By Erik Parsons, 2e Education Specialist and Advocate
Having high ability doesn’t make an individual a nerd etc. and not all ‘nerds’ are gifted and/or talented. But many (perhaps even most) high-ability individuals are too often characterized this way.
Our culture is paradoxical in its tendency to elevate and applaud achievements of unique individuals while simultaneously disregarding, disparaging or even actively abusing those who fail to meet societal norms. Being viewed as ‘different’, even when that difference is a reflection of an individual’s unique strengths is often a social liability and can be a source of conflict for gifted individuals because they have different learning needs.
This dynamic contributes to the pathologization of giftedness: the underlying assumption that, because gifted individuals are identifiably different from the norm, there must be something fundamentally ‘wrong’ with them, which is further reinforced by the lack of understanding and identification of twice-exceptionality (the concurrence of high ability and disability/disorder). Non-normative behaviors arising from personality traits, which aren’t actually disruptive (i.e. mild introversion), are often mistaken for disorder/disability and vice versa. Additionally, confirmation bias makes it difficult for high-ability students to shake off ‘outsider’ labels. As a result, being branded with an ‘outsider’ label may seem like an inevitable disadvantage to actively reaching one’s potential, which can make gifted individuals question whether or not it is ‘worth it’ to pursue fields which interest them and play to their strengths.
However, there is a silver lining to the clouds of ignominy, which may accompany high achievement. In recent years, thanks largely to the greater ubiquity of the Internet and inroads into mainstream popular culture, these labels have lost much of their stigma. Through linguistic re-appropriation and public forums unconstrained by geography, robust communities of self identified ‘nerds’, ‘geeks’, ‘weirdos’ etc. have developed around one key principle: enthusiastically pursuing and sharing interests without regard for prevailing socio-cultural norms. This means high ability isn’t a prerequisite for geekiness; all that is required is passion, grit, enthusiasm and a willingness to take risks. Such communities provide opportunities for individuals to pursue their interests with genuine peers, as opposed to being limited to age peers who may not share the same interests and/or ability levels. Perhaps more importantly, these burgeoning communities can provide a positive social environment in which being ‘outside the norm’ is a common bond rather than a liability, engendering a tolerant environment responsive to socio-cultural and intellectual diversity.
Identification with, and participation in such cultural groups isn’t compulsory; even if some assume it to be so. However, their existence provides evidence that being stigmatized for high achievement needn’t be compulsory either. It gets better.
Erik Parsons is an unrepentant board gaming, D&D playing, technology loving, performing-arts engaged, Doctor Who obsessed, self-identified (capital ‘G’) ‘Geek’ with laserdiscs of the original Star Wars trilogy mounted on the wall to prove it. He lives and works in Evanston, IL and specializes in twice exceptional education and counseling. Additionally he is working on a series of “TED talk” style presentations on twice-exceptionality intended to increase awareness and understanding of the unique needs and gifts of high-ability individuals with developmental, learning, emotional, processing and physical disorders.
On Saturdays during the fall, winter and spring, Center for Talent Development’s Saturday Enrichment Program offers free seminars for the parents of gifted students led by experts in the field. Erik Parsons is presenting on “Recognizing the Capacities of Twice-Exceptional Learners” in Chicago on October 18 and in Evanston on November 8.