Emmelyn Roettger loves to write, spell and count. She’s so fascinated by science and space that she rattles off details about nebulas, black holes, Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s size with ease. She knows that another term for cell division is “mitosis,” and that caterpillars turn into butterflies through “metamorphosis.”
Emme just turned 3 in April. Her parents felt a rush of gratification and relief in March when she became the youngest U.S. member of the high-IQ society Mensa — and here’s why.Story: In Mensa or not, this tot proves she’s still a tot
When Emme was an infant, doctors had diagnosed her with “unspecified delays” and cautioned that she might have autism. Her mom and dad were heartsick when they observed that, at 9 months old, Emme seemed to avoid eye contact and never reached for toys or tried to crawl.
Right around that time, Emme’s mother, Michelle Horne, was overcome by a hunch. She asked to have her daughter’s vision checked.
“It turned out that she just needed glasses!” recalled Horne, 41, a former sixth-grade science teacher who lives in the D.C. area. “It was so obvious that any delays she had were vision-related. From there on out, she just took off.”
Recognizing letters at 15 months
Last month, a 4-year-old girl in England with an IQ of 159 — one point below physicist Stephen Hawking’s — grabbed headlines when she qualified for Mensa membership. Mensa accepted Emme as a lifetime member at an even younger age, 2 years and 11 months.
Emme’s parents aren’t Mensa members and they never imagined they’d be seeking such a distinction for their little girl, but their journey in that direction began after Emme was able to see and appreciate the world around her. Horne still remembers the first day she brought her 10-month-old daughter home wearing glasses.
“We walked past a foyer table with family photos in frames, and she physically pulled on me to stop,” Horne said. “She looked at those pictures as if she’d never seen them before.Internet's response to Mensa tot's potty 911 on TODAY: #smartbutstill3
“After that, she showed an obvious want for things — grabbing at things, trying to get to toys, fussing for things that she couldn’t reach — and she started crawling within a few weeks.”
Emme’s curiosity and verbal skills also began to explode. She began recognizing letters at 15 months old and writing them before she turned 2. Shortly after her second birthday, she could write her name, count to 100, count by 2s, 5s and 10s, and do simple math. She’d ask her parents to spend hours reading books to her, and she’d beg them to flip through her space flash cards one more time.
“I would love to take credit for it, but I think it was just her personality all along,” said Horne, a former sixth-grade science teacher. “We had books like any good parent would, but she just wanted them — books, books, books.”
Despite the strides Emme was making, her pediatrician kept referring to her as “delayed,” and her mother kept feeling miserable about it. In frustration, Horne began doing sleuth work online to see how she might convince outsiders to agree with what she knew to be true: Her little girl was smart.
Her search led her to the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, a standardized intelligence test designed for children between the ages of 2 1/2 and 7. Emme took the test at 2 years and 10 months and scored in the 99th percentile on all measures. (Her full-scale IQ score was 135.) When Horne learned that Mensa accepts children as members, she submitted Emme’s test scores on a lark.Story: Whiz kids: These 11 small fry have giant talents
“My husband thought it was a silly idea at first,” Horne said. “I was looking for support, though, and I thought Mensa could be another resource for us.”
‘Stigma to being very smart’
It turns out that Mensa offers a wealth of support for parents and teachers of bright kids — whether or not those kids actually qualify for Mensa membership or have any interest in joining. (To become a member, a child or adult must score in the top 2 percent on one of about 200 accepted standardized intelligence tests.) The Mensa for Kids website has games, activities, puzzles and even entire lesson plans that can be a boon for teachers and parents in cash-strapped school districts.
Victoria Liguez, marketing manager for American Mensa, said plenty of intelligent children and teens fail to get the stimulation they need in school. In some cases, she said, a phenomenon known as “tall poppy syndrome” is to blame.
“If you have a poppy that grows taller than the rest, you just cut it down to size,” Liguez said. “A lot of schools don’t have time to devote to a smart kid because they figure that kid is fine. ... But you know what? Sometimes ‘bored’ and ‘smart’ is a dangerous combination to have running around the house or around the neighborhood.”Story: Finding alternatives to middle school’s dramas, traumas
While it’s unusual for anyone to qualify for Mensa membership at such a young age, Emme isn’t the first child to join at age 2. Frank Lawlis, American Mensa’s supervisory psychologist and author of “The IQ Answer,” said it can be valuable for parents to have their children tested because “you need to know what’s going on with your kid.” He noted that life can be easier in some ways for kids with sky-high IQs, but harder in other ways.
“There’s a social stigma to being very smart,” Lawlis said. “It can limit a person’s potential for social relationships.”Story: 11-year-old college grad: I’m no genius
Lawlis said Mensa’s founders envisioned it as an “elite society” when they started it in 1946, but the organization quickly changed its focus and became a “place of nurturance” where people can enjoy each other’s company and guffaw at jokes about prime numbers and Schrödinger’s cat.
“All of their activities are about taking care of each other and supporting each other,” Lawlis said. “I’ve referred a number of people to Mensa because they’re lonely. ... People find their mates there. They find their best friends there.”
Fun outings, fun times
Emme’s parents haven’t thought that far ahead. They just know how much they want their little girl to be happy, stimulated and healthy.
They take her to zoos, playgrounds and play dates, and they plan outings that tap into the family’s love of space exploration. They were on hand in April when the Space Shuttle Discovery arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Va., and they climbed inside the Gemini spacecraft at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
A big focus for the family at the moment is addressing Emme’s vision problems in the best possible way while correcting a lazy eye. Emme must wear a patch over her left eye for at least four to six hours a day.
Emme’s father, Glenn Roettger, 41, is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and he’s about to be stationed in Germany. Roettger is confirming that the military base has a pediatric ophthalmologist who can treat Emme’s eyes; if so, his entire family can get medical clearance to go.
“We think it will be great for her because she’ll pick up the language in a snap,” said Horne, Emme’s mother.Video: Mensa kid proves even a genius tot is still a tot (on this page)
Horne said she and her husband continue to feel overwhelming relief after figuring out what was behind Emme’s apparent developmental delays. At her 3-year wellness check-up, Emme’s doctor agreed, removing “unspecified delays” from her chart.
“This could be a call to parents: Advocate early!” Horne said. “If I hadn’t pushed ... I’m not sure our outcome would be as good.”
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