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Monday, 3 July, 2000, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK
Gifted but socially isolated?
students in university bar
Child prodigies may not fit in with older students
Child prodigies, like missing teenager Sufiah Yusof, who go to university years earlier than usual can experience considerable social difficulties, some experts have warned.

Because of their age, they are often unable to have the kind of social life their fellow students enjoy, which can leave them feeling isolated.

Jo Counsell, education consultant for the National Association of Gifted Children, went to the Royal College of Music to study the violin when she was 17, and later realised she was too young.

"I dropped out after a year, and I knew of one 16-year-old girl who went there and attempted suicide in her first term," she said.

Ruth Lawrence
Ruth Lawrence was chaperoned through university life by her father

Ms Counsell said it was highly likely that Sufiah,15, would have great difficulty socialising with her fellow Oxford University students who were 18 and over.

"Universities are designed for older people - there isn't the same pastoral care you get at school and nor should there be, as universities are meant for people aged 18 and over.

"There must be better ways of dealing with this very vulnerable group of young people who are going though the incredible changes of adolescence."

Indications of a gifted child
Asks lots of questions
Has a very retentive memory
Can concentrate for a long time
Has wide general knowledge
Enjoys problem solving
Has an unusual imagination
Has strong feelings and emotions
Has an odd sense of humour
Is a perfectionist

But Ms Counsell's views are not shared by all experts on the issue, some of whom believe younger children can be socially successful at university.

Dr Peter Congden, of the Gifted Children's Information Centre, said it was wrong to think of gifted children as socially awkward.

"You can't really generalise with any justification, although people would like to do so," he said.

One of the UK's most celebrated child prodigies was Ruth Lawrence, the brilliant mathematician who rose to fame in the early 1980s after being tutored by her father and gaining a place at Oxford University aged 12.

Dr Congden said her's was "an unusual case where her father had brought her up, but her sort of experience is not universal".

Justin Chapman
Justin Chapman struggles to open the doors at his university

Now married and living in Israel, the former "child genius" has been quoted as saying she wants her young son Yehuda to "develop in a natural way".

In recent years, a number of talented children have hit the headlines for their unusual academic brilliance.

In January 1998, 15-year-old Alexander Faludy became the youngster person in the 20th century to win a place at Cambridge University.

The teenager, who suffered from severe dyslexia, went to Peterhouse College to read theology and history of art.

Sufiah's siblings

In fact, Sufiah Yusof is not the only child prodigy in her family.

Her brother Iskander, 14, and sister Noraisha, 18, have both just completed their second year at Warwick University.

Noraisha is reading maths while her brother is studying for a masters in the subject.

A university spokesman said both students were "doing well academically and socially".

Earlier this year, six-year-old Justin Chapman caused a stir in the United States when he started a course at the University of Rochester in New York state.

Ms Counsell said she would advise parents that there were better ways of accelerating their children through the school system.

"I can't think what the parents believe will be achieved from doing this so early."

But Dr Congdon said there was no instrinsic reason why children should not go to university, as long as the siutation was handled with "humanity and flexibility".

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06 Oct 98 | Education
The young undergraduates
28 Aug 98 | Education
Dyslexic boy wins Cambridge funding
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