We take the position that it is important to consider who is actually a peer for a gifted child. It usually isn't a child who is the same age. More often, it is someone with whom the child shares interests and who is about as skilled as the child in a particular activity. Even though most of us recognize that children of a given age vary quite widely in level of skills and interests, we still group children in school strictly by age, a practice that was probably lost its usefulness for both academic and social reasons. This is dramatically confirmed in the finding that most gifted children in the regular classroom spend one-fourth to one-half of their time waiting for others to catch up to their level of competence (Webb et al., 1982).
Peer relations for gifted children was noted as a problem as early as the 1920s by the psychologist Leta Hollingworth, who declared that one of the major challenges for gifted children and adults was "learning to suffer fools gladly" (Klein, 2002). That is a harsh statement, and Hollingworth may have said it somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But waiting for others to catch up is a real issue for many gifted children. Numerous studies have demonstrated that feelings of alienation and rejection experienced by young gifted children often influence social and emotional development and lead to difficulties, which are then diagnosed as mental disorders (Cillessen, 1992; Hymel, 1990; Parke, 1997; Strop, 2001).
- Webb, Amend, Webb, Goerss, Beljan, and Olenchak, "Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults"
When my son first started kindergarten, the teachers began telling me that my son was constantly vying for their attention. He didn't want to play with the other children, he wanted to spend all day talking to the teachers. This was very frustrating for them as they (rightly) wanted to make sure each child was receiving adequate attention. This problem was only resolved when my son began reading. The reason it resolved was not that he suddenly learned communication skills from reading books. The opposite actually occurred: he began ignoring everyone in favor of reading books. The books were more stimulating than his age peers and never told him to be quiet or go away. He found that many imaginary characters shared his views or suffered from similar alienation.
My son's inability to get along with his age mates, along with other manifestations of his giftedness, eventually led to teachers wrongly assuming that he must have some autistic spectrum disorder.
Unfortunately, this behavior and the reaction to the behavior are not uncommon in the gifted. As noted in Misdiagnosis, younger gifted children often imagine complex play. They want others to participate, but often their age-mates don't comprehend the rules (or the rules may end up looking a lot like "Calvin-ball"). This causes the other children to lose patience with the gifted child and vice versa, ultimately resulting in alienation of the gifted child. The gifted child is often blamed: "If he/she just wouldn't be so bossy!"
As gifted children get older, their interests may become more complex or mature. Often the topics are not of interest to children of the same age. The gifted child will attempt to make friends with adults, who either have similar interests or at least are willing to listen to the child. Many adults don't want to be viewed as a peer for the child and shoo the child away, telling them they need to spend time with children their own age.
Often these children give up and immerse themselves in books. Worse, some of them become depressed and view themselves as being fundamentally flawed because no one seems to like them.
Depending on their temperment and learning style, they will viewed as either extremely immature (usually visual-spatial learners) or too serious (usually auditory-sequential learners) to make friends. It seems doubtful these children are capable of making friends at all. Yet, when gifted children are accelerated to levels where they have the ability to interact with intellectual peers, they usually do very well. These children often benefit from adult mentors who share their interests.
Children who have difficulty with peer relations shouldn't automatically be assumed to have Asperger's or, even worse, an anti-social behavior disorder. Sometimes, it is actually a mismatch between child and environment. The child needs to be in a place where they can find common ground between themselves and those around them.