When Allison Coates enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at age 16, she expected to finally find her people. Instead, she found the same old disappointment, now paired with something new: academic failure.
Even among the high achieving students at MIT, those with an intellectual capacity like hers were rare. But for some reason, those more moderately gifted students were doing better than she was. “I noticed that I was unsuccessful where other students who didn’t think about anything were extremely successful,” she recalled.
The realization shook her deeply. It’s sometimes said that intellectual giftedness is best understood as a special need. It was at MIT that Allison truly recognized the impact of this unmet need on her development. Because ordinary school work had always been too easy for her, she had never learned how to learn.
Underdeveloped talent wasn’t her only struggle. She also suffered from lack of belonging—a dearth of intellectual camaraderie and the insights that can come with it when bright minds bounce off of each other, not to mention mirroring of her emotional experiences. If, even at MIT, kids like Allison don’t find what they’ve been seeking, their sense of alienation can solidify into a permanent outsider identity. The unmet intellectual and emotional needs they’ve been suppressing since they set foot in kindergarten compound each other, leading to a vicious circle of social and school failure, alienation, and underachievement. Too often, this is the trajectory of the highly gifted.
Until someone decides to break that generational cycle.
Now the mother of three sons who hadn’t fallen far from the tree, Allison was not content to watch the cycle repeat. She also had finally found someone else who understood: Lisa Johnson is the mother of one son and one daughter who had similar hurdles to clear.
A little digging revealed that Lisa, too, belonged to this tribe. “I was identified as a gifted student, but I had a raging case of impostor syndrome,” she told me. “I did a whole heck of a lot of other achieving in terms of boys and parties, skating the line between making decent grades and trying to have fun.” Though she kept that pattern up at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she did develop an interest that sustained her academically, namely therapeutic recreation, which became her major. This led to a job in Duke University’s inpatient acute psychiatry unit, where she worked for many years with special populations. When the field moved away from inpatient care in the 90s, she decided to switch careers. She became a dental hygienist; along the way, she got married and had children.
That was when the problems with another special population in another institution became clear to her. “I realized school did not fit my children,” Lisa told me. “I expected school to help quench my son’s insatiable thirst for learning. I found out that was a pipe dream.”
She ended up leaving her job to focus on meeting her kids’ needs. “My oldest, he really broke me,” she said. Fortunately, her education in adolescent development and the social needs of at-risk populations helped her work out what her kids needed. “Okay, these kids are really different and rare and they don’t have peers,” was how she looked at it. “How will they develop appropriately socially?”
I expected school to help quench my son’s insatiable thirst for learning. I found out that was a pipe dream.
With this shared purpose, Lisa and Allison founded BRIGHTLinks, a grassroots organization that creates opportunities for emotional and social and intellectual growth for profoundly gifted children. BRIGHTLinks offers intellectual engagement, opportunities for cross-age collaboration, structured and unstructured recreation, and chances for both the children and their families to connect. “We’re growing a support network and a community for peers, which I find is key to improving their development in all areas—socially, emotionally, and academically, in a holistic way,” Lisa said.
Profoundly gifted children are about 0.13% of the continuum of intellect—that’s thirteen kids out of 10,000. “It’s not like you’ll go to school and find another kid like this in your gifted class,” Lisa continued. To help connect those kids, BRIGHTLinks maintains a map of its members’ location across the state of North Carolina, where they’re based. This lets members see that, while there may not be twenty-five profoundly gifted kids in their town, there are twenty-five within twenty-five or fifty miles. That’s still not ideal, but for many families, it’s a vast improvement.
Because they finally know one thing: they’re not alone.
Finding Your Tribe
When Meghann Reder went to pick her eldest son up from school for a doctor’s appointment, she couldn’t find him anywhere.
Then something caught her eye. She looked again. He was under the table.
Her son, it turned out, had been coping with a full day of kindergarten by cowering in his own shelter, the teacher resigned and paying no attention. “I saw that and knew it was time to do something else,” Meghann said. The problem was that this school, a private Montessori, had already seemed like the least bad option. When they toured public schools, principals and psychologists had suggested all manner of labels for him. They told her the answer was to go to a full day of kindergarten, then to supplement that with after-school activities on their own dime.
The problem was that, as Meghann knew, he’d be overstimulated and drained from the eight hours of a poorly fit classroom. “I didn’t even have confidence he’d make it to lunch given where he was at with overexcitabilities,” she said. “He would need downtime on his own to come down off of what had aroused him.”
Meghann has four sons and a PhD in developmental biology. Her family was one of the first to join BRIGHTLinks. There she met kids like her kids—and adults like her—for the first time.
“We entered BRIGHTLinks as a family in desperation,” Meghann said. Her eldest son needed more: people outside of their family who met him where he was, took his needs and potential seriously, and gave him the peer and adult relationships he needed to grow into what he had the capacity to be.
In 2022, having seen all of her sons benefit from the network of support, opportunities, and experiences the organization provided, Meghann became a member of the BRIGHTLinks team.
One of the first hurdles that these kids need to overcome is their intensity. At Third Factor, we start from the assumption that this is a strength—but only if you learn how to use it. These kids need wise guidance in this area, because on a scale of one to ten, they’re regularly at eleven.
“I thought I was doing something terrible as a parent—that I was hurting him somehow,” Lisa told me. “He was excited to be in school and he wanted to please the teacher. But they were saying all these things were wrong and that I needed to medicate my kid. He wasn’t hitting kids, he wasn’t cursing kids out—though other kids did that to him. I was called to school on a weekly basis because he was calling out or disruptive or correcting the teacher.”
They’d tested his IQ. They knew it was extremely high, but no one at the school seemed to think this was part of the problem. After all, “gifted kids” are expected to do well in school and behave themselves.
Why could he draw a crowd of kids and then over-complicate a game so the kids would glaze over and walk away or call him names? He’s charismatic, but he can’t find kids who will engage socially with him because they think he’s a weirdo.
Lisa credits the term “overexcitabilities” with helping her understand her son. She wishes someone in the psychologist’s office would have offered that up. “I had to stumble onto that through a rabbit hole I went down on the Internet, trying to figure out why my kid is so intense. Why is my kid so emotional? Why does he go from 0 to 100”—she snapped her finger—“like that? Why could he draw a crowd of kids and then over-complicate a game so the kids would glaze over and walk away or call him names? He’s charismatic, but he can’t find kids who will engage socially with him because they think he’s a weirdo.”
When Lisa’s son left school, his anxiety was through the roof, his self esteem at rock bottom. “He was so prickly—just at the height of anxiousness and overexcitability,” she said.
Both/And: Social and Intellectual Needs
Parents who bring their kids to BRIGHTLinks have usually all but lost hope that they’ll fit in anywhere. They describe their children as wallflowers, as kinda weird, as socially awkward.
Then the child meets the other BRIGHTLinks kids, and the impact is profound.
“When they get there and they find each other, they just immediately open up,” Lisa said. “It’s like they have a radar.”
In the days before BRIGHTLinks, Lisa consulted expert after expert in her effort to find a fit for her son in school. One of them, Dr. Rick Courtright, shared a key insight with her: “He said, you know, you gotta find the one friend. You might find it at a summer camp at Duke—we didn’t, by the way—you’ve got to find the one friend to feel like you fit, like you flourish, to be yourself or let your guard down and let the anxiety melt away.”
Meghann and her husband looked at their son’s struggles the same way. “We just kept thinking, ‘We’ve got to get him to fit.’ When we could shift our perspective and see that it’s not him—it’s the environment, it’s the lack of needs being met, it’s the lack of peers—my own self-doubt about my parental competence melted away. When I see my son interact with these other kids in BRIGHTLinks, it’s like, ‘Oh, they fit just fine.’”
We just kept thinking, ‘We’ve got to get him to fit.’ When we could shift our perspective and see that it’s not him—it’s the environment, it’s the lack of needs being met, it’s the lack of peers—my own self-doubt about my parental competence melted away.
On the Third Factor members’ forum, it’s not uncommon for members to disagree, at least on the surface, about whether intellectual or emotional needs are the most important for the bright theorizers we describe as “abstract intense” and that educational institutions call “gifted.” Some encourage these kids to develop their intellects while paying little to no attention to their emotional needs or sense of belonging. Others encourage them to downplay their intellects and focus on the social and emotional skills in which they’re not so profoundly gifted.
What impresses me about BRIGHTLinks is that they get that it’s both/and. Yes, the intellectual needs are essential; so are the social ones. The abstract intense brain is wired to ideate. If it can’t, to use giftedness expert Stephanie Tolan’s famous metaphor, it’ll languish like a cheetah in a cage. Personally, I’m convinced that such people will generally fail to thrive if they don’t find a group, or at least a few friends, that can nurture both their intellects and their emotions. After all, if you’re always activated by feeling alienated and frustrated, you’ll apply your intellect first to securing your own safety and status in whatever way you can (including coping mechanisms that aren’t always so self-aware or otherwise in keeping with reality). At least, that’s what I’ve seen over and over.
BRIGHTLinks’ goal is to create a community that offers these uncommon children what they need to meet both these needs. “Most kids have that on a day to day basis,” Lisa explained. “On the whole, our kids did not. We have a few PG [profoundly gifted] kids in the world who are really strong socially as well, but for the most part, they come to BRIGHTLinks because they’re struggling in some way.”
This emphasis on social needs sets BRIGHTLinks apart from the more common groups that gather highly gifted students together based on standardized test scores. “We’re not a talent search organization,” Lisa explained. “We’re not seeking them out; they’re seeking us out because they’re looking for that connection.”
The Lens of Diagnosis: Does It Fit?
Regular readers will know that I think mental health diagnoses are being inflated and applied too often, in ways that are counterproductive—but that I also believe they are sometimes appropriate. So I had to ask what I know others will be thinking: might it not be the case that some of these kids “really are” better understood through the psychiatric lens?
They say, “Your child is not behaving. You need to have this checked out because it’s probably this or that.” They never suggest it’s the school environment that could be the cause of the issues.
“I think parents, myself included, are conditioned early on that our kids are bad, weird, odd, troubled, and they have this alphabet soup—ADHD, ASD, OCD, ODD—that you have to rule out,” Lisa said. “We spent thousands of dollars going down these rabbit holes, because these experts—these teachers who are not psychiatric experts—they say, ‘Your child is not behaving. You need to have this checked out because it’s probably this or that.’ They never suggest it’s the school environment that could be the cause of the issues.”
Allison had been determined to keep her kids free of diagnoses from the start. “I wasn’t going down that path, and you couldn’t make me because I saw so many negatives along the way,” she said. “Ultimately, maybe they’re true in some sense. But what did it buy you? In public school, it buys you a labyrinth of not getting your needs met. So what’s the point?”
She did, however, get two of her three sons’ IQs tested; their scores fell more than three deviations above the mean. Based on her own path, she knew that made a difference—one that she wanted to address earlier for her kids than it had been in her own youth.
“These kids, they’re intense!” Allison said. “And their way of being shakes people, especially in education, to the core. They would rather not confront all of their assumptions about what education is. They would rather name our children as the problem because our children stand there as an example of everything that’s not working in school.”
“Like me, these parents are conditioned to believe the experts know what they are doing,” Lisa added. “The experts may have a good idea about the general population, but with profoundly gifted children, they may have minimal or no expertise.”
These kids, they’re intense! And their way of being shakes people, especially in education, to the core. They would rather not confront all of their assumptions about what education is.
When the needs of the intellect are so profound, and have so few peers, should it be controversial to consider the difference this might make in a child’s adjustment to an institution whose purpose is to meet that need? In the BRIGHTLinks families’ experience, however, that is rarely considered: they are far more likely to be told that learning to fit in is a part of life. Like the BRIGHTLinks team, I agree with that in part—but only in concert with learning that it’s possible to have one’s needs met, somewhere. After all, adults have considerably more freedom than children, if only they learn that it is possible to navigate it fruitfully.
Otherwise, why bother?
“In the profoundly gifted community, families are being dissuaded away from overexcitability, with more investment in diagnoses, because they think that makes the issues treatable,” Lisa said. “It’s easier to medicate than to manage OE [overexcitability] and change the environment.”
Hope for the Child, Hope for the Parent
Regardless of whether a diagnosis is appropriate or not, it must make a difference for a child’s self-regard when a parent directs frustration at the limits of the institution rather than at the child’s innate qualities. I say this even as I argue elsewhere that sometimes, especially as adults, we need to take responsibility for our innate weaknesses. (Hey, we all have them.) And hey, it’s a lot easier to do this as a more mature person when, as a child, you saw evidence that having your needs met is possible in the first place.
That’s why, when a new family joins, the first step BRIGHTLinks takes is to address the parents’ feelings.
“I really see the parents as the gatekeepers for these kids,” Meghann said. “When the parents feel ashamed, the kid—even if they don’t know what they are ashamed of—internalizes all of that. Even a parent who doesn’t feel ashamed for their child is still struggling to say, ‘But where do I help my student have the normal peer interaction that you need to grow?’”
Parents new to the group are often reluctant to attend the social events because of their children’s social anxiety. The leaders encourage them to come anyway. What usually happens is that, given interactions on their own intellectual wavelength, these kids have interactions that look normal.
When the parents feel ashamed, the kid—even if they don’t know what they are ashamed of—internalizes all of that.
“The first thing we try to do is to have their kids interact with our kids and see, to let the terror and the fear and the guilt and the shame go away,” said Allison.
The first big challenge is the emotional sensitivity that most of these kids manifest. Most BRIGHTLinks’ students are emotionally excitable; that means they react to each other’s feelings. “So they want to help the other kids chill,” Allison said. “They want to help the other kids feel comfortable being weird.”
Allison told me a story to illustrate. A new student introduced himself by a nickname that hadn’t landed well with other kids at his school. Allison knew from experience that this initial introduction was the moment where parents’ worries were at their peak. “But he walked up and introduced himself as ‘Blue Lightning,’ and we all said, ‘Hi, Blue Lightning!’ No one said ‘That’s stupid.’ They all just said, hey, how’s it going?”
A tree is capable of surviving a drought, but a sapling is not. It needs much more nurturing in order to develop into that strong tree
In that environment, the parents don’t have to be so anxious about their child’s quirks and sensitivities. And even if the whole world can’t be that way, even knowing that such a thing is possible makes a difference.
“I know there’s a concern that if you only have this kid around kids like them, how will they ever adjust in the real world?” Lisa said. “But if you’re in crisis, you need that therapeutic environment to regain lost confidence—to feel normal. To know what it’s like to have that sort of friendly relationship.”
“A tree is capable of surviving a drought, but a sapling is not,” Allison added. “It needs much more nurturing in order to develop into that strong tree.”
The Needs of the Intellect
Whatever your take on the need to adjust to mainstream society, BRIGHTLinks has good news for you. In their experience, once these children have met the need to connect on their own level, over their own interests, a space opens up for them to learn to function appropriately in a classroom, if that’s the path their families choose for them.
Key to this is meeting that intellectual need—the one that school promises but then utterly fails to deliver for these ravenous learners. To do this, they rely on BRIGHTLinks parents, who offer classes in their areas of expertise. The courses have no limits on age or grade; kids are allowed in based on desire, interest, and previous relevant experience.
When Meghann first signed her son up for one of these classes—a computer science course taught by Allison’s husband—she braced herself for another disappointment. The hurdle was that her son’s mental abilities were far ahead of his physical skills. “At age nine, there were tears because his fingers weren’t fast enough for the typing on the keyboard,” said Meghann.
But BRIGHTLinks parents have patience with children who are developing in this asynchronous way. That particular computer science class included four kids, all different ages, doing computer science together. Each had his or her own challenges. But it worked.
To watch a classroom where the adults get them and take them seriously and treat their gifts as they should be treated—where they challenge them and answer their questions—you can also observe that their ability to participate in a classroom is improved.
“It just melted away all the things my son had as limits,” Meghann said. “He could be who he was. Allison’s husband could see, as the dad, as the teacher, the adult in the room, all these struggles—all four of them in different ways. But he was able to keep ‘em going! To watch a classroom where the adults get them and take them seriously and treat their gifts as they should be treated—where they challenge them and answer their questions—you can also observe that their ability to participate in a classroom is improved.”
There are many out there who are more skeptical than the BRIGHTLinks team about the usefulness of overexcitability as a positive frame. They question whether it’s anything but an excuse for bad behavior, or a nicer name for diagnosable pathologies. Reading the stories of these children, I wonder if the two sides may be able to meet in the middle by treating it as a sign of an acute need that’s chronically unmet.
Strikingly, Lisa told me about reaching a point where her son’s overexcitability began to abate—and that this happened after he found a constructive outlet for it. “He was able to function in a classroom better because of the places his OEs found expression,” she told me. No longer being told by the teacher that he was a bad kid, and no longer being picked on by the other children, made all the difference.
“When the teacher keeps saying you have a bad child, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Lisa. She’s seen parents leave their kids in highly activating environments because they feel ashamed. “But that environment is on fire for that child! And so their OEs will be at their highest.”
When the teacher keeps saying you have a bad child, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That leads to another reason that BRIGHTLinks is offering these excitable children special classes: to give these students a chance to learn how to learn. It turns out that is a skill set that’s as much about emotional skills as intellectual ones. “You haven’t the faintest idea what it takes to remember something you didn’t immediately learn in point-eight seconds,” Allison said. When their schools fail to challenge them, they never have a chance to learn to manage their own intellectual frustration or to cultivate self-discipline. “One of the goals for BRIGHTLinks is to make sure these students receive an opportunity to be challenged. To not immediately know something—to be asked to work. And that’s hard for them.”
The Many Manifestations of Gifted Frustration
We have been talking so far about the children who act out—the squeaky wheels who cried out for grease and finally, finally, got some. But what of those who don’t? Is it because they’re doing just fine?
I’m thinking now of a girl I know. Her parents, despite being high achievers themselves, are not sure what to do with her, given that at age 10 she’s scoring at “grade 11+” on tests of grade-level equivalent knowledge. This girl is a model of good behavior, so her parents probably wouldn’t follow the same path that brought many of these families to BRIGHTLinks. They don’t fit the profile of parents who are at their wits’ end, but they are worried just the same.
One of the goals for BRIGHTLinks is to make sure these students receive an opportunity to be challenged. To not immediately know something—to be asked to work. And that’s hard for them.
And so I think back to these boys’ moms. Remember Allison’s story, for instance. Girls often perform well in school—and then, once they get into a top college, they hit their first wall and don’t know what to do. Or maybe it’s earlier: maybe adolescence hits and their patience with the time-wasting curriculum wears thin. Sometimes that’s when the good behavior evaporates. Sometimes the young person continues to suffer in silence, becoming disillusioned and unmotivated.
We’ve been talking about her son, but Lisa has a daughter, too. When I asked the BRIGHTLinks team about kids like this, she told me, “In contrast to my son, my gifted daughter was well-behaved in school. Because her grades were good, she was well-liked by the students and the teacher, no one thought she needed more challenge. She was doing ‘fine.'”
But was she really?
“The variety of gifted, especially in the highly and profoundly gifted, is so vast,” Allison added. “It’s like a dandelion gone to seed; the profoundly gifted are at the edge, they’re more dissimilar from each other than they are even from the center. Kids who have more average IQs are more alike, simply because they don’t have as vast a world to differentiate into.”
Many gifted children internalize their frustration, acting in instead of acting out. But for those children, too, learning to manage frustration is a core life skill. I tended toward internaling, suffering in silence while always getting A’s; my husband got Cs and Ds in things that bored him, but who could chart a path through the world by looking at which classes where he excelled and going in that direction, toward that work and those people. As adults, we’ve discussed how, in some ways, it might be better to act out early and get help than to be a good little girl or boy and hope that, eventually, your needs will be met.
In the end, that difference is yet another struggle that this population must grapple with. Just having similar intellectual capacity does not mean that you will share an interest; this is one common reason that Third Factor members are disappointed with our community, and that gifted people are disappointed in gifted groups in general.
And yet, understanding one’s nature—one’s strengths and weaknesses—is key to identifying and meeting one’s needs. It’s the only hope for finding that connection, intellectually and emotionally. Though I don’t consider it a good place to stop and identify overmuch, overexcitability is an excellent place to start that self-understanding.
“Even before I had read anything about overexcitabilities, I knew they were real,” Allison told me. “I knew that that was a better frame to understand these kids from than it was to say this is a fixed disability. Looking at my own life, I was overwhelmed by stimulus, and I am still very sensitive. But I decided I was going to make sure that wasn’t viewed as a negative for my own kids. If you look at it holistically, that’s not a disorder, though it might be overwhelming to cope with at times. But you can grow and adapt and manage it.”
Looking at my own life, I was overwhelmed by stimulus, and I am still very sensitive. But I decided I was going to make sure that wasn’t viewed as a negative for my own kids. If you look at it holistically, that’s not a disorder, though it might be overwhelming to cope with at times. But you can grow and adapt and manage it.
Someone to look up to—a cross-generational friendship—can be of huge help here, too. I’ve seen young adults come into Third Factor and other groups trying to reinvent wheels of belonging because they’ve never had a relationship with anyone who got them; they were only around people who wanted to control them. Though I can’t set up a mentorship program (formally matching strangers with strangers with appropriate screening is beyond our capacity) I’ve long hoped that older adults could connect with younger adults in the Third Factor Member’s Forum, offering them a sort of understanding that’s hard to find in the wild.
I asked the BRIGHTLinks team if they’d considered anything like this. Naturally, they had recognized the need for it. “Mentors are definitely on our radar,” Lisa told me. “Because we have Allison, and Meghann, and Meghann’s husband, Allison’s husband, and myself and a few other families that are willing to engage, these kids have found people to connect to. Our younglings and the older kids, they also find connection and mentoring in each other.”
“You can’t grow in isolation,” Allison said. “You need to learn how to negotiate the social interactions—the give and take, that you might say the wrong thing and hurt someone’s feelings, but you get another chance! The grace of learning that someone forgives you—that you’re a little hard to tolerate but we’ll give you another chance—you need to be around other kids to do that! And you need to be around other kids who get that. There needs to be a place where the view isn’t ‘You’re the problem.’ And this is a place like that.”
You can’t grow in isolation. You need to learn how to negotiate the social interactions—the give and take, that you might say the wrong thing and hurt someone’s feelings, but you get another chance! The grace of learning that someone forgives you—that you’re a little hard to tolerate but we’ll give you another chance—you need to be around other kids to do that!
Putting aside the issue of parents being too busy (which is a major hurdle—people simply can’t, or won’t, make time for each other), there’s another issue worth calling out: the adults don’t believe they have anything to teach these kids. According to the BRIGHTLinks team, that’s a big mistake. “We know that for at-risk populations, mentors help,” Lisa told me. “But it’s very difficult to convince these parents that they have something to bring to the table. They see their kids struggling and they may think, “How can I help another kid if my own kid already needs so much?”
Given that these kids have their own pre-existing interests that they’re eager to share, it’s especially striking to me that the BRIGHTLinks team have seen students gravitate to subjects where they get a mentor, even if it wasn’t necessarily the subject for which they wanted mentorship in. Maybe the content of the interest isn’t the important thing; maybe sometimes it’s about simply engaging that capacity for deep engagement with another person who shares it.
One thing is uncontroversial: no matter how brilliant a child is, he or she still needs guidance. A high IQ is just raw horsepower; it’s not a map of how the world works. Only those who have gone before can share the wisdom that belongs on the map.
In the end, sadly, I remember that orchids are not promised that they will bloom. Not every parent can homeschool. Adults have to put food on the table before they can teach their seven year old how to program. This is the cold, hard fact of reality. But we are fond of talking about what ought to be here at Third Factor. If more people are aware of how much of a difference they can make with their time, skill, or even just attention, those orchids have more of a chance.
I’m reminded here of the story about the little girl who throws the starfish back into the sea. Why do you do it, she’s asked. You can’t save them all—it doesn’t make much of a difference.
We could redefine how families educate their children, socializing in the family, not just sending the child off on their own, but bringing the child along with them.
“It made a difference to that one,” she says as she tosses one more back into the waves.
“Education could be so different,” Meghann said to me. “Learning in a genuine way, having social interactions in a genuine way! We could redefine how families educate their children, socializing in the family, not just sending the child off on their own, but bringing the child along with them.”
Profoundly gifted or not, that’s a vision that could serve any child—and any adult who’s still trying to find a friend or to meet an unusual need.
Header image by Yuganov Konstantin / Shutterstock