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What Gifted Means: A View Beyond Defining

By Youssef Sleiman on July 11, 2023

BISN board member Youssef Sleiman, a quirky, wordy professional writer based in Dallas, Texas, aims to make the important interesting. With a background in journalism and a passion for equity, Youssef now supports the gifted community, facilitates virtual gatherings, and advocates for mental health. In his free time, he enjoys writing novels, collaborative storygaming, and exploring new hobbies.

What Gifted Means: A View Beyond Defining

What exactly does it mean to be gifted?

“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.”

Does that help? I get why.

It’s a definition of giftedness, pitched by child-centered educators and advocates in 1991. Not everyone agrees with it, and not all who do agree with it believe it’s complete. It serves a profound use for therapists, counselors and doctors, and even coined an invaluable term, “asynchronous development.”

“But what does giftedness really mean?”

I’d like to give you an insider’s view instead of trying to break down the abstractions and parse definitions. Let me walk you through a few recurring experiences, snippets from my lived experience with this particular brand of neurodivergence. Also, these are the snippets that other gifted individuals resonated with when I share my daily life, my worries and my hopes. Yes, every gifted and twice-exceptional individual is unique, and no one experiences the same themes in the same way.

And yet, with a little art and some imagination, I can show you what gifted means in real life. Along the way, could we find better clues to a sharper definition to giftedness? Perhaps. Let’s take the journey and find out together.

Gifted means not knowing you’re gifted.

You suspect something is up, but you don’t know. You didn’t start life thinking that you were as smart as your parents or your teachers.

How would you know? You don’t know what goes on behind their eyes.

You might guess what other people are thinking, but you’re certain you’re not sure. You have a thousand guesses, and each one has a thousand more reasons why they might say or do what they’re saying and doing.

You notice it took you just one attempt or just watching a bit to learn a skill, and it might take the kid beside you five or six times. Maybe they were tired, had a headache, got distracted by their friends. You might guess that you have an easier time because you’re paying attention or it was just an easy lesson again.

But gifted? Nah. You know there’s so much you don’t know. That’s why you don’t identify with “the smart one” in movies. Or why you dismiss it when someone calls you smart.

But you don’t call yourself smart. Your brain is the only one you’ve used. How would you know if it’s different from anyone else’s?

Gifted means getting a lot of attention for doing something normal.

Everyone has the same assignment. So you start. At some point, you realize no one else is working. They’re just watching you.

You’ve been minding your own business. You’ve been taking the next reasonable step after the next reasonable step. It doesn’t seem particularly special or different. You were just working. It seemed entirely normal, and maybe even fun.

Until everyone else was staring.

You might feel embarrassed. In their eyes, you see yourself. Their looks are what you would give if you saw someone doing something surprising, wrong, alien. You might compare your work to theirs and you see their work looks good. All their work also looks similar. Yours is different. Did you misunderstand the assignment? Later, a teacher or manager might tell you (privately) how your work was great. In the moment, it feels awful, almost accusatory. It definitely doesn’t feel good or feel like praise. And that message from the teacher, hey, they might just be placating you. They say you’re a sensitive kid and they want to reassure you.

The thing is, you don’t know when these moments will strike. You don’t set them up. They surprise you. Even if you try to avoid them, it happens.

As you grow up, these moments have only two differences.

The stunned audiences get bigger.

And fewer people say you’re on the right trail, even if it’s objectively, measurably the right one.

Gifted means you’re still going when everyone else is done.

You’re not done. You might be interested in the conversation, the festival, the party, the book — but suddenly you’re the only one. You might be talking, and the time is flying by because you’re having fun, and suddenly the other person falls asleep. You might be working on a hard project, feeling the strain, pressing on, hitting milestone after milestone — but suddenly, everyone stops and leaves

You started with a group of friends, classmates, co-workers, etc. Whatever the activity, you start to notice that they drop out almost in unison.

It’s the suddenness and uniformity that sticks with you.

You’ve had friends who had a headache, an appointment they forgot about, that kind of thing that suddenly ends an activity or a conversation. It’s easy to be understanding when a friend stops because of an obligation, chronic pain, or a sudden baby kick. Those are different.

This time, everyone’s stopping because they’re all tired, all confused, all done. They might even say they’re interested — but tomorrow or they need a break. You don’t feel like you need a break, but you follow them. You might guess you’ve got more energy, more stamina, but that’s not how you think of yourself. Instead, you’re just being you, having fun and time’s flying by — until suddenly, you’re the only one having fun.

You don’t think much of these moments until they start happening with surprising regularity as an adult.

Gifted means you think everyone else knows something you don’t.

You ask a question because a thought hit you, and you’re curious. Why? How? Where did it come from? Who said? What happens next?

Instead of answering, your friends scoff or laugh. What kind of question is that?

Instead of answering, your teacher gets irritated. You’re just wasting the class’s time.

Instead of answering, your family gets exasperated. They sound impatient, maybe even a little tired when they tell you the answer they know.

Instead of answering, your boss or co-workers might say, “That’s a good question” but leave it at that. You guess they don’t want to answer you. You assume positive intent and that they just haven’t got a ready answer but they’ll tell you later.

A bunch of these experiences add up.

And it’s not just your questions. The people in your life seem to follow a secret rhythm you don’t hear. It’s eerie. You laugh alone at things that you thought were funny, but no one else in the movie theater laughs.

You have to wonder if there’s a secret memo going around when you see friends make similar choices and then scoff you for suggesting something different. You hear them laugh at jokes you get but they’re not funny. A friend tells a story about someone getting angry about a problem that has a solution in it. You ask why they didn’t use the solution. After all, yeah, the situation’s annoying, but they could sidestep it in five minutes if they used the solution right there. Suddenly, the group is against you. “You always say the weirdest things.” “That’s not actually how it works, I think.” “You got an answer for everything.” “Can’t you just be mad?” You can, but it’s like being mad your own shoes aren’t tied. The answer’s right there.

You guess there’s clearly something they know that you don’t.

Gifted means you don’t notice that some problems are big.

Someone asked a question. You gave an answer. It was that simple.

Only it wasn’t. Your friends or co-workers might take you aside and tell you that you’re really good in emergencies or that you’re fast. But you’re just being you. You weren’t trying to race or hurry.

You were simply answering what six times seven was. You didn’t realize 42 was the meaning of life. You saw a few natural ways to arrive at the answer, weighed them and said, “Yeah, it’s 42.” You don’t know what it means to be “the smartest person in the room.” You just heard a question, and you said the first and best answer you could offer. Just like everyone else does. You’re trying to be helpful.

Only later does someone tell you it was a big problem. Which surprises you. After all, there’s a few, much bigger questions to worry about.

Gifted means you worry about problems no one else notices.

“You see that, right?”

“No. What?”

You might be the only one worrying about it, but the few times you bring it up, the five other members of the group project dismiss you. You start to think, “It’s definitely just a me thing. No one else is worried about it. It’ll be fine.” Then it isn’t. When they ask about root causes, you offer what you saw and worried about. That’s when you might hear something along the lines of “Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

You don’t live on Easy Street. Your world is filled with problems, but it looks like everyone ignores them. Or worse, they can’t see them. You start to tell yourself that you don’t see the problems you see, and this kind of inner contradiction starts to grate on your sanity. Especially in those recurring moments when you recognize the pattern coming, like an old movie plot.

You feel guilty, guilty that you’re not addressing these problems. They show up at work, at home, with family, friends, and even strangers. If you’re the one to see it, aren’t you the one to do something about it. See a need, fill a need, right? Except it might be out of your hands. Or the problem might belong to an authority figure. Or it might require massive cooperation, a whole group to agree to lift or swim in the same direction — yet you might be the only one to see it.

Sometimes, all you can do is watch the problem as it steadily rolls in.

Being gifted means you’re used to going more than halfway with everyone. Especially with someone's definition of giftedness.

Sometimes people slur. It happens pretty regularly, whether it's an instruction missing words, an idea not fully formed, or an over-simplified explanation. Everyone makes mistakes or takes shortcuts. You know you don't make friends pointing those out. So you fill in the gaps in your head. After a while, you're good at understanding incomplete explanations.

The current definition of giftedness feels incomplete to you.

The concept of asynchronous development rocked a few worlds when it landed. Still, it doesn’t fully describe the long-term effects of over-developed abilities in one area of your mind and a complete lack of experience in another.

You nod along as the word "gifted" tries to describe the differences in how you experience life compared to the rest of humanity. You can accept that the way you experience life might be different than how your friends, neighbors and strangers experience their life.

However, every version of the definition of gifted feels like it falls short in some way. But you go along with it.

The way you go with most things.

You’ve heard the phrase, “Meet me halfway.” What that really means to you is going more than half way. Doing more work. Thinking harder until you understand, because you eventually do. If you don't understand something, you know you can give it a minute. You're always actively listening. You didn't know there was another way to "listen." (Otherwise, it's just "hearing", right?) You connect a teacher's words to what you remember from the grade before. Your friend's story about last night connects automatically to what they said about last weekend, who they were with, and you remember this was the same set of events from their story last month.

You’re so used to going more than halfway with anyone’s explanation, even of this weird thing people are calling your giftedness. So you entertain them. You don’t even agree with everything they said. Still, you trust their authenticity, especially if you’ve finished reading 10,000 words of them trying to grapple with explaining what giftedness means. (And yes, you get tickled when you notice one of these meta-moments.)

You're so accustomed to doing so much mental work around other people that when you do find someone who meets you halfway instead, you're stunned. You could feel relieved or confused, energized or self-conscious – or all the above at the same time.

Taken on their own, these experiences you have might not mean much. It's a big world. Lots can happen. You can imagine plenty of reasons you might share these experiences.

Or it might mean you're gifted.

Welcome to the club.

1 Comment

If you could give any piece of advice to adults who are just learning about giftedness, what would it be? 😉❤️

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