Jeeva could read at 15 months. Luca could do his times tables in reception. Nathan had a book deal by eight. Meet the child prodigies

What’s it like to be a child genius? In the past five years, under-17 membership of Mensa – the high-IQ society open to those with intelligence scores in the top 2% of the population – has risen by half, from 1,334 to 1,991, partly as a result of the organisation reaching out to schools and colleges across the country. But children of exceptional ability haven’t always been well served by mainstream education. For many, being gifted is laden with social, emotional and academic challenges. Here, five young people – from an 11-year-old with his own book deal to a self-proclaimed “human calculator” – explain the ups and downs of being a tiny prodigy.

Jeeva Jandu, four, Coventry

‘I like reading and learning about things in the world and how they work,’ says four-year-old Jeeva. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Jeeva was British Mensa’s youngest member when she joined just after her third birthday. (Muhammad Haryz Nadzim, three, from Durham, beat her record earlier this year.) But Jeeva began impressing her parents when she was still a baby. At seven months, she started sounding out words like “cat” and “grandma”; at 11 months, she finished bedtime stories, sometimes from memory, sometimes by recognising words; and by 15 months was reading independently. Now, with an IQ of 160+ (the same range as Einstein and Stephen Hawking), she devours books like the Isadora Moon series, aimed at five- to eight-year-olds, or Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree, reading in her head for up to an hour at a time, when most children her age are learning phonics.

Her mother Malveen, is a dentist, and her father Hardeep, is an actuary. Both 32, they are high-achievers: Malveen has always been academic, gaining 10 A*s at GCSE and now studying for a postgraduate degree in orthodontics; Hardeep gained a postgraduate distinction in actuarial science and is now studying wealth management. Jeeva also has an older cousin in Mensa.

“Malveen has often called her a little Matilda,” says Hardeep, of the book-loving bright spark imagined by Roald Dahl. Jeeva, who has the comprehension and mathematical ability of a child twice her age, says: “I like reading and learning about things in the world and how they work.”

She is chatty and sociable despite the fact that, for most of her babyhood she was the only child in her year group who could talk. “I wished they could, because then I could have lots more friends,” she says.

Teachers at her private preschool (including Mrs Smart and Mrs Brain, their real names; “It’s like a Mr Men book,” Jeeva is quick to point out) invite her to read to classmates. “No one else can read the words that I’m saying,” she says. She goes to gymnastics, and is learning chess and coding. She also has high emotional intelligence and describes feelings in depth. A simple question about her day can trigger lengthy conversations about outer space or how blood pumps around the body. Her parents limit screen time to once a week, during which she has watched the animated film Cars 2 and set her sights on becoming a racing driver, she tells me.

Malveen remembers how she used to turn toys upside down to look at the workings: “We decided early on to ignore the age range on games – these immediately put limits on a child.” But when we discuss her intelligence, her parents are quick to remind her that she is kind, too. “We don’t want her to only be in one box: clever,” Malveen says. “My main thing is that she feels happy and fulfilled, because that isn’t always the case when chasing perfection. We model failure for her, making mistakes in front of her. We ask each day what her successes were, and what she failed at, and celebrate both.”

“Most of all she loves to talk to us,” Hardeep says. “She’s always trying to crack a joke and is very playful. She’s just a child who needs to enjoy being a child.”

Nathan Kai, 10, Derby

‘I’m full of confidence and gratitude for my opportunities,’ says Nathan Kai. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian. With thanks to the Multi-Faith Centre at the University of Derby

Nathan’s IQ puts him in the top 0.01% of the population. Aged three, he taught himself Debussy’s Clair de Lune on a toy keyboard; by six, he was working at secondary school level; and, aged eight, he walked into the London Book Fair, shook a publisher’s hand and secured an on-the-spot book deal for his motivational compendium, Be Your Best Self: Life Skills For Unstoppable Kids.

“When I was six years old, my mum asked me what I wanted for Christmas,” Nathan says. “I asked for a book about how to be your best self. We searched online, and on bookshop and library shelves, but it didn’t exist. So the opportunity to write it myself was born.” He finished the book two days before his eighth birthday, recruiting Paralympic archer Danielle Brown as co-author after hearing her speak at a Mensa event. “We went to the book fair together,” Nathan says. “I told publishers the backstory and they said yes right there and then. I was very proud.”

Nathan is plucky, eloquent – and more painstakingly polite than any adult I have met. “I’ve always been interested in self-development,” he says. “I want to spread that message to all children. Everyone I meet says this is rare for a child, but it comes naturally to me. I’m full of confidence and gratitude for my opportunities.”

The book was published in the UK last year and launches in the US this month; Nathan hopes motivational speaking bookings will follow. “I hope I get to fly all over the world,” he says. “That’s my dream – to travel and learn about different cultures. I want to go to Disneyland, and I’d like to stay with indigenous tribes to learn about plants and medicines.”

Nathan now plays the piano at grade five standard; his favourite composers are Bach and Beethoven. He is in a swimming team and a European title-holder in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (“I love the discipline and ethos,” he says. “It’s quite tactical, like 3D chess”). He also practises yoga and meditation: “It’s all about harmony and balance, to ground yourself after a busy day.” He watches TV only occasionally, usually David Attenborough documentaries, and is a “huge bookworm”, preferring books on geology, world history or motivational titles.

Two years ago, Nathan’s father moved out of the family home, leaving him, his mother and two younger siblings, Simeon, eight, who is also in Mensa, and Oriana, three. Nathan says: “I think having a high IQ made it harder when my dad left,” he says. “I felt I should be able to understand, but I just can’t. We all have a story.”

All three children are home-schooled. Their mother, Anna, 40, a lawyer and psychotherapist, says she was known as “the brains of the family” as a child, but frequently felt misunderstood. She didn’t start Nathan in mainstream education, but he attended for a year aged six, when she was unwell. His unhappiness led the family to visit an educational psychologist, who revealed the extent of Nathan’s intellect. Soon after that, Anna took him out of school again.

“One school teacher nicknamed him ‘glum Nathan’,” Anna claims. “He hated every moment. The minute you mention intelligence, there’s a stigma; a perception of silver-spoon upper-class kids on their way to Oxbridge, and a bragging, pushy parent. Gifted children can have barriers to break through and come from every background and life circumstance.”

Julie Taplin, chief executive of Potential Plus UK, a charity that supports 550 youngsters with “exceptional intellectual and creative ability”, says she sees this a lot with gifted children. “They have the potential to thrive in their areas of strength, but they need opportunities, confidence, nurturing and a sense of belonging,” she says, adding that 10% of its members are home-schooled.

Nathan says: “I tried school, but no one understood my jokes or really got me. Everyone’s different. I try not to sweat the small stuff. I’ve got better friends now that I follow my passions instead of the crowd. I can discuss physics or marine biology with them, and they don’t make me feel weird.” He reels off a huge list of academic interests: Latin and classical studies; Mandarin and Chinese; Spanish, nutrition, debating, Stem subjects and psychology. He is working on his second book, too. “But I’m keeping the details a bit hush-hush,” he says. He thinks clever children are often misunderstood. “We’re more than brains on legs. We have hearts and souls, dreams and feelings, too.”

Abbey McArthur, 10, Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire

‘I see that I’m a bit different, but in a good way,’ says Abbey McArthur, who has an IQ of 144 and excels at art and science. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Abbey lists her interests as architecture, space exploration, inventing and home science experiments, and is hoping for a place at grammar school next year. Her IQ of 144 was not tested until a year ago, when teachers called her parents into school, expressing concerns that she was depressed. Five minutes into an appointment with a private psychologist, her parents, account manager Belinda, 43, and Duncan, 45, a director of an IT company, were told: “This child is not depressed, she’s a genius.”

Abbey is creative and methodical. At 18 months, she cut perfect circles with scissors; aged two, she described a seven-mile car journey to her parents using simple directions (“go there, turn here”) because she wanted to visit a cafe, but didn’t know its name. At six, she would craft intricate fishermen and animals from tinfoil.

While Abbey enjoys playing with her younger sisters, Cameron and Erin, she has not celebrated a birthday with friends since she was six, and has already moved schools once since emigrating from South Africa to the UK last year. “I see that I’m a bit different, but in a good way,” Abbey says. “If someone tells me I’m really clever, it makes me happy and proud, but kids can be mean. At break time, I like to talk about science and things, but the others like to play. Once they agreed to talk about maths with me, then ran away. That made me feel really sad.”

Abbey is dyslexic and more comfortable in the company of adults, but has found like-minded friends through Mensa. “It’s easier to be with clever kids, because you can talk about stuff you like doing,” she says. “I usually finish my schoolwork so quickly that I have to do extra worksheets, fetch stuff from the printer or help others with their work.

“In year one, the maths was really easy. I told my mum and she spoke to the teachers to ask for something harder, which she still does,” Abbey says. “I’m in a higher maths class than my friends. They finish their work as quickly as they can, but I want to stay in class longer. It’s fun and challenging when you’ve not seen something before and you get it for the first time.

“At home, I love baking and cooking. My dad lets me cook dinner with him. I like reading animal encyclopaedias and trying experiments. I know, for example, that octopuses have three hearts – but what do they do with them? I watch TV, but mostly enjoy art and teaching my puppy, Simba, tricks.”

Abbey shows me her sketch book, containing silhouettes of a boat and a page of perfectly spherical doughnuts, shaded with coloured pencil. In South Africa, she was spotted as a “future talent” by a Johannesburg art dealer, and has won competitions here, too. “I sold some of my art to the psychologist who did my assessment and asked for a microscope instead of payment,” Abbey says. “I won a hotel talent competition when I was little with a one-minute drawing of a unicorn.”

This facility with art and science is not unusual among children with high IQs. Educator and psychologist Lyn Kendall, Mensa’s gifted-child consultant, explains: “Research shows that the majority of exceptionally able children are good all-rounders due to their highly competitive and driven natures. When they are younger, art may not be a strong point for them, but once their coordination develops, it becomes something else to excel at.”

Abbey hopes to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, but her ambitions do not end there. “I’d like to go into space or build a hover car that flies over water and mountains,” she says.

Zayan Rumi Arshad, six, Solihull

Zayan Rumi Arshad could count to 100 by two, and knew the English and Arabic alphabets by three. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

By the time Zayan was two, he could count to 100. Today he is in year two, but is given year five work. “Maths is my best lesson because it’s really easy,” he says. “My favourite part is doing divides in my head. In maths, my best friend does easy sheets. I do fractions and multiplications.” He enjoys other lessons, too. Excitedly, he says: “We’re learning about dreams and goals right now. Mine is to become an engineer. I would make stuff, like a Lego drill that can drill for metal.” He runs to get his favourite Lego creation: a 1,167-piece, VW Beetle for ages 16+. He is learning the ukulele and recorder, and enjoys using music apps. “I’ve got something where I can make any beats I want.”

His mother and father, Sameela and Adeel, both 29, run a footwear business and were young parents. They are graduates, but wouldn’t describe themselves as being above average intelligence, and have found Zayan’s ability overwhelming. By three, he could count in four languages – Arabic, Urdu, English and Spanish – and knew the English and Arabic alphabets. “He’d hear something in Arabic once or twice at his grandparents’ and pick it up,” Sameela says. “He brought home a picture book from kindergarten and asked, ‘What kind of book is this, there are no words?’ He had a huge interest in numbers, and little quirks, too. He didn’t like foods touching on his plate, and would never get muddy.”

It was only when his brother Raafi, four, arrived that his parents realised Zayan was different. Raafi hit milestones in line with most children and long after his brother had; they were able to compare the boys’ behaviour, too. As well as an inquisitive mind, Zayan had the heightened emotions common in gifted children. At nursery, he experienced separation anxiety and would cry until he was sick. When Zayan was five, a psychologist confirmed an IQ of 150, the mathematical comprehension of a nine-year-old and the reading age of a 10-year-old.

“At first I didn’t think he was gifted,” Sameela says. “I just needed help. I struggled with how to occupy him or answer his questions.” She sometimes feels obliged to play down his intelligence: “People stare or listen once they hear him speak. They ask what I do to make him so smart. When I say I don’t do anything, I often get a shocked face, as though I’m lying. The only thing we push him to do is to work on his confidence.”

Now Zayan attends private school – a choice the family might not have made if he wasn’t so bright – but still struggles emotionally. “He’s never just gone somewhere and started playing,” Sameela says. “He stands back and analyses. His best friends are girls because they’re less boisterous. He feels safe with them, but has huge meltdowns. If they don’t need a boy for their princess game, he gets really upset, really quickly. Emotions are extreme. I book lots of clubs for him at lunchtime so he doesn’t have to deal with playtime.”

In Zayan’s bedroom, his shelf is stacked with Roald Dahl and Horrid Henry collections; he’s read them all. He shows me his newest invention – a “rocking rover” vehicle – and his toy drone. “I love flying my drone or paper planes,” he says. Today is Tuesday, which is homework day. “I’m glad when that’s out of the way. The worst thing about school is comprehension, and going up the tiring stairs. But the best thing is having a long lunchtime. And maths.”

Luca Manfredi, 12, Pontefract

‘Other kids make fun of me. They love to see you fail,’ says Luca Manfredi. Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Luca was found to have an IQ of 158 when his academy tested its brightest year eight pupils – a recent offer to schools that Mensa credits with bringing in more young members. “They’d give a complicated word and ask for a synonym,” he remembers. “I’m not saying it was easy, but I just worked through.” He describes himself as a “human calculator”, and is now doing GCSE-level maths.

“I like studying variables and I’d love to use my maths inside Nasa,” he says. “People think of astronauts, but I want to understand how rockets are programmed and engineered.” Chatting at home after school, Luca is initially reserved, but talks with enthusiasm about studying. “I love having my mind challenged,” he says. “I knew my times tables in reception. By year two, I was doing year six multiplication and long division. I was years ahead, so they would give me algebra. I knew I was bright. We had maths puzzles at home and mum would turn everything into a game. She filled our house with books.”

Luca lives with his mother Patrizia, 42, an immigration officer, father Mark, 45, a transport worker, and younger brother Simone, seven. Patrizia was also a bright child, but did not have the opportunities or encouragement to pursue her love of learning. “I didn’t realise the importance of it,” she says. “As a mum, I try to support him practically and emotionally. I make sure there are books to feed his appetite for knowledge, and explain why children can be cruel, because they don’t understand the importance of certain things or have the right values. Our greatest wish is that our child fulfils his dreams. Being in Mensa is opening a lot of doors.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean job opportunities – Mensa’s consultant Lyn Kendall says that some members don’t put Mensa on their CVs as it can make employers wary. But it is a place to network: the organisation hosts social events for youngsters, has junior newsletters and web forums. Kendall also runs a Facebook group for parents. She says many don’t realise how gifted their children are until they begin education and socialising; while they fit in in their own, often intelligent, households, others notice their precociousness and impose identities on them. “The minute they go out into the world, they get people saying, ‘Aren’t you clever?’ at the time when they’re building an identity. They often don’t know how to fail or how to study. A lot of them refuse school or drop out of university because of their fear of failure. Unless you’re very careful, they can grow up to be very fragile people.”

Still, Luca says his maturity has left him feeling lonely. “No one likes a know-it-all,” he says. “Mum and dad have told me that being intelligent has negatives now, but will have positives when I do jobs that bring me happiness.”

Luca enjoys computer games and watching fantasy and action films, like Men In Black. “I’m always looking below the surface, wondering how creators came up with those characters.” At weekends, he hangs out with his younger brother and parents, or does extra maths papers. He has “a couple of friends”, but rarely goes on playdates and is happiest taking tests. “When I’ve done well, I’ve made myself and my family proud,” he says.

British child geniuses in numbers

1,991Members of Mensa, the high IQ society, who are under 17

600 Mensa members under 13

50% Increase in child members over the last five years

10½Age at which children can sit the adult intelligence test, comprising verbal and non-verbal reasoning papers

£250+ Cost of Mensa assessment with a private psychologist for younger children, using puzzles and games

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