Counseling Today, Features

Seeing the whole gifted child

By Lindsey Phillips November 30, 2020

Assessing symptoms and determining a treatment plan for clients is never a simple or straightforward task. That can be especially true when it comes to working with gifted and twice-exceptional clients.

Imagine that a second-grader who is highly intelligent comes to your counseling office. The child has some intense interests, which is not uncommon with individuals who are gifted, and they struggle with emotion regulation, which appears to be related to the child’s perfectionism and low frustration tolerance. You might assume that this client’s struggles are just a natural consequence of being gifted.

Emily Kircher-Morris, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at Unlimited Potential Counseling & Education Center in O’Fallon, Missouri, made this assumption. It wasn’t until her client entered the fourth grade that Kircher-Morris learned that giftedness alone couldn’t “explain away” the student’s emotional struggles. After experiencing a major event, the client’s problems increased to the point that Kircher-Morris referred him to a psychologist for a full differential diagnosis. Upon receiving the results, she was shocked to find out that her client was not only gifted but also autistic.

“I had fallen into the [common] beliefs about giftedness: That the [emotional struggles] were just sensory intensity or perfectionism,” says Kircher-Morris, an American Counseling Association member who specializes in gifted and high-ability individuals. “I missed how intense his meltdowns were and that his intense interests were related to autism, not giftedness.”

It’s true that individuals who are gifted may possess an intense interest, but they can communicate about other topics in addition to that passion, whereas someone with autism spectrum disorder can’t easily talk about other topics, Kircher-Morris explains.

To make an accurate assessment of a gifted client, professional clinical counselors must first know what “giftedness” even means. The problem is that the exact determinants and measurements for giftedness vary from state to state and even school to school. But according to the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), individuals deemed to be gifted or talented have the capability to perform at higher levels than their peers, and they require modifications to their educational experience to learn and to realize their potential.

Neither Kircher-Morris nor James Bishop, an LPC at Blank Slate Therapy in Frisco, Texas, distinguish between “gifted” and “high achieving” because they say some individuals need to be cognitively challenged regardless of whether they meet the formal definition of being gifted. And sometimes gifted individuals have learning disabilities or mental health issues that require them to get help — a concept that can be difficult for individuals who are used to having things come easily to them, Kircher-Morris points out.

(Mis)Identifying giftedness

There is also a substantial amount of anecdotal information, as well as misconceptions, about giftedness, and Bishop, executive director of the Passionate Mind Institute, warns that even mental health professionals can fall prey to pseudoscience on the topic. For example, some counselors too easily embrace overexcitability as a common characteristic of gifted individuals even though there isn’t much current research to support the belief, he says.

People may incorrectly assume that someone cannot be gifted if they are not doing well in school or that gifted individuals never need help, Bishop continues. Some also believe that individuals who are gifted are more prone to depression, but research shows they are as well-adjusted, if not more so, than their peers in the general population, he adds.

Such misconceptions, as well as concern about clinical misdiagnoses, led Bishop, a member of ACA, to conduct a study to test the ability of mental health professionals to recognize gifted characteristics in presenting clients using vignettes that illustrated common issues and characteristics related to giftedness. Half of the 330 participants were prompted that giftedness could be a factor, but regardless of that prompting, Bishop found the majority of participants still clung to the diagnosis of a disorder over an assessment of giftedness. (See “The potential of misdiagnosis of high IQ youth by practicing mental health professionals: A mixed methods study” in the journal High Ability Studies.)

Bishop’s study suggests that even mental health professionals, not just educators, have trouble factoring giftedness into their clinical assessments. “Being mindful and educating yourself on the real struggles that gifted [individuals] face can make you a better clinician in terms of assessing a gifted [client] and being able to determine whether their problems are the result of a disorder or are simply part of their gifted nature,” says Bishop, who chairs the NAGC Social and Emotional Development Network.

But finding training in this area can be challenging for counselors. Bishop says he had to get a doctorate in educational psychology to become formally educated in the subject. He isn’t aware of any counseling program that offers a concentration in giftedness.

The lack of adequate training is a problem because, according to Michelle Tolison, a licensed clinical mental health counselor in Charlotte, North Carolina, giftedness should be a specialty just like trauma. In fact, she believes that without being adequately trained, counselors can do extensive damage if they work with clients who are gifted.

Bishop, author of a forthcoming book on anxiety and giftedness for parents, recommends that counselors attend national and state gifted and talented conferences for opportunities “to dive into the subject, meet people in the field and get a sense of how they [as counselors] can play a role.” In addition to the resources provided by Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted (sengifted.org) and NAGC (nagc.org), Bishop and Tolison, owner and lead therapist at Dandelion Family Counseling, recommend reading Giftedness 101 (by Linda Kreger Silverman) and Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults (by James T. Webb et al.).

The gifted gap

Most gifted children are identified through testing or teacher referrals in elementary schools. The problem is that there is no one standard test used in schools to determine giftedness. On top of that, many school districts don’t test every student. Instead, they rely on teacher referrals, which, as Renae Mayes, an associate professor in the counseling program in the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies at the University of Arizona, points out, introduces bias.

To highlight this potential bias, Mayes, an ACA member whose research focuses on gifted education and special education for students of color in urban environments, poses several insightful questions: How are teachers trained to recognize giftedness? How are they trained to recognize that giftedness exists in many different kinds of bodies? Will teachers see a Black student who can’t sit still in their seat and has lots of energy as someone who is gifted and excited about learning, or will they perceive the child negatively — as someone who has a behavioral problem or wants to disrupt the learning environment?

The sad reality is that the current method of identifying giftedness has led to an underrepresentation of individuals from marginalized backgrounds in gifted programs. Researchers at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently found that in schools that feature gifted programs, only three states enroll more than 10% of their Black and Hispanic students in such programs; in 22 states, that figure stands at less than 5%.

Black and Hispanic students are also overrepresented in special education, Mayes points out. When children are put in special education, it often becomes the only lens through which they are perceived, she says, and the likelihood of them also being identified as gifted dramatically decreases. As Mayes notes, these children tend to be viewed through a deficit perspective, which often incorporates stereotypical understandings of culture and disability rather than allowing children to be seen for their gifts and talents.

According to the article “Myths and research regarding the socio-emotional needs of the gifted,” published in the September issue of The Gifted Education Review (of which Bishop serves as co-editor), individuals from different cultures may not be as readily identified as gifted. Among the reasons highlighted in the article are because these individuals’ cultural norms differ from those of the prevalent culture (e.g., what might be viewed as positive assertiveness in one culture might be perceived as too aggressive in another) or because they are gifted in their first language, which differs from the English language programs in their schools.

“There’s a big push in gifted education to modify how we identify students and make it tied to what kids need academically,” says Kircher-Morris, the president and founder of the Gifted Support Network, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the families of gifted and high-ability learners. “And schools are getting better about identifying kids younger, and they’re doing more universal screening,” which helps remove issues of bias that can arise with teacher and parent referrals.

Twice-exceptionality

Gifted individuals may also have a special need or disability. According to NAGC, the term twice-exceptional (also known as “2e”) describes gifted children who have the potential for high achievement but also have one or more disabilities, including learning disabilities, speech and language disorders, emotional/behavioral disorders, physical disabilities, autism spectrum disorder or other impairments such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“People don’t often think that individuals who are gifted can also have [a] disability,” Kircher-Morris says. “It’s kind of counterintuitive, so you end up with kids who are exceptionally cognitively able but perhaps they have ADHD or are autistic and they need a 504 plan or perhaps even an individualized education program.”

Kircher-Morris, chair-elect of the NAGC Social and Emotional Development Network, has noticed that sometimes teachers don’t feel as though they have to make accommodations in environments such as advanced placement classes. These teachers just expect that if a student is in such a class, they should be able to do the work. She often reminds educators that not taking a challenging course is not an accommodation. Twice-exceptional students still need to be challenged; they just need some help along the way.

It can be easy for counselors and other mental health professionals to miss a diagnosis of twice-exceptionality, says Kircher-Morris, who hosts the Mind Matters podcast, which focuses on the development of high-ability and twice-exceptional people across the life span. She is also the author of the forthcoming book Teaching Twice-Exceptional Learners in Today’s Classroom.

Kircher-Morris has had several clients get psychological evaluations and come back with a misdiagnosis. She recalls an example in which one of her elementary-age gifted clients was having meltdowns at school, becoming emotionally dysregulated and having trouble understanding nonverbal cues. Kircher-Morris knew the client was gifted, and she strongly suspected he was also autistic. The boy’s parents were reluctant to accept that label because of the stigma surrounding autism. It was easier for them to just say, “He’s quirky because he’s gifted.”

When Kircher-Morris finally convinced the parents to get a psychological assessment for their son, she wrote a letter to the person doing the assessment and told them the child was gifted to ensure that would be factored in. But the person doing the assessment did not specialize in giftedness and ended up diagnosing the child as depressed because sometimes when he had meltdowns, he would say, “I hate myself. I wish I could die.”

Kircher-Morris knew the client wasn’t clinically depressed. Instead, he was having big emotions and wasn’t sure how to talk about them, she says. She adds that one day of testing and questionnaires is not enough to fully understand and diagnosis a person.

Kircher-Morris still works with this student, and now that he is in high school, his autism is more pronounced. When his schedule shifted and he had to start showering in the mornings instead of the evenings, he didn’t handle it well at first. Kircher-Morris worked with him on regulating his emotions around this change. The student also has some issues with friends at school, but other people in his life often view him solely through a lens of giftedness and assume that he shouldn’t have any trouble communicating, Kircher-Morris says. They don’t realize that as a twice-exceptional adolescent, he sometimes does have certain challenges.

Trying to identify a client as twice-exceptional is even more difficult because of the concept of masking. As Tolison notes, gifted individuals with a learning disability can fall into one of three categories:

1) The individual’s advanced intellect compensates for their learning disability.

2) The learning disability or special need overshadows the person’s giftedness.

3) The giftedness and learning disability mask each other to the point that the individual appears to have average intelligence.

Research shows that twice-exceptional children are often diagnosed later than their peers because their struggles aren’t as noticeable initially, Kircher-Morris says. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders states that individuals with autism, for example, may be able to compensate for their comparative lack of social skills until social expectations exceed their abilities, she notes. A gifted child who is also autistic may not have a language delay when they are little, but by the time they get to middle school or high school, their emotional and social struggles and rigid thinking become more problematic.

“And we’ve now lost all of that time to be proactive and to support them and to help them build the skills they need to be successful, confident and happy,” Kircher-Morris adds.

To avoid mislabeling clients, Tolison, a registered play therapist who works with children who are twice-exceptional (particularly those with ADHD), advises counselors to always consider what the client’s behavior is communicating. Are they fidgeting in the classroom because they are understimulated, or is it a symptom of ADHD?

Therapists need to recognize “the blend of symptomology between gifted and diagnosis,” Tolison continues. For example, mental health professionals shouldn’t presume a client is autistic just because the client is smart and struggles to socialize with peers, she says. Instead, she advises digging deeper and considering whether the symptoms decrease or dissipate when the client is in an ideal setting, such as being around others who have interests similar to theirs.

Giftedness and special education are often seen as being opposite ends of the continuum, Mayes says, but she asserts they are separate continuums and can exist simultaneously. “The disability is the how you do something,” she explains. Even though an individual may need to do a task or skill differently or may need help, they can still possess a higher cognitive ability, notes Mayes, who has published several articles on this topic, including “College and career readiness groups for gifted Black high school students with disabilities” in The Journal for Specialists in Group Work.

Mayes recounts a real case example of how these continuums can overlap in a client: A Black student who was in a gifted program in middle school had an accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The injury caused the boy to get bad headaches if he sat for long periods of time, and his vision became blurry. But his cognitive ability was unchanged. He just needed some accommodations to help him at school. His teachers didn’t believe he was actually having headaches, however. They assumed he was just trying to get out of doing the work. The boy internalized their disbelief and told his mother the teachers were looking at him as if he were a “lazy Black kid,” a stereotype he knew was prevalent at the school. Soon thereafter, the boy’s grades started to suffer.

His mother became a big advocate for her son and pushed for a special education and gifted label for him. Even so, the school refused. It wasn’t until the boy entered high school and the school counselor joined the mother’s fight that they finally got some accommodations for the student. When the boy translated his talent for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) into a passion for band, the band director also advocated for him.

This student had to reconfigure his identity as not just a gifted student but as a gifted student with a traumatic brain injury, and he had to learn to self-advocate, Mayes says.

Asynchronous development

Gifted children’s cognitive, emotional and physical development are often asynchronous, meaning that their intellectual development outpaces their maturity or emotional development. Even though their intellectual skills are advanced, their social and emotional skills may lag behind.

“Cognitive giftedness is not necessarily the same as emotional maturity,” Kircher-Morris says. Because gifted children are often highly verbal and speak as if they are mini-adults, people incorrectly assume that their behavioral and emotional regulation skills will also be advanced, she explains. So, counselors should consider clients’ emotional development along with their cognitive development.

According to Tolison, “There can be upward of a 12-year spread between a child’s intellectual age … [and] their social/emotional age.” For example, a twice-exceptional child with ADHD could be 8 biologically, but with the intellectual capabilities of a 12-year-old and the social and emotional development of a 6-year-old. And at times, the child might have emotional outbursts that are on par with a 4-year-old, Tolison adds.

Tolison often helps her clients first understand emotional language. She finds the “anger iceberg” exercise helpful for teaching emotion identification and awareness. Because some clients might be gifted in empathy, this process is less about identifying emotions and more about learning how to express them, she adds. Tolison then helps clients focus on executive functioning skills such as planning ahead, organizing one’s thoughts, flexible thinking and demonstrating self-control — all of which can be challenging for individuals who are twice-exceptional. She may play chess or Othello with clients to help them work on impulse control, for example.

Kircher-Morris engages clients’ higher-level cognitive skills by adjusting her counseling approach. This can be as simple as using a more advanced technique with a younger client (similar to grade skipping in school), or it may involve tailoring a technique to make it more analytical and creative.

The emotion wheel, which describes eight basic emotions and their varying degrees, is a great tool for helping clients identify and name their emotions, Kircher-Morris says. But this tool may not stimulate gifted clients enough to keep them engaged, so she alters it to make it more cognitively challenging. Her emotion wheel is mostly blank. She leaves a few emotion words in different places around the wheel and works with clients to fill in the blank spaces. Sometimes they look up words in the thesaurus or online to find the “just right” word, and then clients evaluate and determine which words should go on the wheel. This activity builds on the higher-level vocabulary that gifted clients often possess, and it provides them with some autonomy in session, she says.

Letting gifted clients direct (but not dictate) sessions

Kircher-Morris finds that gifted children are often unaware that anything is “wrong.” They can be skeptical of counseling at first, especially if their parents are the ones who initiated it. And because these children are gifted, she says, they often want to know the “why” before they completely trust and participate in different counseling approaches.

For that reason, Kircher-Morris encourages these clients to ask questions and takes time to explain the psychology behind the interventions. She also allows clients to explore what works best for them and to develop their own ideas about what would be helpful.

When Kircher-Morris introduces the cognitive triangle exercise (which emphasizes the relationship between one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors), she moves beyond just drawing the diagram on a dry-erase board. She also poses a hypothetical example to help clients better understand the underlying principle behind the activity.

An example she often uses is a student who has an upcoming math test. She asks, “What uncomfortable emotions might they be experiencing?” After she and the client brainstorm some possible feelings, she asks, “If they’re experiencing those uncomfortable emotions, then what thoughts might they be having?” She draws speech bubbles on the board, and she and the client fill them in together.

Then they discuss how these thoughts might influence the hypothetical student’s behavior, where the student could intervene and how this would change the outcome. Running through this hypothetical allows clients to better understand the way the exercise works before they apply it to their own situations, Kircher-Morris says.

The fact that gifted individuals have higher-level thinking skills also means they are more likely to find fault in others’ logic, Kircher-Morris says. In fact, because these individuals are often brighter than their parents, teachers and others with whom they interact, counselors might find themselves trapped in a logical corner when a gifted client pokes holes in their reasoning. Should this happen, Kircher-Morris advises counselors not to engage in a power struggle.

“Don’t try to assert your intelligence or the information that you have because that’s going to damage the rapport,” Kircher-Morris says. Instead, her approach is to acknowledge the valid point the client has made. For example, she may say, “I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ve seen this counseling technique work with other clients, but maybe it won’t work with you. Let’s figure out what will work. Do you think any part of that activity might be relevant for you?”

Tolison agrees that gifted clients benefit from being able to have some control over their therapy, but she cautions counselors not to let them dictate the direction of treatment. She says she often has parents who come to her because they previously worked with another therapist who allowed their gifted child to take control to the point that they weren’t making progress. 

Often, gifted clients are excited to engage in a topic they are passionate about, but that can dominate the session. However, as Tolison points out, counselors can turn that passion into a therapeutic intervention. She once had a client who wanted to talk about the dwarf planet Pluto for most of their sessions. She seized on that as an opportunity to teach the client about mindfulness and social awareness.

She used the phrase “I noticed” to stop him from discussing Pluto: “I noticed you’ve talked 20 minutes now on Pluto. I love that you are sharing your passion with me, but can we take a break because I’m a little exhausted from learning that information right now. Let’s talk about something new.” This statement set a limit for the client while also helping them become more mindful of the passage of time and of other people’s feelings, Tolison says.

Tolison also encourages clinicians to be humble when working with gifted clients. “Sometimes the most therapeutic thing you can do for a profoundly gifted kid is be excited about what they can teach you because in that [process], they are also learning,” she says.

Embracing neurodiversity

Kircher-Morris’ goal is to help normalize the fact that different types of brain wiring exist. People with this brain wiring might be divergent from the norm, but that doesn’t mean something is “wrong” with them. Being gifted or twice-exceptional is simply part of the human condition. Normalizing neurodiversity will encourage people to realize that they need help and give them the courage to ask for it, she says.

Counselors are great at understanding the individual needs of clients, she continues, but unless they consider all the factors, including a person’s cognitive ability, then they may misread the situation and the client’s true needs. For example, if a cognitively gifted child is having a hard time making friends, a counselor might focus simply on helping the child build social skills and self-confidence. But then the counselor would be missing the opportunity to consider other possible factors such as bullying, the child’s high stress levels, their feelings of isolation or others’ upward expectations of them — all of which could inhibit the child’s ability to form authentic relationships, Kircher-Morris explains.

So, she advises counselors working with this population to make sure they view their clients’ struggles through a lens of giftedness. How does giftedness or twice-exceptionality influence these clients’ experiences and reality? Clinicians must also figure out how to leverage clients’ strengths with their cognitive abilities to work through any issues they are having, Kircher-Morris says.

Mayes says counselors must be more holistic in understanding clients and see them as more than their struggles or even their giftedness. “We need to take a broader approach in our professional development,” she says, “so we can start understanding more fully individuals’ identities beyond giftedness to include culture, class, gender identity, affectional identities and so much more.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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