Troublemakers and Miscreants

It happened again.  Another middle schooler was sent to our therapy office to be “fixed”.  She had been diagnosed with ADHD and ODD.  From 1st grade til now, she received special education services in her public school due to behavior and the ADHD.  Her behavior was escalating and veering into the dangerous (self-injurious behavior and outward aggression).  Mom wanted her fixed.  Dad wanted her fixed, though was also partly checked out.  School wanted her fixed.  After meeting her, I didn’t want her fixed.  I wanted her appropriately identified.

Before me sat this beautifully articulate 12-year-old girl.  Her insight rivaled (maybe even surpassed) most adults I see.  Her humor had me laughing out loud on several occasions.  She was bright.  She was bored.  She was misidentified and educationally mistreated.  She was trying to hold together any last scraps of self-concept and confidence that she could after years of being teased, taught and talked down to, being made to feel she was far less intelligent than she was, overidentifying with being the “bad kid”.

When we reviewed her initial IEP evaluations from 1st grade, her IQ was listed as 132.  Teachers and parents described her hyperactivity, her distractibility, her impulsive chatter and non-stop energy.  She received the ADHD diagnosis and was funneled into special education.  The word gifted appeared one time and was promptly hidden beneath the “more pressing” issues of behavioral conformity.

And this is why I’m so passionate about raising awareness of true giftedness.  Yes, I want identified gifted individuals to have better tools to thrive, but even more important to me is raising understanding to appropriately identify all those kids who slip through the cracks.

The picture of the typical kid referred for gifted evaluation:  sits nicely in class, raises hand to answer every question, aces all tests and quizzes, wants to please the teacher, is typically fair-skinned, middle class, and generally well put together.  These kids could be gifted, sure.  But, the reality of gifted often looks more like this:

Any and all socio-economic status, blurts out questions, squiggles constantly, interrupts teachers, appears to be defiant because corrects teachers when misinformation is given, acts silly around age peers because doesn’t really know how to “act their age” and is trying to fit in, refuses to turn in homework, triggers power struggles, has shoes untied, messy desks, loses homework, refuses to do homework, loudly complains that the work is too hard or too stupid or too boring, stares off into space and doesn’t pay attention, meltsdown at recess or lunch or when things don’t go their way, refuses to put on winter coat or hat for recess, doodles, cries when the fire alarm goes off, takes apart the teacher’s desk phone.  I could go on and on.

I cannot count the number of “troublemakers” referred to me who are simply neglected, unidentified gifted kids.  Gifted can look a lot like various disorders.  Emotional intensity can cause big, uncontrollable emotions that can look like rage disorders or childhood bipolar.  Psychomotor intensity can cause squiggles and wiggles that look like ADHD.  Sensory intensity can cause pickiness and fearfulness and overwhelm that looks like autism or anxiety or ADHD’s distractibility.  Imaginational intensity can make anxiety really big.  Intellectual intensity can turn a child precocious and persistent, looking similar to oppositional defiance, autism, or any other misdiagnosed issue that includes an unwillingness to simply follow and obey.

I think of this 12-year-old who could clearly state, “I just get so bored in the special ed classes, and then I try to entertain myself, but it usually involves getting into trouble.”

I think of the 15-year-old girl who repeatedly tried to convince me she was stupid because her school only saw her dyslexia and missed the amazingly astute and creative mind that could tell detailed and vividly imaginative stories.

I think of the 7-year-old boy, reading 3 grades above level, hiding his abilities because he doesn’t “want to have to do more work”, and riddled with anxiety because he was misunderstood.

I think of my own 9-year-old daughter who will never score the 2 standard deviations above the norm on a typical IQ test because her disabilities get in the way of showing her true intelligence.

We need to look outside of the box of what we have traditionally thought giftedness to be.  We need to develop other screening methodologies that include assessment of what we know to be typical psycho-social traits of giftedness and accounts for socio-economic differences.  We need to see the “troublemakers” through detective lenses to identify what the behavior is trying to communicate and not pathologize and pigeonhole them for the remainder of their academic careers.  We need to separate achievement-based measures from actual identification.

As a therapist, I firmly believe that we can re-write negative messages and heal from negative experiences of mis- or missed diagnosis.  But, I also know that it is far less complicated to simply identify needs correctly in the first place.