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Why your gifted child might be misdiagnosed

Updated: Nov 21, 2022


What if your son has been prescribed medicine for a disorder but his “disorder” is in fact giftedness? What if his giftedness is seen as a problem to fix?

Misdiagnoses and Missed Diagnoses

(Spot the difference: a misdiagnosis is crying wolf when there is none and a missed diagnosis is not seeing the wolf huffing and puffing at the door).

MISDIAGNOSED

“some of the deficit based diagnosis such as ADHD, and ODD, oppositional defiance defiant disorder, all of those D words that end with the word disorder.

… emerging recognition is that what we are dealing with, is just neurodiversity that has resulted in super sensitivities or intensities - that don't require medication and that don't require a disorder label.”

clinical psychologist Mark Kluckow

You can hear my whole conversation on giftedness with Mark here.

How is it possible that giftedness can look like a disorder?


Isn’t giftedness just… a gift? Aren’t gifted kids just smart and therefore, by definition need less support than other Wonderfully Wired kids?

(I asked Mark these questions too…you really should go listen to the conversation)

In reality certain gifted traits are often mistaken for learning disabilities or behavioural problems.



  • A gifted brain, thinking fast, often translates to a body (and mouth!) that is always moving and may be misdiagnosed with impulsive or compulsive behaviour such as Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

  • A gifted child who sees, smells, hears, tastes and receives more intense stimuli through touch than others, may appear to have Sensory processing disorder (SPD).

  • Giftedness and Asperger’s share an ability to be hyperfocussed in pursuit of passions and a tendency to find social interactions difficult.

  • Anxiety, worry and highly emotional reactions aren’t uncommon in gifted kids - an incomplete assessment might diagnose anything from Bipolar disorder or Major Depression to Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

  • A gifted child is capable of extraordinary imagination and creativity; if observed at school, such a gift may look like distractibility and lack of focus typical of ADHD.


Just because behaviour is present does not mean that behaviour is debilitating.

We must always push professionals to identify whether the behaviour is actually preventing healthy functioning in social settings, school and work.


For example, hyperactivity itself is not enough to diagnose ADHD.


Only when it significantly interferes with the individual’s ability to learn, demonstrate knowledge or interact with others is the diagnosis appropriate. Some gifted kids look distracted, but when a teacher asks that child to explain what was being taught, the child is perfectly capable of doing so.


The chances are that your teacher’s (and perhaps your) temptation will be to treat symptoms and alleviate discomfort even when those symptoms don’t prevent healthy learning.


What if treating those symptoms with medication alone might actually discourage my child’s development?


Does such treatment help prevent my child, for example, from being creative?


Think about the difference between focus and distractibility.


Focus is what makes a student sit still and work quietly and stay free from distraction and daydreaming– it’s what most teachers want to see. But it turns out that the more focus you have, the less creative you are able to be.


Completely getting rid of distractibility puts out the flame of creativity!


Perhaps my biggest concern is the message a child receives when we treat what is innate in their wiring as malfunction.


We want to avoid saying:

  • You are ‘too much’ and you must get rid of your intensity

  • Your natural traits are unacceptable and need fixing

  • We like your gift of intelligence but need to squish the intensities that come with it.

When this is our message, guilt and shame result and no one wins.


Instead, we want to communicate:


  • your intensity is part of who you are - it is the flip side challenge of your amazing gift

  • “Your brain is different and I get that this is hard for you. That doesn't mean there's something wrong with you! ” (Mark Kluckow)

  • because you think and feel more intensely, you will sometimes experience more discomfort than others - But you have the ability to get better at managing



When this is our message, children get to know their strengths and weaknesses. True education is developing both the gifts and addressing the challenges to help all children grow and thrive.




This isn’t just about Medication

Gifted kids have special emotional, social and behavioural support needs.

Anxiety, even when it doesn’t qualify as a disorder, still needs support. Severe sensory discomfort cannot just be ignored! Our children need empathy, skills from us and practical help from mental health providers.


I like Steven Covey’s principle: Begin with the end in mind.


When I talk to my daughter about doing the hard work of learning to manage and challenge anxiety, we remember that the sooner she can learn how her mind and emotions work, the better. The stakes will only get bigger as she gets older.


My intention is to find her the support she needs; not just to say ‘no’ to medication!


A wholistic response involving therapy like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a slower road but offers greater rewards in the long run.





A MISSED DIAGNOSIS

Sometimes a diagnosis of a learning disorder can be missed too.


“… there are also many children that aren't on medication that need to be;” explains Mark, “… there are some children whose neurodiversity goes beyond giftedness and the challenges of a very fast working brain, to organic brain issues and neurological and biological processes that create huge problems for children.

In these cases medication is useful, carefully titrated and carefully monitored and done in conjunction with good cognitive behavioural therapy.”

What is Twice Exceptional?

Twice Exceptional (2E) people are intellectually gifted with at least one neurological difference.


2E kids might hide their need for support by compensating with their giftedness in classrooms and therefore go unseen and unsupported!


Dr. Devon MacEachron writes a wonderful blog stating the top ten reasons gifted and 2E kids get misdiagnosed.


She includes many of the reasons I’ve already mentioned and includes a lack of training in giftedness in clinicians.


Kluckow explains that in many parts of the world it is GPs that diagnose and medicate children without the needed training to do so.


I love that Dr. Devon includes that clinicians sometimes misdiagnose because they don’t listen to parents enough!


“I find that (parents) often are the first to notice something is up – and the most persistent to find solutions. But parents are really good at worrying. When they “know” or "feel" something is up, they should trust their instincts.”


I WANT YOU TO NOT BE INTIMIDATED BY PROFESSIONALS!

If you are a worried parent, unsure whether or not you should seek professional help with your gifted child, download this free pdf : When to seek professional help for your gifted child.



It’s so important that we choose the right professional to assess our child that we know or suspect is gifted.

Questions to ask when seeking a mental health professional

  • Does this professional treat gifted children, or are they willing to learn more about giftedness?

  • Does he/she believe that gifted kids have particular challenges that others don’t face?

  • Does he/she consider giftedness when looking at behaviours often associated with ADHD?

  • How does he/she distinguish between gifted and non-gifted kids?

  • Does he/she involve parents in the treatment of their child?

(Adapted from davidsongifted.org)


I know what you are thinking and the answer is: YES! You can ask these questions before and during a session with a clinician.

The professional’s job is to distinguish whether behaviour is caused by mental pathology or simply part of your child’s normal wiring. You can remind the pro that the behaviour may look similar but the cause and cure are different.

Watch out for treatment aiming to make your child comply and fit in: Your priority is your child’s growth not the convenience of teachers and those who don’t understand.


You have both permission and a mandate to be, what might feel, pushy. No one knows your child like you do!


Now that you know that many gifted kids get misdiagnosed and that many diagnoses are missed, you are able to make sure the same doesn’t happen to your family by discussing these things openly and intelligently with the health professional you choose.


Still wondering if your child might be gifted? Here is a checklist.


Ready to take on the challenge and joy of raising a gifted kid? Watch this video teaching on Intensity in gifted kids. https://www.wonderfullywired.online/challenges



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