Sherwyn Sarabi was the youngest ever member of Mensa and at six he is already thinking about GCSEs, but his mother Amanda fears for his future. She talks to Sarah Freeman.
Sherwyn Sarabi is currently reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He is on page 83. There are, he says, another 557 to go, which he will fit in between practising for his grade four violin, preparing for his maths GCSE and learning the recorder and piano. It might not sound quite so odd if this wasn’t the start of the half term holidays and and if Sherwyn wasn’t just six years old.
But then he has always been a little different. At two, Sherwyn could look at a map of the world and name every single country. By three, he had the reading age of a nine year old. By four, he had been found to have an IQ of 160 - the same as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.
“Sherwyn was the youngest ever member of Mesna,” says his mother Amanda. “It is wonderful that he is so gifted, but it does have its difficulties. When you have a child who is highly gifted, people think, ‘well, aren’t you the lucky one’. Being exceptionally clever isn’t something which is seen as having a downside. But it does. In fact it has many.”
It’s part of the reason why Amanda has written a book. Off the Scale! Educating a Profoundly Gifted Child is an honest account of what it’s really like to raise a toddler with a child’s needs but an adult brain. She hopes it will help other parents side-step the various pitfalls she and her husband Davoud have faced.
“Often these children are incredibly sensitive. Sherwyn doesn’t deal well with loud noises and when he was very little he developed what I can only describe as a phobia against clothing labels. One day I’d hung the washing out and when Sherwyn came outside he just started to scream. He couldn’t tell me what was upsetting him, but now I know it was the labels.
“That kind of obsessive behaviour is really common among gifted children, who often tend to be very emotional. I just had no idea. When you see a child having a tantrum like that the first thing people think is that they are just badly behaved. I want to give other parents the help I didn’t have.”
Today there are no tantrums. In fact Sherwyn is amusing himself with various algebraic equations written on the whiteboard which dominates the living room of the family’s modest home neary Barnlsey. The sums are from the GCSE syllabus and take him just a few minutes to solve.
When he’s in the mood he can also reel off Britain’s kings and queens in chronological order, but most of all he likes to read. At the moment, as well as Harry Potter, one of his favourite books is an encyclopaedia of dinosaurs.
“I think I like the Tyrannosaurs Rex the best,” he says. A love of dinosaurs, along with football, is one of the few passions he shares with other boys his age.
“Sherwyn was my first and only child, so I had nothing to compare him against,” says Amanda. “I knew he was bright, but it wasn’t until I took him to the doctors one day that I began to realise quite how exceptional he was.
“I’d booked an appointment because I wanted the doctor to take a look at a rash on his leg. While Sherwyn was being examined, he noticed a map on the wall and suddenly said, ‘Look, there’s Argentina’. The doctor was taken a back and asked me exactly how many countries he could name. When I said, ‘Oh all of them’ he didn’t believe me at first, but then Sherwyn began pointing out Algeria, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
As well as being reassured the rash on her son’s leg was nothing to worry about, Amanda was encouraged to take Sherwyn to a child psychologist, who confirmed that her son was indeed gifted. However, the diagnosis didn’t come with much practical support. Instead, Amanda began buying textbooks and educational games and when her own knowledge of maths ran out the family began employing a tutor.
“I didn’t tell him how old Sherwyn was, I just told him that my son needed help with his GCSE. When he came to the house the very first time he was obviously surprised. In fact I’m sure he thought I must be a bit mad, but then he began chatting to Sherwyn and quickly realised that he has a gift for numbers.
“Sometimes it’s like having two children in the same body. He can spend hours pouring over a maths books and then suddenly you’ll find him under the piano playing with a toy car. Every so often he needs to be a child again.”
Before having Sherwyn, Amanda worked as a special needs teacher. She hasn’t returned to the classroom, but it has made her aware of how little is spent on those children who find themselves at the other end of the educational spectrum.
“Of course children who have a disability should be supported, but I think we are failing the very brightest children. No one really knows what to to do with them. Like any parent I just want my child to be happy, but Sherwyn is only happy when he is learning so everything goes on that.
“I don’t go out much with friends, I don’t by expensive clothes and we don’t go on exotic foreign holidays. Sherwyn was born with the intelligence but it has to be nurtures. Everything he has achieved is down to months of hard work.”
While Amanda says her son was bored and frustrated at nursery school, having won a scholarship to Rastrick Independent School in Brighouse he is much more settled. However, Amanda inevitably worries about the future and how fast Sherwyn’s education should be accelerated. They are already running out of wallspace for his various certificates and she is aware that the lives of other children prodigies have turned into modern day morality tales about the dangers of having too much too young.
“Sherwyn is already in the year above where he should be and there is a dilemma about whether he should be moved up again. Academically he would be fine, but the school is worried that he may not mix with the older children. I can understand that, but he also doesn’t mix with children his own age. They want to talk about cartoons and computer games. Sherwyn wants to talk about the documentaries he has watched.
“I lie awake at night wondering what the future holds. We want Sherwyn to have a childhood like any other little boy, but the reality is that he isn’t like many other little boys. Ignoring the fact he is different isn’t an option.
“His maths tutor says he is nearly ready to sit the GCSE foundation paper. However, because of the marking system he could only get a grade C and he doesn’t like that idea. He wants to be the youngest person to get an A, but what happens once you’ve broken the records. What happens then?”
Like so many other issues the Sarabis have had in the last six years, Amanda knows that unfortunately there is no textbook answer to that particular question.
Off the Scale! Educating a Profoundly Gifted Child by Amanda Sarabi, priced £9.99, is available to order from rfwp.com.