The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Gifted or Impaired?

Today, I am led to wonder why the gifted are called "gifted". You see there is a basic assumption in that labelling that may not be immediately apparent - what is assumed is a perspective. The term "gifted" is a perspective on the more able from the point of view of the less able. It is the majority of less capable people who are, in effect, labelling the minority of the more capable as "gifted". At least, that is the viewpoint of the label. It is a comparison between the average people and the more capable people, using the average as a base line to form the description. Yet, why is it that way? It seems, to me, that, in some way, this way of looking at the world ignores and sidelines the way of looking at the world that the gifted people themselves may come to form, in the course of their lives. It is a view of the gifted from the non-gifted. It, therefore, fails to understand what life for the gifted is like.

What does an average person look like to a gifted person? Well, that is something rarely publicly considered. However if one reflects on it, for a moment, it will be seen that a gifted person must, at times, be puzzled by others - particularly in childhood, when they have yet to come to understand the world. You see, from the point of view of a gifted person, the average person does not seem "average" or "normal", they seem IMPAIRED. Many a gifted child - in fact all gifted children, if they speak to others - will have had the experience of not being understood by others. They will have spoken their minds, perhaps with great enthusiasm, about their latest ideas, understandings or insights - and met with a frown, perhaps, or scoffing, even. The other child simply did not and could not understand them. Now, the gifted child, who has not come to see this as usual, might be immensely puzzled why he or she was not understood. You see, from the point of view of the gifted child, understanding what they understood, or seeing what they saw, would not appear a difficult thing to do. It might, in fact, be immensely obvious to them. It might be something they understood immediately, without much effort - it might have come in a moment of joyful insight, typified not so much by effort, as by an involuntary state of instant conception. To the gifted child, therefore, the last thing they might expect, is that others wouldn't understand them. However, more often than not, the gifted child is not understood by the "average" children they encounter. From this comes so much pain, of course and so much sorrow - for it leads to the gifted child being intellectually isolated, unless they can find suitable companions from among their gifted peers (increasingly difficult to do for the more gifted categories) or, perhaps, understanding adults.

Now, think for a moment what the life of a gifted child is like - say one whose gift is relatively rare - a highly gifted child, or above, say. Such a child may not know ANYONE in their childhood of comparable intellect. They may NEVER encounter any other child on their level, in the time that they grow up. What perspective would they have on life and people? They would puzzle that everyone seems rather slow in understanding. They would wonder at how little others see or understand or think or create, or, even feel, since the gifted often have intense feelings, too. They would, after a while, conceive an understanding: that they, themselves, are NORMAL - and that everyone else seems IMPAIRED. You see, a gifted child is not "gifted" from their own point of view. They will always see themselves as the "normal" in their own world. It is EVERYONE ELSE who seems abnormal and somewhat lacking. So, even though the world may label a gifted child as "gifted"...surely, the deeper truth here, unpalatable as it may seem, is that, from the point of view of the gifted child's experience of the world - all the other children seem "impaired".

I realize that it would be politically incorrect to use the term "impaired" to describe the average person - yet, that is the reality of the experience of the gifted, in the world, as they grow up. They will not, usually, see themselves as particularly abnormal, since no-one likes to conceive of themselves as abnormal. They will, instead, more likely, conceive of themselves as NORMAL - and everyone else as ABNORMAL. They are not "gifted" to themselves - it is just that they happen to be surrounded by "impaired" people.

Children are often jealous of the gifted. They often treat them poorly. Yet, this is just another sign that the average child doesn't understand the "gifted". To the gifted child, the world is impaired. Few people seem able to understand their thoughts - perhaps no-one really "gets" them. Then again, many of the average children will be spiteful towards them, out of jealousy for their gifts - yet what, exactly, was the gifted child's crime: simply to be, to exist, to have been born. The gifted do not CHOOSE to be gifted, no more than the average choose to be average: it is just the way it is. So, it is profoundly wrong, to be hostile towards someone simply for the way they were born to be, having had no choice in that matter. It is precisely the same type of thinking that leads to racism over skin colour. The colour of one's skin, Michael Jackson, notwithstanding, is beyond our choice: it is the way we were born to be. Thus, one should have a certain pity for the gifted child, if they do not find peers to relate to. They will be surrounded daily by people whom to them, appear "impaired" - and from whom they receive much hostility based on nothing more than their natural inherited nature over which they had no choice. Long ago, I labelled this as "giftism" - the dislike of and ill treatment of those who are gifted. At the time, there were no google hits for the term, in the world, so it is clear that I coined the term, for the first time.

The gifted child is subject to "giftism", from an impaired world that does not understand them. That is a sad situation and one that is not fully appreciated. Yet, think of it the other way around: how often does a typical gifted child show "impairedism" towards the "normals" around them? I have never heard of that behaviour. Typically, a gifted child is quite introverted, a little shy perhaps, frequently a bit awkward socially - and they try, desperately, in their own way, to reach out to the world and be understood by it. Thus, a typical gifted child is trying to connect to the world - but is the world trying to connect to the gifted child? I think not. By singling them out as "gifted" the world shows that it is not trying to include the child, so much as exclude them. It is saying, "you are apart from have been given what we have not". The gifted child does not say "you are apart from me, you have had taken from you that which I have." Yet, the gifted child could say that, and could think that. Generally, they don't however: they just feel somewhat alone in a world that cannot understand them.

I am moved to remember my son, Ainan's remark when I asked him what he thought about himself, in relation to other children. He said: "I am average". I understood what he meant. He is his OWN "average", his own "normal". He was saying that he felt "normal" for him. I reported his remark and he was much attacked for it, by anonymous strangers on the internet. They thought that he must be disregarding the nature of others, to make such a remark. They accused him of lacking social skills. Well, no: it shows none of these things - it just shows what I have been saying - that a gifted child will typically see themselves as the normal way to be - and everyone else as the abnormal way to be. They are usually defined as "normal" by themselves.

I find this interesting. The whole world goes around defining these children as "gifted"...that is distinguished from the average by the presence of "gifts"...whereas these children probably, in fact, see themselves as "normal" as my son does, despite his prodigious childhood. (The fact that he spends so much time among adults may have something to do with it, of course). Indeed, it seems healthy to conceive one's own way of being as "normal" even if it is not. Conceiving of oneself as "abnormal" cannot be a good stressor. Yet, also interestingly enough, I don't think that gifted children go around defining, consciously, others as "impaired". The term, "impaired" has never entered any human language I know of, to describe the average person. Thus, the perspective of gifted people has never entered common language. The world is defined, therefore, not by the gifted minority, in this descriptive sense - but by the ungifted majority.

What I am trying to convey is that, to the gifted, they do not seem "gifted" to themselves they seem "differently normal". They know they are DIFFERENT - but that difference feels NORMAL. It is the way they are. It is the way they have always been: how else could it feel but normal?

So, perhaps, instead of marking out the gifted as apart from the rest of the world and subject to jealousies and hates, as a consequence, perhaps they can be reframed as "differently normal" - and accepted as just another way of being. After all, a gifted child has to learn to accept, as they grow up, that the impaired people they see around them, everyday of their lives are, in fact, the most common type - and conceive of themselves as "normal". The gifted child has to learn to accept them, as "normal". Yet they also conceive of themselves as "normal" - for how else could they think of themselves when that is the way they are involuntarily? Yet, they can also see that they are different from the others. The way to resolve this is to see that each type of person - the "gifted" or the "impaired" is "differently normal" - normal from their own point of view. Perhaps this way of looking at things will allow all people, of all gifts or otherwise, to get along.

At least, that is my hope.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, 10, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, 6 and Tiarnan, 4, this month, please go to: also write of gifted education, child prodigy, child genius, adult genius, savant, megasavant, HELP University College, the Irish, the Malays, Singapore, Malaysia, IQ, intelligence and creativity.

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:26 PM 


Blogger Kipihent said...

As a little kid, I do remember thinking that there was something terribly wrong with the other kids (and even some of the adults) around me...

1:44 AM  
Blogger darth said...


A classic Alice in Wonderland moment.

Who's mad
1) Alice and the Mad Hatter or,
2) Everyone else?

1:48 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you Kipihent for confirming my understanding of the gifted child's perspective. Yes. It can be puzzling for such a child, that everyone seems so UNABLE.

As for the adults: I saw that, too, as a kid...

11:19 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Very funny Darth!

However, from the gifted child's point of view it does seem like there is something awfully wrong with everyone else.

Best wishes.

11:20 AM  
OpenID 7sigma said...

I believe I started out thinking of myself as "normal", although I don't think I ever considered most others to be "impaired". In an extraordinary 180 degree twist, the other kids got in there first with that label.

Because nobody understood me, they considered that there must be something wrong with ME. So I was the one who got cruelly teased - verbally, physically and later on in a much more unpleasant way that doesn't make for family viewing - by children at the school. I can't imagine how a bunch of kids their age even KNEW all those names for various disabilities and mental illnesses. Not to mention the continual aspersions cast on my personal hygiene and other physical characteristics.

The teachers sent me for testing because I wasn't fitting in and making friends. The answer of course fell out of the bag when they saw the result, but I think the teachers and my parents were only annoyed because it didn't translate into co-operation and achievement with my schoolwork. They had their own opinions on how I was "impaired" - in the behaviour department, because I wouldn't willingly do my schoolwork and play nicely with the others.

I grew up with some very negative views of myself, compared to other people. Other people were portrayed to me as having some quality that I didn't have, i.e. a natural ability to get on and fit in. I'm still trying to shake off the conditioning laid in by those labels now and do something positive with my life.

12:08 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you 7Sigma, for your frank comment about your childhood experience. Your early life mirrors those of the most gifted people in the population: marginalization tends to be the rule and being a victim of bullies is to be expected.

It is interesting that the "normals" around you conceived of YOU as impaired, when the truth, of course, is that, by comparison, they were the impaired ones. It also seems to me that they were impaired in the behaviour department too, from the way they behaved towards you. However, it is telling and typical that your teachers misunderstood whom exactly was misbehaving - after all - they were most probably "normals" as well and thus subject to the same lack of insight.

As for finding a worthwhile life: do whatever you enjoy and don't worry about what others think. If you are pursuing a course of action fulfilling to yourself, eventually you will find some kind of success.

I wish you luck.

12:42 PM  

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