I’m doing a lot of editing work today down here in Louisiana on a report the Templeton Foundation will soon release, having to do with its general funding priorities. I was reading last night about all the things JTF funds in areas of education and exceptional cognitive ability, and was reminded of a conversation I had not long ago with a friend whose young child is a bona fide genius, according to diagnostic tests experts ran on the boy, whom I’ll call Jordan. My friend laughs when he describes his son as “severely gifted,” a term he uses to indicate a certain degree of disability that’s part of his child’s condition.
N., my friend, said the experts helping his family cope with Jordan’s condition warned at the outset that he and his wife should expect that Jordan will have problems and struggles equivalent to that of a child who was intellectually disabled — “but nobody’s going to understand this or feel sorry for you,” he quoted them as saying. People can’t wrap their minds around the idea that to be a true genius can be as debilitating in some ways as to be mentally challenged.
It is a difficult concept to grasp, yet to spend time talking to N., and to hear stories about the online community of parents with children like this, is to enter into a tiny subculture that defies all expectations of what genius in children is like. N. relates stories of parents driven to the brink of despair over how to educate their kids, and how to provide for their emotional needs, which are typically intense. Try, he said, to understand what it’s like for kids who are so advanced that they can’t relate to children their own age. But they don’t know why they stand apart; all they know is that they do. They feel like freaks, he said, and in some sense they are freaks. The world tells them that they should just try to get along, and chastises them for being anti-social. N. said that parents often have to endure the well-meaning advice of family members and others who think that they’re coddling these hothouse flower children, and the thing to do is to throw ’em in the pool, so to speak, and to make ’em swim.
“What do you do,” he told me (and I’m reconstructing this conversation from memory), “with a kid who struggles to do basic math, but who discusses ideas integral to the basis for calculus? You look at Jordan and see a basically sweet 11 year old who has no friends and who can’t even remember his times tables. But his math tutor said to us the other day that Jordan brought up on his own basic calculus concepts, things he hadn’t been shown, but intuited on his own. What do you do with a kid like that? He looks to the outside world like a socially maladjusted slacker who is not living up to his potential. People have no idea what’s really going on with this kid, and kids like him.”
It turns out, says N., that a lot of kids at this level of cognitive ability also have other problems — Asperger syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other neurological difficulties. Which only makes coping that much harder.
When I was at the recent Templeton advisors meeting in NYC, I met a scientist whose teenager, now completing a Ph.D. in physics at Caltech, was one of these kids. Normal school was impossible, so they had to homeschool the child. Catering to the child’s emotional needs was as important as meeting the intellectual needs.The scientist told me, “These kids need you more when they’re 14 than they did when they were two.” The stories this scientist told sounded a lot like what my friend N. says: that the struggles these kids and their parents go through are monumental, yet make little or no sense to outsiders — (“What are you complaining about? The kid’s a genius!”) — and the lack of understanding and support only makes them that much harder to endure.