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IQ like Einstein

What is it really like to parent a profoundly gifted child?

By Susan Freinkel

Nathan Bergrin was just 4 months old when he figured out how to hold a book and turn the pages. At 6 months, he read the word “moo” off the side of a truck. By his first birthday, an age when most kids are just sounding out “mama” and “dada,” he was speaking in fullly articulate sentences. “The cat jumped over the fence,” he said one day as his mother pushed him in the baby swing.

His mother, April Kopcsick-Bergrin, knew he was smart. But she didn’t realize how smart until he was 5 and testing revealed his IQ is even higher than Stephen Hawking's. You could call him a genius, though April resists that loaded term, preferring the more politically correct phrase “profoundly gifted,” or as she usually puts it, “PG.” Whatever the label, it’s one that describes only 0.01 percent of the population. It’s a group whose brains work differently than even the very bright: they process information and make connections faster and more efficiently.

Special needs, few resources

Having a child with such prodigious intellectual abilities might seem the fulfillment of every parent’s dream. But the fact is that supporting such enormous potential presents a challenge. Much as she adores her only child, raising Nathan “has not been a cakewalk,” says April. “It’s been a personal struggle to give him what he needs.”

Part of the problem: the dogmatically egalitarian culture of our schools. Neither public nor private schools deal well with kids on the far reaches of the bell curve. That means meeting the needs of a profoundly gifted child can be as frustrating for parents as helping one who is profoundly disabled.

Indeed, in some sense, it can be even harder. While it’s a given that intellectually challenged children need special education, intellectually gifted children are expected to do just fine with standard classroom fare. Who needs to worry about the brainy third grader who yearns to do pre-calculus when he has classmates who can’t even add? There’s no federal mandate for school districts to provide gifted education, and state spending varies widely among the 40 states that do fund gifted programming. Total state spending for gifted programs — $1.2 billion in 2010-11 — is a tiny fraction of the dollars devoted to special education.

According to advocates of gifted children, the situation has gotten even worse in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act. “We call it 'No Child Let Ahead,'” says Lisa van Gemert, a gifted youth specialist for American Mensa. While the law has helped raised test scores for underachieving children, “gifted children have flat-lined like someone with a cognitive heart attack.”

Battle hymn of the PG Mom

Parents of PG kids all have war stories about their battles to wrest accommodations from reluctant school administrators. Charlene Ying’s son Alex was already reading at a high school level when she appealed to the principal of her local school in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to let him start kindergarten at the age of 4. “He said he was happy to talk with me, but that in 26 years he had never made an exception,” she recalled. Meanwhile the local private school for gifted students refused to take Alex “because he was too far above their norm [and] it would be too much work to accommodate him.”

April has waged such fights solo. She and Nathan’s father split up when he was a toddler and since then her ex has had little involvement besides providing financial support. By now, mother and son are a tightly bonded pair, with April’s life revolving around Nathan in a closely protective orbit. While recognizing his mind is years beyond his age, she’s also determined to guard his childhood. He may like discussing quantum mechanics theory, she notes, but “he also still likes Legos and rolling in the dirt.”

Insatiable mind

At 12, Nathan is short with dark brown eyes; a sly, buck-toothed smile; and the confident, articulate manner of a child who spends most of his time with adults. He’s a person with quirky passions – insects, waterfalls, avant-garde music, chemistry – and strongly held opinions – about the nature of art, the fallacies of religion, the problem of climate change. “There’s no ceiling on what you can talk to him about,” says his music teacher Bryan Hallauer. Many of Nathan’s interests come together in his unique musical compositions, commentaries on social issues that are so abstract – the scores consist of molecular diagrams rather than musical notes – that they can’t be played. At least not at the present. As Nathan says of one recent piece about global warming, “It only works in these specially created automated instruments, which I haven’t created yet.”

That sure-footed sense of what he’s doing is typical. Nathan is well aware that he’s usually the smartest person in the room and is charmingly straightforward about it. While April hesitates to tell people about his profound giftedness, fearful they will be judgmental, Nathan has no such qualms. “I LOVE it!” he says. “I’m very proud of it.”

April was working as a college literature professor when she got pregnant. She happily quit when Nathan was born, assuming she’d eventually resume her career. But his needs soon subsumed her plans. He was an exhausting baby. He wouldn’t nap. His curiosity was insatiable. He pummeled her with such a constant barrage of questions that at one point she thought he might have some kind of oppositional disorder.

Next page: "... It was intense."

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Susan Freinkel is the author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story and has written for the New York Times, Discover, Smithsonian, Real Simple, and other national publications.