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As Whiz Kids Grow Up : Do exceptional children become exceptional adults? Not always. Sometimes there are a few bumps along the way.

July 28, 1992|BETH ANN KRIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 11, Richard Dekmejian was fluent in five languages: French, English, Arabic, Armenian and Turkish. But that wasn't what got people talking.

At 12, he became a minor hero in his hometown of Aleppo, Syria, after he whipped up his own crystal radio set from wire, stone and an English-language how-to book. It was 1945, and anyone who owned a radio in Aleppo had to be very rich or very smart.

At 16, Dekmejian was sent to the United States to live with uncles and study at Los Angeles City College.

That's when the whiz kid became a fizz kid.

Dekmejian recalls the adjustment "from Syria to the Sunset Strip" was tough. He flunked his first course in political science--a subject he now teaches at USC. After his failure at LACC, he dropped out of school and worked as a carpet cleaner. It was the first of several "declines" he experienced while learning how to manage his extraordinary abilities.

Today Dekmejian is a celebrity scholar whose academic specialties are leadership and terrorism. Whenever there's a crisis in the Middle East or the former Soviet Union, you can find him being interviewed on CNN and quoted in the country's top newspapers. But the charismatic Dekmejian admits intellectual pursuits overshadowed his family relationships much of the time--and he is filled with guilt.

Experts say it could have been much worse. Although we typically expect brilliant lives from brilliant people, it's not unusual for child prodigies to becomes adults who experience problems common to all of us: an inability to have truly intimate relationships or hang onto satisfying jobs or be pleased with their achievements. And that brain power may compound the problems if intellect takes precedence over everything else.

"You sometimes hear being gifted referred to as 'an invisible handicap,' " says Laura Katz Hathaway, who was identified as a gifted child and is now the national gifted children's resource coordinator for MENSA of America, the high IQ society.

"When you're in the top 1% or 2% of intellectually gifted people, you often have difficulties just in finding other people like yourself," observes Philadelphia psychologist Suzanne Schneider, a therapist specializing in gifted children and adults. "If these people don't receive emotional support as they're growing up, they can turn into mental giants and emotional cripples."

Schneider cites a gifted, highly successful client who went into therapy because he thought something was absent from his life.

"What was missing was emotional intimacy. He was so competitive in his relationships that he was unable to relate to people in an emotional manner. This particularly happens with male super-achievers and can sometimes happens with female super-achievers."

Dekmejian, the father of three grown children, agrees: "You tend to be self-centered if you don't watch yourself and you don't pay attention to your family and children. In retrospect, I would do it very differently. I feel guilty about that. Once you get inspired, you can go crazy. I sometimes go until 2, 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. Then I can't sleep because I'm still thinking about things."

After the boy wonder dropped out of LACC and completed a stint in the U.S. Army, he tried school again, enrolling at the University of Connecticut at 24 and eventually winding up with a doctoral degree from Columbia University.

Since then, Dekmejian has worked as a consultant to numerous departments of the U.S. government and written three books (translated into Arabic and Persian).

"Periodically, I still get down," says the 58-year-old professor, "but I know how to deal with it now--through hard work, meditation and prayer."

Rick Rosner, a 32-year-old bouncer with the words "Born to Do Math" tattooed on his foot, has handled the difficulties of being gifted another way. A self-described example of the "crash and burn" school of over-achievement, he has found a measure of solace--at the gym.

"I was a wimpy, indoor-type kid," recalls the now muscle-bound Rosner. Now, in addition to working as a bouncer at the Sagebrush Cantina in Calabasas and Mom's in Brentwood, he occasionally gets jobs as a nude model or stripper.

Rosner has used his intelligence (he's a member of the Mega Society, an elite organization for people who score at least 176 on an IQ test) in some rather unconventional ways:

"Since I was a geek and bad at junior high phys ed, I'd always be put on the bleachers with the other geeks," he says. "But instead of watching the game, I'd watch the junior high girls. To stop myself from becoming sexually excited, I'd do powers of two in my head. I'd get up to two to the 25th power and beyond. I'd be into the billions. I could also do pi out to 105 digits, which is pathetically nerdy."

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