CRESTWOOD, Ky. – Just after Isla McNabb’s second birthday, Jason and Amanda McNabb found their Kentucky home littered with letters – little plastic alphabet letters, to be precise.
They were everywhere. In front of the chair, the letters spelled out “c-h-a-i-r.” On the ice maker, magnetic letters said “i-c-e.” Even the family feline wasn’t spared, with the letters “c-a-t” found resting next to her.
When Amanda was in the kitchen, she would look down and find “m-o-m” spelled out next to her.
Jason described the experience as “almost a little creepy.” Amanda found it adorable.
Their toddler, Isla, was responsible for all of the words. Just prior to this, Jason had started spelling words out on a tablet to see if Isla could sound them out. She quickly understood them, and they kept giving her more words to learn.
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Isla’s parents always had a hunch their daughter was really smart, but they never expected she would become the youngest current member of American Mensa.
Last month, she scored in the 99th percentile of intelligence for her age, earning the Crestwood girl a spot in the prestigious international high intelligence organization.
Founded in England in 1946, Mensa now has about 145,000 members from more than 90 countries. More than a third of those members – about 50,000 – come from the U.S.
Isla reads whatever she can get her hands on – even sounding out scribbled questions in a reporter’s notebook during a recent visit.
“It started right when we brought her home from the hospital. If we had something on TV, she would watch it. She would be fixated on it, not looking around like other babies. She would be focused on it,” Jason said.
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Isla is the fourth child in Jason and Amanda’s family, but they’ve noticed her developing at a more rapid pace than the other children.
Jason, a dentist, was a gifted child himself. When he was in second grade, he said he took an IQ test that would have qualified for Mensa, but he never joined the organization.
A visit to a child psychologist
Then there was the time Amanda came into the kitchen to see a cardboard box with the word “Mom” written on it. She replayed their security camera, convinced someone had to have helped her with it, but the footage showed the child writing by herself.
Soon after, she started memorizing the names of dinosaurs.
“I drew a picture of a stegosaurus and I thought she would say ‘dinosaur,’ but she was like, ‘stegosaurus,’ ” Jason said. “So then I drew a picture of a triceratops and she said ‘ceratops.’ Like, ‘OK, can you start doing our taxes?’ “
The McNabbs wondered whether Isla had a quirk that would go away over time or if she was truly gifted. If she was, they wanted to make sure they were properly fostering that intelligence.
They decided to take her to a child psychologist. Many doctors in Louisville refused to conduct an IQ test for a child as young as Isla, but the McNabbs finally got a “yes.”
After hearing stories about Isla’s reading, writing and spelling abilities, Dr. Ed Amend told them to bring her in. Typically, the Amend Group does not test children under 4. Amend explained this is because young children can be so variable and difficult to test. Some days, a 3-year-old may be very engaged, and sometimes they may not be. Plus, the testing can take hours, and for small children this can be tiring and require a lot of breaks.
However, Amend was impressed with what Amanda and Jason told him, and he made an exception.
In early May, Isla was tested on two different days. When the test was complete, Jason and Amanda were stunned with the results. Isla had scored “superior” in every category and “very superior” in knowledge. She is also “hyperlexic,” which indicates a precocious ability to read.
‘She’s new to (Mensa), and we get to watch her grow’
They sent her scores into Mensa and she was accepted. Amanda’s brother wondered if Isla was the youngest current member. Jason and Amanda reached out to the organization, and Charles Brown, the director of marketing and communications for Mensa, confirmed it. (There have been other 2-year-olds in the organization, but none are younger than Isla at this point.)
“I wouldn’t have believed any of this if it wasn’t firsthand,” Amanda said. “You see those stories of kids that are playing chess at 3 or learning the periodic table or all of the presidents. People keep asking if we are going to teach her those, but no. She has no interest in it.”
Instead, they are letting Isla take the reins.
This has meant buying a lot of alphabet sets and flashcards. For Isla, learning words is like a game.
Gifted people “need one thing, and that is to be challenged,” Brown said. “They are just constantly absorbing.”
Isla also has picked up on sign language, surprising her parents by signing the word “stop.” Her parents said if they want to keep a secret from Isla, they can’t spell it out.
“If we say we are going to get ‘i-c-e c-r-e-a-m’ she goes, ‘ice cream!’ We have to text each other if we don’t want her to hear,” Jason said.
Beyond fostering curiosity and quenching boredom, Amend said ultimately gifted students just need time.
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“They need time to be a kid, they need time to be a gifted kid and they need time to be a gifted student,” he said. “Those three things don’t always overlap, and they may look differently for a gifted kid. Maybe she’s biking with her best friend but also talking about chemistry. Maybe she wants to play Ticket to Ride instead of Trouble.”
Amend said just as people would not expect a tennis prodigy to develop on their own, the same is true for gifted children. They typically also need special accommodations. This is why the McNabbs ended up applying for Mensa.
Amend suggests that gifted youngsters join high intelligence organizations to give them support. He also said the National Association for Gifted Children has a number of TIP sheets for parents to use.
It allows the McNabbs to talk with parents of other gifted children, and Isla has access to a community of like-minded individuals. When she gets older, the McNabbs plan to connect her with a network of other children in Mensa who live around the area.
“It’s just a spark of delight when we get these young kids,” Brown said. “They have this creativity and life about them that just makes you go ‘wow.’ We can’t wait to see what Isla does. She’s new to us, and we get to watch her grow.”
The McNabbs aren’t sure what the future may hold for their daughter. However, they are ready to cultivate her passions and see what she needs as she gets older and begins going to school — whether that means skipping grades, joining the gifted program or something else.
And, they aren’t planning on telling her what that IQ score is anytime soon.
“We don’t want her to develop a complex or feel like she has something to live up to,” Amanda said. “She’s having fun, right? Let’s let her enjoy it.”
Follow Eleanor McCrary on Twitter: @ellie_mccrary