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Social Behavioural Concern In Above Average Kid

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D


Q: I am writing about our four year three month old son. I am quite upset and concerned about his different social behavior but he is not; he is perfectly happy. We have had him assessed for Aspergers, which he does not have. We have had him in play therapy and after the first six weeks the therapist decided that he was acting fully normally and there were no issues to address. However we still observe quite a difference between him and his peers socially and it pains me a great deal. I don't know if this is just part of his normal personality and we should just encourage him to be who he is or if I should continue encouraging him to develop socially, even if it is outside his comfort zone. If we should do things to encourage different social behavior, what activities should they be?

We've been struggling with this question for a while without answers, even with 2 different professionals, and I would be happy to just understand what motivates my son and to know why we observe these social differences that seem to me to be a bit beyond normal personality differences. One thought is that my son may be gifted (both my husband and I were deemed gifted), but honestly I've always thought of him as brighter than average rather than gifted.

In a nutshell here is what we see:

  • Social awkwardness and or desire for self play or doing own thing while with peers (I can't totally pin down what is going on)

  • Total comfort and openness with family - loves to joke and participate

  • Apparent higher than average intelligence

  • Quite laid-back or low energy or lack of self motivation

  • A bit of physical clumsiness

I was putting together examples of his current social state and realized that I could summarize it as follows: it seems as though he is interested in playing with others but definitely not enough to adapt what he's interested in doing to join in with what the group is doing. He is interested in having others join in what he is doing, but what he is interested in is very different than the vast majority of other children. He is so interested in doing what he wants that he will do it regardless if it is by himself or with others, and most of the time it means he will do it by himself. An example of this is that we recently went to a park with a full playset and he discovered an area that was under the swing set where he was able to create as his own "moneymaking" play area - rather than running around the play equipment going up and down slides, etc, he created a bit of an academic play situation.

Another boy came to the area and my son was happy to instruct him about what was going on and have him join in, but when the other boy wasn't too interested my son just continued on happily by himself (or trying to get his 1.5 year old brother to join in). He also has a tendency to play with girls rather than boys and he engages very easily with adults who are interested in playing with him. He has 2 "best friends" at school but says he isn't friends with anyone else (this changes occasionally, but this current situation has been constant for a while).

This extends to the point that he doesn't really interact with his 2 friends if other kids are also interacting with them because he wants to avoid the other interactions - and he's not at all upset about this, it's just his choice.

Examples of his intellectual development:

  • Has always had a huge attention span compared to others. At 9 months could play with the same activity for 20 minutes.

  • By 22 months he counted one through 10, apparently out of nowhere for the first time, while we were driving in the car.

  • By 27 months he was regularly putting together an Alphabet jigsaw puzzle by himself. Not a puzzle where you place the letters in pre-cut out areas but a puzzle where you had to pick up the pieces and put them together independently.

  • By 2 1/2 he could count to 100.

  • By age 3 he was recognizing numbers up to 100. For example he would pick out license plates and say "that's 87".

  • By age 3 he could read many three and four letter words.

  • By three years three months he was remembering our vehicles license plate number, our house number etc. and telling me what they were without me ever instructing him to do so.

  • By age 4 he can write the entire Alphabet and write numbers 1 to 20 on his own and spell words such as his brothers name "Christian". He doesn't yet fully recognize that there is an order - he will write the words with the correct sequence of letters but place them randomly on the page.

  • By age 4 can read a traditional clock face for the basic half hour and full hour times.

  • By age 4 he can read relatively advanced words. For example he asked me "why did the sign say 'incoming traffic does not stop'"?

  • Interesting to me, he is not always motivated to do these things. He definitely does not like when he is asked by his dad or me to do so. He wants to do things on his own time by his own desire.

Regarding his laid-back-ness - he has always been a great sleeper. He slept so much when he was a baby that I was worried (although the doctor said not to). He still likes to just sit on the couch, suck his thumb and take in what's going on around him. One of his favorite activities at the playground is to be pushed in the bucket swing - at age 4! He doesn't have the desire to learn to swing by himself - he's always had the attitude of not wanting to do something that someone could do for him (for the most part). I just mention this because it seems contrary to typical gifted children.

Given what I have described, do you have any thoughts on what is going on or any recommendations of what I should do next? I mention his slight clumsiness because I've had him in a ton a sports classes - I feel even if he is a little socially awkward, being good at a sport can help social interactions a ton. Unfortunately he doesn't seem to be athletically gifted yet, except for swimming which is largely an individual sport.

Thank you for your time.

A: From your description, it appears to me that your son is above average in his development. You also mentioned that both the parents were recognised as gifted; hence it is very possible that your son is potentially gifted. Rather than labelling at this stage (puts undue pressure to the child and parents), it would be better to monitor his progress and work accordingly to cater towards his learning needs and nurture him to the best of your abilities with the resources available.

Your main concern is social adjustment which is quite a concern with a number of parent with cognitively highly advanced children. Based on research, it is learnt that the more highly gifted the child is, the more likely s/he may face some social and emotional challenges. The very highly gifted children also tend to internalise these issues - they may appear socially adept and very mature but internally, they may be very lonely, face isolation, rejection and social issues with peers. This is mainly due to not being accepted in the peer circle simply because their ideas, opinion and values differ from the average child causing them to be misunderstood most of the times. Children who are highly gifted may be at a much higher level in their developmental milestone - which may be seen as being “out of sync” with peers due to the mental age difference. This may be happening with your son. The good thing is that as they get older, this difference decreases due to the fact that the basis for friendship becomes more mutual for children across the border and what develops further is the depth and commitment.

Therefore, he is probably behaving quite normally based on his mental age and not socially awkward as you may be feeling. He enjoys interacting with people of similar mental age rather than chronological age - which is fair to stimulate him. When people of similar mental age are not available, he rather plays alone - which is far more stimulating and exciting for him. He is also at a very comfortable level with the family, so he is able to be more expressive.

On sleep, it is true that a good number of gifted children tend to need less sleep and I tend to feel that their inability to sleep may be due to their lack of ability to shut down cognitively which appears to be because they have not been stimulated enough. But there are enough gifted children who sleep as normally as anyone with some requiring more than average sleep. This is perfectly fine. Gifted or not, children do have varying sleep patterns. As long as he does not show signs of lethargy and is fresh when he is awake, I think he is getting good sleep. It is also possible that he is stimulated enough throughout the day, therefore requiring more rest time especially if he does not nap in the afternoon. Should you still feel concerned about his sleep habits, do consult a paediatrician.

His apparent lack of motivation may be due to the inability to feel stimulated by the said activity an mainly because he is not seeing a connection between the task and his interests or goals. Many gifted children may lack motivation due to a learning disability but this does not appear to be the case with your son. Also, lack of exposure to a certain activity may also make it appear that the child is not motivated. Therefore, provide him with as much opportunities to explore as possible to allow a variety of interest areas that could lead to discoveries of passion areas. Gifted children are intrinsically motivated, which means that they will only show interest if the activity stimulates them. Perhaps, you may want to try to give him materials that would stimulate and interest him. Allow for a lot of freeplay which helps the imagination and encourages independency.

On the social front again, keep encouraging him in a social circle but don't push him. I really think he needs friends who are more mentally rather than chronologically similar. At this point, you would need to hep him with that. On being clumsy, it may simply be due to asynchronous development which is very common amongst the above average children. If you feel he is far clumsier compared to his peers, do consult a doctor to rule out any physical concern.

Hope that helps. Best of luck! 


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