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Dimensions of Giftedness

By Dr. Patty Williams on December 8, 2023

Bright Insight Support Network founder and president Dr. Patty Williams is a trauma therapist and coach who specializes in EMDR, ND-Affirmative DBT, and IFS modalities. Through Bright Insight, she works to counsel, coach, and advocate for gifted, twice-exceptional, and neurodivergent persons, along with other marginalized populations.

Dimensions of Giftedness

In my book about giftedness and trauma (release date 2024), I address the topic of giftedness and how we might define this-- an important conversation when discussing how gifted people show up in the world and how they interact with their environments. Per this manuscript, I share how though gifted and giftedness are commonly used terms, particularly in education, the definition of giftedness can vary depending on the setting.

The Columbus Group (1991) definition cited by Morelock (1992, para. 57) is as follows:

Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching, and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.

In her book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind by psychotherapist Paula Prober (2019), this author takes the liberty of employing the metaphor of a rainforest ecosystem to explain one type of gifted manifestation that is complex, creative, sensitive, empathetic, intuitive, and often misunderstood. Other definitions may focus more on IQ cutoffs and the five levels of giftedness, while some look at how a person is only gifted in certain domains. We see this when people say, "I have an IQ of 135 and am gifted in mathematics and reasoning." I tend to look beyond IQ however, to the Columbus Group's and Prober's conceptualizations of giftedness as starting points.

Considering metaphors like Prober’s while expanding on the Columbus Group definition of giftedness, can help us address it from a more whole-person perspective. Indeed, I suggest that gifted individuals are complex beings with a distinctly above-average ability and compulsion to develop new understanding, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, attitudes, and preferences. Expeditious learning can be attributed to a tendency toward processes of rapid pattern-finding and meaning-making where new (and interesting to them) material is retained after one to two repetitions of exposure. This pattern-finding and meaning-making also lends to the depth and complexity noticed in gifted persons. Along with a rapid ability and drive to learn, and in relation to depth and complexity, it is also noted that gifted persons can experience the world with great intensity or the blunting of intensity in sensual, psychomotor, imaginational, intellectual, and/or emotional domains, and develop in a way that seems initially asynchronous. These categories of intensity, by the way, correlate with Dabrowski’s (1938) overexcitabilities or OEs within his theory of positive disintegration.

To be considered gifted, individuals are often identified as gifted in grade school, by a psychologist, and/or by a gifted peer group. They could also have an IQ over 130 (this number varies depending on IQ assessments and measures) or be members of groups for gifted individuals such as Mensa, InterGifted, The Puttyverse, Bloomers, or otherwise. It is understood that many adults do not identify their own giftedness until they have gifted children or gifted peers in adulthood (Kuipers, 2007; Milic & Simeunovic, 2020). Seeing themselves through their later identified children or peers is common and considered reliable in relation to earlier identification efforts (Kuipers, 2007; Milic & Simeunovic, 2020). Self-identification is acknowledged as valid in this context, and individuals exploring their own giftedness are encouraged to consult this or other publications and groups to determine if it resonates with their own experiences.

Asynchronicity and Compensation

Sometimes, and as often recorded and observed in gifted children, development can seem asynchronous. This asynchronous development, where social-emotional, intellectual, creative, and physical skills and abilities develop at significantly different (neuronormed) rates, lends to the whole-person profile of giftedness (Blackett & Webb, 2011; The Columbus Group, 1991; Morelock, 1996; NAGC, n.d.). That is “if the gap between cognitive and emotional development is too wide” (Alesi et al., 2015, p.3), it promotes qualities seen in gifted persons. An oh-so-common example of this asynchronicity is seen when a gifted child can comprehend and complete a calculus equation though they are unable to tie their shoes. This asynchronicity is particularly noticeable and seems limiting when the gap between what a person can and cannot do causes distress. These gaps or struggles, however, are often compensated for.

In her article about gifted compensation, Dr. Linda Silverman (2009) shared how gifted individuals excel at problem-solving and present with a capacity for abstract reasoning that is then used to compensate for a lack of ability in other areas. That is, there is a tendency for gifted persons to adapt to adversities throughout development by using strengths and creativity. We often call this creative or adaptive problem-solving. Socially, this problem-solving can turn into a masking of traits or abilities seen frequently in the gifted population. This may be particularly true if the gifted person also has a second exceptionality or neurodivergence.

Twice-Exceptionality (2e)

The identification of one’s own giftedness can be further complicated if there are additional divergences from what is typical, such as developmental or learning differences, or rather, if a person is twice-exceptional (2e). Twice-exceptionality is the presence of intellectual giftedness and what might be defined otherwise as a disability, often specifically a learning difference (Al-Hroub, 2020; Baum et al., 2017; Montgomery, 2015). The concept of twice-exceptionality dates to the 1970s when 2e students and individuals were recognized as “gifted handicapped” as per the so-titled book by Maker (1977). 2e individuals are now distinguished as high potential, talented persons with learning, attention, and/or social impairments, who as youth are reportedly at particular risk of experiencing social-emotional difficulties and underachievement without appropriate support (Reis et al., 2014). The topic of underachievement though, is a hairy one and will be discussed further in another blog. Know, however, that it is not a term I appreciate as it can boil the value of a gifted person down to what they can produce rather than who they are.

2e individuals are often unidentified and may be seen as only gifted, only disabled, or neurotypical because strengths and/or weaknesses are masked and compensated for within a developmental context (Yssel et al., 2014). 2e children are also often characterized as having a heightened language ability, which can inhibit identification for services (van Viersen et al., 2016), while increasing vulnerability to developing mental health disorders (Alesi et al., 2015). This is particularly true since giftedness can act as a limiting factor when development is seemingly asynchronous. Along with enduring and adjusting for asynchronicity, 2e individuals tend to compensate for second exceptionalities, again adding to the masking seen and experienced by many neurodivergent persons.

Giftedness and Overexcitability

I attended to the reality that gifted persons often experience the world with intensity in sensual, psychomotor, imaginational, intellectual, and/or emotional domains. These five areas of intensity are known also as Dabrowski’s (1938) overexcitabilities (OEs). According to psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski and his theory of positive disintegration, individuals who possess significant potential for growth often exhibit one or more of these five strong manifestations of neurological capacities in their reactions to stimuli. It is now understood that the five OEs are commonly displayed by gifted persons. According to Dabrowski, and as stated by Dr. Linda Silverman of The Gifted Development Center (2020, para. 5), these intensities and their brief descriptions can be:

  • psychomotor – an abundance of physical energy

  • sensual – heightened responses of the senses and aesthetic appreciation

  • imaginational – capacity for fantasy

  • intellectual – curiosity and aliveness of the mind

  • emotional – sensitivity, intensity, empathy

And while research suggests that not all gifted individuals have OEs, and while one of these OEs may be dominant, when present they are often combined to form a deep and complex picture of what makes gifted individuals so unique. These OEs are each considered in relation to trauma in the book.

Giftedness Altogether

I intend to blog about different dimensions of giftedness separately. For now, I would like to identify the following elements again, that are related to my maybe unique conceptualization of it. These dimensions are as follows:

  • advanced cognitive abilities (sometimes seen as creativity or creative problem-solving)

  • rapid pattern-finding and meaning-making that lend to depth and complexity

  • seemingly asynchronous development and compensation (masking)

  • overexcitability/heightened intensity (sensual, psychomotor, imaginational, intellectual, and emotional)

Future blogs about these specific dimensions will be linked to this blog for reference. For now, however, and to prime our minds, consider how differently such dimensions and neuro-excitability might impact a person’s experiencing of trauma or any phenomena for that matter-- again, an important part of the conversation about how gifted people show up in the world and how they interact with their environments.

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