Raw deal for gifted kids

08 August 2010 - 02:00 By SUBASHNI NAIDOO

As many as half of South Africa's gifted children are being incorrectly diagnosed and treated for serious behavioural and emotional disorders.

Experts say inadequate teacher training to identify special abilities and talent among SA's bright sparks is seeing such children labelled with conditions such as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism and bipolar disorder.

Now a concerned group of Western Cape educators, with the help of the National Association for Gifted and Talented Children in South Africa (NAGTCSA), is planning to conduct a forum for school principals later this year.

It is aimed at opening discussion on ways to nurture and meet the needs of gifted children in schools.

"There is an enormous need to inform educators about giftedness, as these children are essentially not catered for in schools," said NAGTCSA president, Professor Shirley Kokot.

She said giftedness was often misdiagnosed or overlooked because the characteristics were similar to those of ADHD.

"It is possible that these 'symptoms' are caused by being under-stimulated or misunderstood in an educational environment. A child who is frustrated by too much repetition of material, having to relearn subject matter that has already been mastered some time before and dealing with a slow pace of teaching may often demonstrate negative emotions through disruptive, rebellious behaviour or even more passive ways of resisting," said Kokot.

A Johannesburg private school for the gifted, Radford House, has seen more than half of its pupils misdiagnosed with ADHD.

Said owner, Phillip Kokot: "In my experience, at least seven out of 10 gifted children have been labelled with having the condition ADHD, but not all children who suffer from ADHD are necessarily gifted.

"Teachers believe that a gifted child is a straight A student who answers every question. But more often they are not, most have underlying issues and giftedness needs to be discovered," he said.

Education specialist Janine Shamos said teachers were looking for a "easy way out".

"The moment a child displays unusual or disruptive behaviour in the classroom, it is automatically assumed that the child has ADHD.

"It is now far too common and easy to jump to that conclusion. Teachers are often looking for a quick fix and the solution is usually to encourage the parent to medicate."

Durban mother of four, Louise Dunford, was forced to medicate her daughter Jemma, now 9, with the drug Risperdal for more than a year after she was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome - a neurological disorder characterised by poor social interactions, obsessions, odd speech and mannerisms.

"I had been through the mill trying desperately to seek help for my daughter until we discovered that she was intellectually gifted, with an IQ of 140. We stopped the drugs, moved her to a new school and now she's thriving," said Dunford.