Twice-Exceptional Children: Why Making Friends Is Hard and How to Support Them

“I want to know: how do I compare in the world of 12-year-olds? How many people in the world are there with a personality like me? Where do I fit in?”

All children need connections in order to thrive. Learning to establish and maintain friendships is a crucial part of every child’s development. Sharing, turn-taking, trusting, communicating, and compromising are some of the vital skills children practice while interacting with peers. Although for some children acquiring these skills comes naturally and making friends is easy, others struggle to find and keep friends. Twice-exceptional children—because of both components of their exceptionality—often have difficulty finding a peer group and maintaining friendships.

Twice-exceptional children are children who are identified as being gifted while also having a disability. While “disability” is not the ideal word, it is the word used by schools and other agencies and, for sake of consistency, will be used here. The disability could be a learning, emotional, physical, sensory, and/or developmental disability (The Twice-Exceptional Dilemma, 2006). Dyslexia, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder are just some examples of disabilities that impact a child’s functioning.

“Giftedness” is hard to define, as there is no single universally accepted definition of giftedness. Simply stated, gifted children show unusually high achievement capability and, therefore, their needs are not always met by the typical classroom program (Boehner, 2002). There is no one way to measure giftedness, but a common demarcation is an IQ score of 130 (98th percentile) or above.

We know that children with secure, stable friendships are more socially and emotionally competent and often show higher academic achievement without strong social connections (Carter & Nutbrown, 2016). Research indicated that people tend to become friends with others who are similar to them (Neihart et al., 2002). Thus, it is not surprising that gifted children gravitate to their intellectual peers. Additionally, research suggests that a range of social skills are needed to make and maintain friendships. For twice-exceptional children, both giftedness and disability can impact their ability to find a peer group and to successfully interact with other

Impact of Giftedness on Friendship: The research is mixed as to whether giftedness is an advantage or a disadvantage socially (Lee & Olszewski-Kubilius, 2006). The consensus seems to be that it can be advantageous, particularly if some of a child’s high ability lies in their interpersonal skills. However, giftedness can also be a disadvantage. Because gifted children’s minds develop at a faster rate than their bodies, they are at risk for being mismatched with their environment and their peers. For example, a 6-year-old child can be cognitively at the level of a 9-year-old, but, due to her chronological age, is put into classes and social groups with other 6-year-olds and feels like she does not fit in. This mismatch between the gifted child’s mental and chronological age, and between the gifted child and age-related expectations of a particular culture is called asynchronous development. Asynchrony can be considered a defining element of giftedness, and in some children it provokes a qualitatively different social experience, making it difficult to find a place to fit in (Wiley, 2016).

Impact of Disability on Friendship: The second component of twice-exceptionality is disability, which can impact a child’s ability to form friendships in an even more direct way. Depending on the child’s particular diagnosis, the disability may or may not hinder them in acquiring age-appropriate social skills. For example, a child with dyslexia may not have any trouble making friends, as his difficulty learning to read does not necessarily impact his ability to navigate social situations. However, a child with Autism, ADHD, or social anxiety may struggle with understanding other people’s emotions and interpreting subtle social cues. These lagging skills will make it harder for the children to make and keep friends.

With all of this in mind, the next step is to figure out how to best support twice-exceptional children as they navigate peer interactions. One of the commonly accepted methods for addressing social challenges is participation in social skills groups. In our experience, however, traditional social skills groups may not be a good match for twice-exceptional children. Despite their disability, because these children are drawn to intellectual peers, they may get frustrated with having to attend a group where they feel like they don’t fit in. Unfortunately, at this time, there aren’t many established programs for addressing social challenges specifically in the gifted population. More research is needed to find the most effective ways to foster social skills in twice-exceptional children. In the meantime, based on our conversations with parents and educators we have found that the following questions should be considered:

  1. What are the child’s interests? One mother of a twice-exceptional child told us that the best setting for her son’s social-emotional growth was a summer astrophysics camp through a program for gifted children. Her son was involved in the field of study that he loved, and he had to work collaboratively with intellectual peers, unknowingly practicing his social skills.
  2. Where does the child feel safe and accepted? Because these spaces are hard to find for twice-exceptional children, parents and educators need to pay particular attention to where their children feel safe and accepted. This could be a club, a sport, an art or music studio, a religious organization, or a summer or vacation camp. Once the child finds this type of environment, parents can look for opportunities that would allow the child to get more involved and establish connections there.

Finding a supportive environment with other children who share their interests are the first steps towards meeting twice-exceptional children’s social-emotional needs. However, most twice-exceptional children will also need individualized supports to help address their lagging skills. Examples of services they may need to access include psychotherapy, occupational therapy, speech/language therapy, and executive functions coaching, among others.

More research is needed on how to meet the complex needs of twice-exceptional children. We also need more training for educators and other school personnel so they can accurately identify and serve twice-exceptional children. In the meantime, parents can listen to their child, advocate for their child’s needs, and teach the child how to advocate for themselves. They can also access a growing list of resources for families of twice-exceptional children, so they know they are not alone in their journey to meet their children’s needs.

Resources:

Acknowledgements

This article was prepared with the invaluable help of Courtney Plutte, a second-year graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. Courtney is passionate about improving the lives of children with developmental disabilities and has become increasingly focused on bringing awareness to the unique needs of twice-exceptional children. In the future she plans to work as a psychologist to help children and families through assessment, consultation, and treatment.

References

Boehner, J. A. (2002, January 8). Text – H.R.1 – 107th Congress (2001-2002): No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 [Webpage]. https://www.congress.gov/bill/107th-congress/house-bill/1/text

Carter, C., & Nutbrown, C. (2016). A Pedagogy of Friendship: Young children’s friendships and how schools can support them. International Journal of Early Years Education, 24(4), 395–413. https://doi.org/10.1080/09669760.2016.1189813

Lee, S.-Y., & Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2006). The Emotional Intelligence, Moral Judgment, and Leadership of Academically Gifted Adolescents. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 30(1), 29–67. https://doi.org/10.1177/016235320603000103

Neihart, M., Reis, S. M., Robinson, N., & Moon, S. (2002). The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children: What Do We Know? Sourcebooks, Inc.The Twice-Exceptional Dilemma. (2006). National Education Association.