Dr. Devon MacEachron\'s Blog

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Are you familiar with the 5 stages of grief?

They describe the stages people go through when they learn they have a serious illness, or have lost a loved one, or have gotten divorced or broken up with a significant other. I find these stages helpful in understanding how parents may feel after their child receives a diagnosis of learning disability, ADHD, Asperger’s, and even giftedness.

For many parents there is a natural “mourning period” – a period of time in which they eventually let go of the image they may have harbored of a “perfect” child with idealized characteristics, and accept the child they have instead been given – for all his or her unique and wonderful differentness. It’s natural for parents to have expectations and dreams about the child they will have one day. And it’s natural to be shaken up when one’s expectations and dreams are threatened. That’s where grief can come in. Parents may go through “stages of grief” as they “mourn” the loss of the child they thought they’d have before accepting the child they do have.

Stage 1 is Denial. The first reaction for some is denial. This stage can serve the function of providing emotional protection from being overwhelmed with the idea all at once. Parents may believe the diagnosis is incorrect or mistaken, and try to cling to a false, preferable reality of a “perfect,” or “normal” child. Second opinions may be sought. Symptoms may be dismissed as “developmental” or attributed to generalities like “boys will be boys.” The assessment report might be filed in the wastebasket. Of course it is possible that the diagnosis is inaccurate, and parents should challenge it if it doesn’t seem right. But at some point – if the shoe fits – it is in the child’s best interest for parents to stop denying it. It is very important that the professional charged with first explaining the child’s profile to parents do so with empathy, recognizing and pointing out the child’s many strengths, and providing recommendations that address strengths as well as areas of weakness. No child should be defined entirely by weaknesses, deficits, or disabilities.

Stage 2 is Guilt. As the shock wears off, it may be replaced with pain and guilt. Parents may feel it is their “fault.” Mothers may wonder if it was that one glass of wine they had when they were pregnant. Should they have embraced a more structured parenting style and told their toddler “no” more often? Should they have used organic baby food? Should they have asked their future spouse for a genetic screening test before they accepted a proposal of marriage? I find the guilt stage to be particularly prevalent among mothers who work outside of the home.

Stage 3 is Anger. Some parents may become angry and frustrated, especially at proximate individuals like school staff, teachers, and spouses. They struggle with “Why my child? It’s not fair!”, “How could this happen?”, and “Who brought those genes into the family anyway?” They may go to war with their child’s school, focusing their anger on trying to get the services he or she needs. They may hire an advocate to accompany them into battle. Often this is a good thing and results in the child’s needs being met. But sometimes parents get stuck in this stage and spend years locked in battle. This may not be the most beneficial thing for the child, who is waiting in the sidelines for services, and can create a “battle zone” mentality which is not conducive to a happy home life. Marriages may suffer, especially if one spouse is in the anger stage while the other is still in denial or guilt.

Stage 4 is Depression. A period of sadness, loneliness, and hopelessness may come next. Parents may feel a sense of despair that their child might not be able to lead a normal life, go to college, find a partner, and have a successful career. Sleepless nights may ensue. Parents may isolate themselves from relationships with others (e.g. friends with children who appear to be thriving in school) who they feel can’t understand what they’re going through. This stage can be particularly difficult for parents who feel they are in it alone – single parents and those whose spouses do not “buy in” to the diagnosis and plan of action.

Stage 5 is Acceptance. Acceptance is the final or “goal” stage. Acceptance means that parents bury the expectation of the perfect, normal, idealized child (whatever that means) and accept the wonderful child that they have – in all his or her uniqueness. Acceptance means realizing: “It’s going to be okay;” and maybe even: “It’s going to be great!” Equanimity comes with acceptance. Equanimity involves the ability to be calm and maintain composure even in a difficult situation.

As the parent of two twice exceptional children with learning disabilities and ADHD I’ve been through these stages myself. Disbelief and denial that there could be anything “off” given how bright my children seemed. Guilt that maybe this wouldn’t have happened if I’d parented with more structure or had them assessed when they were younger. Anger that their schools seemed unwilling to address their disabilities or their giftedness. Isolation, sleepless nights. Friends and relatives who didn’t “get it.” And finally…acceptance. And pride and joy that my children are unique and fascinating individuals with strengths they probably would never have had if they weren’t wired differently.

I’m still working on the equanimity bit. Calm and composed? Too much to expect!

Many parents wonder if their child will grow out of the problems that plague them as a child: their dyslexia, math disability, writing challenges, weak executive function, ADHD, or Asperger’s. I’m asked this question quite often by successful adults who are initially surprised their children are struggling, but when interviewed carefully about their own early years admit to having experienced similar challenges. But now they are a successful adult, so they must have grown out of it. Right?

Not necessarily. The short answer to whether most children grow out of these challenges is: probably not. At least not completely. But the demands in the world around them (their day-to-day environment) do change, and as they move through school and career they can be more selective about the kinds of things they choose to do, electing to do things they’re good at and avoiding things they’re not. So their dyslexia or ADHD or Asperger’s might not negatively impact the quality of their life very much as an adult, and may even become an advantage. But they still have it.

Adults diagnosed with dyslexia as children, even if they benefit from years of reading and writing remediation, tend to remain poor spellers and slow readers. I see this every day in my dyslexic husband who reads one book to my ten, though we spend the same amount of time reading every day.

For ADHD, some of the research suggests that children with ADHD simply have delayed brain maturation (by 3-5 years), but that they will eventually catch up with their peers. Unfortunately this may not happen until well past puberty and into college. I get dozens of calls every year from families of college freshmen with ADHD who are spinning out of control in the area of executive function. I often feel that students with ADHD would benefit from being “redshirted” to give their frontal lobe a chance to catch up with their peers’. Redshirting is a practice used most often in athletics of postponing entrance into kindergarten of age-eligible children in order to allow extra time for physical growth, making the children bigger and stronger thus more competitive athletically than their grade-peers. But it would be hard to “redshirt” our ADHD children for 3-5 years!

Anyway, rather than completely growing out of it, it seems that most children with ADHD grow up into adults with ADHD. The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that two-thirds of children with ADHD continue to grapple with symptoms (at some level) throughout adulthood. Their symptoms may present significant challenges, or they may not – depending on the circumstances. Some adults with ADHD only demonstrate impairing symptoms when they are anxious or depressed. Or when they’re hurrying. Or when they have to work on a long-term project. Or when they haven’t been getting enough exercise lately.

The environment and the individual’s physical state are both critical factors determining whether symptoms will be problematic or not. This is true for other medical conditions as well. If you have Type-II diabetes how you eat influences whether your symptoms manifest and whether your condition will appear to be dormant or you will have to use insulin for treatment. Adults with ADHD can try to choose careers (environments) that are well-suited to their needs. I can’t imagine either of my own children functioning very effectively if they were required to sit quietly at a desk all day doing routine work. Fortunately, they’ve gravitated to the fast-changing worlds of tech and media start-ups. In these environments they find it easy to stay attentive and focused. They can get up and move around. And they’ve learned that they’re more focused when they take care of their physical states by exercising, meditating, getting enough sleep, and eating right.

Children with Asperger’s still retain autistic brain differences as adults and gravitate to professions that fit their profiles. Hans Asperger wrote: “We can see in the autistic person, far more clearly than with any normal child, a predestination for a particular profession from earliest youth. A particular line of work often grows naturally out of their special abilities.” The adult with Asperger’s working as a physics professor or in Silicon Valley may be perceived as eccentric, but not necessarily as having a “disability.” The right environment can bring out the best aspects of a unique profile and downplay the worst.
Even during the school years, a child’s symptoms may manifest differently depending on the demands of the environment. A dyslexic child may experience significant challenges in elementary school when they have to read written text, hand-write responses, and are marked off for spelling errors. But when they’re in high school and can listen to text through voice software, type responses, and use spell-check, things can get a lot easier. A child with a math disability who struggles to recall math facts and has slow math calculation fluency may have a lot of trouble in elementary school when math is mostly about arithmetic. But when they reach high school and college when it’s more about problem-solving and fluid reasoning, they may excel.

So, children don’t usually grow out of it, but they may not be troubled by the different way their brain is wired when the demands of the environment change. In fact, having a differently wired brain may confer distinct advantages.

Books like: The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain by Dr.’s Brock and Fernette Eide; The ADHD Advantage: What You Thought Was a Diagnosis May Be Your Greatest Strength, by Dale Archer, M.D.; and The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism & Asperger’s by Temple Grandin, M.D. point out the advantages that being wired differently can confer. This is not just “feel-good” pop-science – there is some serious research uncovering real strengths in thinking associated with each of these diagnoses.

If orange is the new black, maybe having a “disability” is the new superpower.

Here’s the “prescription” I give the families I work with for the perfect summer: “Take two genuine interests, explore them thoroughly, and call me in September.”

When parents actively help their child explore their interests and delve deeply into their passions, everyone in the family ends up having a rewarding summer. Whether the passion is marine biology or engineering, art or writing, programs can be found or designed to address every child’s interests. For the parent whose child happens to be interested in something offered at a nearby summer camp, this can be easy to arrange. For the parent who lives far from such resources or for whom high program fees are prohibitive, or whose child has unusual interests, planning a summer of enrichment can be a bit more challenging. It is my view, though, that parents can give no greater gift than helping their child design and implement a summer of exploring their genuine interests, utilizing talents, accomplishing something of value, and building self-esteem.

Benefits of Engagement

The benefits for children of a summer engaged in enrichment in their interests are manifold: intellectual stimulation, increased motivation to achieve, enhanced marketability to colleges, the chance of finding passions or a future career, validation of self, increased self-esteem, increased happiness, and social connectedness.

Intellectually, students who work on something they are interested in at their pace of learning are stimulated at a level rarely possible during the school year. The opportunity to study something of intrinsic interest and challenge is the most thrilling intellectual experience possible. Kindling an intrinsic motivation can even lead to a transfer of motivation and stronger desire to achieve throughout the school year. Students can build a résumé showing the pursuit of interests and achievement, positioning the student well for college applications. Selective colleges are far more interested in applicants who have pursued their genuine interests over the years than in those who engage only in what is required and valued at school. Children may find their true calling in life by exploring their interests.

But perhaps the greatest benefit of an enrichment-focused summer is in the emotional area. By valuing our child’s interests, we show that we truly care about them for who they are, not who we think they should be. By taking their interests seriously, we validate their unique sense of self. Knowing that they have their parents’ support can give students a sense of security and help them become the person they really want to be. Furthermore, children who spend their summers pursuing personally meaningful goals are happier than children who just “hang out.” Children who pursue their interests during the summer often come into frequent contact with peers or mentors in their interest area. Relationships with others who share their interests can be deeply fulfilling in a way that interactions with school-year classmates and video-game buddies are not.

Tips for Parents

Summer is upon us. How can parents design an enrichment-focused summer for their child?

Begin with an assessment of your child’s genuine interests. In a non-judgmental way, directly ask what they want to learn more about, from anthropology to zoology, archery to yoga, animation to  film making. Making a broad list of different kinds of hobbies and fields of interest and discussing them with your child can be helpful. Reflect on how your child chooses to spend his or her free time, the books that absorb their interest, the kinds of exhibits that engage them in museums, and any other clues to what intrigues them. Even interests that on the surface don’t appear to lend themselves to productive enrichment can be turned in interesting directions. For example, if your daughter spends most of her free time on the phone with friends in conversations about their social relationships, recognize that this could be a clue that she may be good at and interested in helping people solve problems. Consider exposing her to psychology.

Once parents have a better understanding of their child’s interests, what next?

Embrace them. Don’t try to influence your child into pursuing something you consider to be more impressive, or something that you wish you could have done, but didn’t. Remember, it’s your child’s life, not yours.

Search for opportunities for your child to delve deeply into exploring their interests. Discourage your child from following friends to a camp that may interest the friends, but might not be a good fit for your child.

Don’t limit yourself to organized programs (although there are many terrific ones). Sometimes the best opportunities are the ones that the two of you initiate together.

Don’t be shy about asking experts for their advice. Most experts who have a consuming interest in something are flattered when they’re approached by a parent with a child who’s intrigued by it. I know of children who interned with a scientist and co-published articles in journals by the time they were out of middle school. Professional musicians can often recommend teachers, competitions, and music schools. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals might allow your child to “job shadow” for a day.

Plan family vacations and day outings around your child’s interests. Paleontology fits with a trip to the Southwest to volunteer on a dinosaur dig. Engineering fits with outings to science museums and factory tours. Law fits with visits to courtrooms or state or federal legislatures.

Find books and do internet searches to learn more about your child’s interests. Discover topic-specific magazines, websites, podcasts, and YouTubes. Find out about lectures, conferences, webinars, and other special events.

Learn about local special interest clubs and organizations. Most communities have star watching groups, book groups, birding clubs, speech-making clubs, and other groups that offer events and information.

Be involved. Don’t just sign your child up. Accompany him or her to events. Help him practice his musical instrument. Read the books he or she is reading and discuss them over dinner. Studies repeatedly show that parental involvement is essential if children are to fully develop their potential.

If you follow this “prescription” for the perfect summer, your child will begin the school year with renewed energy, enthusiasm for learning, and one step closer to achieving the joy of true fulfillment. And you’ll have quite an interesting ride along the way!

Note: This article is an update of one I published in 2012 on the SENG  (Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted) website: www.seng.org.

Brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.

As adults we respect and admire the accomplishments of renegades and creative minds like Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Nikolai Tesla, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Walt Disney, Vincent van Gogh, John Lennon, Steven Spielberg, and Robin Williams. They’re the inventors, imaginers, healers, explorers, creators, and inspirers who change the world. Without minds like theirs society would not move forward. We need them more than ever today.

But these very same individuals, as children, were the kinds of student teachers found most difficult, parents worried about and lost sleep over, and whose peers scorned or bullied them. Why? For the very same qualities that made them so successful as adults. Being different, rebelling against the status quo, refusing (or being constitutionally unable) to fit in, breaking or questioning the rules.

Most parents want their children to be happy, make friends, and do well in school and extracurricular activities like sports and music. Down the road they want them to get into a good college and launch a career that supports them and provides job satisfaction. Get married, have a family. Maybe they will even make a meaningful contribution to society.

But what many parents don’t realize or lose sight of in the trenches of elementary, middle, and high school is that for some children – especially twice-exceptional and gifted children – being “successful” in traditional ways as a child is not necessarily a good predictor of being successful as an adult.

I was guilty of this kind of myopic thinking as a parent myself, before an encounter made me rethink my values. My children were happy and had friends before formal schooling began, but once they started Kindergarten things began to go downhill. Teachers sent home notices about their behavior (inattentive, questioned authority, lacking focus, failed to complete assignments, etc.). Grades were spotty. Playdate invitations were less frequent than they would have liked. Uninterested in and not very good at organized sports, they were basically off the grid in terms of the kinds of extracurricular interests their peers were engaging in. The things they did like to do – building and taking things apart for my son and imagination and telling stories for my daughter – weren’t easily shared with peers and certainly didn’t give them any attention in the community. They were diagnosed with giftedness, learning disabilities, and ADHD, and I spent countless nights lying awake in bed worrying about their futures.

My “awakening” happened after an elementary school band concert when my then 4th grade daughter was called to the stage to play a clarinet solo she’d practiced for weeks in front of about 200 people. She stood there for a full minute rifling through her music and then said: “I’m afraid I forgot my sheet music for the piece I was supposed to play. So I think it’s appropriate under the circumstances to play “If I Only Had a Brain” by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.” I’m embarrassed to say now that I was mortified. I had hoped she’d play her piece brilliantly, reflecting glory on me as her proud parent. After the concert a man in front of me turned around and complimented her performance. I said, “Thank you – you’re too kind. It would have been nice if she had done the piece she practiced.” He responded: “You should be proud to have a daughter who can think on her feet, improvise, and deal creatively and with humor with the cards she’s been dealt. That’s much more important in the long run.” His words brought me up short.

I thought about it a lot. I realized I had wanted my child to excel in ways others in our community would judge to be impressive. How shallow of me! I had also been trying to shape her into some image in my mind of the “perfect” child. Top student, accomplished musician, popular, athletic. My own (questionable) values had gotten in the way of my appreciating my daughter for who she was and seeing the unique strengths she did possess. Inventive. Confident. Creative. Funny. Smart.

This was about the same time I went back to school for a PhD, so I was able to study motivation and achievement from a developmental perspective. I learned that the many of the attributes it takes to be a “successful” young student (compliance, diligence, eagerness to please, ability to memorize) are quite different from those required to be a successful older student and adult (challenging the status quo, intrinsic motivation, pursuit of one’s own interests, open-mindedness, a questioning mind). I also learned that individuals who pursue their genuine interests – and don’t let themselves be influenced by what everyone else is doing – are more successful as adults. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s thoughts on the joy of experiencing “flow” and how flow is also associated with achievement were particularly inspiring. I learned that popularity through high school is negatively correlated with achievement in most fields for girls. And, as students move through school the demands shift from more lower-level tasks like memorization of math facts and tidy handwriting to higher-level tasks like reading complex text and understanding it. Thomas West’s ground-breaking book In the Mind’s Eye (1997) about creativity in visual thinkers was the first to get me thinking about the possibility that even having a “disability” could confer certain advantages. Now I’m a firm believer that being wired differently can enable certain “superpowers” that most people can’t tap into in the same way.

Children who are “different” have enormous potential. As parents, we should try to keep the long-view in sight. Applaud and develop our children’s individuality. Encourage their pursuit of unusual interests and passions. Let them know we value them the way they are, and don’t want them to try to be like everyone else. It may take courage, but the results are worth it. Our misfits, rebels, trouble-makers, and square pegs in round holes may be the ones who change the world.

Does your bright child, despite all she has going for her, seem anxious or depressed or both? Do you lay awake at night worrying about her? Is she acting up or turning inward? What happened to the happy childhood you dreamed of for your child?

Being twice-exceptional often carries a strong emotional burden – for both child and parent.

Chloe was a happy, creative, outgoing, fun, little girl as a toddler and through preschool. She was fascinated by nature and science, highly verbal, organized gangs of children to play parts in elaborate role-playing games she created, and was so well-liked that every child thought she was their best friend. True – she was highly sensitive, a bit too energetic, and demanded a lot of attention. But, a phrase her parents chose to describe Chloe at age five was: “a child who sees the glass as neither half-full nor full, but rather as brimming over.” A true optimist with a rosy outlook on life.

Things began to change in first grade. Her teachers noticed she wasn’t learning to read as fast as the other children. She had trouble sitting still in class. Math facts went in one ear and out the other. Because she was so sensitive, Chloe grew hyperaware of these deficiencies. By the time her parents took her for a neuropsych assessment at age 7 she was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in addition to dyslexia, ADHD, and giftedness. She was placed in special ed. She grew withdrawn and depressed.

Eventually, as Chloe’s challenges were addressed and her strengths reinforced in ways appropriate for a twice-exceptional learner, there were times when she could be described as happy. Especially over the summers when she could pursue her interests at gifted and other summer programs. But so many forces worked against her during the school year that she ended up in therapy and ultimately on antidepressant and anti-anxiety meds by high school.

An interesting question to ask is how much of this anxiety and depression was caused by her twice-exceptionality, and how much would have existed anyway. She might have had a genetic predisposition that would have pushed her that direction regardless of her struggles. But one thing we do know about genetic predispositions is that they must interact with factors or triggers in the environment to be expressed. Being just gifted or just having ADHD or just having dyslexia might have been enough to trigger the expression of a genetic predisposition. However being twice exceptional adds an extra burden that may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for Chloe. Students who are twice exceptional often hold themselves to high performance expectations, fear failing to meet them, and develop low self-esteem (SENG article).

What are 5 things parents can do to support their anxious or depressed twice-exceptional child?

  1. Understand what your child is dealing with in all areas of exceptionality – the gifted/strengths side and the disability/weaknesses side. This may necessitate a neuropsych assessment. Share understanding with your child in age-appropriate terms. Let your child know they are really smart, they just have a few areas of challenge that need to be worked with. Knowing when your child can’t do something as opposed to won’t may help you to be more supportive at homework and report card time.
  2. Address areas of challenge. Try to fix what you can (the brain can be rewired to a certain extent), remediate learning challenges, let your child learn the way he/she learns best (e.g. viewing videos or listening to read-alouds), find tutors, seek support at school, consider homeschooling, find work-arounds to problems as they crop up (e.g. sitting on a bouncing ball if fidgety while doing homework). Ignoring challenges in the hope they will go away is rarely an effective strategy.
  3. Reinforce strengths and interests. This should probably be listed as the number one most important step to take, and is too often overlooked. Chloe wasn’t anxious when she could pursue what she was interested in and was good at. It was only constantly being required to do things she wasn’t good at in school that created stress and self-doubt. Encourage your twice exceptional child in the pursuit of his or her genuine interests and they will develop a protective core of self-confidence.
  4. Learn about anxiety and depression, especially in twice-exceptional learners. There are many excellent articles about anxiety and depression in twice-exceptional and gifted students on the Hoagies, Social and Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) and Association for the Education of Gifted Underachieving Students (AEGUS) websites.
  5. Take care of yourself. Parenting a twice-exceptional child is exhausting, frustrating, and can feel like a full-time job. Take breaks, take vacations, get therapy for yourself, do some marriage counseling if you and your spouse are not on the same page, meditate, exercise, take a class in something you enjoy. If you feel guilty doing things for yourself, know that a depressed and anxious parent is a risk factor contributing further to anxiety and depression in the children they parent.

And remember that the biggest predictor of success in a child with an exceptionality like Chloe is a parent who believes in them – who stands by them and picks them up when they fall. That’s really what parenting is all about anyway, isn’t it?

Back in the last century and through the early 1900’s researchers operated under the assumption that intelligence was a uni-dimensional construct. You were either smart, or you weren’t. And how smart you were could be measured with one test resulting in one number: IQ.

In the 1970’s a shift began away from the IQ construct. Gardener argued in his Theory of Multiple Intelligences that there were up to ten kinds of ability: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential, and moral. Sternberg proposed practical, creative, and analytical intelligences. Daniel Goleman popularized the notion of emotional intelligence, or EQ. While these theories add considerably to our understanding of broader abilities and what it takes to be a happy and successful person, I’d like to focus in this blog on the kinds of mental abilities required to reason, solve problems, think abstractly, and comprehend complex ideas. What I’d call “intellectual abilities.”

Research has advanced to the point where we probably know more about the underlying cognitive and brain processes involved in mental abilities and intelligence than any other complex psychological construct. Click here for more information on this concept. The consensus is that the most useful and descriptive model of intelligences is the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) Model. This model has become so prevalent that nearly all modern IQ tests have been changed to incorporate the theory as their foundation.

I find the CHC model to be a very useful framework for understanding individual student’s ability profiles and how they impact learning –how they are intelligent.

The CHC model identifies over 80 different cognitive abilities. About 30-40 of these are important in school learning and achievement. The others, like “musical discrimination and judgment,” aren’t as directly related to academic achievement.

It is a fact that most of us have uneven profiles of strengths and weaknesses across these 30-40 abilities. Let me illustrate the concept. But instead of showing all 30-40 school-related abilities, I’ll illustrate the point with 11 of the more important ones (e.g. verbal reasoning, listening ability, inductive and deductive reasoning, aspects of memory,  processing speed).

The stereotype of a highly intelligent, gifted child is that they are good at everything. If they were, one would expect to see a profile like the graph below – all abilities would be in the highest ranges.

I rarely see a uniform profile like this, even among highly and profoundly gifted learners. Most gifted students are not equally gifted at everything. They may have some abilities in the average range and even some in the well below-average ranges.

The flip side of the gifted stereotype is the learning disabled stereotype. This stereotype holds that students with learning disabilities are bad at everything academic/intellectual. A student who is weak in all of the cognitive ability areas contributing to academic learning would be expected to have a flat profile with low scores in all areas.

I have never seen a student with learning disabilities with a flat profile like this. Students with learning disabilities, by definition, have areas of cognitive strength. They are not bad at everything. But when I ask students who are having difficulty at school what they think their profile looks like, many think it looks like the graph above. They’ve lost sight of their strengths (if they ever knew they had them). They tend to think they’re “bad at school” and maybe even “not too smart.”

In reality, very few people are good at everything or bad at everything. Most of us have uneven profiles with strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others – more like the chart below. Terms like “gifted” and “learning disabled” are too vague to describe these variations. Gifted at what ability? How gifted in that specific ability area? Learning disabled at what? How learning disabled in that specific ability area?

From a practical standpoint what’s important is to understand where the student’s strengths and weaknesses are, and how to work with them. How they’re intelligent.

Recently I worked with a boy whose parents and teachers felt he was not achieving his potential in school, and wondered if he might have ADHD or a learning disability. Zack was a hard-working and motivated student who was engaged in class, diligently turned in his homework, and studied hard for tests. He tended to get great marks during the semester but couldn’t seem to break a “C” on tests and exams. My assessment ascertained that he didn’t have ADHD or a learning disability, and he had a nice solid IQ at the 90th percentile. But he had a surprising weakness in long-term auditory memory. This explained his underperformance – he wasn’t consolidating learning efficiently into long-term memory so he couldn’t efficiently retrieve what he had learned for tests and exams. The good news for Zack and his family was that this is quite fixable. One can get better at memorizing and storing information. We came up with a tutoring plan to build his ability utilizing his stronger visual memory and fluid reasoning.

An understanding of how the student is intelligent can be helpful to any child (like Zack, who it turned out was neither learning disabled nor gifted, but had an area of weakness that needed to be addressed). But it is especially important for twice-exceptional learners. The discrepancies between the twice-exceptional student’s strengths and weaknesses are more extreme than they are for most people. This unevenness of abilities causes considerable frustration. A 2E student may have very strong vocabulary and verbal reasoning, and excellent listening ability and fluid reasoning (inductive and deductive thinking), but their weaknesses in ability areas like phonetic coding and naming speed may severely inhibit their ability to read and demonstrate what they know in writing. In other words, they may be dyslexic. Or they may have extremely high quantitative reasoning and visual spatial ability yet be unable to reliably process information quickly and efficiently due to slow processing speed. An in-depth assessment of cognitive strengths and weaknesses is a very important step in figuring out how to help such students achieve their considerable potential.

The term twice exceptional, sometimes shortened to “2-E,” is being used more and more often to describe high-ability learners who also have learning difficulties. These are smart students who have dyslexia, ADHD, Asperger’s, or some other learning weakness or disability that gets in the way, at times, of their ability to learn and perform at their ability level. It’s a terribly frustrating situation for all involved!

The word “exceptional” is used because it communicates the idea that these students have abilities at the extreme end of a range. Exceptional by definition means uncommon, deviating widely from the norm.

The word “twice” refers to the exceptionalities being in two areas: one in an area of strength and the other in an area of weakness. Jason, who has verbal ability at the 99th percentile yet cannot not read or spell anywhere near grade level due to his dyslexia is twice-exceptional. Melissa, a science and technology whiz who knows seemingly everything one could possibly know about cell phones and satellites, yet can’t connect well with others due to her Asperger’s, is also 2-E.

But thinking of a student as just twice-exceptional is often an oversimplification. Many students have more than one area of significant strength and more than one area of significant weakness within their cognitive profile. They are not just twice-exceptional, but rather thrice or more! This happens because both strengths and weaknesses tend to occur in clusters (known as co-morbidities in disability jargon).

Just taking ADHD, it is estimated that 50-90% of people who have ADHD also have some other weakness/disability such as a learning disability, anxiety, depression, or bipolar. And this is the same for strengths – it is quite common for a 2-E student to have strengths in more than one area. Sarah has four areas of weakness: ADHD, dyslexia, math disability and anxiety. But she has three gifted-level strengths: verbal reasoning, fluid reasoning, and creativity. Among the students I’ve assessed there are many more children like Sarah who have multiple exceptionalities on both sides of the equation than who have just two.

Does a student have to be identified as “gifted” to be twice-exceptional?

I feel it depends on what one means by “gifted.” Global measures of intelligence like IQ are composites of many different abilities including verbal, visual-spatial, fluid reasoning, memory, processing speed and other abilities. 2-E learners might not test as globally gifted because their areas of weakness can bring down their overall IQ score. Yet they still have significant (exceptional) areas of strength. I consider a student to be gifted – to be “exceptional”- if they have a significant strength in one cognitive area related to learning and higher-order reasoning. They don’t need to be “globally gifted” and good at everything to be gifted in my book. I certainly consider a student who is exceptionally strong at higher order math thinking and fluid reasoning yet makes frequent careless errors and has slow math fluency to be gifted. In fact that profile describes the kind of “arithmetic weak/math talented” sort of student who may be in remedial math in lower grades, yet is capable of excelling in higher level math classes in high school and college math ld.

How “disabled” does a bright student need to be to be twice-exceptional?

Just how weak do their weaknesses need to be? Some academicians, educators, and others feel that unless a student is performing below the average level of his/her peers (and this can be defined as low as the 25th percentile), they do not have a disability. I disagree, and so do many professionals who have experience with gifted learners. Students are expected to perform academically at their ability level. That is what IQ tests were originally designed to do: predict academic performance based on ability. If there is a significant gap between ability and achievement, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

Twice-exceptional learners are complex and fascinating. They have enormous potential, but it may be hidden from view. Underachievement is a high risk. Frustration is a given. Anxiety and depression are common side-effects.

If you think your child might be twice-exceptional, one of the greatest gifts you can give them is of understanding.