Twice Exceptional: Over-Identification of ADD/ADHD in the Gifted

by Deborah L. Ruf, Ph.D.

(Originally published in the NAGC newsletter for Guidance & Counseling Division, 2001, with the title Twice Exceptional in the Gifted)

In a little over one year of private practice as a gifted specialist I have confronted the issue of ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder, and ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, myriad times. The first disability involves a high level of distractibility, an inability to focus on one topic and follow it through. ADD manifests itself in the person’s starting but not finishing assignments and projects, and not hearing and remembering what one has been told, for example. ADHD generally includes all the qualities of the first disability but also encompasses hyperactivity. A child with ADHD shows excessive activity, especially activity unrelated to what needs to be done or what is expected and desirable behavior.

As far as twice exceptional is concerned, ADD/ADHD is a problem in that the definition and diagnosis can often take the place of recognizing that the child is gifted and misplaced in his academic environment. The child can be put on medication that calms him down and makes him less susceptible to distractions, but the subsequent compliance may take away the zest and curiosity that are a strong hallmark of high intelligence and creativity. It is possible that high intelligence on medication turns itself toward adding complexity to lower level instruction and activities.

Conversely, when children are ADD or ADHD and undiagnosed, life can be more difficult for them and they may go unrecognized as gifted. It is my professional opinion that a highly gifted child who is ADD/ADHD can learn to cope with the concomitant attention difficulties, but that his energies are sapped to the point of disabling him to function as high as he could if on treatment.

The frequency with which the topic arises has necessitated my reading articles, visiting web sites, and talking at length to medical and psychological colleagues in order to familiarize myself with the condition. Almost always, it is the parents of boys who tell me that the school suspects ADHD in their son. The parents learn as much as they can about ADD/ADHD, and the people who call me want to determine first if their son may simply be gifted. Poor academic fit often causes lack of follow-through; and the generally high activity and wide interests of gifted children may make them appear to be too active or distractible.

I have some background working with boys. I have two brothers and have raised three sons, all of whom are gifted and very, very busy, and some have said, “hyper.” I have taught elementary school and am familiar with the higher activity level of boys in general. I mention this because I have a good sense of what is normal for bright children when it comes to ability to concentrate and activity level. If a child truly experiences ADD, he cannot focus on school instruction even when the environment and instructional level are completely appropriate for him. During a one-on-one testing situation with me, I can tell whether or not the child has difficulty with attention and focus, it is likely to evidence itself during our time together. I have a strong bias, after many years of study and experience, toward believing that most children whom the schools and parents believe are ADD, instead are experiencing difficulty attending to and following through on assignments and materials that are below what they are ready to study and address. Obviously it occurs more often in gifted children that the instruction is indeed boring and repetitive. For a number of reasons that are not the focus of this article, most gifted girls cope with inappropriate instruction better than do most gifted boys. Out of approximately 125 children with whom I have worked professionally in the past year, there were only two that I recommended be tested medically for possible ADD or ADHD.

Gifted children sometimes appear to have trouble understanding instruction and focusing because they are baffled by the instruction and expectations. It is difficult for them to believe that this is truly all they have to do to finish the assignment. There must be some catch, some trick; it couldn’t be this easy. Many gifted children simply refuse to do the busywork of an assignment when there is clearly nothing to be gained beyond the teacher’s approval. Unfortunately, some of these circumspect and independent children fall into a pattern of noncompliance that ill-equips them to recognize when the assignments may actually be helpful and useful.

Among gifted children who are referred for ADD/ADHD assessments, it is boys who eventually test at over 140 IQ who are most frequently mislabeled and sometimes misdiagnosed as being ADD/ADHD. My feeling is that a borderline or questionable case of ADD/ADHD first needs to be addressed by checking the intellectual functioning level of the child, then the educational environment and its appropriateness for the child’s ability level, and finally, that the child should be given support in understanding how to deal with occasional frustrations in school or at home. Sometimes parents benefit from taking parenting classes or reading books on parenting.

It is unfortunate but true that medical professionals, school personnel, and counselors are often unaware of the characteristics and needs of gifted children. The proportion of children who are on medication for ADD/ADHD now compared to 20 years ago is many fold larger. I believe that creativity is jeopardized, personalities are unnecessarily reigned in, and the long-term affects of being on medication instead of learning how to deal with distractions that are a part of every day life have not yet been calculated. I believe it is normal for a highly intelligent person to be unusually sensitive to things around him or herself. The individual needs to have practice in following through on things that matter and things that are meaningful. It is important to learn how to budget one’s time, and to manage many interests, activities, and obligations. Highly intelligent people can juggle far more activities and interests than people who are less intelligent. It is normal for most gifted children and adults to sometimes have trouble finding a good and healthy balance. In my professional opinion, however, ADD/ADHD is over diagnosed among the gifted and is often erroneously viewed as a twice exceptional condition.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the author.   Deborah Ruf, Ph.D., is a specialist on gifted children and adults for Educational Options, and President of Talent Igniter, home of the Ruf Estimates™ of Levels of Gifted, an online screening tool for parents. Her book, 5 Levels of Gifted: School Issues and Educational Options (2005) summarizes “levels of giftedness” and highlights highly to profoundly gifted children. See
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Everyday Science: Turkey Day and Tryptophan

We have big plans at our house this Thanksgiving holiday. We are planning on traveling to see family, enjoying our blessings, doing some baking, eating some pumpkin pie, and ingesting some tryptophan.  You’ve heard of this stuff, right?  There are many ways to consume tryptophan, and this coming Thursday mine will have been basted, stuffed, and roasted in the oven for a few hours before being carved and served with cranberry sauce.

I am of course talking about the Thanksgiving turkey, and the natural substance the meat contains, an amino acid called tryptophan.  Actually, it’s an essential amino acid, which means that unlike some other organisms such as plants, humans cannot synthesize it.  Tryptophan can only be gotten as part of our diet.

And if it weren’t for turkey dinners, we would still get tryptophan in our diet— it is naturally occurring in most protein-based foods or dietary proteins.  The wikipedia entry on tryptophan notes that is particularly plentiful in chocolate, oats, dried dates, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, red meat, eggs, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, spirulina, and peanuts. (There is a helpful table with grams of protein in each if you’re interested)

Speaking of interesting, turkey has less tryptophan in it than an equivalent amount of pork chops, egg whites, cod, and caribou.  (I’ve never eaten caribou.  Probably tastes like chicken.  Anyone out there eaten caribou?)  It has only slightly more tryptophan per pound than chicken, beef, or salmon.  So we wind up eating tryptophan all the time, not just at Thanksgiving.

So we ingest tryptophan pretty regularly, it seems.  But what does tryptophan do once eaten?  Why, it synthesizes serotonin!  Serotonin— which is a chemical messenger to the brain called a neurotransmitter—is important— low levels of the neurotransmitter have been found in people with sleep disorders.  So turkey dinner leads to sleepiness, right?

Well, more likely, the vast amount of turkey and trimmings that you plan to consume this Thursday will be the culprit in your post-prandial sleepiness.  That full belly is taking blood supply from the brain in order to digest.  Low blood supply to brain = decreased oxygen to the brain = sleepytime.  Also, wine with your turkey dinner?  All day on your feet cooking?  It’s no wonder you’re sure to be sleepy after that Thanksgiving meal.

I know a good cure to stave off the sleepiness.  Head on over and grab a cup of coffee and another piece of pumpkin pie while you’re up.  I’ll take one too, thanks!


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Teaching Children about the Six Kinds of Potential Energy

By Lorie Moffat

Your son or daughter has questions about the different kinds of potential energy, or energy that is stored. It can be quite confusing since some examples are not stationary on a molecular level. Some types are actually potential and kinetic (energy of motion) simultaneously, like heat or chemical. You can explain the differences between the six kinds of potential energy to your child using common examples.

Potential energy, or the energy of position, is stored energy. That is, it has the capacity to do work or to move something in a scientific sense. There are many types of potential energy including gravitational potential, electrical, chemical, thermal, magnetic, and elastic.

  • Six Kinds of Potential Energy #1 – When an object such as a ball is on the slope of a hill, it has gravitational potential energy based upon its height from the bottom of the hill, its mass, and the gravitational constant, g, which on Earth is 9.8m/s2. The gravitational constant is a form of acceleration. The higher an object is above the Earth’s surface, the more it will accelerate as it falls until it reaches terminal velocity (or the fastest speed at which it will fall). If a ball with the mass of 10 kilograms is 100 meters above the Earth’s surface, its gravitational potential energy will be the product of mass, gravitational constant, and height; or (10 kg) (9.8 m/s2) (100m), which is 9800 kgm2/s2 or 9800 Newton-meters or 9800 Joules. A Joule, which rhymes with rule, is the metric unit for energy. A ball’s potential energy changes to kinetic as it rolls or falls downhill.
  • Six Kinds of Potential Energy #2 – Electrical energy is stored in a battery in the chemical elements the battery contains. One battery terminal has an element that allows electrons to flow from it while the other terminal has an element that readily accepts electrons. A battery eventually stops working because the chemicals get used up. Static electricity involves objects like a balloon or the family’s pet cat that have extra electrons, especially in dry weather. If you rub a balloon on your hair and stick it to the wall, that’s using static electricity. When you pet the cat on a dry day, you may hear a crackling sound or see tiny sparks which is also static electricity.
  • Six Kinds of Potential Energy #3 – Chemical energy is trapped in chemical bonds. It is the component of the energy that can be released when molecules interact during a chemical reaction. It includes fossil fuels like coal, oil, natural gas and wood. Chemicals are composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, which are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons for practical purposes. Electrons are in constant motion circling the protons and neutrons in the nucleus. The motion of electrons is involved with chemical bonds creating molecules. During a chemical reaction this energy gets stored. Our cells need the chemical energy stored in the foods that we eat in order to function properly. Digestion is a slow process that breaks down the food we eat, releasing energy for the body’s use. The energy from foods becomes heat, carbon dioxide and water. Food packages list the number of Calories in the product. One Calorie of food energy is 4180 Joules.
  • Six Kinds of Potential Energy #4 – Thermal or heat energy is in all matter. Even something that feels cold like an ice cube still has heat. The molecules of all matter moves even as part of a solid. As long as the temperature of a material is above absolute zero, which is -459 degrees Fahrenheit, it has heat. This type of heat is still considered stored since it does not involve motion that we can see.
  • Six Kinds of Potential Energy #5 – Magnetic energy is also related to the atoms in an object. A magnet has extremely large groups of atoms lined up, in which one side of the group becomes the north pole of the magnet and the other side becomes the south pole. The magnetic field, or the space around a magnet where the magnetic force is exerted, is created by spinning and orbiting electrons. Most materials are not magnetic because the atoms’ magnetic fields do not line up. Iron atoms produce the strongest magnetic field therefore lots of magnets contain iron. Magnets are in electric motors and exert forces that affect the electrical current in wires. This led to the development of electric power, radio, and television.
  • Six Kinds of Potential Energy #6 – Elastic energy is the internal energy of a fluid or a solid that can be converted into mechanical energy to do work. A bouncing ball, a spring, a trampoline’s webbing, and a hydraulic piston all have elastic energy. The ball, spring, and trampoline all are solids that can store energy. The piston contains either compressed air or another fluid such as the brake fluid in automobile brakes that store energy.

By using common the examples above, you can easily explain the different kinds of potential energy to your children.

Lorie Moffat has 20 years of teaching experience in both public school classroom and science museum settings. Contact her about special summer online tutoring packages.

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