What Does Gifted Mean Anyway?


I read a rather sad post the other day on this topic.   In the comments, the author elaborated on how she thinks and learns that sounded like classic gifted:  asynchronous learning, imposter syndrome, and not meeting internal/external expectations.  And yet, she stated that she is not “gifted” and the assorted baggage of the word was distressing to her in the way that it was used.

I’ve talked about this before, obviously.  I’ve used this blog to respond to other posts about it.   I’ve even stated that I don’t like the term gifted because of all of the baggage that it entails.  Like most parents of gifted, I refrain from using the G word unless I know the person I’m talking to understands what it means.  Especially because the Engineer doesn’t look like any sort of stereotypical gifted kid because he’s twice exceptional.

Gifted gets a bad rap.  It’s loaded with negative stereotypes, it’s misunderstood, and it’s a red flag for knee-jerk “all children are gifted” responses from people who feel threatened.  All children are gifts, all children have talents.  Not all children are gifted.


It’s like saying all children have brown eyes.  Or all children can read at age 5.  Children are not all the same and it does them a disservice to claim otherwise.  Just like not all children have special needs, not all children are asynchronous and advanced.

Gifted doesn’t mean special.  It doesn’t mean better than everyone else.  Gifted is wiring.  Gifted is a brain that doesn’t think like the standard brain – that doesn’t learn the same way, see things the same way, or act the same way.  Gifted is different.

That’s highly important in an educational setting, because just like special needs, gifted needs a different way of learning than the mainstream classroom.  Not meeting those needs can have really detrimental effects on kids, and contribute to the achievement = gifted fallacy that is so hard to shake.

So just what is the “real” definition of giftedness anyway?  The National Association for Gifted Children states that

“Children are gifted when their ability is significantly above the norm for their age.  Giftedness may manifest in one or more domains such as; intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership, or in a specific academic field such as language arts, mathematics or science.”

What Is Giftedness? NAGC


The National Society for the Gifted & Talented uses the 1993 U.S. Department of Education’s definition:

“Children and youth with outstanding talent who perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment.” – US Department of Education, 1993

Giftedness Defined, NSGT


I don’t particularly like the NSGT definition because it focuses a lot of achievement – and the school systems certainly focus on academic achievement too.  I think the definition from the Encyclopedia Britannica probably covers the subject a little better:


“Gifted child: any child who is naturally endowed with a high degree of general mental ability or extraordinary ability in a specific sphere of activity or knowledge.  The designation of giftedness is largely a matter of administrative convenience.  In most countries the prevailing definition is an intelligence quotient (IQ) of 130 or above.  Increasingly, however, schools use multiple measure of giftedness and assess a wide variety of talents, including verbal, mathematical, spatial-visual, musical, and interpersonal abilities.”

Gifted Child, Encyclopedia Britannica


Put that way, it makes more sense – a “high degree of general mental ability.”  Some would still feel threatened by that, which is beyond me.  There will always be people smarter than I am, and people who aren’t as smart as I am.  There will be people who blow me away with their abilities that I do not have, while I can accomplish things that others can’t.  That doesn’t make me less or more than other people, it just makes me unique.


I think a lot of the anti-intellectuallism we see in America especially, comes from a misunderstanding of the term “gifted.”  I truly wish that we could find another term.  Label it something else.  But to be honest, whatever term we stuck with would quickly have just as much baggage as the term gifted.

To many people, gifted means stuck up.  Snobby.  Braggadocious.  It’s ok to brag about your child’s accomplishments in sports or clubs, but don’t you dare claim they’re smarter than their peers – because that’s snobby.  Gifted also means special treatment – differentiation in the classroom, pullout classes at school, or grade acceleration.  Despite the fact that children who thrive in a mainstream classroom don’t need these accommodations, gifted is still seen as problematic.  Teacher’s pet.  Snowflakes – I hate that term.

And even to gifted folks, adulthood seems to negate giftedness.  I’ve heard “I was a gifted child” more times than I can count.  Guess what?  If you were a gifted child, you’re now a gifted adult.  The way your brain works didn’t substantially change when you hit the magical age of 21.  I still think the same way, see things the same way that I did as a child.  My husband uses his abilities in similar ways as an adult as he did as a child, and possibly in a more applied way than he used to.  It doesn’t go away.


I’ll keep saying it – gifted is wiring.  Gifted is different.  And gifted is an important label for our kids, because labels are like beneficial stereotypes.  They provide a quick, easy-to-understand synopsis of what the child is like, how they learn, and what challenges they face.  But unless the label is accurate and fully understood, it’s a handicap.  A problem.  Unless we all comprehend what a clinical definition of something means, we’re doomed to constantly disagree with each other.  If I say X and you hear Y, then we’re not discussing the same thing.


Language is important.  Definitions are important.  And labels are astoundingly important for us to function well.




  1. Thanks for this article. I’m the writer of the post you linked to in the intro, and I’ve been doing a lot of reflection since my interactions with one of the commenters in particular.

    I’m going through a very difficult depressive patch at the moment, and much of that relates to having spent so much of my life as an undiagnosed autistic. I was only formally diagnosed little over a year ago. And yes, on reflection, and after reading this post as well, with the definitions you give, I probably do also fit th gifted profile. I have just so much bitterness because I never felt truly able to celebrate my own abilities as a child/teenager. The snobbish thing is weird, too – I often got teased as a kid for being “posh” simply for using precise, but fairly complex language in conversation – despite coming from a family that was far less wealthy or privileged than some of kids calling me that name.

    Plus I went to a high school where sport was the thing. I was utterly dreadful at sport – the only thing I couldn’t do. But somehow I still couldn’t just be happy about what I WAS good at, and spent most of my time feeling embarrassed and trying to hide any of my achievements.

    And I had a lifetime of people assuming I had no difficulties because I was so academically able. I mean, my executive dysfunction can be utterly debilitating at times. I was collapsed on the floor in tears before every single coursework assignment deadline. I feel aggrieved that other people did better in subjects/fields that I was actually far more able at, because I had no access to support that could have enabled me to flourish and also simply find ways to get things done without being crippled by anxiety, depression and confusion over why I couldn’t simply “just get on with it”.

    I also have real problems with the NSGT definition above that refers to achievement, because that aspect got more and more difficult for me as I got older, my life got more complicated, and my brain struggled to deal with those complexities. I actually do recall that one or two people may have used the term “gifted” in relation to my artwork when I was very young, but because I had my ambitions in that sphere crushed fairly early in my schooling through bad teaching, I’m now in a position where I’ve never had the opportunity to formally develop all the finer techniques associated with drawing etc. So I no longer feel properly “able” at it. I feel in that position of having been the “gifted child” but that not extending into adulthood.

    I recognise that my daughter could also be termed “gifted” in the ways described in this article. She’s only five, and whilst she has her ASD diagnosis her paediatrician also recommended further cognitive assessments when she’s older because of some particularly striking abilities of hers. I just really, really don’t want her to grow up having “baggage” about her smartness. She should be allowed to celebrate who she is, and I hope I, and everyone around us, can support her to learn and be fulfilled in a way that truly works for her.

    I will probably write a follow-up to my other blog post on the subject, because this subject has been eating away at me and the intellectual perfectionist in me is frustrated by the idea that I hadn’t got all my facts right academically within that post, but that not might be for a while because I feel just so damned sad about the whole thing. ?

    Although I’m going through a rough patch, however, I’m now in a position of actually working in a field that I love (learning and teaching/educational development at HE level), and having a fair few qualifications and accreditations. I actually seriously believe I WILL have a PhD by the time I’m 50, and that I AM actually damned good at what I do, whilst also needing some support/adjustments. But needing the support/adjustments doesn’t negate my strengths.

    Sorry for the long, rambling comments . I’m thinking out loud and am not entirely at my best at the moment…


    • Thank you for responding! It sounds like you’re not just gifted, you’re 2e (Twice Exceptional) like my son. That’s a difficult mix – because you’re at both ends of the bell curve at the same time. It’s really rough for him, but in the right situations he does so well and I’m so proud of him for accepting who he is and his “normal.” Like your daughter, he needs that same supports and acceptance to thrive. My husband told me once that he wishes he had the same options that our kids have – and wonders just how different his life would have been if he did.

      I’m glad you’re doing something that you love – and you’re right, needing the supports don’t negate your strengths. If you needed physical supports such as crutches or a cane, you wouldn’t think twice about it.

      If you feel up to it, there’s a Facebook group you might like to check out – Gifted Adults at https://www.facebook.com/groups/662823753852078/?fref=nf . It’s a place where we can be ourselves – intense, intellectual, or whatever the case may be. It’s pretty cool to find your tribe in a group of random people from all over the world.

      Thanks for dropping by 🙂



  2. The label ‘Gifted & Talented’ is very counterproductive and will continue to result in children with highly advanced abilities to be short-changed as regards educational resources and focus. A label such as Advanced Learners would be more descriptive and avoid the elitism that the GT label promotes.


  3. Such a great reminder about the complexities – and the public’s confusion – about giftedness. So many people hold biases and misconceptions about gifted children and adults. We need more reminders like these to continue to inform and advocate for these children.


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