagher, Teresa (no date) Gifted or ADD? In Born to Explore! The other side of ADD. Retrieved from: http://borntoexplore.org/gifted.htm

[5] Dąbrowski, K. (1964). Positive Disintegration. Boston, Mass.: Little Brown.

[6] Jarrard, Paula (2008). Sensory Issues in Gifted Children: Synthesis of the Literature. Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions, March, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.spdfoundation.net/pdf/SensoryissuesinGiftedChildren.pdf‎

[7] Jarrard, Paula (2008). Sensory Issues in Gifted Children: Synthesis of the Literature. Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions, March, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.spdfoundation.net/pdf/SensoryissuesinGiftedChildren.pdf‎

[8] Jarrard, Paula (2008). Sensory Issues in Gifted Children: Synthesis of the Literature. Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions, March, 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.spdfoundation.net/pdf/SensoryissuesinGiftedChildren.pdf‎

[9] Dąbrowski, K. (1964). Positive Disintegration. Boston, Mass.: Little Brown.

[10] Sal Mendaglio (1995): Sensitivity among gifted persons: A multi-faceted perspective, Roeper Review, 17:3, 169-172

[11] Lind, S. Overexcitability and the highly gifted child. The Communicator California Association for the Gifted Vol. 31, No. 4. Fall 2000. Retrieved at: http://www.davidsongifted.org/db/Articles_id_10102.aspx


2 thoughts on “The Gifted: the Myth of the Overachiever

  1. For your information, overachievers do exist. And autistic people are examples of them due to their perfectionist nature.

    Posted by Anonymous | July 24, 2016, 5:23 pm
    • Of course they do! But teachers often assume that an under-achiever is not gifted… Just pointing out that there is a gifted personality type that does not over achieve. They actually usually are perfectionists and get paralyzed by their need for perfection. They can’t stand to make errors to the point of not wanting to try…

      Posted by Alx Alt | July 25, 2016, 12:16 pm

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