On Giftedness, Disability, and Public Perceptions

Published on April 20, 2010 by Jennifer Laviano


So, I have been following the new series Parenthood with interest.  Yes, I loved the movie, and I like enough of the cast members to have tuned in.  But I started to commit to watching it weekly when I saw they were incorporating a story line about a family grappling with their child’s diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.

I’ve had mixed feelings about how that’s been done, but generally, I think they’ve done a pretty decent job covering it.  If nothing else, they’ve shown how all encompassing facing such a diagnosis can be for the parents, and even the extended family.  Of course, I’ve found myself yelling at the TV a few times, also…especially when we are continually reminded how the parents are privately funding the necessary therapies and evaluations for their child, instead of, oh, I don’t know…HAVING THE SCHOOL DISTRICT MEET THEIR OBLIGATIONS TO IDENTIFY HIM AND PROVIDE SERVICES!!!

But I digress.

Tonight I was watching again, and this week a cousin of the child with Asperger’s is acting out in school.  In case you don’t watch it, here’s what happened.  The kid’s parents were called in by the teacher to discuss the concerns, and the parents went home and discussed the issue with their daughter.  The issue surrounded her fixation with a rubber band ball, and so her mother reached out to the sister-in-law whose son was just diagnosed.  The sister-in-law gives her the name of their doctor and offers to help in any way she needs.  (Again, where the heck is the school district in any of this????  Okay, it’s TV, but seriously!)

So, the parents take the little girl for an evaluation, which, again true to reality, is done in about fifteen minutes (no trying to get in for an appointment weeks in advance in TVLand) and the parents nervously come in for the findings.  Meanwhile, in the background, the parents of the cousin with Asperger’s have been, in a refreshingly honest discussion with each other, secretly longing to have other family members who can relate to their experiences raising their son, while feeling really guilty about longing for it.

Anyway, the office visit with “the doctor” basically results in a finding that the girl is gifted, and a hypothesis is given that it is likely her boredom in school that is leading to her misbehavior.  The parents are relieved, and more…they’re clearly thrilled with this news!  Moreover, they feel conflicted about how to break the news to the parents of the cousin who has Asperger’s.

I was starting to get irritated around this point.

Then, a few days later, at a birthday party for yet another cousin (hey, it’s a big family), the parents break the news to the other parents that the problem was giftedness all along.  The reaction of the parents of the cousin with Asperger’s is gracious and kind publicly, but privately the resentment is kind of clear.  I actually really loved that part of it…the honesty of siblings, their love and conflicts with one another, and the dynamics they have in dealing with one another’s children, and their “issues.”

I will also say that I think it’s great that a mainstream, prime-time Network TV show is tacking issues of disability head-on.  And I suppose I shouldn’t get greedy about it.


I feel I have to make these points, because my children and husband were sleeping when I yelled this all at the TV, and at least I know some of you are reading this!

First…the implication seemed to be that the choices available were EITHER that the child had a disability, OR, she was gifted.  No possible consideration that it could be both!!  This upsets me on about a dozen levels, not the least of which is that it’s insulting to individuals with disabilities (as in “he isn’t special ed, he’s really smart!”), AND that this common mis-perception means that many kids who happen to be gifted and who also have disabilities are being shut out of necessary services.

Next, and importantly, raising a child at either end of the “bell curve” is not easy.

If you spend any time talking to parents of children who are gifted, you’ll soon discover that it’s not necessarily the great news you’d expect it to be.  Our schools are designed for the middle of that bell curve, and finding success within that system if you fall outside of the “norm” is a challenge, no matter what.  Plus, the legal protections available to children who are gifted, but who do not have a disability, are not nearly as comprehensive as other protections we have.

So the upshot…I really like the show, but if they’re going to take on the very tough task of exploring the nuances of raising children with special needs, I would REALLY appreciate it if they tried to avoid some of the stereotypes.  And “people with disabilities are not gifted” is one that has been around far, far too long.

Oh, and again…you know that school districts are required to evaluate and identify kids, right?

Sorry, I had to throw that in.

One Response to On Giftedness, Disability, and Public Perceptions

  1. Judi
    April 21st, 2010 | 7:38 pm

    My daughter has Aspergers. She is also gifted. She also has a laundry list of co-occurring conditions as well as a few medical problems to add to the parenting degree of difficulty. The school looks at her report card and sees a child who is doing well and needs nothing extra from them. I look beyond that one piece of paper and wonder how she will manage in life beyond school, because she’s at one end of the bell curve academically and at the other end with just about everything else. She’ll need to be able to do so much more than pass tests to survive in this world.

    Hey school! Prepare my daughter for life, not to pass tests. She’ll need to pass an interview to get a job. Prepare her for that.