Leaving Behind Normalcy: Asynchrony and the Gifted Child

September 23, 2014

By Brianna Safe

Brianna has worked at IEA since 2011 and with gifted students since 2009. She graduated from Biola University with her BA in Humanities and English and is particularly interested in how literary art can inform issues in human psychology about how individuals conceive of themselves and make decisions. 

Asynchrony and the gifted childThe word “normal” is often casually batted across the field of developmental psychology, and I shudder at the implicit limitations of such a word. Sure, “normal” is a practical point of reference for understanding how children grow, in what ways and at what ages. When used descriptively, it can be a useful tool for seeing general patterns of physical, cognitive, and emotional development. The harm seems to come when we choose, often without realizing, to see normative development through a prescriptive lens. To prescribe “normal” as the measure of a healthy, happy child may confine us to a definition too narrow to allow the perspective that each child is a unique instantiation of life, and therefore will develop in his or her own unique way.


For those parenting a child at either end of the bell curve, the normalcy lens can cause more trouble than not. Any parent of a gifted or special needs child (or in some cases, the twice-exceptional child) can attest to the fact that, if normal is the rule, their child is indeed the exception. For these parents, it can be a challenge to let go of normative expectations and accept their child’s distinctive development.

These variations from the norm can be hard to define. Gifted has often been conflated with achievement and accolade, with success being the primary identifier of a truly gifted child. This seems a narrow perspective, considering the thousands of underachieving and at-risk gifted students across America, to give one example. It also fails to account for the notion that gifted children don’t develop in a linear, synchronous way. Parents often speak of their gifted child embodying many ages at once, oscillating from an “old soul” to an emotional 3-year-old from one minute to the next. Imagine, for instance, the gifted child who spends her weekends learning computer languages like Java and C++ but who falls to pieces if asked to perform a repetitive task like copying vocabulary words ten times. How can we best define this simultaneous abundance and lack, which to us can appear so out of the norm?

In 1991, a group of gifted education specialists (both parents and professionals) came together to ask the question – “What is gifted?” They gathered in Columbus, Ohio, (giving them the name “Columbus Group”) to search for an answer to this deceptively simple question. One member, Stephanie Tolan, recalls: “…we agreed that in almost every way these children were out of sync with expectations, norms, and averages” (Off the Charts, 14). Indeed, the gifted child will no doubt disappoint or confuse the parent who prescribes to normative expectations.

From their discussion, the Columbus Group conceived of the concept “asynchrony” to describe the basic features of the gifted child. Their child-centered – not product or achievement centered – definition has been adopted by many gifted organizations (IEA included), schools, and educators as the most inclusive explanation of the gifted individual.

“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order for them to develop optimally” (Columbus Group, 1991).

For young gifted people, the pressure for normalcy can easily sneak its way into their self-perception, either through internal or external influences, or both. Acceptance of their giftedness as an integral part of self is crucial during childhood and adolescence, as they are in the most critical stages of development. Asynchrony, not normalcy, should be the lens through which we understand the growing gifted individual, and should provide educators and parents alike a better framework for helping them to learn and grow into their best possible self.

off-the-charts-asynchrony-and-the-gifted-childIf you are interested in learning more about asynchrony, I strongly recommend Off the Charts: Asynchrony and the Gifted Child. Among the contributors are IEA Senior Fellows, Dr. Michael Piechowski, Stephanie Tolan, and Dr. Patricia Gatto-Walden, as well as Yunasa Fellow, Dr. Shelagh Gallagher. We are honored to have an ongoing relationship with some of the most renowned experts in the field today. To learn more about it or order it online, please visit Royal Fireworks Press.

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