Dr. Devon MacEachron\'s Blog

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Intelligence is multifaceted. When people tell me they want to know their IQ, I feel like asking: “In what area?” There are many different cognitive abilities and they have different impacts on what one is trying to accomplish. That’s why I approach the assessment of a person’s abilities from the perspective of the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) model which is, in effect, an inventory of “the intelligences.” It’s the most comprehensive and empirically supported theory of the structure of cognitive abilities to date, reflecting 70 years of research. About 80 different abilities are defined, with 20-25 of these playing important roles in school learning.

What I’d like to talk about today is the future and the role fluid intelligence might have in it. In the CHC model there are basically two main groupings of abilities that represent higher-order reasoning: crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence. They can be traced to two separate brain systems. Crystallized intelligence is a function of brain regions that involve the storage and usage of long-term memories, such as the hippocampus. Fluid intelligence involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and other systems related to attention and short-term memory.

Crystallized Intelligence is the ability to use learned knowledge and experience. It’s not the same thing as memory, but it does rely on accessing information from long-term memory (learning that has become “crystallized”). Crystallized intelligence encompasses vocabulary, depth and breadth of general knowledge, the ability to listen to and understand oral communications, knowledge of grammar, and the like. It is the product of educational and cultural experience. When you meet someone who has a large vocabulary, knows a lot of facts, is a Crossword puzzle or Scrabble master, and is a voracious reader, you can be pretty sure they have strong crystallized intelligence. People who have strong crystallized intelligence tend to sound really smart and they tend to do well in school.

In contrast, Fluid Intelligence is the capacity to reason and solve novel problems, independent of any knowledge from the past. It involves drawing inferences, concept formation, classification, generating and testing hypothesis, identifying relations, comprehending implications, problem solving, extrapolating, and transforming information. Fluid reasoning encompasses inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. Sherlock-Holmes kind of thinking. When you meet someone who has strong fluid reasoning you may not have any idea how smart they are until you throw a problem at them that needs solving. People who have strong fluid intelligence don’t necessarily excel in school, especially in the lower grade levels. If they make it to the PhD-level they may have trouble memorizing all the information they need to pass their oral exams. But boy can they defend their dissertation!

Some of the children I work with are strong in both areas. Others are strong in one or the other, but not both. The ones with strong crystallized intelligence tend to do well in school, as so much of school (the way it is structured today) is about learning facts and procedures. The ones with strong fluid intelligence may be so busy questioning the assumptions that they don’t learn the rules and procedures their classmates do. They may resist authority and question the value of what’s taught in school.

The Future: Our world is changing very rapidly. I know people have often said that about the times they live in, but it’s more true now than ever before. The pace of innovation and disruption is accelerating. As a society we are facing all kinds of novel problems to which we have no learned solutions, from political changes to global warming to the potential dangers of artificial intelligence. By 2020, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have brought us advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning, advanced materials, biotechnology and genomics. I wonder: What kind of brains will our children need to work in that kind of environment?

Now I’m going to enter into an area of conjecture and hypothesis, as I can find very little research literature on the topic. I guess I’m tapping into my own fluid intelligence.

I think the minds that will be best-suited to solving the world’s problems in the future are those with strengths in fluid intelligence. I believe that individuals who rely on crystallized intelligence may look to the past and rely too much on book learning and facts and procedures. In contrast, individuals who rely on fluid intelligence will be able to think on their feet around something totally unfamiliar, and be comfortable with the kind of complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity we’re facing. They will be flexible and fluid thinkers who like challenging the assumptions and thinking outside the box. Because many aspects of crystallized intelligence (e.g. stores of knowledge) can be easily accessed with a quick swipe on our phone, they may not be hampered by having weaker crystallized intelligence.

I feel a shift in the kind of intelligence we need for the future necessitates changes in the way we teach children. We’re teaching 19th century skills in our 21st century schools. To teach 21st and 22nd century skills will require a move away from the teaching of standard procedures and rote memorization toward creative problem-solving and how to tap into inductive and deductive reasoning processes. Intelligence is not fixed – it’s malleable. That’s what having a “growth mentality” is all about. So I’d like to see schools, parents, employers, and others focus more on the benefits of enhancing human fluid intelligence. After all, machines can probably do crystallized intelligence a lot better than we can anyway.

Many parents wonder if their child will grow out of the problems that plague them as a child: their dyslexia, math disability, writing challenges, weak executive function, ADHD, or Asperger’s. I’m asked this question quite often by successful adults who are initially surprised their children are struggling, but when interviewed carefully about their own early years admit to having experienced similar challenges. But now they are a successful adult, so they must have grown out of it. Right?

Not necessarily. The short answer to whether most children grow out of these challenges is: probably not. At least not completely. But the demands in the world around them (their day-to-day environment) do change, and as they move through school and career they can be more selective about the kinds of things they choose to do, electing to do things they’re good at and avoiding things they’re not. So their dyslexia or ADHD or Asperger’s might not negatively impact the quality of their life very much as an adult, and may even become an advantage. But they still have it.

Adults diagnosed with dyslexia as children, even if they benefit from years of reading and writing remediation, tend to remain poor spellers and slow readers. I see this every day in my dyslexic husband who reads one book to my ten, though we spend the same amount of time reading every day.

For ADHD, some of the research suggests that children with ADHD simply have delayed brain maturation (by 3-5 years), but that they will eventually catch up with their peers. Unfortunately this may not happen until well past puberty and into college. I get dozens of calls every year from families of college freshmen with ADHD who are spinning out of control in the area of executive function. I often feel that students with ADHD would benefit from being “redshirted” to give their frontal lobe a chance to catch up with their peers’. Redshirting is a practice used most often in athletics of postponing entrance into kindergarten of age-eligible children in order to allow extra time for physical growth, making the children bigger and stronger thus more competitive athletically than their grade-peers. But it would be hard to “redshirt” our ADHD children for 3-5 years!

Anyway, rather than completely growing out of it, it seems that most children with ADHD grow up into adults with ADHD. The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that two-thirds of children with ADHD continue to grapple with symptoms (at some level) throughout adulthood. Their symptoms may present significant challenges, or they may not – depending on the circumstances. Some adults with ADHD only demonstrate impairing symptoms when they are anxious or depressed. Or when they’re hurrying. Or when they have to work on a long-term project. Or when they haven’t been getting enough exercise lately.

The environment and the individual’s physical state are both critical factors determining whether symptoms will be problematic or not. This is true for other medical conditions as well. If you have Type-II diabetes how you eat influences whether your symptoms manifest and whether your condition will appear to be dormant or you will have to use insulin for treatment. Adults with ADHD can try to choose careers (environments) that are well-suited to their needs. I can’t imagine either of my own children functioning very effectively if they were required to sit quietly at a desk all day doing routine work. Fortunately, they’ve gravitated to the fast-changing worlds of tech and media start-ups. In these environments they find it easy to stay attentive and focused. They can get up and move around. And they’ve learned that they’re more focused when they take care of their physical states by exercising, meditating, getting enough sleep, and eating right.

Children with Asperger’s still retain autistic brain differences as adults and gravitate to professions that fit their profiles. Hans Asperger wrote: “We can see in the autistic person, far more clearly than with any normal child, a predestination for a particular profession from earliest youth. A particular line of work often grows naturally out of their special abilities.” The adult with Asperger’s working as a physics professor or in Silicon Valley may be perceived as eccentric, but not necessarily as having a “disability.” The right environment can bring out the best aspects of a unique profile and downplay the worst.
Even during the school years, a child’s symptoms may manifest differently depending on the demands of the environment. A dyslexic child may experience significant challenges in elementary school when they have to read written text, hand-write responses, and are marked off for spelling errors. But when they’re in high school and can listen to text through voice software, type responses, and use spell-check, things can get a lot easier. A child with a math disability who struggles to recall math facts and has slow math calculation fluency may have a lot of trouble in elementary school when math is mostly about arithmetic. But when they reach high school and college when it’s more about problem-solving and fluid reasoning, they may excel.

So, children don’t usually grow out of it, but they may not be troubled by the different way their brain is wired when the demands of the environment change. In fact, having a differently wired brain may confer distinct advantages.

Books like: The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain by Dr.’s Brock and Fernette Eide; The ADHD Advantage: What You Thought Was a Diagnosis May Be Your Greatest Strength, by Dale Archer, M.D.; and The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism & Asperger’s by Temple Grandin, M.D. point out the advantages that being wired differently can confer. This is not just “feel-good” pop-science – there is some serious research uncovering real strengths in thinking associated with each of these diagnoses.

If orange is the new black, maybe having a “disability” is the new superpower.

Here’s the “prescription” I give the families I work with for the perfect summer: “Take two genuine interests, explore them thoroughly, and call me in September.”

When parents actively help their child explore their interests and delve deeply into their passions, everyone in the family ends up having a rewarding summer. Whether the passion is marine biology or engineering, art or writing, programs can be found or designed to address every child’s interests. For the parent whose child happens to be interested in something offered at a nearby summer camp, this can be easy to arrange. For the parent who lives far from such resources or for whom high program fees are prohibitive, or whose child has unusual interests, planning a summer of enrichment can be a bit more challenging. It is my view, though, that parents can give no greater gift than helping their child design and implement a summer of exploring their genuine interests, utilizing talents, accomplishing something of value, and building self-esteem.

Benefits of Engagement

The benefits for children of a summer engaged in enrichment in their interests are manifold: intellectual stimulation, increased motivation to achieve, enhanced marketability to colleges, the chance of finding passions or a future career, validation of self, increased self-esteem, increased happiness, and social connectedness.

Intellectually, students who work on something they are interested in at their pace of learning are stimulated at a level rarely possible during the school year. The opportunity to study something of intrinsic interest and challenge is the most thrilling intellectual experience possible. Kindling an intrinsic motivation can even lead to a transfer of motivation and stronger desire to achieve throughout the school year. Students can build a résumé showing the pursuit of interests and achievement, positioning the student well for college applications. Selective colleges are far more interested in applicants who have pursued their genuine interests over the years than in those who engage only in what is required and valued at school. Children may find their true calling in life by exploring their interests.

But perhaps the greatest benefit of an enrichment-focused summer is in the emotional area. By valuing our child’s interests, we show that we truly care about them for who they are, not who we think they should be. By taking their interests seriously, we validate their unique sense of self. Knowing that they have their parents’ support can give students a sense of security and help them become the person they really want to be. Furthermore, children who spend their summers pursuing personally meaningful goals are happier than children who just “hang out.” Children who pursue their interests during the summer often come into frequent contact with peers or mentors in their interest area. Relationships with others who share their interests can be deeply fulfilling in a way that interactions with school-year classmates and video-game buddies are not.

Tips for Parents

Summer is upon us. How can parents design an enrichment-focused summer for their child?

Begin with an assessment of your child’s genuine interests. In a non-judgmental way, directly ask what they want to learn more about, from anthropology to zoology, archery to yoga, animation to  film making. Making a broad list of different kinds of hobbies and fields of interest and discussing them with your child can be helpful. Reflect on how your child chooses to spend his or her free time, the books that absorb their interest, the kinds of exhibits that engage them in museums, and any other clues to what intrigues them. Even interests that on the surface don’t appear to lend themselves to productive enrichment can be turned in interesting directions. For example, if your daughter spends most of her free time on the phone with friends in conversations about their social relationships, recognize that this could be a clue that she may be good at and interested in helping people solve problems. Consider exposing her to psychology.

Once parents have a better understanding of their child’s interests, what next?

Embrace them. Don’t try to influence your child into pursuing something you consider to be more impressive, or something that you wish you could have done, but didn’t. Remember, it’s your child’s life, not yours.

Search for opportunities for your child to delve deeply into exploring their interests. Discourage your child from following friends to a camp that may interest the friends, but might not be a good fit for your child.

Don’t limit yourself to organized programs (although there are many terrific ones). Sometimes the best opportunities are the ones that the two of you initiate together.

Don’t be shy about asking experts for their advice. Most experts who have a consuming interest in something are flattered when they’re approached by a parent with a child who’s intrigued by it. I know of children who interned with a scientist and co-published articles in journals by the time they were out of middle school. Professional musicians can often recommend teachers, competitions, and music schools. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals might allow your child to “job shadow” for a day.

Plan family vacations and day outings around your child’s interests. Paleontology fits with a trip to the Southwest to volunteer on a dinosaur dig. Engineering fits with outings to science museums and factory tours. Law fits with visits to courtrooms or state or federal legislatures.

Find books and do internet searches to learn more about your child’s interests. Discover topic-specific magazines, websites, podcasts, and YouTubes. Find out about lectures, conferences, webinars, and other special events.

Learn about local special interest clubs and organizations. Most communities have star watching groups, book groups, birding clubs, speech-making clubs, and other groups that offer events and information.

Be involved. Don’t just sign your child up. Accompany him or her to events. Help him practice his musical instrument. Read the books he or she is reading and discuss them over dinner. Studies repeatedly show that parental involvement is essential if children are to fully develop their potential.

If you follow this “prescription” for the perfect summer, your child will begin the school year with renewed energy, enthusiasm for learning, and one step closer to achieving the joy of true fulfillment. And you’ll have quite an interesting ride along the way!

Note: This article is an update of one I published in 2012 on the SENG  (Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted) website: www.seng.org.

Does your dyslexic child love to build or draw things? Is he or she fascinated by how things work? Does your child surprise you with his ability to “see” things in his mind’s eye? This may be evidence of a budding talent that can lead to a successful career in a field that relies on visual-spatial thinking.

Visual-spatial thinking is the process of reasoning (thinking) with visual images or pictures – with mental images. It involves non-verbal thought processes that are not based on words and language. People who have strong visual-spatial thinking ability can manipulate visual images in their mind, examining things from all angles, and can “see” a sort of slide-show or film of a process or event in their “mind’s eye.” Temple Grandin (who is autistic, not dyslexic) described visual-spatial thinking when she wrote: “My visual thinking gives me the ability to do a ‘test run’ in my head on a piece of equipment I’ve designed just like a virtual reality computer system. Mistakes can be found prior to construction when I do this.” Albert Einstein wrote: “the entities which seem to serve as elements in my thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be voluntarily reproduced and combined…this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought. The above-mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage.”

For years people have wondered if individuals with dyslexia, who have weaknesses in left-brain-based language processes, might have higher than average right-brain visual-spatial abilities because of the different way their brains are wired. It seems logical that “that the same brain organization that leads to language disabilities for dyslexics might also lead to certain high level abilities.” (Norman Geschwind).

The scientific evidence has built to suggest that many dyslexics do, in fact, have stronger visual-spatial abilities than their non-dyslexic peers. Dyslexics evidence an enhanced ability to process visual-spatial information globally (holistically) rather than locally (part by part). This may be why individuals with dyslexia are over represented in fields such as architecture, art, engineering, and the sciences. In discussions with successful dyslexics in these fields the capacity to “see” things differently comes up with remarkable frequency.

My dyslexic son displayed a talent in visual-spatial thinking at a young age. Because so much of his school day was spent feeling less capable than his peers, we decided to focus on enrichment in this interest/talent area so could feel good at something. We bought books about how things work, helped him enter a Lego building competition, enrolled him for the Johns Hopkins Talent Search Spatial Test Battery, let him take apart and build mechanical objects around the house, enrolled him in summer engineering programs, helped him find an internship at an engineering firm, and did everything we could think of to help him develop his strength. Being good at something helped him get through the elementary and middle school years with his self-esteem intact – and ultimately helped him get into a good college because he had achievements in an area of passion. He majored in physics and is now a rocket engineer. He feels that his ability to picture things in his mind has enabled him to design original parts and envision how the engineering development process will flow better than many of his non-dyslexic peers.

When I work with dyslexic children who display an exceptional strength in an area like visual-spatial ability I often describe it to them as a “super power.” Something that makes them special and unique.

Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, who founded  Dyslexic Advantage, have developed questionnaires to help identify the strengths associated with dyslexia. I’ve adapted some of their work to use in my assessment practice.

If you answer “strongly agree” or “agree” to a majority of the questions below, your dyslexic child may have a gift at visual-spatial thinking – a “super power” that could lead to a career in a visual-spatial area and/or an enjoyable life-long hobby.

If you would like to learn more about how to identify and develop your child’s strengths, I am happy to talk and can be reached at: devon@drdevon.com.

(Note: the pronouns “he” and “his” refer to children of any gender in this questionnaire)

  1. My child is good at forming 3D pictures in his head, and I believe he can manipulate them and move through them in his mind when he wants to.
  2. When my child draws, he likes to use 3D techniques like perspective or cutaways.
  3. My child likes it when teachers use pictures and diagrams to explain things rather than just words.
  4. My child is good at building things (e.g. Legos, K’NEX, marble runs, arts and crafts projects).
  5. When he plays a video game, it’s easy for my child to learn his way around the virtual environment.
  6. When my child puts together a kit (e.g., Legos, toys or models), he usually doesn’t have to read the written instructions. He can just tell how things must go together by looking at the pictures.
  7. After going someplace once, my child usually doesn’t need directions, a GPS, or a map to find it again.
  8.  My child would rather learn new information using pictures, diagrams, graphs, videos, or maps, instead of just reading or listening to words.
  9. When my child thinks through a problem, his thinking is often more non-verbal (visual images) than verbal (words).
  10. Before he can describe what he thinks about something, my child often has to translate his thoughts into words (up to that point, his reasoning process hasn’t used primarily words).
  11. My child likes learning about engineering, architecture, design, and physics.
  12. My child enjoys activities that involve moving through space in complex ways (e.g. sailing, flying, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, dance).
  13. My child is good at recalling 3D details about things or places he’s been, like how big things were or where they were in relation to each other.
  14. My child likes looking at 3D structures and figuring out how they work (e.g. engines, clocks, household appliances).

Multi-potentiality is the state of having many exceptionally strong abilities or talents. The child who has the Midas touch and is good at everything he does from math to science to English to music to sports to art to leadership has multi-potentiality. It sounds wonderful doesn’t it? But for many children and young adults it can becomes a burden.

Why?

External Reasons: If you’re good at something, people tend to encourage you to pursue it. The child who is good at a lot of things may be pulled in many different directions by well-meaning teachers, coaches, and parents. Who should the child listen to? Their violin teacher who’s urging them to apply to Juilliard, their math teacher who wants to enter them into prestigious math competitions, or their tennis coach who’s encouraging them to become a nationally ranked player? There simply isn’t enough time in the day to pursue all of these talents. Disappointed adults can make the child feel he is “wasting his potential” if he doesn’t follow their advice and encouragement. This is particularly difficult when a parent has a dream for their child that fits with one of their child’s strengths. How can they let their parent down by not pursuing it? It’s a lot of pressure for a child to feel they need to live up to another’s expectations and dreams.

Internal reasons: We often decide what we’re interested in and want to pursue based on our abilities. The multi-talented high school student may try to do everything they’re good at and become so over-scheduled and exhausted that they have little time for reflection (or sleep). Adolescents and young adults approaching critical decision points like what major to declare in college and what career to pursue afterward may experience debilitating anxiety and stress over the decision. The student who excels at math and science but just gets by in English may decide to lead with his strengths and major in a STEM field in college. But the student who is good at everything may feel overwhelmed by the multitude of choices before him. I had a gifted friend in college who was brilliant at everything. She still hadn’t decided what to do in our senior year so she sat for the LSAT, GRE, and GMAT, thinking she’d choose between law, business, and graduate school based on her test scores. Her scores came in at the 99th percentile on all three exams, leaving her no further ahead in her decision-making.

What can we do to help students suffering from the downsides of multi-potentiality?

First, it’s important to encourage the child to try to not be influenced by external influences. They shouldn’t feel pressured by others to use their gifts. Parent alert: just because you wanted to be a concert pianist and your child appears to have the talent to do so doesn’t mean you should live your live through theirs.

Second, it’s important to inculcate the importance of genuine interests as a driver from a young age. Abilities are one thing – they are what the student is naturally good at. Interests are another thing altogether. Interests are what the child is drawn to. A child can be good at something they aren’t that interested in and interested in something they aren’t that good at. A way of helping the multi-talented child narrow his or her list of possibilities is to focus attention on what genuinely “lights their fire.” Interests can be formally assessed, but there are also ways parents can flush them out. Ask yourself: What makes my child smile and laugh? What gets and keeps my child’s attention? What gets my child excited? What are my child’s favorite things to do? What is my child willing to work hardest at doing? What “brings out the best” in my child? And what does my child choose to do most often in his or her free time (assuming they have any)? For most children, identifying these genuine interests significantly narrows the list of possibilities. A “sweet spot” can often be found where abilities and interests intersect, but I feel interests should win any contest between the two. The gifted child with multiple abilities is likely to be able to develop stronger abilities with effort in an area of strong interest.

Of course there are some children with multi-potentiality who are interested in everything too. For these children I recommend the Chinese menu approach. Take one interest from column A (academic subject), one from column B (arts activity), and one from column C (physical activity). Explore these for some time. Then try other items. This can be an iterative process until about high school when I feel it is best to narrow one’s commitments to at most 3-4 major areas.

Adding values to the mix can further narrow the list. Values are intrinsic core “wants” – the deep inner reasons or desires that motivate us like money, status, autonomy, fame, helping others, variety, power, security, risk-taking, and changing the world. The multi-ability, multi-interest child may be able to focus their efforts further if they consider what they truly value. This requires honest reflection.

It’s also important to let children know that the average person changes careers 3 to 7 times in their lifetime. They may be able to be a scientist and a doctor and a musician and an artist and an environmental activist in succession. Or they may successfully combine several disciplines into one career. While it’s harder today to be a polymath like Leonardo da Vinci, examples can be found of people who successfully combine fields. Noam Chomsky combines cognitive science, philosophy, psychology, and linguistics. Stephen Wolfram is a computer scientist, mathematician, physicist and cosmologist. Viggo Mortensen (perhaps best-known as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings) is a professional singer, composer, photographer, painter, founded a publishing house, and publishes poetry he’s written in three languages.

Another idea is to let children know that they can pursue their extra interests outside of their careers as hobbies. They can sing in the local choral group, coach baseball, and even build a lab in their garage to tinker with tech start-up ideas. All while having a full-time job doing something else.

No child is really “too gifted.” They just need to figure out which gifts among an abundance of many to open and play with first. If you would like to learn more about how to help your gifted child, contact Devon MacEachron, PhD. 

This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Blog Hop on “Multipotentiality.” I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page and elsewhere for their inspiration, support, and suggestions.                                                            

Brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.

As adults we respect and admire the accomplishments of renegades and creative minds like Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Nikolai Tesla, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Walt Disney, Vincent van Gogh, John Lennon, Steven Spielberg, and Robin Williams. They’re the inventors, imaginers, healers, explorers, creators, and inspirers who change the world. Without minds like theirs society would not move forward. We need them more than ever today.

But these very same individuals, as children, were the kinds of student teachers found most difficult, parents worried about and lost sleep over, and whose peers scorned or bullied them. Why? For the very same qualities that made them so successful as adults. Being different, rebelling against the status quo, refusing (or being constitutionally unable) to fit in, breaking or questioning the rules.

Most parents want their children to be happy, make friends, and do well in school and extracurricular activities like sports and music. Down the road they want them to get into a good college and launch a career that supports them and provides job satisfaction. Get married, have a family. Maybe they will even make a meaningful contribution to society.

But what many parents don’t realize or lose sight of in the trenches of elementary, middle, and high school is that for some children – especially twice-exceptional and gifted children – being “successful” in traditional ways as a child is not necessarily a good predictor of being successful as an adult.

I was guilty of this kind of myopic thinking as a parent myself, before an encounter made me rethink my values. My children were happy and had friends before formal schooling began, but once they started Kindergarten things began to go downhill. Teachers sent home notices about their behavior (inattentive, questioned authority, lacking focus, failed to complete assignments, etc.). Grades were spotty. Playdate invitations were less frequent than they would have liked. Uninterested in and not very good at organized sports, they were basically off the grid in terms of the kinds of extracurricular interests their peers were engaging in. The things they did like to do – building and taking things apart for my son and imagination and telling stories for my daughter – weren’t easily shared with peers and certainly didn’t give them any attention in the community. They were diagnosed with giftedness, learning disabilities, and ADHD, and I spent countless nights lying awake in bed worrying about their futures.

My “awakening” happened after an elementary school band concert when my then 4th grade daughter was called to the stage to play a clarinet solo she’d practiced for weeks in front of about 200 people. She stood there for a full minute rifling through her music and then said: “I’m afraid I forgot my sheet music for the piece I was supposed to play. So I think it’s appropriate under the circumstances to play “If I Only Had a Brain” by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.” I’m embarrassed to say now that I was mortified. I had hoped she’d play her piece brilliantly, reflecting glory on me as her proud parent. After the concert a man in front of me turned around and complimented her performance. I said, “Thank you – you’re too kind. It would have been nice if she had done the piece she practiced.” He responded: “You should be proud to have a daughter who can think on her feet, improvise, and deal creatively and with humor with the cards she’s been dealt. That’s much more important in the long run.” His words brought me up short.

I thought about it a lot. I realized I had wanted my child to excel in ways others in our community would judge to be impressive. How shallow of me! I had also been trying to shape her into some image in my mind of the “perfect” child. Top student, accomplished musician, popular, athletic. My own (questionable) values had gotten in the way of my appreciating my daughter for who she was and seeing the unique strengths she did possess. Inventive. Confident. Creative. Funny. Smart.

This was about the same time I went back to school for a PhD, so I was able to study motivation and achievement from a developmental perspective. I learned that the many of the attributes it takes to be a “successful” young student (compliance, diligence, eagerness to please, ability to memorize) are quite different from those required to be a successful older student and adult (challenging the status quo, intrinsic motivation, pursuit of one’s own interests, open-mindedness, a questioning mind). I also learned that individuals who pursue their genuine interests – and don’t let themselves be influenced by what everyone else is doing – are more successful as adults. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s thoughts on the joy of experiencing “flow” and how flow is also associated with achievement were particularly inspiring. I learned that popularity through high school is negatively correlated with achievement in most fields for girls. And, as students move through school the demands shift from more lower-level tasks like memorization of math facts and tidy handwriting to higher-level tasks like reading complex text and understanding it. Thomas West’s ground-breaking book In the Mind’s Eye (1997) about creativity in visual thinkers was the first to get me thinking about the possibility that even having a “disability” could confer certain advantages. Now I’m a firm believer that being wired differently can enable certain “superpowers” that most people can’t tap into in the same way.

Children who are “different” have enormous potential. As parents, we should try to keep the long-view in sight. Applaud and develop our children’s individuality. Encourage their pursuit of unusual interests and passions. Let them know we value them the way they are, and don’t want them to try to be like everyone else. It may take courage, but the results are worth it. Our misfits, rebels, trouble-makers, and square pegs in round holes may be the ones who change the world.

If your child has ADD or ADHD, or you think they might, do you worry that it will affect their life and future in only negative ways? Distractibility, disorganization, hyperactivity, interrupting the teacher, not completing assignments, poor time management, underachievement – the list goes on.

I agree there are significant challenges associated with having ADHD, and certainly being the parent of a child with ADHD is not easy!

But today let’s look at the flip side of the coin – the positive aspects. I’ll use the term ADHD because our diagnostic manual (the DSM-5) groups all of these attention disorders under Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), allowing us to specify predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive/impulsive, or combined presentation subtypes.

Recently, research has been focused on uncovering the strengths associated with being wired differently. Dyslexics have trouble with sounds and language (housed in the brain’s left hemisphere), but they are often great at visual spatial thinking (housed in the right hemisphere). This may explain why we have so many successful dyslexic architects, engineers, and artists. Individuals with Asperger’s may have difficulty thinking at the “big picture” level (this requires a broad network of neural connections), but are better than most people at narrowing in on a specific topic. This may be why the Israeli army recruits people with Asperger’s into an elite intelligence unit dedicated to interpreting aerial and satellite photographs. They can see details that others can’t.

It makes sense, doesn’t it, that if your brain is weak in one area that another might pick up the slack? In her book The Autistic Brain,  Temple Grandin explains that some areas of her brain are smaller than normal, and others are larger. Dr. Grandin is brilliant at visualizing how things work, and she feels this is because the volume of axons (the pathway) projecting from the area of visual object information to her frontal and motor cortex is 10x larger than most people’s. Being different need not always be a bad thing.

Let’s look at the strengths associated with ADHD. The hunter/farmer hypothesis proposes that ADHD was an evolutionary advantage to nomadic hunter-gatherers who could both hyperfocus and were better able to sense and respond quickly to predators. It is only as agriculture developed and people became farmers that these behaviors – so useful hunting mammoths on the plains – became maladaptive in environments like the modern classroom. Maybe ADHD was an advantageous variation in human evolution. Could it still be?

In an article I wrote for CHADD a few years ago I touched on this topic: Looking for Silver Linings in the ADHD Playbook.

Here are the top ten benefits or “superpowers” associated with having ADHD in modern society:

  1. Creativity
  2. High energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, zest for life
  3. More sensitive/attuned to environment, 360-degree awareness
  4. Interpersonal intuition/emotional sensitivity (e.g. strong radar for other’s feelings)
  5. Entrepreneurial drive and talent, willingness to take risks
  6. Innovative, willing to explore, invent, think differently, fresh perspective, divergent thinking
  7. Holistic thinking coupled with ability to make quick thought connections
  8. Ability to multi-task
  9. Sense of humor
  10. Spontaneity

Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

My favorite strength, and the one with the most evidence to support it, is creativity. Why would ADHD support enhanced creativity? Because weak ability to inhibit distraction and lapses in attention facilitate divergent thinking and the generation of random thoughts and ideas. Also a wider attentional span allows more elements and ideas to be combined, generating novel and original ideas. And the willingness to take risks is one of the core underpinnings of creativity. Researchers at UConn recently published a study about Engineering Students with ADHD, finding they possess “unparalleled creativity and risk-taking potential.”  They can draw on the kind of non-traditional divergent thinking essential for making radical technological breakthroughs – just the kind of thinking that moves society forward.

Forbes magazine describes ADHD as “the entrepreneurs superpower”. Sir Richard Branson, Ikea founder Ingar Kamprad, and JetBlue founder David Neelman are exemplars. Success magazine reports that “some of the most successful entrepreneurs credit their attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder for their accomplishments.” Creative people in fields from acting to politics attribute their success to their ADHD (actors Justin Timberlake, Channing Tatum, and Ryan Gosling, swimmer Michael Phelps (the most decorated Olympian of all time), political strategist James Carville, and others).

I’m a big believer in nurturing the strengths and interests of every child, not just trying to “fix” their weaknesses and make them be like everyone else. A strengths-based approach is especially important for students diagnosed with a disability. Yes, we need to help the child with ADHD get through school by addressing the challenges associated with their profile. But to help them fulfill their potential and become happy and productive members of society, we need to place an equal or perhaps even greater emphasis on helping them discover and celebrate their unique abilities.

Look for the ADHD “superpowers” in your child, and help them become the successful adult they have the potential to be!

If you’d like to talk with me about how to reinforce and develop the strengths of your child with ADHD, please e-mail me to plan a time to chat. I can be reached at: dm@drdevon.com.