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Gifted Neurodivergent: High IQ and Giftedness – A Difference You Need to Know

Gifted neurodivergent individuals often navigate a world that feels simultaneously too loud and too quiet, too fast and too slow. Their minds race with ideas, connecting disparate concepts with an agility that can leave others bewildered. Yet, they might stumble over social cues, find solace in solitude, or feel deeply, intensely, the textures and emotions of the world around them. This duality, the extraordinary intertwined with the unconventional, lies at the heart of understanding what it means to be gifted and neurodivergent.

While the terms “high IQ” and “giftedness” are often used interchangeably,  they represent distinct, nuanced concepts with areas of overlap. There is no single, agreed-upon definition for either term, so this exploration draws on a mix of research, existing literature, and my own experience working with exceptionally bright and intense individuals. By exploring these nuances, we can start to appreciate the multifaceted nature of extraordinary minds.

High IQ vs Giftedness

Before we delve into the complexities, it is worth distinguishing between the concepts of high IQ and giftedness. A high IQ, typically defined as a score of 130 or above on standardized tests, points to exceptional cognitive abilities and places individuals in the top 2% of the population in that regard. This score mainly reflects a superior capacity for abstract reasoning, advanced analytical skills, and strong linguistic capabilities.

Giftedness, however, is a broader and more inclusive concept that extends beyond the cognitive abilities measured by IQ tests. It encompasses a range of intellectual, creative, and affective traits, including heightened sensitivity, creativity, curiosity, intensity, and a robust capacity for complex thoughts and emotions. Gifted individuals are distinguished not only by their knowledge or test performance but also by the depth of their feelings and sharp insights. These traits enable them to excel in diverse areas, from the arts and literature to the sciences and beyond.

While a high IQ can be an indicator of giftedness, it does not fully cover the wide range of abilities that giftedness represents.  Someone with exceptional artistic talent, for example, might be considered gifted even without a high IQ. Giftedness can manifest in many domains, including creativity, leadership, and specialized skills in areas like music, visual arts, or athletics. It even includes less commonly discussed areas like emotional intelligence and spiritual awareness.

Gifted Neurodivergent

My pronoun is people,
I’m divergent, yet invincible.
― Abhijit Naskar

High IQ and Neurotypical

Considering neurodiversity as a spectrum, on one end we have people who have high IQs and a largely neurotypical disposition. They tend to flourish within structured environments, demonstrating exceptional performance in traditional academic settings and standardized tests. Their trajectories frequently lead to higher education, specialized careers in fields such as STEM, law, or medicine, and positions of leadership.  This group thrives in environments that reward traditional markers of intelligence. Their motivation may also be encouraged and reinforced by external rewards such as high grades, titles, and recognition from peers and superiors.

However, despite their achievements, high IQ-neurotypical people are not immune to challenges. Imposter Syndrome, a feeling of being undeserving of their accomplishments, is not uncommon. They might also face underperformance issues stemming from various factors such as limitations in their upbringing, socio-economic constraints, or less-than-ideal environmental conditions. Despite these challenges, however, they typically develop effective coping mechanisms and study strategies aligned with conventional educational pathways. In the end, many of them are successful in gaining admission to prestigious universities and securing high-profile professional roles, such as those in upper management.

Gifted Neurodivergent: Living Beyond Conventions

Moving along the spectrum of high ability, we encounter individuals who resonate more with the experiences and challenges associated with giftedness, such as overexcitabilities.

Overexcitabilities, a concept developed by Kazimierz Dabrowski, describe heightened sensitivities and intensities of experience often observed in gifted individuals. These can manifest in various domains:

– Psychomotor: A surplus of physical energy, a love of movement, and a drive for action. This can show up as restlessness, impulsivity, a love for physical activity, or a tendency to talk fast and engage in rapid movements.

– Sensual: Heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as sounds, textures, smells, tastes, and visual details. This can lead to both intense enjoyment and heightened discomfort in response to sensory input.

– Intellectual:  An intense curiosity and a deep passion for learning. It includes the love of learning, questioning, and seeking understanding. There may be a love for complex ideas, a constant thirst for new and advanced knowledge, and a tendency to engage in deep thinking and analysis.

– Imaginational: A rich inner world, a vivid imagination, and a capacity for fantasy and daydreaming. This can lead to creative expression, a love for storytelling, and a tendency to find unique connections and associations.

– Emotional: Intense emotions, heightened empathy, and a strong sense of compassion and concern for others. This can manifest as strong emotional responses, deep empathy for others, and a complex inner emotional life.

This second group, with their more pronounced overexcitabilities, often falls toward the neurodivergent end of the spectrum, unlike the first group of high-IQ individuals who are more neurotypical. Hence, we use the shorthand categorizing term “gifted neurodivergent” to describe them.

While gifted neurodivergent people have the same intellectual capabilities as their neurotypical counterparts, traditional systems are less accommodating to their unique cognitive styles and sensitivities. For example, gifted neurodivergent people may have heightened sensory sensitivities, social anxieties, and challenges with executive functioning.   Standardized IQ tests, while capturing some aspects of their cognitive abilities, often fail to reflect the full scope of their intellectual depth and cognitive profiles.  They are more likely to feel like outsiders, misunderstood by those around them.

Gifted people are known for their sharp minds, but their strengths go far beyond the intellect.  One of the most striking aspects of this heightened experience is gifted individuals’ emotional sensitivity. Many gifted divergent people, especially those with emotional overexcitability, feel they can connect with others on a soul level, intuitively sensing nuances and unspoken emotions.  The world often appears richer and more textured to them— A simple sunset, for instance, might evoke a complex blend of awe and bittersweet reflection in a way that others might not experience.

As children, they often unknowingly and instinctively take on caretaking roles, absorbing the emotions of others as their own or feeling an immense responsibility to solve problems far beyond their years. Their innate desire to alleviate the suffering of others can sometimes lead to a relational pattern of over-giving, leaving them emotionally drained and vulnerable to burnout.

In other words, their ability to feel deeply is a double-edged sword. While it fuels their empathy and creativity, it can also make them vulnerable to overwhelm, leaving them feeling like exposed wires in a world of sensory overload.

Traditional academic and professional settings, with their emphasis on structured intelligence and conformity, often fall short of nurturing the unique needs and strengths of neurodivergent gifted individuals. For example, sensory sensitivities can make the fluorescent lighting, open office layouts, and constant low-level noise of a typical workplace unbearable. A gifted, neurodivergent person with a heightened sense of justice might feel compelled to speak out against unethical practices, even if it means challenging authority or disrupting the status quo—a stance often met with resistance in corporate environments. Even something like a non-traditional sleep-wake cycle, common among neurodivergent gifted individuals, can clash with the rigidity of a 9-to-5 workday. While these factors can make navigating conventional paths more challenging, these same sensitivities often fuel the unique contributions gifted neurodivergent individuals make to the world.

For gifted neurodivergent people, their motivation for learning and knowledge acquisition is predominantly intrinsic, driven by a deep curiosity and the joy of learning itself rather than external accolades. Instead of external rewards and recognition, they are often intrinsically fueled by a deep-seated passion for knowledge, a personal commitment to exploring their interests, and a desire to solve complex problems. They may find themselves effortlessly absorbing and processing information, often excelling in learning environments without the need for structured study routines. Thus, they tend to thrive in environments that allow them the freedom to explore and expand on their interests at their own pace and in their own way, and places that allow them to freely pursue self-directed goals that align with their personal values and visions. When combined with adequate social and emotional intelligence, these individuals have the potential to make transformative contributions to their specialized field.

Gifted neurodivergent people are more likely to have been born into families that do not share similar traits. Thus, from the outset, they feel like an anomaly, often being told they are “too much,” “too this,” or “too that,” and might have been emotionally hurt due to these experiences. Being neurodivergent, they might have intense emotional responses, uncommon thought processes, or a heightened sensitivity to stimuli that others barely notice. These differences, rather than being understood and embraced, might be met with bewilderment, frustration, or even disapproval from their families. Their inherent sense of being very “different” from others may lead to ingrained lifelong feelings of loneliness and alienation.

For gifted neurodivergent people, “success” might look different from conventional definitions. It might involve forging their own unique paths, pursuing unconventional careers, or challenging the status quo. Their intellectual intensity, coupled with their heightened sensitivities, leads them to make unique contributions to society, whether through creative endeavors, social activism, or innovative problem-solving.

Ultimately, recognizing the diverse spectrum of high-potential individuals is about moving beyond rigid categorization and embracing individual strengths. It’s about recognizing the diverse ways in which intelligence can manifest and interact with a person’s neurology, personality, and life experiences.

The following summary explores some general tendencies observed in individuals with neurotypical high IQs and those who are gifted-neurodivergent. It is absolutely important to note that this table simply presents patterns of general observations and should not be interpreted as representing absolute or defining characteristics. These are also not diagnostic in nature. Remember, these are just tendencies, not defining traits! There is significant overlap and variation within both groups,  so you may identify with descriptions of both groups. After all, each individual’s experience is unique.

Gifted Neurodivergent vs High IQ Neurotypical- A Summary

Environment & Performance

High IQ Neurotypical: Can thrive in structured environments with clear expectations and traditional metrics of success.

Gifted Neurodivergent: May struggle in rigid settings; but flourish in environments that encourage exploration, creativity, and non-traditional learning.


High IQ Neurotypical: Can be driven by external rewards like grades, promotions, and recognition.

Gifted Neurodivergent: Primarily driven by intrinsic motivation, a deep-seated desire to learn, create, and find personal fulfillment.

Conformity & Innovation

High IQ Neurotypical: Primarily driven by intrinsic motivation, a deep-seated desire to learn, create, and find personal fulfillment.

Gifted Neurodivergent: Able to adhere to established norms and methods, excelling within existing frameworks.More likely to question norms, think divergently, and seek innovative solutions.


Gifted Neurodivergent

“Maintaining that neurotypical mask feels deeply inauthentic and it’s extremely exhausting to maintain. It’s also not necessarily a conscious choice.”
― Devon Price

The Complex Intersection:  Understanding “Twice-Exceptional” Adults

An important aspect of the conversation about neurodiversity and intellectual capacity is the unique experience of “twice-exceptional” individuals, often referred to as “2E.” They navigate a dual existence, with both giftedness and a ‘disability’—usually this just means challenges in how their brains process information or tendencies that differ from normative ways of operating. 2E is often associated with conditions like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or specific learning disabilities.

The intersection of high ability and these challenges creates a complex and sometimes paradoxical reality. For example, someone might effortlessly grasp complex mathematical concepts but struggle with daily organization or multi-step instructions. Imagine an individual captivated by historical linguistics, spending hours deciphering ancient texts and recalling obscure grammar rules with ease, yet struggling to maintain order in other areas of life. This is the reality for many 2e individuals—a constant balancing act between their extraordinary potential and the need for support in a world not always designed for their neurodiversity.

Asynchronous development is common among 2e individuals. This refers to an uneven developmental pattern where advanced cognitive abilities coexist with learning or developmental challenges. This means their development in different areas— social, emotional, and physical—might be significantly out of sync. For instance, they may excel in certain academic subjects while struggling to arrive on time for classes or maintain basic self-care. They might have an expansive vocabulary and a deep understanding of complex concepts, yet find themselves tongue-tied or overwhelmed in social situations. Their intellectual gifts might be evident to some, while others might misinterpret their neurodivergent traits as a lack of effort or motivation.

The 2e experience is not monolithic. While intense focus in specific areas and asynchronous development are common threads, they are not universal experiences. Some 2e adults may find their interests are more diffuse or experience shifting passions rather than fixating on a single area. Similarly, while asynchronous development can present significant challenges in childhood and adolescence, many twice-exceptional adults develop coping mechanisms and strategies to navigate social situations and manage their unique developmental profile, even if they still experience a sense of “differentness” at times.


Beyond An IQ Test: The Many Ways To Be Gifted

By now, it is clear that while traditional IQ tests serve a purpose in assessing specific cognitive abilities like logical and abstract reasoning, they fall short of capturing the full spectrum of human potential. Giftedness, which defies neat categorization within the rigid frameworks often employed in clinical settings, is not a clinical diagnosis. While standardized tests, such as those administered by educational psychologists or organizations like Mensa, can measure IQ, a high score alone does not comprehensively define giftedness.

Other frameworks, such as Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, may offer a more comprehensive lens. Rather than a single measure of intelligence, Gardner proposed eight distinct domains: linguistic (mastery of language), logical-mathematical (excelling in logic and reasoning), spatial (strong visual-spatial skills), bodily-kinesthetic (physical dexterity and coordination), musical (sensitivity to rhythm and musical patterns), interpersonal (understanding and interacting effectively with others), intrapersonal (strong self-awareness and introspection), and naturalistic (sensitivity to patterns in nature). By acknowledging these multiple intelligences, we can begin to appreciate the diverse ways in which human excels, and be more equipped to appreciate the gifts of neurodivergent gifted people.

The multifaceted nature of giftedness is particularly evident in the realm of emotional intelligence and existential awareness.

For example, emotionally gifted people are able to experience a wide spectrum of emotions—including those less common or understood by others—with profound intensity. Their heightened emotional awareness and sensitivity allow them to perceive and process emotions on a deeper level, and form deep, meaningful relationships due to their profound empathy and compassion.  However, the intensity of their emotional experiences can also lead to challenges, such as feeling others’ emotions as their own or feeling overwhelmed by the depth of their emotions.

Existentially gifted individuals, on the other hand, grapple with profound questions surrounding human existence, meaning, and purpose from a young age. This awareness often leads them to question established beliefs and traditions, seeking deeper meaning and understanding beyond conventional explanations. Driven by a strong moral compass and a heightened awareness of suffering and injustice, they are often drawn to advocate for social change, fueled by a desire for a more just and equitable world. Their journey becomes a lifelong quest to understand their place in the universe, seeking purpose and meaning that transcends material pursuits.

Spiritually gifted individuals often possess a heightened sensitivity to the interconnectedness of all things, experiencing a deep connection to something larger than themselves—be it nature, humanity, or a universal energy. This sense of unity often goes hand-in-hand with mystical or transcendent experiences that defy conventional explanation, leading to a sense of awe, wonder, and a deeper understanding of reality. This profound spiritual connection often fosters deep compassion, empathy, and a commitment to living ethically and authentically.

These three dimensions of giftedness – emotional, existential, and spiritual – often intertwine. The deep empathy and awareness of existential issues frequently intersect with a sense of spiritual connection. These individuals see the interconnectedness of humanity and the world, fueling their desire to make a positive impact and find deeper meaning in their lives. These emotional and spiritual dimensions highlight the rich inner lives of gifted individuals, which extend far beyond traditional intelligence measures. Supporting the gifted, therefore, requires a holistic approach that nurtures their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs in an integrated manner.

Thus, while standardized measurements like IQ tests can provide valuable information about specific cognitive abilities, they should not be relied upon as the sole determinant of giftedness.  By adopting a more comprehensive approach to identifying and nurturing giftedness, we can create an environment that celebrates and supports the full spectrum of human potential.

giftedness vs high IQ

“I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.”
― Marilyn Monroe

Neurodivergent Gifted vs. High IQ: Why It Matters

Distinguishing between high IQ and giftedness is not merely an academic exercise; it has significant practical implications. In an educational setting, for example, recognizing these differences can guide the development of tailored programs that address specific needs. For instance, neurotypical, high IQ individuals may benefit from advanced, structured learning challenges that push their cognitive abilities to new heights. Whereas, gifted neurodivergent students might thrive in a more flexible learning environment that encourages exploration and values creative and emotional growth alongside intellectual development.

Professionally, while it is crucial to avoid making rigid assumptions, some clear patterns emerge when we consider the unique needs and strengths of neurodivergent gifted minds. Neurotypical individuals with high IQs often gravitate toward fields that leverage their analytical and problem-solving strengths, such as finance, engineering, and technology. Whereas gifted neurodivergent people often find themselves chafing against the constraints of traditional career paths. Their need for autonomy and freedom, coupled with a deep aversion to rigid structures, bureaucracy, and ethical compromises, lead them to seek alternative routes. They thrive in environments where they can exercise their creativity, follow their passions, and maintain a strong sense of integrity—whether that’s through entrepreneurship, artistic pursuits, academic exploration, or social impact work.

Embracing Gifted Neurodiversity

Understanding giftedness, especially in the context of neurodiversity, requires looking beyond IQ. While a high IQ is often a factor, it doesn’t fully encompass the unique strengths of neurodivergent gifted individuals. Their different learning styles, heightened sensitivities, and deep emotional understanding mean they need more than just intellectual challenge to thrive. To truly support them, we need to create environments that respect and nurture their emotional, creative, and intellectual needs. This means fostering understanding and acceptance, while also giving them the space to explore their passions authentically.

By embracing and nurturing neurodiversity, we as a collective stands to gain immensely. The gifted neurodivergent minds may hold the keys to many previously ‘impossible’ human problems. Their intense curiosity,  coupled with their heightened empathy and sensitivity, can lead to breakthroughs in various fields. When we create a world where neurodivergent gifted individuals feel seen, understood, and supported, we unlock their gifts not just for them but potentially for humanity as a whole.

Imi Lo
Consultant and Author at Eggshell Therapy and Coaching | Website

Imi Lo is a mental health consultant with extensive experience in mental health and psychotherapy across diverse international settings. She specializes in working with highly sensitive, intense and gifted adults. Her books, 'Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity' and 'The Gift of Intensity' are internationally acclaimed and available in multiple languages. She integrates psychological understanding with both Eastern and Western philosophies, such as Buddhism and Stoicism.