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Gifted Children Choosing to “Dumb Down”

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: Our son just turned 4 years old in the beginning of September and just started PreK. He is starting to exhibit some behavioral problems in class and I believe it has to do with him being gifted. We haven't had him tested yet. I'm meeting with his Pediatrician on Monday to go over some options. Here are some examples to show you where I concluded the giftedness. He was sight reading by 14 months. He is extremely sensitive and responsive to others emotions. He now says he cannot read and only reads books backwards. He tires easily of mundane tasks. He'll watch 13 minute videos on how to change a car tire and his interest will be held the entire time. He can't handle loud noises. He lines up his toy cars in perfect rows. He has issues with authority. He obsesses over one subject that he takes interest in.

He wants to communicate with adults all day long. He doesn't enjoy playing with his peers. He purposely "dumbs" himself down to play with peers. He talks about his peers as if they are babies....he doesn't see himself as belonging to the same group. He's had an uncanny ear for music since he was 1.5 years old....and the list goes on. He is not a normal 4 year old boy. Most 3-4 year olds are jumping off furniture and are not very vocal. Ours will talk your ear off and is not interested in riding a bike. Most characteristics of gifted children are also characteristics shared by high functioning autistic children....I'm just not sure who to turn to first.He is peeing himself only in school. And when he comes home with his crafts, there are only little scribbles on paper....he knows how to draw faces and write many letters.....why is he choosing to "dumb down"?

A: From your description, it clearly shows that your son has characteristics distinct to gifted children, at the same time some that gear towards high functioning autistic behaviour. It is also very interesting that you brought the term “dumb down” which has been around for a while but only in the recent years applied more and more for gifted children. Briefly, this is a term that is referred to masking of natural intellectual abilities.

It is known that gifted children get attuned to their surroundings quite quickly, and their heightened sensitivities may make them feel different from the other children. Feeling and being different may lead them to feeling less accepted by peers. Therefore, in order to fit in with peers, some gifted children will try to be at the same level as their friends in school. They may intentionally read badly or pretend not to be able to read, answer questions incorrectly when they know the answers so well and so on.

Your son appears to exhibit these behaviours because he probably learnt at a very tender age that he may be different from his peers and also learnt quickly how he should cope in order to be accepted. Hence the dumbing down could have happened as he learns to cope. What you need to do is to see a good psychologist as your son may be twice exceptional (or maybe not). Let the psychologist do some observation and help you decide how to take it forward from there on.

On nurturing, awareness is crucial and I can see that you are very aware of your son’s progress and/or decline in all aspects of this behaviour so you are indeed on the right track. Perhaps you need to explain to him analogically (maybe using a story) that children are different – some can read, some not just yet, some run faster than other, etc. This would help him feel that difference come in many forms and each child is special in her or his own way. He needs to understand that there is nothing wrong with him being the way he is, which is what most young minds probably think when others are not like them. For them, the norm is accepted so they want to fit in the norm. We can allow this to happen with our special children.

You also need to speak to the teachers and explain his behaviour and the reason he is acting differently at school. At times, young advanced children (and extroverted ones) have so much to say on everything and it can really rub teachers and peers the wrong way! Then again, it is very hard to teach children about how to display their knowledge, skills and interest in the right way, more so for very young children. At the same time, teachers may find it hard to get other children to accept the over-enthusiastic contributions of advanced children in the classroom. Especially in preschool, this is really hard. It would be helpful if the teachers were trained to handle advanced children. You may want to print out a few articles to help the teacher understand such children. It is crucial that his class teacher understands his needs and helps him open up in class. Have frequent meetings with his teachers to monitor his progress and behaviour.

On activities, get him into music since he appears to have interest in it. Go along with his interests and you will find that he have amazing strengths in some. He also needs to socialise with children who are mentally similar or older for conversational type activities. For other activities, especially physical, get him to socialise with peers. Even though he is jumping on furniture or riding the bicycle, try to encourage him into doing more physical activities. At his age, being active is crucial for a balanced development and it would help him with his social skills as well.

Keep up the great work and keep observing his progress. All the best!

Replied from reader: Thank you so much for your response! I was so thrilled to see your email waiting for me tonight:) I took my son in to see a new doctor and after 5-8 minutes conversation with him, said he agreed to get his IQ tested. He said typically children his age show narcissism, (normal for age) but my son does not. He understood adult humor and said he was fairly introspective.

The doctor was excited to meet him and said he was happy to be on this case. He set us up to see a child psychiatrist....psychologist??? I forget which one, at the University of Michigan.

Apparently they're an old colleague of his. He said they would be the best fit. I'll keep you updated. Any advice to take with me on the appointment? Things to make sure doc is doing.... what would be considered a TRUE IQ test for his age? Things to take with me.....things I should ask the doctor?


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