Darn Those Mythological Gifted Kids Who Are a Construct of Our Social Norms

There is a wonderful, probably reasonably obscure book by Rafael Sabatini called “Bellarion the Fortunate” where the intellectually gifted Bellarion is sent out into the world by his abbot because his reading and reason have lead him to believe – with the certainty of an intellectual who has read all the literature and thought hard about it in his convent – that evil and sin are a construct and do not exist.

But to all the weapons of his saintly rhetoric Bellarion continued to oppose the impenetrable shield of that syllogism of his which the abbot knew at heart to be fallacious, yet whose fallacy he laboured in vain to expose. ” [1]

The book is not a treatise on the reality of good or evil, but an adventure book which ends with a very worldly Bellarion who is very much more aware of his fellow humans after leaving his ivory tower of thought.

But I am not writing today to talk about Bellarion and the nature of his discussions on good and evil. I am instead going to write about the work, so far, of Dr Clementine Beauvais, and her blog entries on ‘The Giftedness Project’ [2].

Much like Bellarion’s abbot, I do not expect to be able to make much of an impression on Dr Beauvais as she has her armour of academic credentials, and the raft of knowledge collected from many thousands of academics discussing ideas among themselves with little reference to the outside world, and that armour is very strong. She has also made clear that she is not interested in the reality of giftedness, which she believes to be largely a construct of society.

Darn Those Gifted Kids Who are a Contruct of Our Social Norms, yellowreadis.com Image: Toy dragon looking sadly at floor against wooden wall

“This double assumption is very common, and its pervasiveness in popular understandings of the term has been repeatedly demonstrated by researchers. However, this ‘theory of giftedness’, while it was once held to be true, is not anymore; at least not by most gifted education specialists and certainly not by sociologists of education.” [2]
I would like to note that her references to academic literature here is rather thin, but it is a blog post, not an academic paper. The other thing I think is worth noticing is the reference to education specialists and sociologists of education. Baring other references, I am going to assume that the researchers she is referring to are from these fields. 
But the idea that a consensus opinion can be reached on whether a neurological condition exists or is a social construct can’t just be decided by looking at education or sociological literature and research. Because fundamentally, there are other fields; ones based on the scientific principle of creating hypotheses and testing them in verifiable or falsifiable experiments. So I am going to talk about the hard sciences of neurology, physiology and genetics. The kind of research that will not be found easily in the education literature – because as Dr Beauvais rightly talks about – it is uncomfortable. 
“Firstly, giftedness is not a pre-existing category nor an objective quality but a social construct, based on a number of historical, (sometimes pseudo-)scientific, educational and cultural norms, and it is connected to other constructs such as ‘intelligence’, ‘creativity’, ‘potential’ and ‘success’, not to mention ‘the child’, none of which ‘objective’.”[2]

Now, I could spend a lot of time enumerating the very empirical results from science researchers on the differences in brain function of gifted individuals. I could even go so far as to make grand sweeping statements about this research. But I’m not going to do that. Instead I am going to trust that if you are reading this article, you are capable of understanding high-level academic concepts and using a dictionary for unknown terms. And so I’m just going to put in links to the original articles, many in prestigious journals. 

Enhanced brain connectivity in math-gifted adolescents: An fMRI study using mental rotation[3] 

And for those individuals who do not have access to the full articles because they are not affiliated with a university, please consider reading this John Hopkins University blog post on brain scans [7]. 
And just in case this is a bit too technical and laden with ‘academic-speak’ here’s a blog post outlining some of the differences found in physiology between gifted and neurotypical children [8].
But please feel free to go and read the original news article:
Cortex Matures Faster in Youth with Highest IQ” from the National Institute of Mental Health [9].
Or you can go straight to the original article in Nature:
I must admit, from my ‘I have no PhD but I still have a brain’ perspective, I’m far more willing to trust that -perhaps – if the neurologists can find a difference in the way that gifted brains work, that it’s not actually a ‘social’ construct, but might actually be wiring. 

But what about that idea of social constructs?
“Secondly, and as a result, the notion that giftedness is ‘inborn’ is hugely problematic. It is quite fruitless to quibble over whether children are ‘naturally’ gifted if giftedness is mostly a social construction. We can get into debates about original ‘dispositions’ or ‘abilities’, but at the end of the day a ‘gifted child’ is a child who scores highly on a given society’s conception of giftedness, according to specific measurements designed for that purpose.“[2]

So how do we define whether an idea is a social construct? When does it cease to be a construction and start to be considered ‘real’? Using this kind of definition I could say that disability ‘doesn’t exist because it’s a social construct‘. If a child has trouble walking because they have cerebral palsy [11], is their disability a ‘social construct’? Or lets get very meta and say, if everyone had cerebral palsy and motor control problems, would that mean it then wasn’t a disability? How would our society look? Would we expect that all children are unable to climb and jump? And what of the children who happened to be born without cerebral palsy – would they be considered neuro-atypical because they desire to climb and jump? Does that somehow ‘make’ cerebral palsy a ‘social construct’ despite the vast amounts of medical and scientific research that says its a real and measurable condition with physiological and behavioural effects?

Or what if everyone had sensory sensitivities, just like gifted people, as explained by Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration and over excitabilities [12]?  Such things as the inability to walk into shopping centres because of fluorescent lighting – can we say that isn’t a disability, because lighting in supermarkets, designed for neurotypical people is a ‘social construct’? That an inability to cope with loud noises is a ‘social construct’ because we live in a society that builds environments that are designed for less aurally sensitive people? That the inability to emotionally cope with news bulletins, emotionally-intense movies and witnessed social injustice is just a ‘social construct’ because our society doesn’t make allowances for emotional sensitivity? How about the need to be physically moving in order to think – in environments that expect thinking to be a sedentary activity?[See Note A]

These are real physiological conditions with real-life consequences for people who have to live with them – gifted people. Which is why the Columbus Group [13] use this definition for giftedness:

“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.” [13]

which you can read about more extensively with the Columbus Group’s book,  “Off the Charts: Asynchrony and the Gifted Child“[14]

Of course, Dr Beauvais doesn’t leave it there, but goes on to assert that these ‘mythological’ gifted children have few mental or financial difficulties:

Currently, it is fair to say, the consensus among researchers seems to be that children identified as ‘gifted’ are not more likely than average to have mental health issues either in childhood or in adulthood (there is some evidence that they are in fact less likely to). Furthermore, unsurprisingly, children identified as ‘gifted’ tend to do better financially in future life than ‘normal’ children.”[15]

Now there are no references to exactly where this consensus comes from, so I’m going to have to make some assumptions, again. 

There are a number of longitudinal studies on gifted children:

  • There is the one by Dr Lewis Terman, which followed a selected group of gifted children through to adulthood. A study, ground breaking in it’s day, but full of problems due to the fact that Terman’s criteria for selecting gifted children were biased (possibly based on his ideas about eugenics),
     As a group, they were overwhelmingly white, urban and middle class. Nearly all lived in California.” [16]  

    He also had problems where his emotional attachment to his subjects undermined the scientific validity of his results :

    To the group he always called “my gifted children” — even after they grew up — Terman became mentor, confidant, guidance counselor[sic] and sometimes guardian angel, intervening on their behalf. In doing so, he crashed through the glass that is supposed to separate scientists from subjects, undermining his own data. But Terman saw no conflict in nudging his protégés toward success, and many of them later reflected that being a “Terman kid” had indeed shaped their self-images and changed the course of their lives.“[16] 

  • But it is far more likely that Dr Beauvais is referring to the John Hopkin’s University Longitudinal Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth [17]. Which on the surface seems like a less-biased study –  unless you actually read the paper, rather than trusting to news articles and journalists’ reporting. This is because participants in the study were selected on the basis of SAT scores administered between the ages of 12 and 13. As the SAT is rarely given to children at age 12, the fact that the test was administered implies that there was someone, whether a parent, teacher or other adult mentor who ‘pushed’ for testing to be carried out. As sitting the SAT also generally requires a fee to be paid, but fee waivers are not applicable for students who are officially enrolled in grades lower than 9th grade [18], this condition implies that poor students without financial support and/or supportive home and school environments are at best going to be under-represented in the population sample.

All this leads to the me to conclude that we can’t actually say, as Dr Beauvais claimed, that children identified as ‘gifted’ tend to do better financially in future life than ‘normal’ children.”[15] because many of the most prestigious studies are either biased in their selection towards an initial higher socio-economic status, are biased in their methodologies, or biased towards subjects who have pro-active adults with financial means interested in their development.

To break this down into a simple analogy, let’s say I go to the grocery store and decide to buy some apples – but I only select red apples (maybe because I’m short and the red apples are on a low shelf, but the green and yellow apples are out of my arms reach). When I get home, someone has a look at my sample of apples and, never having bothered to go to the grocery store themselves, notices that all the apples are red. Baring any actual real-world ‘let’s go to the grocery store and have a look at apples‘ type experiment they conclude that redness must be what causes these particular fruit to be apples. Of course, going to the grocery store might actually bring up some uncomfortable truths: not all apples are red; or some types of red fruit are actually tomatoes.

Of course, if you are part of an education system that believes giftedness is a social construct, it’s easy to dismiss the concerns of poor or minority parents with gifted children who are labelled ‘behaviourally challenged’  [19]
We don’t know how poor gifted kids turn out, nor do we know how many of them there are because no one is really looking for them! (If anyone has any links or evidence of a concerted attempt by educational bureaucracy to identify and support gifted minorities in any country, please leave a comment).  It is quite possible, even plausible that the reason they aren’t being looked for is that it has been assumed ‘they don’t exist’ by education researchers and sociologists who believe giftedness is a construct of society. 

I’m extremely doubtful that there is any reality at all to the idea that some children are simply ‘born with’ ‘objective’ qualities that predispose them to such and such task that (lucky them!) happen to be socially valued“[2] 

Of course there is another disturbing narrative that is developed within Dr Beauvais’ work – though not explicitly developed on her blog – yet.

“I’ll write about ‘pushy parents’ another time, because it’s a very complex question.”[15]

And that is the idea that ‘pushy parents’ create gifted children. If this sounds like a familiar narrative, that’s because it is – within the history of Autism research in the 20th Century.

During the 1950s, Dr Kanner observed that many mothers of children with characteristics that we would now describe as Autistic appeared to be emotionally distant and ‘insensitive’ to their children [20]. This observation was expanded on by Dr Bettelheim, who concluded that Autism was ’caused’ by ‘refrigerator mother syndrome’ and insensitive mothers ‘created’ Autism in their children through their emotional unavailability[20]. These theories have been completely discredited and today autism is a recognised disability that can be diagnosed with psychological test batteries, behavioural observations and fMRI scans. For more details, please consider reading Pediatrics Perspective Autism in 1959: Joey the Mechanical Boy, By Dr Baker [20].

There is extensive work being done on the ‘theory of brain’ as Dr Temple Grandin succinctly puts it in her book, ‘The Autistic Brain‘ [21], in which many of these behavioural characteristics are now, with the help of fMRIs, beginning to be causally linked to brain wiring. To paraphrase Temple Grandin,  ‘It’s not in the mind, it’s in the brain’. Or possibly even in the genes. 

For those less familiar with the field of profound giftedness and it’s links to autism and autistic behaviour, I’m going to recommend two studies – one is the case study,

“Profoundly Gifted Girls and Autism Spectrum Disorder, A Psychometric Case Study Comparison”[22]

Which studies two girls, one profoundly gifted (PG), the other profoundly gifted with Autism (ASD). After being put through a battery of psychological, and behavioural tests, the only difference the specialists were able to find was within the ASD battery – the PG+ASD child had social isolation and social dysfunction, while the PG child had social isolation which looked like social dysfunction

This was a small scale study in response to Dr J. Webb’s research on misdiagnosis of gifted children [23].  

As well as these studies, there is the work Dr Joanne Ruthsatz [24] on the link between prodigy and Autism. 

Child prodigy: A novel cognitive profile places elevated general intelligence, exceptional working memory and attention to detail at the root of prodigiousness” [25]

Her team is also currently working on finding genetic links and isolating potential gene clusters that are similar between prodigy and autistic populations [24]. 

Whether the genes linking these two conditions will be found is yet to be determined. But none-the-less, these studies in genetics, neurology and behavioural psychology rather undermine the idea that there is a ‘consensus’ of researchers who believe giftedness is a ‘social construct’. 

I believe it is a false argument to say that ‘pushy’ parents ‘create’ gifted children and that it is merely an artifact of higher socio-economic advantage, and therefore giftedness doesn’t exist. You can’t make that kind of statement unless you can be sure that 

  • The people looking know what to look for in gifted poor populations
  • You aren’t starting with the assumption that it’s socio-economic privilege and don’t bother looking in socio-economically deprived populations.

For more information, it’s worth reading the NAGC’s article on this topic,  “Identifying and Nurturing the Gifted Poor“[27].

For an example of how this can be done right, I’m going to link to a little-known IQ test that is used in Australia called the Coolabah Dynamic test [28].

This test is designed to be able to identify gifted children within the Aboriginal populations in Australia. It has had to be carefully designed to overcome the cultural bias and the ‘forced-choice dilemma‘[29] in at-risk gifted populations. There are then two rounds of testing, separated by a period of remediation work to help students who have disadvantaged background and as a result may not test well on the first test. 

These are the kind of tests that need to be created for disadvantaged minority communities if our society is to have a chance of finding and helping these children. 
Then we can start to implement invaluable programs such as the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) [30] initiative in Victoria, which is designed to help gifted Aboriginal children find mentors in their field of interest who have also come from situations of disadvantage. 

But these kind of tests, conversations and programs aren’t even being started in many places  – because of dialogue and misrepresentation that giftedness is a sociological construct and that it only exists within advantaged populations And it’s this kind of muddled thinking that can do plenty of real world damage to vulnerable populations.  

My hope is that Dr Beauvais actually reads and understands some of the scientific papers and initiatives I have presented here. That she has a good hard look at some of the assumptions about what giftedness looks like – not just in the literature, but also in her own head. Maybe even actually going to the effort of engaging in the real world; contacting parents, teachers and organisations that are engaged in helping gifted children, and actually going and meeting a few profoundly gifted children. 

As she is in the UK, I am going to recommend she starts by contacting organisations such as: 

With that knowledge, she may then be able to look at her research in a new light and, much like Bellarion, actually gain experience from walking around in the real world. 

Update – April 2015

The first evidence of a genetic link between prodigy and Autism has been found by a team at Ohio University, lead by Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz [34]. The researchers found both have shared genetic markers on chromosome 1. The results can be read in the Journal of Human Heredity, 
Molecular Genetic Evidence for Shared Etiology of Autism and Prodigy” by Ruthsatz et al [34]. For those unable to access journals behind a firewall, Science Daily has done a brief summary of the results, “Autism and prodigy share a common genetic link” [35].


A. These OE characteristics are not uniformly present across the gifted spectrum, but most gifted children exhibit them to a greater or lesser degree. The higher an individual is on the gifted spectrum, the more frequent and intense these characteristics can become. The point at which these characteristics cease to be just characteristics and spill over into clinical disability is a question that has troubled parents and medical clinicians for quite some time. See [22] and [23] for further details. 


  1. Bellarion The Fortunate, R. Sabatini http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1304051h.html
  2. The Giftedness Project (1): Popular conceptions of giftedness, Dr Clementine Beauvais (https://www.clementinebeauvais.com/eng/2014/09/20/the-giftedness-project-1-popular-conceptions-of-giftedness/ –link removed)
  3. Enhanced brain connectivity in math-gifted adolescents: An fMRI study using mental rotation“, J. Prescotta et al.
  4. Mathematically gifted adolescents use more extensive and more bilateral areas of the fronto-parietal network than controls during executive functioning and fluid reasoning tasks“, M. Desco et al.
  5. An fMRI study of nonverbally gifted reading disabled adults: has deficit compensation effected gifted potential?“, J. Gilger et al.
  6. Neural correlates of intelligence as revealed by fMRI of fluid analogies“, J. Geake et al.
  7. “Brains on Fire: The Multinodality of Gifted Thinkers”, by Brock Eide and Fernette Eidehttps://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/Neurosciences/articles/Brains%20on%20Fire/
  8. “What Brain Imaging Shows Us About Gifted Learners”, by Tamara Fisher https://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/unwrapping_the_gifted/2010/02/what_brain_imaging_shows_us_ab.html
  9. Cortex Matures Faster in Youth with Highest IQfrom the National Institute of Mental Healthhttps://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/science-news/2006/cortex-matures-faster-in-youth-with-highest-iq.shtml
  10. Intellectual ability and cortical development in children and adolescents“, P. Shaw et al.
  11. “Are we really that far from ‘normal’?”https://yellowreadis.com/2014/06/are-we-really-that-far-from-normal.html 
  12. “Overexcitability and the Gifted”, by Sharon Lindhttps://www.sengifted.org/archives/articles/overexcitability-and-the-gifted 
  13. “The Columbus Group”, by the Gifted Development Center
  14. Off the Charts: Asynchrony and the Gifted Child, edited by by Christine S. Neville et al. https://www.amazon.com/Off-Charts-Asynchrony-Gifted-Child/dp/0898243807 
  15. The Giftedness Project (2). Giftedness and the (Un)happy Child”, by Dr Clementine Beauvais (https://www.clementinebeauvais.com/eng/2014/10/25/the-giftedness-project-2-giftedness-and-the-unhappy-child –link removed)
  16. The Vexing Legacy of Lewis Terman, By Mitchell Leslie, Stanford Alumnihttps://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=40678
  17. “Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth After 35 Years”, by D. Lubinski and C. Benbow
  18. “SAT Fee Waivers, What are they, and who is eligible?”https://sat.collegeboard.org/register/sat-fee-waivers
  19. Parenting Children that don’t exist”, by Dr Doresa, AKA DAJeduhttps://youtu.be/KVy5m9gZRhs?list=UUWJAZEPQHt53zErrQxFudIA
  20. “Pediatrics Perspective Autism in 1959: Joey the Mechanical Boy”, by Dr J. Baker
  21. “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum”, by Dr Temple Grandinhttps://www.amazon.com/The-Autistic-Brain-Thinking-Spectrum/dp/0547636458
  22. Profoundly Gifted Girls and Autism Spectrum Disorder, A Psychometric Case Study Comparisonby S. Assouline, et al.
  23. “Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children”, by J. Webb et al.
  24. Dr Joanne Ruthsatz, The Ohio State University at Mansfield
  25. Child prodigy: A novel cognitive profile places elevated general intelligence, exceptional working memory and attention to detail at the root of prodigiousness“, by J. Ruthsatz and J. Urbach
  26. “Putting practice into perspective: Child prodigies as evidence of innate talent”, by J. Ruthsatz et al.
  27.  “Identifying and Nurturing the Gifted Poor by P. Slocumb and R. Payne
  28. Coolabah dynamic assessment: identifying high academic potential in at-risk populations
    by G. Chaffey and S. Bailey. from the book, “Diversity in Gifted Education: International Perspectives on Global Issues
  29. “The pursuit of excellence or the search for intimacy? The forced-choice dilemma of gifted youth”, by M. Gross
  30. Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) 
  31. Potential Plus, UK
  32. Gifted Ireland
  33. British Mensa
  34. “Molecular Genetic Evidence for Shared Etiology of Autism and Prodigy”, by Ruthsatz et al.
  35. “Autism and prodigy share a common genetic link”, Science Daily

14 Replies to “Darn Those Mythological Gifted Kids Who Are a Construct of Our Social Norms”

  1. Oh, now *this* was spectacular. Thank you, Kathleen, for not only tackling the science-end of this craziness, but also for taking the time to track down and cite sources. Very well done. <3

  2. Perfectly excellent post. Clear, thorough, supported by facts, and well-said. This one will be historical. Thank you for working so diligently to write this to support the gifted children all over the world!

  3. I hope you had a mic handy to drop after you hit publish on this post, Kathleen. I have the sense that I'll be sharing this post over and over again. THANK YOU

    Also, I am VERY interested to use the test you mentioned for Aboriginals. I wonder how I instigate something like that.

  4. GERRIC at the University of NSW has a free online professional development package for teachers that outlines the Coolabah test process. https://education.arts.unsw.edu.au/about-us/gerric/resources/pd-package/
    I believe Module 2 Deals with identifying children, And Module 4 focuses on the gifted underachiever. I remember that they go into the Coolabah Dynamic Test in detail, but I can't find the exact page numbers – my apologies. But it has an excellent reference section so it will have the links to where the test has been used and where it can be found. I am also fairly sure GERRIC would have information on where you could access the necessary documents in order to run the test.

  5. Thankyou Celi for your kind words. I am happy if it's of use to help gifted children – but the real kudos belong to the researchers who have been working so diligently in many fields to help gifted children through their collection of information on who and where gifted children are and how to best help them.

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