Dr. Devon MacEachron\'s Blog

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I speak with parents all over the world about their twice-exceptional children. One thing that keeps coming up again and again in nearly every state and country is that no one believes them that their child could be simultaneously gifted and dyslexic. A parent senses something is amiss, but friends, family (sorry to say this – but this often includes husbands), educators, and even psychologists are skeptical. It can be a very confusing and lonely position for the parent who is trying to advocate for their child to be in.

Why do so many people have trouble with the concept that someone can be good at something and bad at something else? The gifted dyslexic reader is often good at higher order verbal and nonverbal reasoning and bad at phonological decoding and naming speed. These are very different abilities. It’s not all that different from being good at skiing and bad at ball sports like soccer. These sports require different skill sets – just as higher order reasoning and phonological decoding do.

To make matters worse there are well-meaning researchers and psychologists who have urged that we do away with using IQ tests in the diagnosis of dyslexia. But if we don’t use IQ in a discrepancy analysis to ascertain how much lower achievement is than ability it can be hard to find the gifted dyslexic. The anti-IQ, anti-discrepancy formula “movement” was driven by good intentions. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds with IQ’s too low to show discrepancies were being under-served. And yet they had very real reading challenges which needed to be addressed. One of the first articles that got a lot of attention was one by Linda Siegel published in 1989 titled, bluntly: IQ Is Irrelevant to the Definition of Learning Disabilities. Around the same time reading researchers established that the core processes impaired in dyslexia were phonological processing, orthographic processing, and rapid naming. So the well-meaning crowd decided to throw out IQ tests and focus on assessing those abilities.

The only problem – which no one seemed to notice – was that this left out the gifted dyslexic. I remember sitting in a conference at Berkeley listening to Linda Siegel present her views on the topic knowing full well that if I stood up and challenged the assumptions I would probably be booed out of the room. It was not politically correct to say that IQ mattered.

I agree that low IQ shouldn’t be a barrier to children receiving needed services. But I also feel that high IQ should not be a barrier. And it often is under the current educational/political climate.

Gifted dyslexics are often “hidden.” This is because their strengths can camouflage their weaknesses. Despite poor word-level reading skills, they may have such strong verbal abilities that they can guess what’s going on in text. Their reading comprehension and even their phonological skills may test in the average (often low average) range. Teachers may not notice anything alarming. True – they don’t gravitate to independent reading and they stumble when asked to read aloud, but they appear to get by.

Some people (educators and psychologists included) misinterpret the diagnostic criteria and make the assumption that someone only has dyslexia if they are failing their classes or performing below grade level or below the level one would expect the “average person” to attain.

Diagnosis of disability is based on criteria set forth by the American Psychological Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5) and in the International Classification system, called the ICD-10.

The DSM-5 does start out saying that to have a Specific Learning Disorder the student’s academic skills must be “substantially below” expectations for their age. Many people stop there and interpret this to mean that performance has to be below average, which may be defined as being below a standard score of 85 which is at the 16th percentile. Thus, a student with verbal ability at the 99th percentile and reading performance in the low average range at the 17th percentile may not be seen as having a disability. This is known as the “average person standard.” You’re only considered disabled if you’re not doing as well as the average person.

However, when one reads the fine print in the DSM-5 they go on to say that “average achievement that is sustainable only by extraordinarily high levels of effort or support” is evidence of disability. So if a bright dyslexic child is getting tutored and working harder than his peers and is still performing in the average range, that’s evidence of a disability.

The DSM-5 also says that “there is no natural cut point that can be used to differentiate individuals with and without” a learning disability. It’s not appropriate for a school district to use an arbitrary cut-off at some percentile or say that if the student is getting A’s and B’s they can’t have a disability.

The DSM-5 further states that intellectually gifted students can still have learning disabilities despite being “able to sustain apparently adequate academic functioning.” There’s a clear recognition here that a gifted student may perform at an average level and yet still have a disability.

By definition a learning disability is an “unexpected” difference between ability and achievement. A student who has exceptionally high ability and yet performs academically at a level significantly below expectations displays an ability/achievement gap that can be  evidence of disability.

And now let me direct you to some of the neuroscience to support this view. Dr. Fumiko Hoeft is a brilliant (Harvard,  CalTech, and Stanford educated) and stunningly beautiful neuroscientist at UCSF School of Medicine who strides into a room in 5” heels as if they were sneakers. She’s written articles for The New Yorker on How Children Learn to Read and at Understood on Stealth Dyslexia. A YouTube of a presentation she gave at a Dyslexic Advantage conference on the Brain Basis of Dyslexia shows in clear images that gifted dyslexics process language using the same less efficient pathways as non-gifted dyslexics.

Basically, what Fumiko has shown through neuroimaging is that you can be gifted and dyslexic. Thank you Fumiko!

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Debbie Reber, founder of TiLT Parenting, an online destination with a blog and weekly podcasts on parenting “differently wired” kids. Our podcast interview was on assessing and supporting twice-exceptional learners.

TiLT is a terrific resource. Recent podcast topics include: Using a Strengths-Based Approach to Support Differently-Wired Kids and The Connection between Creativity and Neurodiversity. Debbie is a New York Times bestselling author, life-coach, and speaker who worked in children’s television before she moved with her family to Amsterdam where she home-schools her son, Asher. She’s a mom-blogger/website doyenne with a highly professional approach. But what I find most impressive about Debbie is her story, her courage, and how her attitude developed into the philosophy that guides TiLT.

Debbie reacted to the frustrations, stress, and challenges of raising her 2e child by deciding to radically shift her parenting attitude and her family’s experience.

Like many of us, she started down the parenting road with no idea she’d soon have a lot more to handle than she’d expected. A year of colic followed by an intense and strong-willed toddler-hood, with regular notes home from preschool teachers about problems, made Debbie and her husband begin to wonder what was going on.

I love this paragraph about her son at age two:

By his second birthday, our little guy was regularly turning heads, both with his ridiculous vocabulary and his apocalyptic conniptions. Anyone who spent any time with Asher couldn’t help but notice that he talked in complex sentences pretty much nonstop. And the tantrums? They just seemed somehow bigger than typical toddler fare. When other parents witnessed an Asher tantrum go down, I’d see shock and awe in their eyes.

For the next four years they scrambled to find a school fit (three schools in three years) while they pursued one evaluation after another. The conflicting labels left them more confused than ever. They piled on the support, only to find little in the way of improvement. Meanwhile Debbie was growing increasingly frustrated, isolated, and struggled with “a fierce sense of personal incompetence, guilt, and failure.”

A realization that this just wasn’t working for their family was well-timed with a move abroad. This provided the opportunity to start over with a different approach. Debbie and her husband decided to: “toss out everything we thought we knew about parenting and education and forge our own path.” Their home-school adventure began.

Debbie realized in the first few months that her biggest source of conflict was with her own thinking about what her life as a mom should be like. She still struggled with occasional feelings of jealousy of friends who were raising “normal kids,” and still worried about her son’s future, but gradually her thinking changed from what she thought her life as a mom should look like to what her momhood could look like.

Debbie’s family is thriving. Now, she’s “on a mission to change the experience we as parents have in raising these kids so that they can go through their lives and interact with the world around them in a way that will help them thrive.” Her philosophy is summed up in the TiLT Manifesto which proposes “a new parenting paradigm, one that embraces difference and uniqueness in children, says no to fear and guilt and isolation, and celebrates and supports our kids, and us, in our experience.”

What’s the take home message? Parents of children who are different can make a conscious decision to stop trying to parent the child they thought and dreamed they would have and instead parent the child they do have. It’s hard, because we all have expectations about what parenting will bring and it’s tough to let that image go. It takes a lot of courage to accept that what might be best for your family is to reject what everyone else is doing. Forget about traditional school and team sports. Stop trying to “fix” your child and help them fit in and instead try to change your child’s environment to fit them.

Debbie is an inspiration. We can’t all move overseas and home-school like Debbie does, but there is wisdom to be gained from her story and great information on her website. Check it out.