Monday, July 23, 2012

Why I Use the Term "Gifted"

In the world of education, there aren’t many terms more controversial than “gifted”. Gifted is used to define children who fall on the higher ends of an IQ scale – often times starting with those over the 90th percentile. But, gifted is more than that – gifted individuals often learn quite differently than their peers. Statistically speaking, most people need at least 7 repetitions of information to learn something new; the average gifted child needs just one to two repetitions. Gifted children tend to be emotionally intense, and highly asynchronous in their development.  In fact, this asynchronous development is the most common reason for needing gifted education. The education system in the U.S. and for much of the world is an age based system.  Learning is based on year of birth and it geared towards the statistical average for any age range. Individuals that fall outside of that range suffer. Gifted children don’t just fall outside the range; they often cross several different ranges depending on subject and social, emotional, and learning factors.
Let’s take for instance learning disability. Many gifted children have learning disabilities, but they often go undetected and even if suspected, they go untreated. Why? Let’s take a look at my eldest son to discover this answer. My eldest was diagnosed with dyslexia. He wasn’t diagnosed in an educational institution, but by a private psychologist who specializes in working with gifted children. Upon her advice, we had his eyes tested by a developmental ophthalmologist. During this testing it was discovered my son had severe deficiencies in his vision. His field of vision was extremely compromised – he couldn’t read words on a page because his field of vision was so small, he couldn’t see an entire word at one time. His eye tracking and eye teaming were so poor he was seeing a completely independent picture in each eye. He still had his Moro Reflex, which should have disappeared before his first birthday. This severely affected his gross and fine motor skills making writing difficult and it also heightened his emotional and physical intensity to such levels that even wearing a pair of socks or a shirt with a tag on the collar painful. Why is this significant? My son was in a traditional education setting at the time of his diagnosis.  When we first discussed with his teacher and the school administrator that we thought there might be some issues with his reading – they looked at my husband and I as if we had two heads. “He is the best reader in the class!” was the answer we were given. This was significant for them because they had grade skipped him into a Kindergarten classroom, were we not in a private school he would have been in a preschool classroom, unable to start Kindergarten for another year. To their credit, he was reading a year and a half above the K grade level when he was formally tested. However, this was the reading level for a statistically average child, a “normal” child. The school took the “all kids are gifted” approach and didn’t take seriously the plight of nuisance faced by gifted children.  My child didn’t just have a learning disability; he had a disability that was severely affecting his everyday life. However, his disability was also very correctable.  Had my husband and I not had our child officially identified as “gifted” when he was just 15 months old, we might have missed the signs we were picking up when he was four and five years old. Had we not devoured as much information we could have about gifted children – how they learn, how they function, how they are “different”, we may not have been able to press against the crowd and seek help. Seek help even when the educational professionals said we were making a big deal out of a “normal” childhood issue as he began to reverse even more letters.
We are now in the home stretch of his therapy. His emotional intensity has lessened; he can wear anything in his closet – including socks and shirts with tags, all without pain. His Moro Reflex is gone and he learned to swim in just two weeks – now brave enough to ask about jumping off the diving board at our local pool. When he still had his Moro Reflex he couldn’t get his arms and legs to work properly enough to learn to swim – a life skill all children should master. His field of vision has opened up and he can now read signs on buildings, street signs, and billboards, for the first time in his life he has a big picture of the world around him. He can also now read with ease and he now loves to read. He isn’t afraid of books and reading aloud doesn’t cause him to burst into tears like it used to. We are a reading based society, without the ability to read well one is severely limited in what they can learn. His eyes not working together were keeping him back from learning many of the things he had a desire to know. While his dyslexia may not be completely resolved, if we never did another thing where he is today wouldn’t hold him back in life, this wasn’t the case at all 12 months ago.
I use the term “gifted” because it is needed to help the people and places we have to navigate understand my children. No, it’s not the best word to describe the attributes that make up these children, but many words are never quite right. We are considered “Black” or “African American”. Both of these are ridiculous in trying to adequately describe ourselves to the world. No human on earth is the color black, my family is more a range from creamy caramel to sophisticated mocha and we haven’t set foot on the continent of Africa in our lives – nor has anyone in our family that we know of for the last 100 years. However, “creamy caramel” or “United States citizen of the darker hue” weren’t options on our last census form. We had to use the words that were commonly accepted to describe our condition as it was. And I am sure a “White” person born and raised in South Africa that emigrates to the United States and becomes a citizen might not be happy about not being expected to define themselves as “African American”. But, as silly as these words and rules might be, they are the best we have right now to describe our reality. Such is the case with gifted. I am sure parents of children that have painted in the likes of Picasso since they were four years old, or opened on the cello for Yo-Yo Ma when they were six would like to describe their child as “gifted” regardless of their IQ and whether they have any of the qualities that often describe a gifted child. They are right; it is a silly word to isolate to one group when it could easily apply to others. However, they are forced to use the word “prodigy”, even if gifted describes them more aptly. I get it, I understand. However, if we had refused to embrace the term “gifted” and go with it, I shudder to think about how my son would be suffering today. Our family embracing the gifted title saved my son from many more years of anguish and struggle. Gifted made our home school transition easy and welcome. Gifted allowed us to find the right psychologist, the right ophthalmologist, and the right path to a healthy life that would have been denied my son if he were allowed to sit and suffer in silence because he was the “best reader in the class” as being defined by rules created for the statistical average. He doesn’t have the luxury to navigate an education system designed for people that fit nicely into the box. Being gifted isn’t easy, it is a constant struggle of finding what works for you. Imagine if someone wore a size 1 in slacks, but a size 12 in tops. It’s first of all hard to find a size 1 on a regular basis. Often times clothing designed for a size 1 are not compatible with clothing designed for a size 12. They would never, ever find an outfit all together in that size. Forget buying a dress or suit – it just won’t happen. The world of fashion wasn’t designed for an individual that out of proportion for the rest of society. It would be understood they would always be limited in their “off the shelf” choices and most would encourage them to just get their clothing custom made. In fact, they would probably have to learn to sew and make their own clothing if they ever wanted an entire wardrobe. If nothing else, they would need a good tailor that could alter everything they purchased. This is the life of a gifted child when it comes to education. There is never something “off the rack” that fits just right. If they do sit in a traditional classroom, their assignments often have to be altered significantly to fit their educational needs. And at this point, half of all profoundly gifted children are home schooled – designing their own curriculum with their family as this was the only option available for them to have a full education to fit their needs.
So, the next time you hear about a child being labeled “gifted”, don’t think about Thomas Horn being a 13 year old Jeopardy whiz kid turned super star actor. Think of that frustrated person ready to break down into tears in the mall as they agonize over not being able to find a single thing that “fits them”. They look around and see absolutely nothing available was made with them in mind. When the world thought of clothing, that person didn’t enter into the thoughts of one designer. That is what being gifted means. When you look out over an entire field of education and realize that with this entire multibillion dollar industry – not one person really and truly thought about you. That everything you get your going to have to work for and you will probably end up having to pull it all together yourself. Sure, you might find a science program here and a language program there; but for the most part – gifted families are on their own.