Experiencing life differently
Three 8-year-olds are sitting side-by-side,
watching a production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” None is fidgeting. All are
engaged in the show. The first child enjoys the music and the dancing, and
understands the basic story line. The second child is deeply aware of the
stage lighting and set design choices, is impressed with how the choreography
compliments the score, and laughs out loud when a character, who is not
important to the scene, reaches his finger through his (empty) glasses rim to
scratch his eye. The third child is riveted to the story throughout, and moved
to tears when Tevya announces that his daughter is “dead” to him, due to
her choosing to marry outside of her faith. After the show, child one is
happy, and ready to go out with the group for ice cream. Child two is willing
to go for ice cream, as long as the adults are willing to engage in a
conversation about the stagecraft. Child three feels overwhelmed. This child
is not ready to go out, nor to socialize. Child three is filled with thoughts
and emotions regarding the possibility that choices people make could earn
them ostracism from their family, and, as if that weren’t enough is also
wondering about how families deal with changing times, and how times will
change in this lifetime.
The average person takes in, analyzes, and
synthesizes experience in proportion to their general age and emotional
abilities. The “gifted” person may take in levels of experience that they
are not able to process evenly. They are taking in, analyzing, and
synthesizing experiences out of proportion to their general age and emotional
abilities. This disproportionate system creates what is generally called asynchronous
development. That means the gifted person is likely to mature faster
in some ways, and slower in others. In the area of their gifts, they may be
years ahead of their peers, while simultaneously lagging years behind
in other areas, particularly in the emotional realm.
One’s emotional age is often not the same as
one’s physical age. People often do not “act their age” for a variety of
reasons. One common reason is the ratio of processed to unprocessed experience
with which a person must contend. The first child in the “Fiddler on the
Roof” example has processed the show and is ready to move on to the next
experience—the child took in no more than was immediately processable. The
second child still has processing to do, but is willing to combine the
processing with an outing for ice cream—this is the moderately gifted child.
The third child is so overwhelmed with experience that the only comfortable
alternative is to block off any more for a while. The third child is at
capacity, and must process these experiences before allowing in more.
The first child is an easy kid. Culturally, this
child is normative and fits in well. While there are some gifted children like
this, they are the minority. In this example, this does not happen to be a gifted child.
The second child has very specific needs. This
child is unlikely to find many age-mates who will be able to hold the kind of
conversation this one needs in order to process properly. This is an extroverted
child, who is gifted, with particular strength in creative
areas. As long as the adults around this child are willing to engage in these
conversations, this child will do fine. If the child is shut out…if the
adults in this child’s life tell the child to “find friends your own
age,” and the child doesn't have access to anyone the same age who can keep
up, this child will quickly become unhappy and overwhelmed.
The third child is highly or profoundly gifted.
This child consistently takes in more than anyone else around (including the
adults). This child’s
ability to take in experience, and limited ability to keep it out (to say
nothing of the child’s internal experience which also needs
processing) is literally one in a million or rarer. This child is also an introvert—very
common amongst the highly gifted. This means that even if there were an
intellectual peer around, this child would need to process internally before
sharing. This child is often accused of being unnecessarily sensitive. The
internal workings of this child are not shared, and the level of experience of
which this child is capable is qualitatively different than virtually
everyone. People tend to be mystified by, and eventually angry at this
child’s behavior, which is commonly viewed as anti-social as well as
immature. Were this child in a group of
true peers, other profoundly gifted introverts, the social and maturity levels
would look perfectly fine, even advanced.
While some part of emotional maturity reflects the
overall level of experience a person has, a large part of emotional maturity
comes from processing that experience. The processing sorts the experience,
culling and organizing useful aspects, and releasing dispensable ones in such
a way as to not leave excess, unprocessed bits floating around to distract and
disrupt the mind. Each person’s processing speed, style, and ability are unique to
them. When experience is matched to processing capability, development is
likely to be consistent: emotional maturity and intellectual ability will
develop in sync. When experience exceeds processing speed or ability,
development will become uneven, asynchronous. The larger the backlog of
unprocessed experience, the slower the emotional growth. Furthermore, for the
person with a backlog of unprocessed experience, new experience may be
perceived as an irritant, or even as an attack, to which the person reacts
This is not to say that the more gifted a person is, the
less maturity we can expect to find! To the contrary, when not
overwhelmed, the more gifted a person is, the more likely they will show
examples of surprising levels of maturity. When overwhelmed, though, it is
common for the highly gifted person to react in a way that seems
"immature" compared to how they generally are, or what you expect
Funnel and Cylinder
For analogy, imagine each person represented by a
cylinder on a base. Its height is representative of the person’s age.*
open at the top, and this is where experience falls in, like rain. In the
analogy, if the cylinder were used to measure rainfall, it would do so
accurately. That is, if the cylinder collected one inch of rain, we would
confidently say one inch of rain had fallen. It is a standard cylinder. But
what if the top of a cylinder is a funnel? Then the wider the funnel, the
faster the cylinder fills with rain. Under otherwise identical conditions of
rain, when the standard cylinder is filled to one inch, the cylinder with the
wide-mouthed funnel will have filled higher.
After some sunshine, one inch of rain has
evaporated from each cylinder. It begins to rain again. The standard cylinder
has processed all its rain before the next storm. Not so the funneled
cylinder. If the cylinder is too short, or the storms come too close together,
the funneled cylinder is more prone to overflowing, even with gentle rain if
it continues long enough. In the worst storms, the standard cylinder might
also eventually overflow…but the funneled cylinder will overflow much
earlier. It’s easy to see how the funneled cylinder is “more sensitive”
than the standard cylinder, when exposed to the same conditions.
Applying the analogy to the special needs of the
All young children are prone to times when
experience exceeds their ability to process, and they become overwhelmed. If a
child is 4-years-old, they have had only 4 years to learn to process their experience.
The gifted child, however, is more aware, more capable of taking in life
experience (and more able to independently create internally produced
experience). If a 4-year-old child has as much cognitive, physical, and/or
emotional experience as a 6 or 8 year old, that child will tend to be
emotionally “immature.” That is, no matter how brilliant the child, they
will still have more backlog of unprocessed experience than other 4-year-olds,
and will become over-stimulated that much more easily.
The gifted child takes in more experience than
average. This doesn’t make the gifted child necessarily “better” than
the “average.” To connect the analogy…most folks want a rain gage that
measures accurately. They want to set the cylinder out, and not be bothered by
irregularities and overflows. Now, if you’re looking to collect rain,
you’ll want the cylinder with the funnel on top—but don’t expect it to
measure rain accurately, and be prepared for it to fill up and overflow.
To continue with the analogy…
As a person grows older, their ability to take in
experience and knowledge grows, but it grows at a rate inconsistent with their
age. In this analogy, when referring to the gifted, the size of the “gift”
is the size of the funnel. At times a person’s “funnel” might be so
large compared to their “cylinder” that they are overwhelmed by almost any
“rainfall.” Think about age 2 or age 14 (most kids are at their most
sensitive at those times). At other times, their cylinder
will grow faster, and be significantly more able to accommodate large storms.
Just because children go through stages where they can
accommodate more “storms” doesn’t mean that is their new base level.
Over the course of time, if their abilities to take in again outstrips
their abilities to process, they will again become more
“sensitive,” more likely to “overflow.” There is high correlation
between “the size of the funnel” and developmental consistency. Therefore,
the more gifted a person is, the more asynchrony they are likely to
experience, and the longer they are likely to take before reaching an
“adult” level of emotional maturity.
While the “child prodigy” who becomes the
25-year-old CEO might be the popular myth of the highly gifted, in reality we
see a high proportion of “late bloomers” amongst the highly gifted. And
the young CEO’s that do exist, are most often the products of an emotionally
supported childhood, combined with at least one very understanding mentor.
(Gifted people need mentors!) Perhaps late bloomers are still doing the work
of “processing” before they intentionally create a whole new adult arena
If someone is gifted, and their gifts are
intellectual or academic in nature, it is reasonably easy to apply
standardized tests to see if the person is gifted.
Standardized tests, such as the Stanford-Binet, or WISC, etc., have been
normed against large populations, and have been shown to have statistical
accuracy. They can be tremendously useful. But not all gifted individuals
conform to the standard measures. For a variety of reasons, these tests may
underestimate or entirely miss the giftedness of an individual. So if a
standardized test is not always reliable for assessing giftedness, just what
is the definition of giftedness?
It is important to know if you or your child is
gifted, even if the word itself seems uncomfortable. As described above,
gifted people have special needs. It is painfully common that gifted people,
their families, and their teachers are unaware of the unusual emotional needs
of the gifted. As in the example at the beginning of this paper, the gifted
person who has their needs met will be more fulfilled and more productive in
life. More fulfilled because they get the time and resources necessary to
process efficiently. More productive because once experience is processed,
then the person has time and energy to devote to applying their abilities.
If intelligence tests are not a reliable way to
define giftedness, how do we spot it? There are a variety of checklists and
descriptions available, but they generally come down to
four traits. The “gifted” person is more awash in experience than usual,
and this means they are persistently:
more information (large funnel)
more emotional stimulation (filling up with unprocessed experience)
more connections (creating more experience by their internal workings)
more options (having to apply more emotional energy to deal with the
results of all that processed experience)
While all gifted people are taking in and
processing more experience than 95% of the population, what kind of
experience they are prone to taking in may or may not be applicable to
academics, or only to one area of academics. An artist’s “funnel” might
take in visual experience: color, placement, pattern, movement, etc. An
athlete’s “funnel” might take in physical experience: direction,
pressure, speed, body position, etc. A mathematician’s “funnel” might
take in pattern experience: number patterns, visual patterns, musical
patterns, etc. A writer’s “funnel” might take in human or natural
experience: personal interactions, natural beauty, quirks, style, etc. The
artist, the athlete, the mathematician, and the writer may all be gifted, or
even profoundly gifted, and yet their “composite” scores on a standard
intelligence test may underestimate or even miss their giftedness.
Even as a small child, the athlete may be
constantly overwhelmed with physical stimulation and experience. Any touch
that isn’t readily categorized may be experienced as dangerous. This child
will take years before realizing that few people possess this heightened
sensitivity to the physical senses. Without proper direction and
self-understanding, this child is unlikely to fit in well with peers, or to
feel comfortable being so different than everyone else.
*Several people have commented that this is overly
simplistic. True. It is. To make the analogy more robust, would be to expand
it beyond the point of a quick read. And this IS supposed to be the
kind of thing a person can give someone, to get a quick sense of perspective.
Suffice to say, if the analogy were fuller, there would be a variety of
filters for the funnel, widths for the cylinder, types of precipitation, etc. If you just can't stand
the simplicity, then you are probably gifted. I'll be happy to get an email from you, with your written version of
extensions and details that would make this analogy better. When I get a few
good ones, I'll set up a page, and link to them.
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Serving the Gifted
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