Giftedness, Defiance, and Misdiagnosis: Musings by a Mother and Therapist

Giftedness, Defiance,

and Misdiagnosis:

Musings by a Mother and a Therapist

Teresa Currivan, LMFT

So the upcoming diagnosis du jour is ODD, or oppositional defiant disorder. I have a bone to pick about its rising popularity. Although what I have to say is for parents. Why? Simply because you know your child. Most of you have been with them since birth, and if you haven’t, you still are allowed a window into who they are that others aren’t.* 

Defiance is, at its core, a healthy response to something that isn’t working. Most of us have gotten through life by being compliant because that’s the way the world works. So now, when we see our child being defiant, we may have mixed feelings — based on our own upbringing and schooling, and what worked and didn’t work — and sometimes what finally broke us. So putting our own work on our own growth aside, for now, let’s see if we can take a look at what our child might be up against. 

Since my expertise is in differently wired children, I’m going to take an example from that world. But honestly, any child who is defiant could benefit by taking a closer look at the cause. 

In the differently wired world of kids, often a child has a few things going on at one time. For example, ADHD plus dyslexia, or giftedness plus autism, etc. 

The example I’m going to use is of a child misdiagnosed with ODD, and his only differently wired trait is giftedness: he has no other challenges than what comes with being exceptionally gifted. Sam’s overall IQ score is 160, although with his latest evaluation it is 145+. 

By the time his parents contacted me, he was at the end of his sophomore year in high school. Sam (not his real name,) was attending a gifted high school — public by a certain miracle. His parents were relieved to have gotten him in – as there had been a waiting list. His mother described Sam to me as “having a silly sense of humor,” and she couldn’t quite pinpoint his social skills: while kids loved him – even gravitated towards him, in fact, he often said he felt he had no friends. Further, she noted that in Church, school, and any social groups within their community, he often blurted out embarrassing things – just to get others to laugh. 

By sophomore year, he was “gaming all day,” when his parents let him, and getting him to follow through on household chores was “very hard work.” 

The tip of the iceberg, and what scared his parents was that, while Sam had usually been very honest, he has skipped school twice, one time leaving class and “going for a joy ride” in a friend’s car. 

From Sam’s parents’ perspective, they had done all they could: he was in a gifted school, so academics wasn’t an issue. They sought a neuropsychological evaluation again from a gifted expert. He had one in fourth grade, where they learned he was gifted. This time he received the diagnosis of ODD, oppositional defiant disorder. 

The school asked for the results and, of course, Sam’s parents gave them the evaluation. 

The problem with a diagnosis – any diagnosis, whether accurate or not, especially with non-neurotypical students, (145+ is non-neurotypical,) is that:
A) it might be entirely wrong, and
B) we think we’re done — we’ve figured it all out. As parents – we’ve gone to the expert and this is what they say. 

There’s some relief in this: at least we have clarity. Or we think we do. 

But what is the school going to do with this “knowledge”? And, perhaps more importantly, what are we, as parents going to do with this “knowledge”.

Have all of our worst fears come to fruition? Is our child a terrible person – and was he born this way? (And are humans inherently evil, while we are at it?) And of course, the age-old question: Are we (am I) the worst parents on the entire planet? 

ODD answers all of these questions – how, depends on how you look at it. For some, ODD sets you free: it’s not your parenting, it’s your child – he was born this way. We can take it in all directions…..

What we don’t usually talk about is that a diagnosis implies (faulty) wiring – anxiety disorder means you were born to be anxious, defiance the same, etc.

It closes a door. Yes, a child may be defiant, but WHY? WHEN, and in what way? 

Speaking of closed doors: What’s going on inside the child? Has the child tried and tried and yet feels that doors are being closed all the time?

What we figured out was going on for Sam was that he was so gifted, even his gifted, AP classes weren’t working for him. He was very interested in planets, astronomy, and physics, and could talk about that with a “master’s level of knowledge in some areas,” per a family friend and physics professor. In fact, he had begun talking about planets when he was two-and-a-half-years old. As a toddler, he had retained everything he learned about planets and even added some imaginary stories about them. His parents recalled this in a conversation with me, although they had previously forgotten this about Sam and didn’t see how it was relevant to his behavior in high school until I helped them connect the dots. Even at two, Sam was ready for a different kind of education. His parents had done more than most in helping him and supporting him: that they had a gifted high school in their area was a miracle in itself. And yet it still didn’t suit this very out-of-the-box learner. 

I suggested that Sam’s parents give him alternative options for his education. What he eventually decided was to take his high school equivalency exam, which he passed, and began classes at the nearby community college. There, he had more say in the teachers he had, and even took his time to audit classes when he wasn’t sure they would be a good fit. He soon after got his driver’s license and was given responsibilities that he thought he could manage. After all, there’s no need to cut class and go for a joy ride when you have made these choices of your own will – even when you are 16. 

More importantly, Sam’s parents had faith in him again – faith that he had an inherent drive to do well, including exploring his own mind on his terms, and to make people laugh, albeit on his own terms, but less out of frustration and disturbance – and more in support of himself and his friends.

*Please seek professional advice about your child’s specific needs. 
©2021 Teresa Currivan ♥

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