How do I know if my child is gifted?


We all like to think of our children as super-talented and brilliant, but how do you know when your child is truly a prodigy?

While most people think of intelligence as the marking of a gifted child, there are many categories of giftedness. Some children will have an impressive grasp of math while others will exhibit athletic prowess. A smaller percentage of children, called savants, suffer from a psychopathological disorder such as autism or a type of autism called Asperger syndrome and exhibit exceptional skills in very specific categories such as music or art.

So where does your child fall on the spectrum? Though a child's ability often becomes obvious as he or she ages, we'll teach you some of the early signs of giftedness and provide tips for parenting gifted children, with helpful advice from Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College with an expertise in gifted children and also the author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. Read on to determine whether your child is a genius or if you’re simply looking through rose-colored parent glasses.

What is savant syndrome?

Savant syndrome refers to children with neurodevelopmental disorders, notably autism, who demonstrate remarkable skills in a certain area.

This can include an extreme talent for drawing or any other type of artistic creation, an exceptional musical ability or exceptional calendar calculations. One of the most popular depictions of a savant would be Dustin Hoffman's character, Raymond, in the movie Rain Man, and though he was also autistic, he functioned at a fairly high level.

The term savant comes from the French term “idiot savant” which used to refer to those who were extremely gifted in certain areas and who also suffered some degree of mental retardation. Though this term is no longer used because of its offensive nature, it's where we have derived the name savant syndrome.

What forms can giftedness take?

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Giftedness is an umbrella term that describes a range of young people who demonstrate elevated levels of intelligence or ability when compared to those with and without neurodevelopmental disorders.

A child with a gifted IQ may be exceptionally strong in math or language, and, in extreme cases, these children may even have the ability to teach themselves how to read. Other children will begin speaking at a very young age – sometimes before they are even a year old.

Both gifted children and savants can be obsessive in their behavior – a child who is incredibly talented at drawing may feel the need to draw constantly. Others may have photographic memories and demonstrate the ability to draw something almost exactly as it appears from memory alone.

Savants, however, typically have a lower-than-average IQ. For example, a savant may have an IQ of around 70 (the average IQ is 100). Their talents are often expressed as an imbalance between an extreme depth of understanding in one subject area – be it art or music - and a below-average knowledge of traditional academic subjects or typical social behavior for their age.

How can I tell if my child is gifted?

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Though all children have their own talents, only a small percentage of children are truly gifted -- about 6 percent of K-12 students in the United States are academically gifted, according to The National Association for Gifted Children.

"Giftedness is often clear without a test," says Winner. Strong indications that your child is somewhere on this spectrum include speaking at a very young age, reading at an early age, being obsessed with math, doing mental arithmetic at a very young age or being extremely curious.

For example, an artistically gifted child will draw very realistic images at a very young age (say three years old). Their stick figure would have a head, neck, shoulders, etc.

Likewise, if your child is extraordinarily gifted in music, they will likely demonstrate an intense interest in music and may be able to mimic musical melodies after simply hearing them.

Testing for giftedness can be tricky, as traditional intelligence tests may not paint the full picture of a child's ability to learn and there aren't any standard measures of artistic or athletic abilities. Nearly all school districts have achievement, intelligence, or creativity tests for students wanting to get into gifted academic or arts programs. If you feel like your child isn't getting the education he or she needs, these tests may be a good starting point for proving your child's expertise.

How should I treat my gifted child?

It is important to encourage your child to explore their gift. If your son or daughter is an artist, try to keep supplies around the house. If you child is a mathematician, do your best to find them challenging new problems to solve.

Unfortunately, there's a fine line between encouraging your child and being a bit of a stage mom (or dad). Don't push your child too much, so as to create a negative environment for the young person or, in worst case scenarios, jeopardize their desire to continue learning. Try to support them without continually putting them on the public stage, and let them determine how they spend their free time.

Schooling can be an issue for gifted children as well. In the beginning, let the school do its job. Most times, teachers can assign gifted students special projects to keep them challenged. However, if there's a problem and your child is bored, investigate the issue. Sometimes bored students will display behavioral issues that can turn into problems later in life.

If what the child is being asked to do in class is too easy, there are a few options. You can ask the teacher to give the child independent work at their own level. Or you can ask if there's a more advanced class at the same time that he or she can attend. Grade skipping is another option, but it's more complicated, because a child may be gifted in one specific area and more average in others.

Unfortunately, there are very few schools that are specifically for gifted students, and sometimes parents still complain that their children aren't challenged. Though it may be tough when your child is in elementary school, as your child ages, more options open up at public schools, and there are advanced placement classes and international baccalaureate programs. Competitive prep schools often target gifted students, so these are also an option. Once kids get to college, it will be easier for them to find their niche.

If you're concerned about your child being challenged in school, there are things you can do outside the classroom, too. Be your child's advocate, and if the school is not willing to make accommodations, do everything you can outside of school -- science museum courses or classes at the local art institute -- to pique their curiosity.

About the Expert

Ellen Winner, Professor of Psychology at Boston College.
Ellen Winner, Professor of Psychology at Boston College.
Ellen Winner

Ellen Winner is a professor of psychology at Boston College with an expertise in gifted children. Winner is also the author of the book Gifted Children: Myths and Realities and acted as the key expert for this article.

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  • Winner, Ellen, Ph.D. Telephone interview. 18 Apr. 2013.