Magazine article USA TODAY

Too Smart for Your Own Good

Magazine article USA TODAY

Too Smart for Your Own Good

Article excerpt

BACK IN GRAD SCHOOL, I gave a presentation on gifted children. The audience, also mental health graduate students, asked questions like, "Why are gifted kids so weird?" and, "If they're so smart, why can't they just figure out how to act 'normal'?" Granted, the segment of the population that meets the criteria for intellectual giftedness has some differences from the vast population of normal intelligence, but when future psychotherapists already are labeling them "weird" it doesn't bode well.

For most purposes, from academic testing to Mensa membership, the "gifted" cutoff is an IQ at or above the 98th percentile, usually about 130. About two percent of the population is at 130 or above; by about IQ 140, we are talking about one percent; at 150 or above, 1/10%. The normal IQ is 100, and the bell-curve of intelligence cycles backwards from the norm in the same way, with only about 1/10% of the population at an IQ of 50 or below.

Are gifted people really that different? If so, how? If you are one of those smart people, what life experiences can be better understood as part of being "gifted"? Is there a negative fallout in being what a local reporter recently labeled "scary-smart," as if being extremely intelligent were on par with being, oh, say, the villain in a torture movie like "Saw"? Gifted people can straggle socially for a number of reasons. Any significant difference in intelligence between two people makes deep social connection a challenge. This point annoys people on both sides of the arbitrary cutoff point, but some research points to IQ differences of more than 15 points as sufficient to bar intimate, intellectual, and emotionally mutual understanding. Friendship is possible, but a certain level of closeness will not be present. In these situations, the gifted person may feel frustrated and the normal friend may think the gifted one is weird. Normal kids sometimes label a gifted kid "dumb" because what he or she says does not seem to make sense.

Many traits that are normal (in the sense that they occur frequently) among the two percent gifted population are considered aberrant in the normal population. Counseling books list traits of gifted kids that align almost perfectly with the checklist of aggravating actions that earn a diagnosis of "Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder." The behaviors that drive adults to drug children into compliance do not become more endearing when associated with a high IQ, and fidgety, hypersensitive, and overactive adults drive their colleagues to distraction.

A highly reactive nervous system is standard issue for high-IQ individuals. They are excruciatingly sensitive to sound, light, smells, tastes, and textures. The effects can be dismaying. No one wants to shrug, smile sheepishly, and explain how smart Junior is, as he spits a mouthful of a new food out on his plate because it "feels" wrong. A normal fleece blanket cannot touch their skin because it is nearly painful; the noise in the hallway makes concentration impossible. The list of various sensitivities--normal for the very bright--can go on for pages.

Perhaps the biggest social challenge for the gifted is the extrovert-introvert dilemma. There are plenty of definitions of extroversion and introversion, many poorly worded. …

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