Diagnosis: Gifted

Elliott Tanner looks like your average 9-year-old kid. He’s tall and gangly, with long brown hair and wide brown eyes. He smiles easily and loves talking to people. If you met him on the street, you might be struck by how easily he can carry on a conversation, but you might not guess he attends a local community college. 

“My favorite part about school is just being able to learn every day,” Elliott says. 

With no other children to compare him to, Elliott’s mom, Michelle, and dad, Swedish punk rocker Patrik Tanner, didn’t think it unusual when Elliott lifted his head at birth or rolled over consistently at 4 weeks old. 

“We were proud parents,” Michelle said. “We didn’t know any different.”

The questions began when Elliott’s development never quite matched up with BabyCenter emails. All the milestones he was supposed to be reaching were things he’d been doing for quite some time. 

“It really clicked,” Michelle said, “when he taught himself how to read … at 18 months.” 

By 3, he was reading chapter books. 

It’s easy to be in awe of a child who begins reading at a time when many of his peers are learning their first words. But the reality of raising a kid like Elliott can come with challenges that aren’t always obvious to outsiders.

Elliott Tanner

Becoming an advocate

In an effort to give Elliott a chance at a normal school experience, the Tanners, who live in St. Louis Park, enrolled him in a Spanish-immersion preschool and kindergarten. They assumed he’d at least benefit from the second language and social interactions. 

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. 

“He definitely didn’t fit in,” Michelle said. “At 5, he had memorized the periodic table … and the other kids didn’t know what he was talking about.” 

Michelle said Elliott spent much of his time in those years feeling socially isolated. 

“In hindsight, [keeping him in school was] pretty harmful for us,” she said.  

At the time, though, she was determined to make it work. 

After kindergarten, the Tanners had Elliott tested using the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. They wanted to find out exactly where he was academically. They also wanted to get ammunition to advocate for his skipping a grade — at least in math, if not the entire academic year. 

They met with the school armed with test results placing Elliott’s IQ in the 99.9th percentile, hoping that would be evidence enough.

The school’s response?

“They literally laughed at us,” she said, adding that they were made to feel like over-zealous parents who thought their kid was exceptional and in need of
special treatment.

The school, which did not offer the option of gifted and talented programming or accelerated learning/grade skipping, dismissed the test results and told Michelle that Elliott could make school as hard as he wanted to by making his IB (international baccalaureate) projects more difficult. 

They suggested he find further enrichment outside school hours and suggested the Tanners join a group of parents who were paying for a math tutor for their math-advanced kids.

Either way, Elliot would still be expected to complete a curriculum that was painfully easy for him. They said if he finished his work early in class, he could read. 

“There was no way they were going to work with me,” Michelle said. 

At that point, the Tanners decided to homeschool Elliott full time. 

However, Elliott’s interest in mathematics was something of a mystery to Michelle, who works as a photographer. To provide him enriching educational opportunities, she relied heavily on her network of friends and family. Through crowdsourcing, she was able to find mentorships and field trips that gave him hands-on experience in the STEM fields and fueled his passions even more. 

At age 6, Elliott became a member of Mensa International; he was also awarded high honors from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth; and he was accepted into the Stanford University Gifted and Talented youth program and the Davidson Young Scholars program for profoundly gifted youth. 

Elliott Tanner

From fourth grade to college

Homeschooling allowed Michelle to tailor Elliott’s education to more closely match his abilities, but his academic needs quickly outpaced what she could teach him. 

After he aced two high school-level co-op classes at age 8, Michelle tried the school system once more: This time she approached the local high school. 

They were willing to enroll Elliott, but they wanted to observe him in his age-grade first. 

“We would have had to put him back in fourth grade for eight weeks,” Michelle said. “We didn’t want to subject him to that.”

Simultaneously, Michelle received advice via an online forum recommending Elliott skip high school altogether and go straight to the local community college. 

Michelle was nervous, but emailed the president of Normandale Community College, Joyce Ester, who surprised her with an enthusiastic referral to Cary Komoto, the dean of the STEM department. Shortly afterward, Michelle and Elliott sat down with Komoto and Mark Ahrens, the head of the mathematics department. Within a few minutes, Michelle knew it was the right place for Elliott. 

“The three of them started laughing hysterically at these math jokes that I did not understand,” she said. “Elliott was laughing so hard he was snorting. I thought, ‘These are his people.’”

The college’s only concern was that Elliott would be too short for the chemistry-lab tables. 

“My heart was so relieved,” Michelle said.

Elliott Tanner

The downside of high intelligence

Michelle is thrilled that Elliott is finally challenged and surrounded with people who share his interests; and she feels lucky they’ve been to be able to accommodate her son’s needs. 

But it hasn’t been easy.

“I could never have done this with a full-time job,” she said. 

Michelle said her initial research into giftedness led her to some fearful places. 

“Some of the first stuff you find is that the suicide rate for gifted kids is super high. That scared the heck out of me,” she said.  

That information, coupled with a family history of depression, led the Tanners to prioritize Elliott’s mental health above all else, which ultimately led them to Normandale in Bloomington. 

Though research on mental health in the gifted community is limited, a new study published in the journal Intelligence found that gifted individuals experience anxiety, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and diseases related to immune dysregulation at two to four times the rate of average Americans. 

Researchers theorize that may be due to something called “hyper brain, hyper body.” 

Since the gifted brain takes in stimuli at a significantly faster rate than the average brain, it can easily become overwhelmed and produce an anxious physiological response. 

Teresa Boatman, a Plymouth-based psychologist who’s worked with the gifted community for more than 20 years, says she sees evidence of this phenomenon all the time. 

“When your brain has extra neural firings, you have this hyper responsiveness to the environment, which might lead to an anxious response,” she said. 

Something as innocuous as a mildly irritating inseam or a faint unnatural sound in the distance can be excruciating for a child whose brain is hypersensitive. 

Another theory that attempts to explain this comes from the work of Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski. He identified five areas of intensities, called overexcitabilities, which gifted kids tend to experience at a higher rate. These include psychomotor (a surplus of physical energy), sensual (heightened experiences of the senses), intellectual (an intense need to seek truth and knowledge), imaginational (a heightened imagination) and emotional (intense feelings, complex emotions and heightened empathy). 

Kids who experience one or more of these may be perceived by others as overly intense. 

Elliott Tanner

Trouble fitting in

Many gifted kids also struggle to fit in with their age-group peers. For example, sense of humor is a product of cognitive age, not chronological age. 

“So if you’re a 9-year-old and the other 9-year-olds stare at you blankly when you make a joke, you feel awkward and out of place,” Boatman said. 

This can lead to social isolation and more anxiety. 

Additionally, because they often misinterpret social cues, gifted children sometimes assume their peers are being mean when in fact they’re goofing around. Boatman helps kids develop skills around what she calls “locker room talk,” or the ability to have casual conversations and correctly interpret social cues. 

Of course, not all gifted kids struggle socially, and not all gifted kids experience anxiety. 

But among those who do, such symptoms are often a product of simply being in the wrong educational environment.

“It has nothing to do with the teachers,” Boatman said, “It has everything to do with the curriculum.”

She likens the experience of being in the wrong-level curriculum to sitting through a professional-development class that covers topics you mastered years ago in your career. She asks parents to imagine how painful it would be to return to that class every day: That’s what regular school is like for many gifted kids. 

It’s no surprise, then, that they can develop unhealthy coping behaviors in response. According to Boatman, if the educational environment can be improved, many of those psychological symptoms will begin to disappear.

Elliott Tanner

Educational options 

Though homeschooling can be a good fit for exceptionally intelligent children, it’s not the only option. 

In Minnesota, most public schools begin gifted and talented programming around second or third grade. This may include weekly pullout classes, grade skipping or clustering. 

For those who might benefit from earlier intervention or full-time programming, there are several options sprinkled throughout the state. Some exist as specialized classrooms within regular schools, while others are offered at private, magnet or charter schools. Some even accept children as young as 4 years old. (See mcgt.net for details.)

For the Tanners, sending their radically accelerated learner to college at age 9 was the right decision. 

But even community college may not be enough for Elliott in the short term, Michelle said.

Recently one of Elliott’s teachers called a meeting with the Tanners and described their son as “an outlier among outliers.” 

“You hear about these minds,” the teacher said. “It’s incredible to actually meet someone like this.” 

After that meeting, Michelle realized: “The current schooling situation — that we thought was working — isn’t going to work for much longer. He needs more. He’s always going to need more.”

In a Facebook post on a public page for Elliott, Michelle wrote: “We try hard to achieve balance for him and accommodate his desire to learn, while being acutely aware of depression and self-harm tendencies that can come hand in hand with the profoundly gifted population.”

She said she’s also committed to giving Elliott — who’s exploring post-secondary enrollment options at the University of Minnesota — the “normal” life of an elementary-school-aged boy.  

“We also schedule play dates, trips to the amusement park, have lemonade stands and race bikes with the neighborhood kids,” she said. “Just because he has a different educational journey, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to be a kid.” 

Amanda Webster lives in Roseville with her husband and two kids. She’s currently working on a book about creativity and childhood. Learn more at theworkofchildhood.com.