On Rainbows and Mantis Shrimp: A layperson’s perspective on ADHD and the misdiagnosis of gifted brains
Is your child “just” gifted, or twice exceptional? Does the diagnosis he’s received make sense with the boy you see every day? Does the lack of a diagnosis make sense with the girl you love and live with? Gifted kids can be misdiagnosed. Some are diagnosed as having learning differences such as ADHD or High Functioning Autism, but are really just gifted, or bored and gifted kids. Others are not diagnosed, when they struggle with Executive Functioning (EF), social skills or other learning challenges.
I have a (highly unscientific) theory to share: many gifted children who are diagnosed with ADHD often do not, in fact, have ADHD, but are instead doing things with their brains that nongifted science does not recognize and therefore labels as “disorder” behavior.
Let me be clear: there are gifted children who do have ADHD; their ability to navigate life successfully is negatively impacted by a difficulty in keeping their attention where they want and/or need to keep it. I am not asserting that gifted children (or anyone, really) cannot have ADHD or that ADHD does not exist. Instead, I am suggesting that there are a number of gifted children who are misdiagnosed with ADHD when what they actually have is a gifted brain.
We know that gifted children are neurologically different from nongifted children in that they have more neurological connections in their brains. It is these literal connections that allow them to make more figurative connections (insights) between different ideas and thoughts. This more plentiful “wiring” means that when a gifted child learns something new, the thought bounces around in the brain, triggering other thoughts in a kind of cerebral chain reaction — much more so than in neurotypical children, who do make connections to things they already know, but not the myriad links that a gifted brain can (and often does) create.
For some time, I have thought of this as my “bandwidth” theory, which relies on analogies from computers and physics as well as a little neurology — and a mantis shrimp.
The Bandwidth Theory
The term “bandwidth” originally meant a range of radio frequencies, but Merriam-Webster will tell you that it also means “the capacity for data transfer,” which we have adapted today to mean “how many things one can handle at once,” in a clear analogy to the amount of data streaming in and out of our computers and smartphones. It is this sense that I am thinking of, and it’s a pretty simple analogy: bandwidth = the amount of stuff one can ponder/think about/have mental capability to consider, generally simultaneously.
My theoretical model is this: that gifted brains have a wider bandwidth than nongifted brains, and that can lead to a misunderstanding of how attention works in those brains.
An example from physics might make this clearer. The human eye can perceive colors between wavelengths of about 390-700 nanometers, which means it has a “bandwidth” of 310nm. Our understanding of what constitutes normal vision would therefore be focused on the ability to see everything from violet to red, and would include neither infrared nor ultraviolet.
In this analogy, it’s as though gifted brains can see a wider version of the spectrum which includes infrared and ultraviolet on either end, while nongifted brains cannot perceive those colors.
Therefore, if a gifted person describes things in the ultraviolet or infrared parts of the spectrum, the nongifted person cannot understand how they can keep those in mind while considering the rainbow. In this model, a gifted person might be able to see colors from 340-750nm, or +50nm on either side of what an average person can see.
It is this 100nm of additional capability that creates the space for misdiagnosis of ADHD. If a nongifted person were to pick up a bit of the infrared, they would have to “move” their 310nm-width field of vision 25nm to the right. In so doing, they would shift away from being able to see violet altogether, so now their understanding ends with blue. There is no room for them to see violet and infrared at the same time; it’s simply not physically possible.
This difference in ability might be perceived (even by the well-intentioned) as a “disorder,” because a nongifted person talking about infrared would not be able to see violet at the same time. If they can see infrared, they are not able to see violet — and they are therefore violet-deficient. Violet Deficiency Disorder, we’d call it (rather than Extraordinary Infrared Vision), and VDD would be a valid understanding of a normal range of vision: you can’t see both infrared and violet. It’s just not what people can do.
In fact, there’s a delicious example of this phenomenon from actual science. While humans have three photoreceptors to perceive color (red, green, and blue), the mantis shrimp has twelve.
In this excerpt from a National Geographic post describing the mantis shrimp’s visual abilities, the tenor of the comments focuses on how a three-receptor creature describes the twelve-receptor creature as impossibly bizarre (italics are the author’s; bold is my own emphasis):
Most people have three types of light-detecting cells, or photoreceptors, in their retinas. These are sensitive to red, green and blue light, respectively. Birds, reptiles and many fish have a fourth photoreceptor that detects ultraviolet light. Four is plenty. Mathematical models tell us that you only need four receptors, maybe five, to effectively encode the colours within that range.
The mantis shrimp has twelve different photoreceptors.
Eight of these cover the parts of the spectrum that we can see, while four cover the ultraviolet region. That seems like a ludicrous excess. If four or five receptors are all an animal needs, “why on earth do stomatopods need 12 channels?” says Justin Marshall, who led the new study.
… “With 12 receptors, you’d think that they can detect colours much better than any other animal,” says Marshall. “Actually, they’re much worse!”
…“We certainly would have predicted a much more competent sense of color discrimination than this!”
They must be using the information from those receptors in a very strange way.[i]
The passages I have put in bold are important here: this is clearly an article written from a three-photoreceptor creature’s point of view and includes all of its attendant biases.
Here is an entirely different way to think about the mantis shrimp’s amazing vision:
Clearly, National Geographic author Ed Yong is judging the mantis shrimp by a set of norms that simply do not apply to it, and his language reflects that, describing the shrimp’s surfeit of visual capacity as “ludicrous” or “very strange” rather than “mantis-shrimp specific.” Matthew Inman from The Oatmeal has a very different — and more appreciative, if cheeky — perspective on the same information.[iii]
Along those same lines, if we know that gifted brains are neurologically different, we acknowledge that their brains are outside the norm. So why would we determine whether a gifted child has ADHD or not by comparing them to mental health norms?
Different, Not Deficient
Attention can be imagined to work the same way: there is a common understanding of the number of things one can consider or pay attention to at one time. Anyone who can handle MORE than that could seem to be “all over the place” in their thinking relative to an average person because any kind of thinking that includes more is impossible: “you just can’t be thinking of all of those things at once — if I were doing that, I’d be flitting from one thing to another,” which is distraction, not expanded consideration.
Here’s an example of what that would look like in a school environment: imagine that a social studies teacher says to her class of 4th graders, “The Titantic was an ‘unsinkable’ ship that sailed from England bound for New York, in 1912, which hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage.”
A bright but neurotypical student recognizes the story, of course, and thinks of:
- the movie
- a detailed cinematic visual of an iceberg next to a sinking boat, and people in lifeboats
- the Titanic exhibit with the huge block of ice that his parents took him to see at the Natural History Museum
- that he followed one passenger’s personal story through the exhibit — she was from steerage class and drowned in the end.
The gifted student recognizes the story, too, but thinks very differently. Instead of conjuring up only the literal information she already knows (which may be substantial), the thought sort of ricochets around in her brain, pulling up all kinds of information from all kinds of places, some of which may seem only tangentially related:
- Titanic — that’s a synonym for “gigantic,” and when used like that, it is not capitalized;
- Capital T Titanic — makes her think of the Titans, the Greek gods — oh! Is that why the word means gigantic? Probably so!
- Iceberg — their mass is mostly underwater, she remembers reading; I wonder if the part underwater is what hit the ship? Surely they wouldn’t have run into it if they could see it, would they?
- Unsinkable — what kind of innovations had the shipbuilders included that made them so confident that the boat wouldn’t sink? It was a long time ago, so I wonder what kind of engineering technology would ensure positive buoyancy? I wonder if it failed because of something to do with the water being so cold (connection back to iceberg)?
- England to New York — I thought it was mostly Americans who died on the ship; does that mean most of them made a voyage by ship to England so they could be on the first sailing coming back? That’s a dreadful irony, isn’t it? Oh — how did they get home? I could never get on another boat again, ever. Did any of them refuse to travel by boat ever again?
- I wonder if there was really a woman with a big fancy necklace on the real Titanic or if they made that up for the movie.
If these two students could project directly from their brain onto a movie screen, we would very clearly see the difference, wouldn’t we?[iv] While both of them have a little bit of knowledge about the Titanic, one of them has a mostly linear thought process, and almost all the ideas generated in his brain by that one introductory sentence from the teacher are directly related to the story she has just introduced.
By contrast, the other student’s thoughts are “all over the place”: they include references to engineering, and science, and irony, and gemstones, and Greek mythology, and only some of them are obviously related to the topic at hand. Her teacher could be easily forgiven for thinking it was scattered, disorganized, and confusing, especially if the next thing out of the child’s mouth is, “Like the Greek gods?” which has no immediately obvious connection to the Titanic. (This is one of the reasons why teachers of the gifted need to have training and hands-on experience — a teacher unfamiliar with these children would likely feel derailed and conclude that the student was not paying attention.)
So if a gifted child is having trouble in school, and her parents take her to a pediatrician, psychologist, or neuropsychologist, it’s entirely possible that she will appear distracted or inattentive when, in fact, her brain is paying fierce attention to — and actively engaging with — the topic, as she is during the social studies lesson above. She’s making connections to things she already knows, just like her nongifted classmate; it’s just that the sheer number of them plus the fact that many of them are a step or two removed from what the teacher said (which is actually advanced abstract reasoning) that looks to an outside observer like a meandering mind.
It’s fairly easy to see that if you had to attribute a diagnosis of ADHD to one of these children, you’d likely pick the one who wandered from mythology to shipbuilding and back again rather than staying on the explicit topic of the Titanic.
So what does this conception of attention in the gifted brain mean? Does it make a difference in the way we educate gifted children? I think it very well might.
In fact, this perspective demonstrates how very necessary it is for teachers to have an understanding of the kinds of thinking gifted children can (and often do) do. A teacher who expects one kind of response from a student and instead gets something very different might be tempted to think of that “outlier” as deficient or broken, a completely understandable point of view. However, if that teacher has been trained in the ways in which gifted children might think differently — divergently, but in a highly connective and sophisticated way — then it is more likely that the teacher will be more accepting of answers they don’t expect. Instead of thinking, “this kid is clearly checked out and not engaged in what we are doing,” the teacher might instead think — or even ask — “how did you get there from here?” and allow the student to explain their thinking.
Is this a big difference? Well, yes and no. No, it’s not a huge difference like a complete sea change in the way that teacher instructs the class. That’s the same teacher, who will teach the same lessons and the same material in the same way.
But at the same time, it’s a massive change in the way that student experiences that same classroom. If the teacher asks for an explanation, or is open to listening to the kinds of unexpected connections that the gifted brain can make from one idea to a (seemingly totally unrelated) different idea… isn’t that, in fact, a massive difference in the way that classroom feels to that student? I’d argue that it feels completely new to a student who is used to having his or her ideas routinely go unheard.
So, yes, it matters. What if different thinking is not necessarily disordered thinking? It matters. If we judge gifted children by norms established by (and for) average children, then aren’t we measuring them by a standard that doesn’t apply? What if they are mantis shrimp rather than violet deficient? It can make all the difference in the world for them to be taught (and parented) by people who see their capabilities as enhanced rather than defective.
We are happy to participate in the Hoagies’ Gifted Blog Hop. Please read more articles on Misdiagnosis here.
[i] The National Geographic article is here, and it links to the original 2016 scholarly article by Thoen, How, Choiu & Marshall which evaluated and described the mantis shrimp’s vision and use of color vision.
[ii] This visual is from the delightful (and insightful) explanation of the mantis shrimp’s visual capabilities in this post from The Oatmeal, one of the blog’s most popular posts ever. I highly recommend it if you enjoy irreverent nerdiness.
[iii] Educators will probably recognize these two descriptions as a deficit-based perspective and a strengths-based one.
[iv] To be fair, the number of ideas generated in any brain is primarily driven by processing speed, which may lag substantially behind fluid reasoning and abstract thinking; in gifted children, in particular, a large such discrepancy can have a significant impact on IQ scores. In this instance, we will assume that the gifted child in question has a processing speed which is commensurate with her other cognitive abilities and so does not impair her ability to generate thoughts in response to the teacher.