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Is Giftedness a Neurodivergence?

By Dr. Patty Gently on June 23, 2024

Bright Insight Support Network founder and president Dr. Patty Gently (Formerly 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.

Is Giftedness a Neurodivergence?

The question is showing up a lot lately: Is giftedness neurodivergence? To answer this question, we first need to operationalize the terms neurodivergence and giftedness.

How Do You Define Neurodivergence?

Neurodivergent is a term for those with a mind and neurology that diverges from what is typical in a way that is innate, acquired, or both. Neurodivergence is a way of existing that is considered different from the norm in relation to learning, processing, feeling, interpreting information, thinking, or behaving because of brain differences that do not align with what is considered neurotypical.

In the 1990s, autism advocate Kassiane Asasumasu shared publicly how many people seemed to experience the world in ways similar to autistic individuals and different than more neurotypically-minded folks, even if they weren't autistic. As such, around 2000, Asasumasu coined the terms neurodivergent and neurodivergence, describing those "whose neurocognitive functioning diverges from dominant societal norms in multiple ways." These terms were intended to encompass a wide variety of people, not just those with supposed “neurodevelopmental disorders” like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. She also stressed how such terms should be inclusive and supportive of individuals with atypical neurocognitive functioning.

Over time, the term neurodivergent has been used in various ways, though often referring specifically to individuals with autism or ADHD. However, it is also used as an umbrella term for people with atypical mental and behavioral traits, including mood, anxiety, dissociative, psychotic, personality, and eating/feeding differences, along with acquired differences such as traumatic brain injuries. Within the neurodiversity framework, these identifiers are often called neurodivergencies to shift away from the medical model of disability, ableism, and a pathology paradigm.

What is Giftedness?

Giftedness is defined in several different ways in different settings. Currently, though, many organizations and professionals use the Columbus Group’s 1991 definition, which describes giftedness as “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 Intersection of Intensity however, I go on to define gifted persons as complex, neurodivergent beings with distinctly above-average abilities and compulsions even, to develop new understanding, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, attitudes, and preferences. Additionally, I explore how expeditious learning can be attributed to rapid pattern-finding and meaning-making where new (and interesting to them) material is often 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 concerning 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 areas of intensity were first referred to as overexcitabilities by Polish psychologist and physician Kazimierz Dąbrowski.


So Is Giftedness a Neurodivergence?

The quick answer to this question is a clear and resounding yes. I will explain this further though.

In my glossary of terms in different publications and on the Bright Insight TERMS page, you can find a brief definition of giftedness as follows: “A neurodivergence and measure of identity inclusive of qualities such as advanced cognitive abilities (sometimes seen as creativity or creative problem-solving), rapid pattern-finding and meaning-making, seemingly asynchronous development and compensation, and overexcitability/heightened intensity that all lend to a qualitative difference in depth and when compared to neurotypical experience and presentation.”

How did we come to this conclusion? Well, if neurodivergence is when a person’s mental and behavioral function and ability differs from what is typical, and gifted individuals function quantitatively and qualitatively different from the majority in this area, then giftedness is a neurodivergence. This is why giftedness (along with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, processing differences, and so on) is assessed most effectively by neuropsychologists. This is also why research identifies a higher volume of gray matter (and therefore neuroplasticity), larger subcortical structures, and stronger white matter microstructural organization in specific brain regions associated with explicit memory. Gifted people’s brains, that is, are physiologically different too.

To further attend to giftedness as a neurological difference, explaining how giftedness is a whole-person experience and not just about IQ is helpful. That is, while many gifted individuals can be distinguished as having identifiably high intelligence quotients, and are often labeled as “gifted and talented” in one or two areas (i.e. a gifted writer who cannot understand math), a whole-person approach looks at giftedness in an identity-first manner. It considers how giftedness impacts the entire person from head to toe (mind, body, spirit) and permeates their identity whether they are supposedly “good” at something or not. By taking this approach, it is also easier to understand how gifted persons may have sensitivities and body differences to the point that research supports the increased presence of dysautonomia, autoimmune differences, and Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes. These sensitivities can manifest as overexcitabilities (consider these as psychic and neurological intensities) and a complex neurological system and abilities, from head to toe.

So, from head-to-toe, a gifted person is different in a variety of ways, and certainly in how their neurology compares to neurotypical peers. These differences result in a clear neurodivergence. For those who believe otherwise, I welcome discussion. However, this reality is well-researched and we know the science. So discord should come from an informed space to be entertained meaningfully. <3

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