Gifted children have abilities that make them more sensitive to their bodies, their world and the people in it. They notice sensations, emotional states and the interplay between the physical and the non-physical world in ways that non-gifted people do not. Exquisite sensitivity, combined with intensity and drive, often come at a price for gifted children and their parents. Most parents of gifted toddlers and preschoolers don’t know that their child is gifted, but they know how they feel: worn out!
Occupational therapists are highly skilled in addressing sensitivity that impacts functional performance. And it doesn’t have to be sensitivity to shirt tags! We are trained to look at emotional modulation and attention skills as well, and to help children and adults use sensory-based treatment approaches to improve their performance in these areas. Need better executive functioning? it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You need a solid sensory processing system to rise to that level of cognitive ability.
A parent’s pride in her child’s amazing abilities can be overshadowed at times by the fatigue and frustration in dealing with tantrums, rigidity, sensitivity, and their child’s seemingly inexhaustible energy. If you take your child to a psychologist that doesn’t recognize the behaviors as aspects of giftedness, you may leave with a prescription for play therapy or pills. There is another option. Occupational therapy can help manage the current of giftedness running through your child’s mind, and “keep the lights on” without those power surges that can destroy their functioning in the mainstream world.
Bright, but Being Overwhelmed by Input
Particularly in the early years, gifted children can become easily overwhelmed when their emotions, their impulses and their perceptions exceed their ability to process everything they experience. They may feel clothing or food as intensely strong sensations. They may want to swing for an hour, then cry when it is time to leave the playground. They might be aware of a parent’s sadness or another child’s frustration more acutely, but have no idea what is happening or what to do. They really “get” the plight of the polar bears on the disappearing ice sheets. After all, they can read the New York Times at 5!
They just don’t know what to do with all these feelings, thoughts, desires and sensations. Gifted children often have a powerful intensity of experience and a drive not only for mastery but for pure sensory input. You could take them to a psychologist, but in my experience, most of them don’t see toddlers clinically, or don’t get what the problems really are What Psychologists Just Don’t Get About Raising Gifted Toddlers.
Some abilities in young gifted children are advanced by years, such as reading or math. The ability to share with a sibling? Not advanced at all! This “asynchronous development” can cause internal conflict and may result in more frequent and more intense outbursts, refusal to participate in school or playdates, sleep issues and more. This continues into adolescence, where concerns over “big picture” issues may not match their peer’s focus. So explaining their process to a gifted child early can help them cope. Read Can You Treat Sensory Issues in Gifted Kids? to understand more about sensory processing in gifted people of all ages.
How OT Can Help You and Your Child
OT’s with a strong sensory processing background can help gifted children and their families navigate the complex sensory-motor, cognitive and emotional/social overload that happens when brainpower exceeds management capacity. What unique skills does an OT bring to the table? The ability to assess and implement a whole-person approach. Talking about behavior, making a rewards chart, and cognitively understanding where all that energy comes from is simply not enough to make the days and the weeks easier for a gifted child. The occupational therapist’s toolbox is deeper and wider, and includes physical interventions that look like play, social/emotional mastery experiences (not just talk), and sensory-based activities that support self-regulation as a child grows into their amazing abilities.
Take a look at Gifted and Struggling? Meet the Twice Exceptional Student and How OT Can Help if your child is gifted but ALSO dealing with issues such as sensory processing, ADD, learning issues or ASD.
Occupational therapists do use cognitive strategies such as the “How Does Your Engine Run?” program by Williams and Shellenbarger. A cognitively gifted 4 year-old may be fully capable of engaging in this useful program. A sensory diet, one of the core concepts of most sensory processing treatment programs, can help children discharge and manage sensitivity and excitement throughout the day. The use of therapeutic listening programs is often easy to do at home with your OTR’s guidance. I like Quickshifts because they are targeted and work well with the busy schedules most kids have Quickshifts: A Simple, Successful, and Easy to Use Treatment For Processing, Attention and Postural Activation. Most of my clients simply do not have the time or the opportunity to spend 30 minutes in a gym, if they can achieve functional regulation in half that time. Enter Quickshifts.
Check out Gifted Or Disordered? The Unrecognized Behavioral Traits of Young Gifted Children for more thoughts on how the behavior of gifted kids can be misdiagnosed as a disability. I wrote a helpful post on how to use The Happiest Toddler strategies, informed by what we know about the gifted mind, to improve your communication with your child How To Talk So Your Gifted Child Will Listen. Is your child misunderstood or mislabeled at school? Gifted kids can be labeled as troublemakers instead of talented. Read Is Your Gifted Child A “Troublemaker”? and How To Spot A Gifted Child In Your Preschool Class (Or Your Living Room!) for some ways to think differently about those strong opinions and the resistance to rules.
Parents that know how to help their child regulate their arousal feel empowered, not defeated, when their child becomes overwhelmed. Children learn that their parents “get” them, and that they can turn to them for support instead of criticism. Feeling understood and feeling capable is the bedrock of self-confidence and self-esteem. Gifted individuals need to know that they are more than their stratospheric IQ or athletic or creative abilities, and this is where it begins. Take a look at Raising a Gifted Child? Read “A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children” For Successful Strategies To Navigate the Waters to learn more about how to communicate with your child about his or her gifts.
Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Toddler on the Block program is amazingly effective at teaching children how to handle the strong emotions of early childhood, and teaching parents how to support their children without crushing their spirit. I use his incredible techniques with every gifted client I see. Children with ASD respond, children with SPD respond, and gifted children respond. Dr. Karp’s strategies allow children to learn how to express their feelings without judgement, and teach parents to set limits and place consequences on behavior without crushing a child’s spirit. Isn’t that what we all want for our children? Check out Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today! even if your child is not a toddler. It turns out that Dr. Karp’s easy technique for handling demands works on impatient people at almost any age. You just alter your presentation to fit their more mature emotional state and communication level!
Should you consult a psychologist? If you are expecting to get concrete strategies to manage your toddler’s or preschooler’s highs and lows, probably not. My professional experiences and my search online for resources from psychologists has lead me to believe that they don’t start being really interested in or helpful until your child is in primary school. If your toddler is being a problem in daycare or preschool because she doesn’t want to do the “stupid” macaroni pictures, and instead wants to read their chapter book at age 3, most psychologists don’t seem to know what to say. Here is something more helpful: Why Gifted Children Aren’t Their Teacher’s Favorite Students….
Research suggests that the way a gifted brain functions is always going to be different than the typical child. That drive, that intensity and even that sensory seeking or sensitivity may be hard-wired and managing it is more the goal than changing it. It isn’t a dysfunction, it is a difference. This is the paradigm shift between seeing behavior as atypical or as abnormal.
Most psychologists don’t see things that way, but the few working with gifted children will know what I am talking about. I believe that therapy for gifted children effects change in a very similar manner to therapy for the autistic child; therapy can make daily life easier, and it can help a child learn to handle their thoughts and experiences with greater comfort and ease. Life gets better. It doesn’t change the diagnosis: brain function changes as it learns to adapt and make better connections, but the structure of the gifted brain will remain unique. Occupational therapists support gifted children and their families in exactly the same way we support people in the special needs community: without judgement or dismissing problems that arise in living.
The Gifted Child Handout pack has finally arrived! Grab this informational packet that can educate and start the conversation about giftedness in the classroom, at home, and in the therapy clinic: The Gifted Child Handout Pack has Arrived!
If you are the parent of a very young gifted child, and you would like more support, take a look at some of my previous posts:Supporting The Gifted Toddler at Preschool and Your Bossy Baby or Toddler May Be Gifted. Really. Here Are The Signs You Are Missing! You can use these strategies today to help your gifted child!
Want more personalized support to manage your gifted child’s behavior at home and school? Are you a new OT and have questions about how to treat gifted kids in your practice? Send me a message in the comments section, and we can do a Zoom consult. You will have a chance to ask questions and get answers that can make a difference!