Children who are born with extraordinary intellectual capabilities are, by definition, rare. Most often, they are defined by IQ scores of 130+, which puts them in the top 5% of the population. However, to treat those above 130 as though they are homogenous can be a grave mistake, though an unfortunately frequent one, with serious social consequences for the child.
Statistically speaking, the intellect a child of IQ 133 is as different from a child of IQ 100 (33 points) as that same perfectly average child is from a child with an IQ of 67. Almost no one would suggest that the latter child would benefit from spending all their time in a classroom of students that intellectually different from them — so the same is therefore true for the gifted child. (Most people with no personal experience in this territory haven’t ever had that pointed out to them, by the way — it’s a delicious little morsel to toss out if you ever find yourself mired in a “gifted education is elitist” discussion, and quite the conversation-stopper.)
Importantly, though, this understanding implies something that often goes unsaid even within the confines of GiftedLand: similarly, a brilliant child of IQ 166 is equally distant from the aforementioned gifted child of IQ 133…and a child with a gobsmacking IQ of 199 is just as removed from the IQ 166 child, who is already rare to an astonishing degree.
This chart, from Australian researcher and expert on the profoundly gifted Miraca U. M. Gross, reflects the relative rarity of these children. As you can see, profoundly gifted (PG) children are practically vanishingly rare in the population: [a]
|Mildly (or basically) Gifted||115 – 129||1:6 – 1:44|
|Moderately Gifted||130 – 144||1:44 – 1:1,000|
|Highly Gifted||145 – 159||1:1,000 – 1:10,000|
|Exceptionally Gifted||160 – 179||1:10,000 – 1:1 million|
|Profoundly Gifted||180+||Fewer than 1:1 million|
Just as a person with 20/300 vision needs a different eyeglasses prescription than one with 20/70 vision, children with extremely advanced intellectual capabilities need different things from the world around them — and indeed, it is the whole world, since their entire experience of life is qualitatively different from both moderately gifted and nongifted people. One need they share with their neurotypical peers, however, is friends — and this is where the relative rarity of such children can be a gigantic hurdle to overcome. If no one else on the playground cares about Mersenne primes, or no one else in Kindergarten has read Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, with whom can the PG child be friends? With what companions can they share interests, ideas, and questions? This is perhaps the most visible and most acute vulnerability of the profoundly gifted, especially in childhood — the difficulty in finding someone with whom they can make a genuine and unselfconscious connection.
Jennifer Harvey Sallin, a psychologist and coach for the gifted, offers an excellent example of the experience of PG kids (who she calls “high+ gifted”) interacting with other children who are mildly or moderately gifted (who she calls “mild+”):
Many high+ gifted clients report to me that they might meet a fellow gifted person (mild+, in this case) and feel energized by the synergy of thought they share with the other person; however, sooner or later, they come to feel quite or very disappointed that the other person’s openness of mind and curiosity seemed to stop at some arbitrary point. It is as if the questioning and exploration became “enough” for their peer, while for the high+ gifted person, he was “just getting started.” For high+ gifted people, this “arbitrary stopping point” of curiosity and questioning of mild+ gifted people seems to happen much too quickly in relationships. Just as a mild+ gifted person seems to feel they have to shift down gears, hold back or go slow with those of average cognition, so too do the high+ gifted feel with their mild+ gifted peers after a certain point.[b]
This insightful passage describes how a PG child can feel a gap between themselves and a moderately gifted child — a space as uncomfortable as the gap between a gifted child and a neurotypical child. The very real, qualitative difference that marks the PG experience may actually feel to them like a cultural chasm that can never be bridged — and because a PG brain is such an exceedingly rare thing, it is easy to empathize with this position. After all, it’s probably true that the PG child has never met anyone else like himself/herself, statistically speaking, unless someone has made a special effort to make that happen.
Imagine you are in 2nd grade, and you have an encounter with a child your age in the library. You comment on her Harry Potter shirt, and show her your Harry Potter watch, and then you both have a lovely, “I love Harry Potter, too!” moment. Then you share comments about the movies vs. the books, and agree that while the you prefer the books, of course, there was something about seeing Cedric Diggory die onscreen in “Goblet of Fire” that was especially affecting. So now you get another level of relief and a thrill that has your brain saying, “Finally! There’s someone like me!” Now the two of you are clearly connecting about something that not everyone cares about, and definitely not as much as you do, and you’re excited because you’ve never met another kid who has read Harry Potter, much less has formed intelligent, articulate opinions on the subtleties of the film adaptations. This is clearly a wonderful, warm social moment for you. Hooray!
But then there’s a distressing development. You bring up your favorite area of the Potterverse, which is wandlore — the stories behind all the different types of wands and what magical core they have, what wood they are crafted from, and why those materials are crucial to the particular strengths of the magic they can perform. You’re an Ollivander fan, and you are hoping the two of you can agree on that because — really? Who could like Gregorovitch? After the whole Elder Wand fiasco, there’s really just no way…
You’ve lost this new friend, you can tell — it’s a blank look you recognize, the one that means, “Um, what are you going on about?” Because now you’ve gone too far into The Thing — you’re clearly well past the part of the story that the other child is interested in, and rather than leaning into this deeper angle on the shared topic and being fascinated by it (as you are about nearly everything under the sun), you have evidently reached the endpoint of their engagement with the topic… but you’ve got so much more to talk about!
You can imagine how very, very disappointing this moment could feel — all the more so since it started out so well. If you’ve never met someone like you, and you are keenly aware of how different you are from others (as PG children nearly always are), when you do meet someone who seems like “your people,” your excitement would be completely understandable — as would your disappointment when your commonalities run out abruptly and unexpectedly and you feel that, yet again, you are too different to have a “real” connection with someone.
Like all of us, they need to “find their tribe.”
It is understandable, in these circumstances, that a profoundly gifted child could be lonely. What we may not expect is that they can actually intentionally become socially isolated as a means of self-protection: after all, if they are choosing solitary pursuits, they’re not required to tamp down who they really are or adjust their behavior to fit with social norms, efforts which can be both socially taxing and emotionally exhausting. Keeping to themselves insulates them from the possibility of feeling alien in the company of other children their age with whom they are “supposed to” be friends.
On the opposite (and sunnier) side of this coin, however, is a promising and exciting prospect. This very experience is exactly what primes them for deep and abiding friendships when they can spend time with others like themselves. When profoundly gifted children have opportunities to meet and interact, they often bond very quickly — and at surprising depth. In fact, “they can end up talking about theories of the origins of the universe or the concept of numbers or any other complex puzzle [while still] barely knowing each other’s names.”[c] Through the wonders of technology, of course, they can stay connected even if they live far apart, an innovation that can allow them to maintain these precious relationships.
Being an exceptionally gifted child means, by definition, to be unusual in the purest sense of the term: not usual, outside the norm. This very quality that has such happy prospects for intellectual achievement can have deleterious social effects with a lasting impact on their ability to make friends. Through the efforts of parents, teachers, and mentors who recognize that capability and actively seek out opportunities for them to meet — to work and play together, to share passionate intellectual interests, and to experience real social connection — they can be made to feel as though that which makes them different indeed makes them special rather than isolated or strange.
Such interactions allow for a perspective shift in the self-concept and self-esteem of a profoundly gifted child which can make all the difference in their experience of growing up with a remarkable mind. It is this vision for them that must continue to propel us to seek out or create opportunities for gifted children to be together to play, learn, and explore.
Like all of us, they need to “find their tribe,” because — whether their passion is Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or extinct birds or the psychology of music or astrophysics — these students need social connection, and benefit profoundly from developing meaningful relationships in which they can actually be themselves. After all, even a wand with a phoenix feather at its core cannot replace, nor conjure up, a true friendship.
[a] “Exceptionally and Profoundly Gifted Students: An Underserved Population,” from Miraca U. M. Gross, Ph.D., is available on HoagiesGifted.org, as a reprint with permission of Open Space Communications: http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/underserved.htm. It was originally published in Understanding Our Gifted, Winter 2000.
[b] Jennifer Harvey Sallin, “High, Exceptional, and Profound Giftedness,” on The International Gifted Consortium’s website: https://giftedconsortium.com/high-exceptional-profound-giftedness/.
[c] This on-point description is also from the Sallin article, above.