The myth of asynchronous development in gifted children

Asynchronous development is one of the hallmarks of giftedness. While most children develop in a relatively uniform manner, gifted learners are asynchronous in their development. And the more gifted the child, the more asynchronous that child may be. The typical pattern is that gifted children are cognitively far above their chronological age whereas they lag behind in social, emotional and motor development. Delayed motor development, rather than being asynchronicity may be more of an impaired development, as grown-up gifted people are still often clumsy or may even suffer from dyspraxia (there is a large number of illustrious examples: Einstein, Kerouac and Florence Welch).

As a parent of two gifted children I have experienced first-hand the asynchronous development in emotional and social behaviour giftedness brings with it:

  • frequent crying and tantrums
  • overreacting when feeling criticized
  • oppositional defiance
  • difficulties with authority
  • difficulties with following norms
  • or even just learning “politeness behaviour” such as saying “please” and “thank you”
  • or maintaining eye contact when greeting someone.

It used to make sense to me that this asynchronous development was due to neuroplasticity, a developmental trade-off. More than a decade of parenthood and extensive research have convinced me that this view is utter rubbish. Gifted children simply have a different operating system: they have egalitarian hunter-gatherer (vs farmer-herder) mind. Most of the ancestors of people alive were farmer-herders, but about a quarter of people have more hunter-gatherer genes, whose ancestors were incorporated into farmer societies much later and who largely preserved their traits due to assortative mating. So, what are those hunter-gatherer minds like?

These include egalitarian sharing patterns; anti-authoritarian tendencies; respect for individuality combined with an emphasis on cooperation; flexible living arrangements; permissive childrearing practices; and a system of “generalized” (as opposed to “balanced”) reciprocity. From: “The Reality of Hunter-Gatherers” by James A. Heffernan

This explains the beef that gifted children have with authority, in particular when they feel they are right and their parents, peers or teachers are wrong. Hence the frequent tantrums, crying and oppositional behaviour. Gifted children are extremely rarely proactively aggressive, and almost always reactively aggressive when they feel treated in a non-egalitarian way. As the passage above attests, hunter-gatherers are extremely permissive parents, who don’t coerce their children into anything. Above all, hunter-gatherers rarely criticize and are very accepting of individuality. Gifted children are likely to develop their perfectionistic tendencies out of the fear of criticism. Criticism in hunter-gatherer bands is not something to be taken lightly: it’s a sign of possible ostracism.

Gifted children are often thought to have difficulties with their peers because they don’t share their advanced interests. However, this is only part of the story, as gifted children often do get along with older children or adults even without sharing the same interests. What is often left out of the discussion is that gifted children also frequently make friends with much younger children. So, it’s much less about the inability to connect to someone who has the same cognitive powers than to someone who shares the same egalitarian mindset.

Gifted children will be wary of adults who talk down to them and will be attracted by adults who consider them on the same level as themselves. The same is true for children with other neurodiverse forms, such as ADHD and ASD. Autistic children are very selective about who they allow to touch them — I am pretty sure that those who are allowed to touch them are most frequently other hunter-gatherer types.

Finally, hunter-gatherers have a more generalized psychology of reciprocity than farmer-herder types. It’s much less balanced (not the I give you five, you give me five back type). This kind of unbalanced reciprocity can get them into trouble with their peers and they might be bullied for not reciprocating when expected or they may be abused when they overshare and get little back in return.

What we perceive as asynchronous in gifted children is in fact normal, biologically programmed behaviour. As any parent of a gifted child can tell you: it’s a tough job and often a rollercoaster ride. As blind obedience is not baked into these children, you have to tame them and make them conform to a “farmer world”. Some gifted people never will.

Originally published at on February 13, 2021.