One of the most neglected subpopulations of gifted students with multiple exceptionalities is gifted children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD). I first became interested in gifted children with AD/HD when one of my sons was diagnosed with AD/HD in middle school. The diagnosis transformed my son's life. Behaviors, habits, and frustrations that had been inexplicable suddenly made sense to both my son and me. For example, we understood for the first time why he had so much difficulty staying in his seat at meal times and why he was underachieving in school. Perhaps more importantly, we had a direction for the development of coping strategies. Once my son understood the nature of his disorder, he was able to use his intelligence to develop strategies to overcome it. Over the next six years, he transformed himself into a well-adjusted, well-disciplined, and high-achieving college student with a large circle of friends.
My experience with my son was further reinforced in my family counseling practice where I specialized in working with families of gifted children. I found that most of the families who came to me for help had children with multiple exceptionalities and that the most frequent additional exceptionality was AD/HD. As I worked with these families over a period of ten years, I experienced firsthand their frustrations with both the behavioral effects of the disorder and the inability of schools to meet their child's needs.
To learn more about the characteristics of gifted children with AD/HD, I worked with a colleague with expertise in AD/HD to design a comparative case study. The purpose of our study was to compare the characteristics of three boys with both giftedness and AD/HD to boys who had only one of the two exceptionalities. In other words, were compared our gifted boys with AD/HD to three gifted boys without AD/HD and three boys with AD/HD whose intelligence was in the average range. We focused our study on the learning characteristics of the students and their emotional, social, and family characteristics. We found that the gifted children in our study with AD/HD were quite vulnerable to social/emotional adjustment problems. Their emotional difficulties included immaturity, emotionality, and struggles coping with the large gap between their delayed social/emotional development and their advanced cognitive development. Social problems included annoying and/or aggressive social behavior and difficulties handling peer rejection.
The social/emotional difficulties experienced by the boys with AD/HD and giftedness in our study were judged by our research team to be more severe than those experienced by all three boys with AD/HD alone and much more severe than those experienced by the other two boys with giftedness alone. The remaining gifted boy was experiencing social/emotional difficulties we attributed to a recent divorce and remarriage. To put it simply, the boys with giftedness and AD/HD in our study were experiencing a lot of stress, as were their families.
Parenting strategies that seemed to help buffer the stress were different for participants who were intellectually gifted than for other participants. Parents of the gifted boys reported that their child was helped by one-on-one conversations about rules and the reasons for them, nurturing the child's creativity, and encouraging independence. Parents of the boys with average intelligence, on the other hand, reported that their children were helped by shared family activities such as fishing, wrestling, playing games, going for drives, or attending car shows. These differences may have been due to differences in stimulation preferences in the two groups. All the boys with AD/HD also needed higher than normal levels of stimulation for optimal functioning, which is typical of children with AD/HD. However, the boys with AD/HD and average intelligence preferred concrete, sensory, and social stimulation (e.g., sports, building things, computers, group learning), whereas the intellectually gifted boys with AD/HD preferred cognitive, language-based, and imaginative stimulation (e.g., learning, reading, creative dramatics).
Unfortunately, intellectual giftedness did not protect our participants from the problems associated with AD/HD. Indeed, all six boys with AD/HD had similar difficulties getting on track (organizing, attending to and following directions, starting the day, starting text-based assignments), staying on track (failing to sustain attention or work production, underachievement), and managing group work and homework. Such difficulties are typical in children with attention deficits and often appear to adults to represent lack of motivation when they really result from impairments in the brain circuits responsible for self-regulation. The boys with giftedness alone, on the other hand, liked school and had excellent attentional profiles, with the exception of one boy who was experiencing considerable family stress. In summary, boys with giftedness and AD/HD in our study had difficulty succeeding academically and socially in classrooms designed for gifted students where most of their gifted peers had strong self-regulatory and social abilities.
The National Research Center on the Gifted/Talented commissioned Felice Kaufmann, Layne Kalbfleisch, and Xavier Castellanos to write a monograph answering the question "What do we really know about attention deficit disorders and gifted students?" Their monograph stresses that researchers have neglected this population of students so we don't yet know as much as we need to know to help them. What we do know is that it is vital to identify gifted children with AD/HD early and accurately in order to maximize their potential and prevent them from being misunderstood by adults and themselves. They conclude their monograph with ten recommendations for working with intellectually gifted children who have been identified by a comprehensive assessment as having AD/HD. The following five of their recommendations are particularly relevant to parents.
Dr. Sidney M. Moon is Professor and Director, Gifted Education Resource Institute, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.
Barkely, R. A. (1995). Taking Charge of ADHD: The Complete, Authoritative Guide for Parents. New York: Guilford.
Cohen, M. W. (1998). The Attention Zone: A Parents' Guide to Attention Deficit/hyperactivity Disorder. Washington, D.C.: Brunner/Mazel.
Fowler, M. (1992). Attention Deficit Disorders: Educator's Manual. Fairfax, VA: Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders (CH.A.D.D.).
Garber, S. W., Garber, M. D., & Spizman, R. F. (1996). Beyond Ritalin: Facts About Medication and Other Strategies for Helping Children, Adolescents, and Adults With Attention Deficit Disorders. New York: Harper Perennial.
Kaufmann, F., Kalbfleisch, M. L., & Castellanos, F. X. (2000). Attention Deficit Disorders and Gifted Students: What Do We Really Know? (RM00146). Storrs, CT: The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut.
Reif, S. F. (1993). How To Reach and Teach ADD/ADHD Children: Practical Strategies, and Interventions for Helping Children With Attention Problems and Hyperactivity. West Nyack, NY: The Center for Applied Research in Education.
The National Attention Deficit Disorder Association: https://www.add.org/
CHADD: Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: http://www.chadd.org/
Mental Health Net: https://www.mentalhelp.net/
The National Institute for Mental Health: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml
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