Genius without Borders: Socializing Mathematical Genius

The first time I saw him, he reminded me so much of Q.  The way he rolled his head back when he was thinking.  His lack of eye contact when speaking.  His abnormally precise language, his obsession with numbers, especially very large numbers resulting from doubling, irrational numbers and those resulting from functions unknown to any mathematician other than himself.  I played with him the way I’ve played with countless other children I’ve met like this.  I created patterns and let him expand on the series.  I invented functions using made up notation to see what he would do with them.   His mother, anxious that he would make a good impression, encouraged him to look at me and answer my questions.  “Wait” I hush her, almost in a whisper.  “He’s thinking.”


I will never tire of watching these children think.  They go into their own worlds.  They don’t make eye contact.  It’s not like they are avoiding eye contact; it’s that they just don’t see me or anything in this world for that matter.  I can almost hear the wheels turning in their heads.  I see them suspended between two worlds – the physical one that I occupy, and the sacred realm accessible only through the portal controlled by their own minds.

Their solutions to my challenges are never based on standard algorithms.  I don’t expect them to be.  In fact, I present problems that I’m sure they’ve never seen.  It’s how their minds work that I’m studying.  Can they explain their answer to me?  I ask deeper questions to help them more clearly define their logic.

I’m no longer asking him questions to determine whether or not I’ll take him on as a student.  I’ve already decided that.  I want to see how he reacts to me and the problems I give him.  I want to see if his mother trusts me enough to let us play our game without interference.  He can talk math with me forever, but I know that I don’t really exist to him.  I am just the source of the fascinating puzzles.  His mother is also just a sounding board for the product of his mental exercises.  At this point, I’m sure the endless monologues just exhaust her but soon they will also bewilder her when he crosses over into topics beyond her ability to comprehend.  In time I will teach her to take her cues from his tone of voice and facial expressions to know when to smile and nod like she’s trying to converse with someone who’s speaking a foreign language.

I flip through my mental Rolodex as I think about where to place him.  D is a perfect personality match but he is at least 3 years ahead.  C would be perfect but she is 2 years behind.  E would be perfect but his parents already push him so much that I’m considering dropping him.  I will help any child explore their passions but I won’t be party to pushing a child just for bragging rights.

I could tutor him.  We would have fun.  But I know that there is something he needs more than math instruction. His mother doesn’t know what I know yet; if I don’t intervene, in four years, I will be holding her hands and listening to her cry about a crisis that she can’t yet imagine.

Some people would say he has Asperger’s or is ‘on the spectrum’. In my day, we would have called him ‘quirky.’  I’m not a psychologist so I don’t label him.  To me, he is just a little boy who loves math.  I know I can use his love of math to help him develop social skills that he doesn’t realize he needs.  I also know that I will have to prepare him to deal with the college classroom before he is old enough to get a driver’s permit.

There was a time when I thought that this quirky social awkwardness must be tied to the same gene that determined mathematical genius.  I believed that their social limitations had to be accepted as an immutable part of their personalities.  I remember the joy of finding other boys like this for my son.  

I no longer accept that brilliant children are destined to be hampered by their social skills.  I no longer believe that they are predisposed to spectrum disorders.  I’m not a mental health professional.  I’m just a mother who has worked with hundreds of these children over the past decade.  I’ve participated in dozens of meetings like the one above.

I no longer accept that brilliant children are destined to be hampered by their social skills.  I no longer believe that they are predisposed to spectrum disorders.  I’m not a mental health professional.  I’m just a mother who has worked with hundreds of these children over the past decade. 

I started HEROES as the mother of a child like this.  After reading all the research and speaking to all the living experts I still wanted to meet another mother of a child like mine. I wanted to look at her in the eye and ask her if her child eventually grew up to be a productive, happy adult.  I wanted to see that her grown child was OK when he grew up.  I also wanted to be the mentor to other mothers who shared the same anxiety over their children.

Over the past decade, I’ve met thousands of mothers of brilliant children.  I’ve leant my shoulder to hundreds of them as they cried; at times shedding tears of joy; at other times tears of despair. I’ve been enchanted by children making new friends at conferences.  I’ve mourned the decision to commit a child to a psychiatric facility.  I’ve celebrated with pre-teens who won a math completion against college students.  I’ve grieved for a child hospitalized for eating disorders.   I’ve congratulated teens who’ve earned patents.  I’ve counseled teens locked up in juvenile detention.
Why do some become rising stars and others end up on suicide watch?  There is no simple answer to that question but I’ve observed some critical variables.

Balance is probably the trickiest part of being a parent.  In the movie Gifted, Mary enjoys the perfect balance between academic stimulation and social integration.  Unfortunately, life is not as simple as a movie.  Nevertheless, there is an important lesson to learn from Frank Adler’s battle with his mother over Mary’s education.  Geniuses need academic stimulation.   They need guidance.  Mary didn’t learn differential equations on her own. Someone introduced her to the concepts of limits and infinity and the meaning of delta and epsilon.  Geniuses also need love and companionship.  They need friends who connect with them not just for what they know but for who they are.  As Mary says, ‘Frank loved me before I was a genius.’

If your child does not find school adequately challenging then you may need to look for outside resources that will reinvigorate the thirst for learning.  But it is important to not go overboard.  I’ve met many children who used to love math until they burned out over too many tutors, competitions, and classes.  Remember, it is more important to nurture the love of learning than to accelerate the rate of learning.

It is more important to nurture the love of learning than to accelerate the rate of learning.

If your child is not connecting socially at school then you may also need to look into additional resources.  Contrary to popular belief, brilliance does not equate to social awkwardness or isolation.  The most amazing children I’ve met were not only nationally or internationally recognized as brilliant but also popular and possessed sophisticated senses of humor.  Most of the children at HEROES are happy and well rounded.  They also play soccer, compete in fencing, enjoy drama, play musical instruments and often rush from class to friends’ birthday parties.

Other children need help to find other children close to their age with similar abilities and interests.  I’ve worked with dozens of children who were diagnosed with ADHD or Asperger’s Spectrum Disorders who were able to fully engage in programs with other children with similar abilities and interests.  When I look at my class of students, I don’t see the ADHD or the ASD.  I see children who are enjoying learning and the camaraderie of friends mutually working to solve problems and meet challenges.  I also note that the monologues have given way to genuine conversation and debate and that eye contact naturally developed as classmates became friends.

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