Gifted / Twice-Exceptional

Definition of Twice Exceptionality (2e)

Unlike a learning disorder, such as dyslexia (reading disability), and many other intellectual or emotional disorders that effect learning, 2e has no formal diagnostic definition (e.g., in diagnostic manuals professionals may use). However, this is changing, and many state and local school boards, such as the National Education Association are developing clearer standards, methods of identification, and “treatment” prescriptions. For some examples see (* NEA, 2006; Idaho Department of Education, 2010; Colorado Department of Education, 2009). 

A simple definition of 2e is:

The child has at least two “exceptionalities” that might benefit from special services. At least one exceptionality is a true disability that may hinder learning and school function, but it occurs alongside another exceptionality that represents an intellectual gift. The child’s cognitive profile thus suggests that they may benefit from special services to address both the highs and the lows of their cognitive skill set.

Signs and Symptoms

It is important to note that all children have relative strengths along with whatever deficits they may also have. But to be 2e, the strengths are not just relative to weaknesses, they are, instead, strengths that are recognizably above the norm.

  • The area of giftedness can vary greatly across individuals. Some may be intellectually gifted, with global intelligence test scores in the superior range
  • Some may be gifted in specific academic skills like mathematics; some may be great artists or musicians; some may be gifted orators or athletes, and so on
  • For these reasons, the definition and diagnosis of 2e can become quite complicated in practice, or even missed all together

Other more specific traits that may be seen in children who have a learning disability but are also gifted are:

  • Superior oral vocabulary
  • Advanced ideas and opinions
  • High levels of creativity and problem-solving ability
  • Extremely curious, imaginative, and questioning
  • Discrepant verbal and performance skills
  • Clear peaks and valleys in their cognitive test profile
  • Wide range of interests not related to school
  • Specific talent or consuming interest area
  • Sophisticated sense of humor

Causes of 2e

The exact causes of 2e are not known. Research suggests, however, these three possibilities:

  • In some cases the co-occurrence of a gift and a disorder is due to chance or naturally occurring variations in the human brain
  • Some children with a disorder develop gifts outside of their domains of weakness through experience or practice
  • In the course of early brain development, the brain gets wired to be a poor learner but also a good learner in some other domain. That is, in some cases, there is a unique neurology behind 2e that we don’t yet fully understand

Diagnosis

Because the central issues around a learning disorder are academic in nature, we focus here on academic or intellectual giftedness of the type most recognized in schools: a person is 2e if he or she meets the criterion for a learning disability like dyslexia or ADHD, and at the same time meets the criterion for being intellectually gifted on some standardized assessment device.

Typically this device is a common general, verbal, or nonverbal intelligence test, or a specialized measure of cognitive ability, like spatial skills, in one or more specific domains.

However, the identification of 2e in schools today, and giftedness alone for that matter, varies greatly. In schools the type of test to assess strengths may not be appropriate for your child. For example, it may just be another academic achievement test of the form your child performs poorly on, or it might be a vocabulary test when you child is weak on vocabulary. And very rarely do schools recognize nonacademic gifts such as dance, leadership, or art. Thus, to best insure that your child’s strengths are recognized, you should have input in how these skills assessed. After all, you are the person who best understands what strengths your child may have.

It is likely that as research progresses, we will see improvements in how 2e is identified and defined. It is commonly believed that many 2e students are misclassified, neglected, or receive inadequate treatments.

Treatment

Students who have both gifts and learning disabilities require a “dually differentiated program”: one that nurtures gifts and talents while making accommodations and offering services for learning weakness.

Research-based, well defined and prescribed practices for the 2e child, especially those younger than 5 years, are hard to find, and current practices vary widely. However, obtaining a dual classification as both gifted and dyslexic is typically necessary to receive appropriate services that are supported in public schools and programs.

Many schools do not have gifted education programs and will not have a means to identify and treat the gifted side of a learning disabled child. In those situations, parents are encouraged to find stimulating programs outside of the child’s school—be they at home or in the community.

Some general rules (see this site for additional information and program examples: https://www2.education.uiowa.edu/belinblank/about/) are:

2e children may benefit from using a variety of stimuli, technology, and multiple sensory modes.Some of the best treatment for 2e children occurs in the home. Home is a place where a child’s gifts can be attended to if schools are focusing just on the learning deficits. It may be up to the parent to stimulate, inspire and facilitate the development of the child’s strengths. See Resources below:

  • For parents and teachers with 2e children, see more here
  • Resources to help parents stimulate children outside of school environment, find them here
  • Different ways to teach 2e children, check here

Any treatment plan or parent would be wise to keep in mind the following points:

  • Be observant for high skills in areas in and outside of traditional academic domains
  • Take a developmental perspective to understanding the child, assessment and interpreting test results
  • Advocate for broad behavioral assessments that look at both gifts and deficits
  • Be aware of the special emotional needs and struggles of the 2e individual
  • Insure that both the disability and the ability are addressed

Assessment

One important thing to remember is to approach 2e with a developmental mindset. Just as the expression of disorders can change with age, so is also true of intellectual gifts. It is important to be observant. Take note of special skills that may show up in the child early on, but that may change or go underground later in life.

It is also important to consider three aspects of the measure being used to test for giftedness:

  • It should be developmentally appropriate. Some tests are better suited for tapping skills in the very young vs. the older child
  • There can be developmental change in test scores. Because the types of things that tests measure can change with age, and because a child’s brain takes time to mature, test scores can change. It is possible, for instance, for a child to test as gifted at the age of 3 years, and then no longer as gifted at the age of 7 years. This can be confusing, and in such situations it is important to not rely on any single aptitude test
  • The test should validly measure the correct skills. Some schools have a very set-in-stone test that they use to assess qualification for gifted services (and the gifted portion of the 2e equation). These tests can be quite limited in scope and may not tap broad and potential areas of giftedness. For example, nonverbal tests will not adequately measure high verbal intelligence, and relying on superior scores on certain academic achievement tests may not do justice to gifts that do not manifest themselves in these school subjects, etc.

Therefore, if you suspect that a child may be learning disabled and gifted, it is often important to be as much an advocate for the child’s ability as it is for the child’s disability. In fact, it can be an even a harder struggle to get a learning disabled child services for their gifts than it can be for their disability!

Additional Complications

There are three types of students who could be identified as 2e, but who may not receive the attention they deserve:

  • Already identified gifted students who also have undiagnosed learning disabilities
  • Students with a learning disability but whose gift has not been identified
  • Unidentified students whose gifts and disabilities may be masked by average school achievement. Commonly, the high intellectual skills are tapped to help the child compensate for his or her weaknesses in specific areas

In summary, complications arise when the intellectual gift modifies the diagnostic process such that a person does not qualify for special services when they due in fact have a learning problem. They may, for example, excel in certain areas of math or have a high IQ score, but be just at or below average in reading. Such individuals compensate or hide struggles with reading by tapping into their strengths in other areas. Such children can experience high levels of stress; they may avoid subjects in school and perform poorly because of their relative weakness; and parents and teachers may pressure such children in negative ways thinking that they should be good in everything because they appear to be so smart in certain other areas.

Another complication is when a learning disability hinders the development of an intellectual gift by an over focus on the disability and disability remediation, while neglecting growth and challenge in the gifted area. This latter situation may have resulted in the loss of great potentials in many 2e children that have gone unidentified in the past. These children are sometimes placed in special education classes and identified as disabled, when in fact, they have so much more to offer.

Again, 2e can be a complicated condition to identify and treat. Perhaps because of the unique neurology and life experiences of 2e individuals, they are also at higher risk to be labeled with a personality disorder, low self esteem and depression. Evidence suggests that 2e can be uniquely stressful, so teachers and parents need to consider the emotional as well as academic needs of such individuals.



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