“Is my child gifted? Is my child delayed? What is my child?”
“Gifted and ADHD, how can it be both?“
These, and similar questions were asked by parents of children who were eventually identified as twice-exceptional.
Twice-exceptional children are a misunderstood and under-identified group of children. Many educators, professionals, and parents are not familiar with this term and do not understand the challenges and experiences of these children. It “can feel so overwhelming that you do not know where to start,” stated a parent of several twice-exceptional children. The first step in helping this group of children is to understand what it means to be twice-exceptional.
What Does “Twice-Exceptional” Mean?
A twice-exceptional child is a child identified as being gifted and talented while also having one or more of the following challenges: a learning disability, a neurodevelopmental disorder, a social-emotional difficulty, or a mental illness (3). Unfortunately, there is no widely accepted definition of what it means to be twice-exceptional (2), in part because researchers can’t agree on how to define and measure giftedness. The second obstacle to defining twice-exceptionality is that learning disabilities, mental illness and social-emotional difficulties can encompass and manifest as a very wide range of developmental challenges.
According to the National Association for Gifted Children, a gifted child is defined as “a child who has an ability that is significantly above the norm for their age group, in one or more of the following areas: intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership, or in a specific academic area” (8). As stated by an administrator of a school for gifted children, “these kids’ capabilities outsize their bodies.” Because of their high intellectual ability, gifted children often develop unevenly – for example, their cognitive capabilities surpass their social or emotional skills. This mismatch in skills and abilities is referred to as “asynchronous development.”
Challenges in Development
As previously mentioned, a twice-exceptional child is a child who is gifted and experiences developmental or emotional challenges, such as a learning disability, a neurodevelopmental disorder, or a mental illness. A learning disability is defined as “a disorder in one or more basic psychological processes that may manifest itself as an imperfect ability in certain areas of learning, such as reading, written expression, or mathematics.” (7) Dyslexia, or specific learning disorder in reading, is one example of a learning disability, while ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder are examples of neurodevelopmental disorders that can impact both gifted and non-gifted children.
A social-emotional difficulty refers to a “condition in which behavior or emotional responses of an individual are so different from generally accepted norms, that they adversely affect that child’s performance.” (6) Many children experience social emotional difficulties at some point during their lives, yet for some it may have a negative impact on their academics, friendships, and home life. If a social-emotional difficulty persists and affects a child’s ability to function on a daily basis, it may meet criteria for a mental illness. Depression or generalized anxiety disorder are examples of mental illness that affect gifted and non-gifted children alike.
There is an abundance of information on specific learning disabilities, social-emotional difficulties, and mental illness. However, what is less understood is how these challenges interact with giftedness and how they manifest in gifted children.
There is a misconception among some people that gifted children are immune to challenges (5). One parent of a twice-exceptional child described this misconception in the following way: “People think that gifted children are the ones who can sit quietly and learn and do everything by themselves. Today we would think of someone being like Hermione Granger, someone who is constantly learning by herself and taking initiative to do more.” In reality, gifted children may be more vulnerable than their typical peers. This vulnerability can be partially explained by asynchronous development (4). A 10-year-old girl may concern herself with great societal problems, like homelessness or world peace; yet not have the emotional skills to cope with the feelings that these problems bring up. An 8-year-old boy gravitates towards peers that are several years older than him, but has to socialize with same-age peers in the classroom, and feels like he does not fit in. These types of internal and external mismatch makes gifted children prone to experiencing social-emotional difficulties.
The National Education Association estimates that 360,000 of students in the U.S. qualify to receive the label of twice-exceptional (1); however, this is most likely an under-estimation. Despite being exceptionally bright, gifted children may have learning disabilities that impact their ability to do well in school. In the early grades, they are often able to compensate for their learning challenges, which leads to a delay in recognizing the problem. For example, a gifted girl who struggles with reading may memorize a book and appear to read fluently; thus her reading disability goes unnoticed for some time. As gifted children become older and the workload increases, oftentimes they can no longer compensate successfully, prompting teachers and parents to finally recognize and address the problem.
Another roadblock to properly identifying a twice-exceptional child is the misconception that a child cannot be gifted if they have behavioral or attentional challenges. For example, people may think that a child who cannot sit still and finish an assignment could not possibly be gifted. On the other hand, giftedness can sometimes be used as a justification for problem behavior. For example if a gifted child is acting out — kicking his classmates, arguing with the teacher – people may think this is solely because he is bored or under-stimulated in the classroom. In reality, the child could have a true behavioral or emotional difficulty that needs to be addressed.
The first step in meeting the needs of a twice-exceptional child is to properly identify the child as being both gifted and having a particular developmental or emotional challenge. One parent of a twice-exceptional child encouraged parents to get a thorough neuropsychological evaluation: “not only does it help you understand your child, but the report also gives you the vocabulary to discuss this topic with teachers.” Once a child has been properly identified, parents can start the process of addressing his or her unique needs.
Supporting a Twice-Exceptional Child
Although little research currently exists on how to best support twice-exceptional children, based on our conversations with parents and educators, one of the most important factors is finding a “goodness of fit,” between the educational environment and the child. “Finding the right environment and staff helps make for a great year,” stated a parent of twice-exceptional children. With no federal mandate to provide services for gifted children, states and towns have to choose how to allocate limited resources within their education system. Massachusetts, where Growing Minds is located, is last in the country in providing funding and programming for gifted students. Schools do not always have the resources or the knowledge needed to address the complex needs of twice-exceptional children. Parents that we interviewed talked about their children having to change schools, sometimes more than once, in an attempt to find this “goodness of fit.”
Another important step in supporting twice-exceptional children is helping them understand how they learn best. Once the child has a solid understanding of her own learning style, she can use that knowledge to build on her strengths and to accommodate for her weaknesses. With this self-awareness, the child can learn to advocate for her needs. “We need to teach children to take ownership of their own and others’ needs without fear and shame, so that they know themselves and can self-advocate,” stated an educator of gifted and twice-exceptional children.
While we can teach children to become more self-aware and to advocate for themselves, we also need to educate professionals about the complex learning profiles of twice-exceptional children. As stated by one of the parents we interviewed, “you have to GET the child in order to meet their needs, but their needs are unpredictable.” In order to truly GET these children, more research has to address the needs of this population, and more training should be made available to educators and other professionals. As stated by an administrator of a school for gifted children, in order to address the needs of twice-exceptional children, we need to “inquire to understand with an open heart and a humble mind.”
- National Association for Gifted Children
- Da Vinci Learning Center: www.davincilearning.org
- Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth: https://cty.jhu.edu/
- Davidson Institute: https://www.davidsongifted.org/
We are deeply grateful to parents and educators of gifted and twice-exceptional children who agreed to be interviewed for this article.
This article was prepared with the invaluable help of Katelyn McKeighan, a second-year graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. Katelyn is passionate about improving the lives of children and families with a developmental systems based framework. She will begin her Clinical Psychology doctoral program this coming fall with plans to be a clinical pediatric psychologist working with children and families navigating chronic illness.
(1) Assouline, S.G., & Whiteman, C.S. (2011). Twice-Exceptionality: Implications for School Psychologists in the Post-IDEA 2004 Era. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 27(4), 380-402.
(2) Reis, Sally M., Baum, Susan M., & Burke, Edith. (2014). An Operational Definition of Twice-Exceptional Learners: Implications and Applications. Gifted Child Quarterly, 58(3), 217-230.
(3) Ronksley-Pavia, M. (2015). A Model of Twice-Exceptionality: Explaining and Defining the Apparent Paradoxical Combination of Disability and Giftedness in Childhood. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 38(3), 318-340.
(4) Silverman, L.K. (1997). The Construct of Asynchronous Development. Peabody Journal of Education, 72, 36-58.
(5) Webb, J. (2016). Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Aspergers, Depression, and Other Disorders (2nd Edition). Anodyne, DBA Great Potential Press.
(6) What are Behavioural, Emotional and Social Difficulties (BESD)? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://sid.southampton.gov.uk/kb5/southampton/directory/advice.page?id=PgDcvquZbgE
(7) What Are Learning Disabilities? (2018, April 18). Retrieved from https://ldaamerica.org/advocacy/lda-position-papers/what-are-learning-disabilities/
(8) What is Giftedness? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nagc.org/resources-publications/resources/what-giftedness