Brain Bases of "Late Blooming"

By Brock L. Eide, M.D., M.A., and Fernette Eide, M.D

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) qualifies twice-exceptional (2e) students — those with both gifted abilities or talents and learning challenges or disabilities (LDs) — to receive individualized educational support in the form of 504 accommodations or an Individualized Education Program (IEP). However, in actual practice many 2e students are not given the help they deserve because their gifts allow them to compensate well enough that their learning challenges are obscured, though not well enough to avoid severe academic underachievement and resulting emotional, social, or behavioral problems. These secondary problems may in turn make the sources of academic underachievement harder to identify. Conversely, the 2e student’s struggles may also cause teachers to fail to perceive their gifts. Often, only the parents or the occasional teacher who develops a particularly close relationship with the student will notice the student’s advanced conceptual ability, abstract reasoning skill, or self-initiated creative activities, which stand in stark contrast to the student’s lackluster academic performances. Recent advances in our understanding of brain biology provide helpful insights into the sources of twice exceptionality; and they raise important issues about how 2e children should best be identified, accommodated, and taught.

Twice Exceptionality: A Family Affair

Parents don’t often think about their extended family tree when their son or daughter is struggling in school, but they should. Both giftedness and specific learning challenges — or even vague patterns of academic underachievement — often run in families. The increasing tendency toward assortative mating (the tendency of like to marry like) that’s occurred in recent generations has only increased the likelihood of adults’ learning differences being inherited by children. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other extended family members are the best sources of information about common family tendencies.

With advances in technology for studying the functional anatomy of the brain, it’s become easier to identify heritable variations in the pattern of brain organization that can lead to cognitive differences. (Eckert et al., 2008) Psychologists George Hynd and Jeffrey Gilger have described one variation of this type that enhances spatial abilities at the direct expense of certain verbal skills. In this structural variation, brain regions usually used to process word sounds and other language functions are essentially “borrowed” and instead connected to brain centers that process spatial information. (Craggs et al., 2006)

Drs. Hynd and Gilger first identified this brain variation in a large family with many members who showed both dyslexia and high spatial abilities. They then identified this same variation in the brain of Albert Einstein, who displayed a similar combination of spatial talent and dyslexia-related language challenges. When comparing images of the brains from dyslexic family members (and from Einstein) with images of “normal” control brains, the researchers saw significant structural differences. In particular, they noted a far greater tendency in the dyslexic subjects for processing regions in the medial and posterior parietal areas — which in normal controls primarily process auditory-verbal information — to be connected to the “visual-spatial” processing centers in the posterior parts of the brain. In other words, processing centers were borrowed from parts of the brain that normally process sound-based information to instead process visual-spatial information. It seems unsurprising, given this reallocation of processing capacity, that these individuals tended to excel in visual and spatial problem-solving, while also struggling with highly verbal subjects in school.

Cognitive Trade-offs: A Common Theme in Brain Organization

This type of cognitive “trade-off” — in which more of one ability means less of another — is increasingly recognized as a common theme in brain organization and function. In some cases, gifted-level performance may result in one function due to a defect in another. For example, when researchers examined congenitally deaf subjects, they found that the part of the brain that normally hears was reorganized in these subjects to help with vision. Because more brain resources in these individuals were now devoted to seeing, they were actually found to show greater-than-normal visual sensitivity.

In our own work with students we have found that a number of cognitive traits appear to exist in this type of reciprocal balance. The chart below shows a number of the trait pairs we have identified.

Pairs of Cognitive Traits

Earlier-developing Traits

Later-developing Traits

Ability to develop automatic skills

Example: Memorize math facts

Need for mindfulness or conscious deliberate action

Example: Solving multiplication problems by serially counting

Semantic (impersonal) memory

Example: Simply knowing a fact like “tears taste salty” in a non-contextual, non-experiential way

Episodic (personal) memory

Example: Remembering that “tears taste salty” from a previous episode where you cried.

Analytical reasoning

Example: Solving problems by methodically making lists and doing research until you reach an answer

Intuitive reasoning

Example: Solving problems by letting the mind relax and wander until the answer suddenly comes

“Linear” reasoning

Example: Coming up with the most common meanings for words or phrases

“Interconnected” reasoning

Example: Coming up with more analogical, metaphorical, or unusual meanings

Verbal reasoning

Example: Thinking and problem-solving by “talking it through”

Non-verbal reasoning

Example: Thinking and problem-solving using pictures, diagrams, or other visual or visual-spatial aids

Focused attention

Example: Resistance to auditory and visual distractions

Diffuse attention

Example: Awareness of sounds and sights in the environment

“Fine detail” processing

Example: Distinguishing closely related word sounds or crowded visual figures

“Big picture” processing

Example: Understanding major themes in a story

Impulsivity

Example: Blurting out an answer in class

Inhibition

Example: Waiting one’s turn

 

Importantly, either trait in each of these pairs can confer certain advantages. However, one of the two traits for each pair — shown here in the right column — tends to reveal its advantages only in the fully mature brain. Furthermore, these later-developing traits tend to be associated with academic challenges during an individual’s early years. In other words, the more of the later-developing traits a child has, the more likely he or she is to struggle during the early years of school, and to be a “late bloomer.” We use this term to describe someone who reaches peak cognitive function in late adolescence or early adulthood. Not surprisingly, many of these later-developing traits are frequently seen in children with many of the most common 2e patterns: AD/HD, dyslexia, autism spectrum disorders, and sensory processing disorder.

Late Blooming: What’s Behind It

The late-blooming pattern of development associated with these traits results from several important features of brain growth and structure. Many of the later-developing traits reflect a pattern of brain organization that involves greater reliance on cooperation between processing centers physically distant from one another in the brain. Smooth cooperation between these widely spaced centers requires full maturity of the white matter tracts that connect these centers, and this maturity is often only attained between late adolescence and early adulthood. Many of the later-developing traits also place greater reliance on conscious oversight by the executive attention centers (including working memory), which are located in the frontal lobes of the brain. These traits only function efficiently when development of the brain’s frontal cortex nears completion, at about the age of 25. (Blumenthal et al., 1999)

There is also evidence that giftedness (or high IQ) is itself correlated with delays in development of certain functions. In a study from Port Townsend (Reina et al. 2006) researchers found that the higher the IQ, the greater the likelihood of high discrepancies between two types of IQ subtest scores: verbal IQ scores (VIQ) and performance IQ scores (PIQ).

Both VIQ and PIQ scores are part of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. The VIQ is based on subtests in which many of the questions are presented verbally and require verbal responses. Among the skills and areas they measure are factual knowledge, language ability, attention, and memory. The PIQ is based on subtests in which information is presented visually and non-verbal responses tend to be required. Among the skills and areas they measure are visual analysis and discrimination, speed, concentration, and problem-solving ability.

When researchers compared the VIQ and PIQ scores, they found that 17 percent of a control sample had discrepancies of 18 points or more. In the gifted sample, however, a much higher percentage — 55 percent — showed this level of discrepancy. Furthermore, another study (Clasen et al., 2006) showed that higher IQ in young children correlated with slower development of prefrontal cortical thickness.

Important Lessons

There are many important lessons that should be drawn from this information, but we’ll mention only three. First, it’s critical to recognize that most 2e children will be late-bloomers. Many of the challenges they face are worsened when we expect them to develop at a pace and along a pathway that is inconsistent with the way their brain is developing. A useful rule of thumb to remember is that while the exceptional challenges often dominate the 2e child’s learning profile during the early years, the exceptional gifts begin to dominate as they mature.

The biggest danger for 2e students is that they develop negative conclusions about their future potential based solely on their early experiences. Too often, by the time their gifts become ready to flourish, they have given up hope and stopped trying. An awareness that they may only become ready for a challenging college load at the age of 20, or 22, or 25 will prevent them from deciding that they are not “college material” if they struggle at age 18 or 19.

Second, it’s important to provide educational experiences for 2e students that take their special developmental needs into account. Traditional teaching methods rely on the fact that, for most students, the development of automatic mastery of core basic skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic, is relatively easily achieved through repetition and practice. Consequently, one of the primary goals of the early years of school is to help students reach the point where these skills are so automatic or “transparent” that they can be used without conscious thought or employing working memory. However, for most late-blooming 2e students exercising these skills will continue to place a great burden on working memory until very late in their course of schooling. Consequently, it’s critical to structure assignments so that they focus on only one skill at a time that places requirements on working memory. For example:

  • If a 2e child is trying to master a new math procedure, avoid making the child perform calculations at the same time.
  • When trying to assess the child’s understanding of history or a story the child has read, use an assessment method that doesn’t overwhelm his or her expressive capacities.

Divide and conquer is the critical concept. There will be plenty of time as development progresses to begin to blend these skills together.

Third, and finally, to correctly identify which 2e students are in need of extra help, it is essential to identify ability/achievement discrepancies in the students’ work. We’ve found sizeable gaps between aptitude scores on IQ tests and scores on achievement tests like the WIAT-III or WJ-III to be, by far, the most sensitive and reliable means of identifying learning disabilities in gifted children. Students who show substantial gaps between IQ and achievement deserve special intervention irrespective of the absolute value of their achievement scores.

References

Blumenthal, J., Castellanos, F. X., Evans, A. C. , Giedd, J.N., Jeffries, N. O., Liu, H., Paus, T., Rapoport, J. L. & Zijdenbos, A. (1999). Brain development during childhood and adolescence: A longitudinal MRI study. Nature Neuroscience,  2(10), 861-863.

Clasen, L., Evans, A., Giedd, J., Gogtay, N., Greenstein, D., Lenroot, R., Lerch, J., Rapoport, J. & Shaw, P. (2006). Intellectual ability and cortical development in children and adolescents. Nature, 440, 676-679.

Craggs, J. G., Gilger, J. W., Hynd, G. W., Kibby, M. Y. & Sanchez, J. (2006) Brain morphology and neuropsychological profiles in a family displaying dyslexia and superior nonverbal intelligence. Cortex, 42, 1107-18.

Eckert, M. A. & Leonard, C.M. (2008). Asymmetry and dyslexia. Developmental Neuropsychology. 33, 663-681.

Reina, J. M. & Sweetland, J. D. (2006) WISC-III verbal/performance discrepancies among a sample of gifted Drs Eidechildren. Gifted Child Quarterly. 50, 7-10.

Brock and Fernette Eide are physicians from Edmonds, Washington. In addition, they serve on the Professional Advisory Committee for SENG (Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted) and are the authors of the books The Mislabeled Child and The Dyslexic Advantage, and of the Eide Neurolearning Blog.

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