Gifted and misdiagnosed


 A plea for better understanding of gifted and talented children

Labelling any child is unhelpful; if we are not careful, the label we give is self-prophesying, only serving to reinforce itself. Labelling is disrespectful. I am not talking about the use of stickers or name badges. There are times when giving a name badge or sticker is useful to keep our children safe or give praise for a “wow” moment in their learning and development, but the use of labelling as a way of diagnosing or categorising a child, I believe, is not the way to go.

Working with gifted and talented young children and youths, I come across labels all the time and while some families and individuals find this useful or comforting, many do not. To the child or young person it can have detrimental long-term effects and even lead to lack of confidence, underachieving and depression.

It is very common for highly able children to have characteristics, traits and quirks that mimic or overlap with other needs or disorders. This can easily lead to the misdiagnosis of conditions such as ADHD, ODD, OCD, autistic spectrum disorders and even bipolar disorder.
There is a constellation of characteristics that are common to gifted and talented children and many of these children show at least eighty percent of these characteristics most of the time, although some will show more. Many of these characteristics will carry over into adulthood and are mostly representative of social and emotional behaviours. Of course, there are some children who will be twice exceptional (2E), who are intellectually gifted but also have SEN. Their gifts and talents must be acknowledged and catered for alongside their special needs.

Children and young people of high ability often display subtleties of language and have large vocabularies, use complex and adult sentence structures, display high levels of curiosity and ask endless questions, and have unusual memories enabling them to retain complex information effortlessly. They often teach themselves to read or write, have an imaginary friend and a quirky sense of humour. They have long attention spans and excellent concentration skills when working on a subject that interests them, but cannot stay focused when bored. They often have higher level and divergent thinking skills and can debate like an adult on difficult subject matters, such as poverty, racism or politics.

Highly able children often develop “out of sync”, or asynchronously, and therefore tend be socially and emotionally immature but cognitively way beyond their chronological age. Many gifted children and young people find themselves out of step with their peers and do not fit in, which can lead to teasing and bullying and in some cases a very lonely existence. Asynchronous development can cause confusion for the child in question, the family and professionals.

If misunderstood or misdiagnosed, highly able children can dumb down, underachieve and become depressed. Universal characteristics of gifted children and young people include intensity and sensitivity. These children tend to be obsessive and pedantic about almost everything, to the point that they have “excessive personalities”. Research has taught us that children of higher intelligences are more likely to have inborn insensitivities that result in a heightened response to stimuli around them; this is referred to as over-excitability. Consequently, their reactions, feelings and experiences tend to far exceed what one would normally expect.

Encouraging children socially and emotionally, to love to learn and to fit in to society is far more important than finding a label that may hinder them for the rest of their lives. It is imperative that we acknowledge that the misdiagnosis, or labelling, of highly able or twice exceptional children is inappropriate, and can affect them even more strongly when intelligence levels increase beyond IQ 130. Intensity and sensitivity is still the most overlooked and misunderstood characteristic of gifted and talented children today.

Further information

Elaine Hook is a freelance education consultant.


  1. thank you for this article I am currently arguing over my son who has been diagnosed as on the Autistic spectrum although he doesn’t really show any of he symptoms, apart from not really being a social type but he does learn very quickly and has a keen interest in taking things apart and putting them back together to see how they work. I do realise that i am looking at it from a proud parent point of view but this decision will impact on him for the rest of his life school and work so I think its important that they get it right. He is 4 and doing really well in school he is ahead of his class in maths and English but everyone seems focused on his interaction with other children I am at the point now where I am looking at private school even though I cant afford it just to get him away of the situation where he may be treated differently and wont reach his full potential

  2. I would embrace the label even if you do not agree with it. like you I would have fought tooth and nail against an ASD diagnosis had my bright child been given it when younger. But she is now 17 and having been failed by the system, is lonely, depressed and extremely anxious in any social situation. Her GCSE results whilst good by many people’s standards are not as good as they should have been because when she was doing her GCSE’s her teachers suddenly discovered her difficlties were likely to impact on her GCSE grades and they exposed what they saw as her shortcommings and humiliated her socially. We didn’t see it coming. We just saw her as very shy and very bright. Fast forward and we have been to SENDIST and she now has a Statment of SEN even though she is in sixth form at a selective grammar school. Being bright does not preclude your son from having ASD. But having ASD does preclude many people from recognising that very bright children with ASD do need support and understanding.

  3. i was diagnosed add aspergers ocd bipolar schizophrenic by these psychologists by teh healthcare and education systme

    I am healing from that
    I eventually did my masters IN international human rights law in Queens University Belfast
    I work for the International Criminal Court
    Started my own NGo for human rights in Africa
    published writer
    Speaks Arabic Chinese English French Russian Spanish portuguese afrikaans xhosa and zulu
    State winner of new jersey in geography bee in 2004

  4. Children misdiagnosed or mislabeled may struggle with self-esteem and self-understanding, feeling misunderstood or out of place. Parents, educators, and professionals must approach each child with a nuanced understanding and a willingness to look beyond surface behaviors. By doing so, we can ensure that these unique individuals are given the support and opportunities they need to thrive. For my nephew, it was only after a thorough evaluation by a specialist familiar with twice-exceptional children that we understood he was profoundly gifted and also had sensory processing issues. This dual diagnosis allowed for a more tailored approach to his education and personal development, recognizing both his extraordinary potential and his specific needs.


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