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NAGC 2023: Overexcitabilities and Dąbrowski's Theory
Correcting the Course in Gifted Education
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I’m happy to report that my session at NAGC this year was well-attended and well-received. I’ve been home for days, recovering from the conference. I love seeing friends, attending sessions, and meeting new people, but it takes a toll.
It felt good to recognize how much more confidence I have now as a presenter and to realize some positive things about myself. I don’t get nervous about discussing the theory because I know this stuff. And I know that if someone asks me a question I don’t have an answer for, I will find the answer and be ready next time.
I kicked off the session by introducing who I am and how I came to the theory. For those who are reading and don’t know about my history, please check out Overcoming the Self-Stigma of Mental Illness, Part 1.
I explained the history of my sessions at NAGC about the theory, which I’ve also written about on Substack. I briefly touched on the sessions I presented in 2017, 2020, and 2021. I talked about last year’s panel, which I described in my preview post.
The preview post was also a tribute to my late friend and colleague, Dr. Frank Falk. Let me tell you that I’ve been missing Frank so much this month. I missed not having him around to prepare for the session, and I’ve missed him even more this week. Several times this week, there have been tears in my eyes thinking about him, and that’s part of why this post took so long to write.
Before getting into the five myths and misconceptions that would be the heart of the session, I asked, “Is Dąbrowski’s theory still relevant? How do we know?”
I answered those questions by sampling the feedback I’ve received about the podcast and my other work. Three of the four examples were from podcast listeners who donated money and left us a message.
When I got this message that the podcast is helping three generations of a family, I knew we were on the right track with our work. We can help people heal individually and within families by making these ideas available.
That slide brought a lot of questions to mind for me, and I posed some of them to my audience:
Do we acknowledge the heritability of giftedness in the field of gifted ed?
Do we treat parents as the people best suited to understand and support the children we serve?
Do we educate children and parents about the nature of giftedness so they’ll understand why they’re so different from people who aren’t outliers in society?
Do people who grew up knowing they were gifted realize that they are going to revisit the traumas of their childhood on their children if they don’t educate themselves about this difference?
Another example I used was from a listener and donor who shared that the podcast has been “an immensely helpful resource in his positive disintegration and integration of his autistic and profoundly gifted identity.”
One example of why the theory still matters was from a Yunasa camper I’ve known since 2019. He attended my very first Overexcitability Workshop at camp in 2019 and returned in subsequent years to learn more.
Before I worked at Yunasa, I wasn’t sure how useful the theory might be to young people. Four years and five camps later, I can say without reservation that there is continued relevance for the theory with gifted kids.
Observing the impact of presenting overexcitabilities and positive disintegration as a non-pathologizing framework to the campers and counselors at Yunasa has been incredible. There is no doubt that Dąbrowski’s theory matters and has a valid application in the gifted population. This is a fact. Whether it will have the same impact on other populations remains to be seen, but I suspect it will also change lives in neurodivergent communities.
This camper graduated from Yunasa’s Leadership program last June and followed up with me about his desire to do research. I took him up on his offer, and we are currently working with Joi Lin (Dąbrowski Congress 2024 coordinator and doctoral student at the University of Denver) to create a new qualitative instrument for evaluating and working with overexcitability across settings.
I’ve worked with NAGC’s current president, Dr. Shelagh Gallagher, at Yunasa, and she brought the voices of the campers to the field this year. We are blessed to have Shelagh in this role, and it will require a whole separate post to do her justice, so please stay tuned for that in the near future.
The other example I shared was from a gifted adult who has found the theory useful on his journey. He called discovering Dąbrowski’s theory a “beacon in a very dark forest.”
I chose the image of a dark forest to represent where we currently are with the theory in gifted ed. In fact, the field itself is in an existential crisis.
I made an audio recording of my session, like I do with all the presentations I give. Unless I forget to start the recording, which happens. The transcript is just over 10,000 words, and it helped me write this post.
What did I say for this slide of the dark forest?
People discover this work, they see themselves reflected in it, and suddenly realize that they aren't mentally ill or defective in some way. It's a huge deal. Unfortunately, it seems to me that we are currently in the dark forest when it comes to this construct and theory in this field, because there are all of these misconceptions and myths about overexcitability that persist in our community and in the literature. It has felt like a truly daunting task to do something about it that really moves the conversation forward.
The more that I study Dąbrowski’s theory and giftedness, the more I recognize that some of the essential problems are with the field—outside of the Dąbrowski aspect. For instance, as long as we keep denying the reality of the inner experience of giftedness, we're invalidating the very population that we're supposed to be serving. Since we don't have consensus on what it means to be gifted, and we continue to say it's a social construct, we're not moving forward.
Shelagh Gallagher recently had a paper come out in Gifted Child Quarterly.1 She talked about the Marland Report and the history of gifted education. I thought it was a great paper, and I really enjoyed it. But it showed that the recycling of these arguments and issues has happened for decades without ever moving out of what Dąbrowski would call a unilevel problem. We're denying giftedness is real while trying to serve gifted kids. How does that work?
Next, I dove into the first myth.
I started with this misconception, which has become common. Too often, people uncritically repeat what they’ve heard without investigating to see if it’s true.
I began by saying, “I could talk all day about the empirical foundation for overexcitability and Dąbrowski’s theory.” There’s quite a lot to say about the history of the theory of positive disintegration and its constructs, including how Dąbrowski studied them before and after he formulated the theory.
There’s the empirical foundation Dr. Dąbrowski created with his research team in Edmonton, Alberta, which included Dr. Michael Piechowski. It included Dr. Marlene (King) Rankel, whose work was featured in Interesting Quotes, Vol. 7.
Michael’s work with Dąbrowski inspired him to create the Overexcitability Questionnaire, which he used to collect data fifty years ago. It was the foundation for the OE research in gifted education, which is not as inconsequential as some critics believe.
There’s also a vast amount of work that supports the theory and provides a foundation that’s been done outside of gifted education. We’re only at the beginning of making some of these connections.
Positive disintegration is an alternative to the pathology paradigm. Dąbrowski said that psychoneurosis is not an illness, and research in psychiatry and neuroscience has shown that he’s right. His work should be mentioned as part of the history of child psychiatry as much as gifted education.
That sentence is a good segue to myth #2.
Dąbrowski’s early work with children in clinical settings was with institutionalized children with a range of developmental differences and issues, including trauma. He wrote about nervousness as innate or acquired, similar to how we now understand neurodivergence.
His theory was meant to make sense of the entire range of humanity, from psychopaths to saints. It’s not correct to consider it a theory of giftedness. And overexcitabilities are not only for the gifted. More on that later.
The thing that must be emphasized here is that while the theory doesn’t only apply to the gifted, it is extremely valuable for this population. It helps make sense of certain developmental paths and types of giftedness like nothing else.
During the session, I said,
“The value in overexcitability isn't that we can use it to identify giftedness. And I want to say that it's not that people were misguided. It's not that they meant to cause any harm by tying overexcitability so closely with giftedness. They didn't know. We didn't know until we had this body of research that identification isn't the right application of the construct. But the fact that it's not only for the gifted doesn't make it any less valuable for this population.”
I chose not to name the origins of the five myths with examples, although I provided them in the download I shared with my audience.
Myth 3 can be traced to two authors from the Dąbrowski community, and it is one of the causes of the belief that OE and the theory are pseudoscience.
I believe this myth comes from a desire to undermine the overexcitability research and is grounded more in personality issues than reality. Arguing that constructs can only be understood within a larger theory is a hallmark of pseudoscience—it’s called the mantra of holism. I adapted this quote from Lilienfeld et al. (2015)2:
"The mantra of holism. Proponents of pseudoscientific claims, especially in organic medicine and mental health, often resort to the “mantra of holism” (Ruscio, 2001) to explain away negative findings. When invoking this mantra, they typically maintain that scientific claims can be evaluated only within the context of broader claims and therefore cannot be judged in isolation." (p. 10)
The construct of overexcitability preceded the creation of the theory of positive disintegration by decades, and even Dąbrowski wrote that it was observable outside the context of development. Unfortunately, this mistaken belief has often been uncritically repeated in the literature.
Even though overexcitability can be understood outside of the context of TPD, the theory provides a non-pathologizing framework with useful explanatory power and connection with other aspects of personality development. Beware of any issues that seem a little too black-and-white regarding the theory.
This error led directly to myth 4.
Myth #4 comes from two papers that came out in 2016 while I was first studying the theory and getting to know Michael. The authors attempted to make a case for conceptual equivalence but failed. Yet these papers with many basic flaws made it through peer review and became widely cited.
A paper came out in 2021 by Dr. Barry Grant with a critique of their study, and I am going to share headings from his paper because they tell the whole story:
The Vuyk et al. (2016a) study does not show that OEs are OtE facets.
Categorical claims based on a single study are rarely, if ever, warranted.
If the OEQ-II does not measure OEs, the Vuyk et al. (2016a) study cannot support claims of equivalence.
Claims of OE and OtE equivalence are not supported by the reported findings.
The meaning of the fit of the model claimed to fit the data is misinterpreted.
The finding that OEs and OtEs represent the same latent construct is based on claiming a model fit based on multiple tries at finding a fit and the freedom to loosely follow fit criteria after collecting and examining data.
The inference that OE and OtE facet correlations demonstrate equivalence is invalid.
The Vuyk et al. (2016a) reasons for gifted education to adopt the FFM are flawed.
The FFM is not a theory and cannot replace the TPD, which is a theory.
A fair literature review gives equal attention to the flaws and virtues of the TPD and of the FFM.
In the session handout, I shared the Origins paper, Grant (2021), and another paper arguing that TPD remains relevant in gifted education.
Myth #5 is the one that’s most personally meaningful for me and perhaps the most controversial.
When I first discovered the theory and overexcitabilities, I wondered if perhaps I wasn’t an ADHDer after all. Were giftedness and OE behind my struggles? Years later, I have discovered that overexcitability is at the root of these differences and others from the DSM.
Here’s what I said during the session:
I would argue that if you're a teacher, and you have kids who are ADHD and not gifted—they have overexcitability, too, but they haven't had the benefit of the theory, or this work on overexcitability because it's been perceived for the gifted only. This is a huge problem. Autistic kids and ADHD kids who are not gifted also deserve access to this non-pathologizing framework. It's very important. And that's the connection with the broader theory—letting kids know that when they go through positive disintegration, it's not something wrong with them. It's not a sign of mental illness. The theory can benefit them.
We want to have answers, and because diagnoses are tied to accommodations, there's this layer of bullshit that has been in the way. I don't know how else to say it. For kids who are overexcitable and don't meet the criteria to get a diagnosis, it's a problem for them. Because overexcitability can be disabling. That’s the reality of living with it. This is a real problem, and I'm just one person. I'm not exactly sure how to fix it. But we can't fix it until we name it and start talking about it.
We’ve had a whole conversation about this myth on the podcast with Katy Higgins Lee. The theory of positive disintegration is an alternative perspective and a way of viewing intense experiences outside of the pathology paradigm. I told my audience that students with diagnoses such as ADHD and autism deserve the theory as a way of understanding themselves as much as those who are gifted.
There’s some overlap between the myths. The belief that TPD is a theory of giftedness or that OE is simply a characteristic of giftedness seems connected to the belief that OE is something different than the heightened responsiveness at the root of autism or ADHD.
As I said to the folks in my session last week, all we need to do is look at the neuroscience literature to see that overexcitability, also called hyperexcitability, is present in other types of neurodivergence. I’ve already started working on an Interesting Quotes post to support my assertions.
Once I’d made it through the myths, it was time to talk about where to go next.
We have this past where we've had a lot of lovely, well-intentioned people who thought that overexcitability could help identify giftedness, that it was something different than ADHD or autism. There's still a lot of value in their work, even though we have new information and a new understanding that we have to somehow integrate and synthesize to move forward. That's where we are right now—needing to move the conversation forward, and correct the course.
Next, I shared a quote by Gorski and Swalwell that I felt captured the broader problem we face in gifted education regarding the denial of giftedness as a meaningful individual difference across the lifespan: “There are no programs or initiatives capable of helping us fix conditions we are unwilling to name honestly and confront directly.”
Here’s what I said at this point in the session:
This speaks to something I’ve already said, which is that as a field, we continue invalidating and denying the experience of giftedness. But ableism is the other big part of this problem. Ableism is prejudice and discrimination against disability, and it is a real problem. Every one of us in this room has ableism in us. And just as we need to be anti-racist and root out any racism by confronting it, interrogating it, and recognizing our biases, we need to do the same thing with disability. Because disability is not a dirty word.
I shared slides with my concluding thoughts before opening up for Q&A.
First, I said,
Overexcitabilities are not only for the gifted, and not all gifted people have this difference. OEs and the theory still have enormous value for this population.
Be aware that politics, personalities, and personal agendas have led us off track.
We observed a failure of scholarship by ignoring the foundations of the theory. Let’s recenter our priorities on the work.
There’s a long story behind how and why the problems we’re facing occurred, and it’s beyond what I could capture in the session or here in this post. Michael is the one who called the misunderstanding about the empirical foundation of the theory a “failure of scholarship,” and I agree. More on this in future posts.
About the instrument used in modern OE research, I said,
Despite its limitations, the OEQ-II has been valuable. We need an updated instrument reflecting our updated understanding.
I know from my own work that the OEQ-II can be helpful with clients when trying to help someone understand their own OE profile. It has its place until we’ve got a new instrument.
I told the audience,
Educating gifted individuals about overexcitabilities provides a framework for understanding their differences outside of the deficit model. It’s often experienced as liberating and transformative.
What is the best practice for applying OE in the classroom or sharing the theory with gifted students and their families?
Offer resources about the overexcitabilities to students who have them, regardless of whether they’ve been identified as gifted.
Give them the chance to see themselves through this lens. Share it with their parents, too.
TPD changes lives.
The final slide with concluding thoughts said,
We must stop denying and invalidating the experience of giftedness.
The theory of positive disintegration provides mirroring for this population that can’t be found elsewhere.
Personally, it has sometimes felt overwhelming to recognize how far we have to go in gifted education. We must take stock of where we are and address problems honestly and courageously.
My area of expertise is in Dąbrowski’s theory, and that’s where I devote most of my time, but I’m also an advocate for the gifted. We’ve got to acknowledge that giftedness is something we live with throughout our lifespan. Gifted children come from gifted families.
The big takeaway for me from the Q&A was that it’s time to focus on how to help children with OEs learn to live with and thrive with this difference.
There’s much more to say about the conference and the questions I fielded from the audience. I’m recording a podcast episode with Emma tonight to follow up, so please keep an eye out for that later this month.
It took all week for me to recover from the conference and produce this post. I’ve experienced some deep moments of grief because I still miss Frank, and this is the first time I haven’t been able to debrief with him about how it all went. It was the work I did with Frank that helped me come to many of the conclusions I shared with the audience last week, and I’m grateful for the time we had as colleagues.
This year, as in previous years, I shared my early slides and plans with Michael, and we talked while I was in Orlando the night before presenting. I called him after my session to tell him how it went. It’s been a privilege to have so much support in this work, and I will continue appreciating every moment I have with Michael as a mentor.
It was wonderful catching up with old friends and making new ones at NAGC 2023. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone next year in Seattle!
Gallagher, S.A. (2023). Reclaiming history: How the Marland Report addressed culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 67(3), 198-219. https://doi.org/10.1177/00169862231166110
Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., & Lohr, J.M. (Eds.). (2015). Science and pseudoscience in clinical psychology. Guilford Publications.