Twice-exceptionality is the coexistence of high intelligence or giftedness and a weakness or disability like LD, ADHD, or ASD in the same child. It makes life and especially school confusing and frustrating for all involved as the disability often prevents the expression of the child’s strengths.
A child doesn’t have to be “globally gifted” with a full scale IQ over some arbitrary cutoff like 130 to be 2e. In fact, most 2e learners have significant discrepancies within IQ that make the use of full scale IQ as a measure of what they are capable of invalid. If a child has a significant strength in any area: verbal ability, nonverbal ability, fluid reasoning, or visual-spatial thinking, I consider them to be gifted. And if they also have LD, ADHD, or ASD, then they’re twice-exceptional.
As a psychologist specializing in this population – and also as the parent of two 2e children – I’d like to share 5 key take-aways on how parents can support and advocate for their children.
1. Get an accurate diagnosis: 2e children tend to be both under-diagnosed and mis-diagnosed. I wrote about this in my blog: Top Ten Reasons 2e and Gifted Learners are Misdiagnosed. Sarah was a well-behaved, day-dreamy girl performing in the average range at school. It was her anxiety that finally prompted an evaluation. Sarah turned out to be gifted and to have inattentive ADHD and dyslexia. If she hadn’t shown emotional secondary effects, she might have continued to “fly under the radar” for her entire school career. Max was distracted in class, constantly out of his chair, and challenged authority, arguing incessantly with adults. He was diagnosed with hyperactive/impulsive ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. No one bothered to “diagnose” his giftedness or consider the impact his intelligence and boredom in class had on his behavior.
You need to understand the full picture: your child's strengths and their challenges.
2. Advocate and educate: Armed with accurate information on what your child needs, you’re in a better position to advocate for gifted services, an IEP, a 504, or whatever else your child needs. You will probably need to educate your child’s school and teachers about twice-exceptionality. They may not have even heard of it and some initially have trouble wrapping their heads around the concept of a child being simultaneously gifted and "disabled." Perhaps you can enlist the support of key school staff like a gifted coordinator, school psychologist, and principal, or reach out to other parents and form a committee. You may need to hire a professional advocate to help you lobby. Be a squeaky wheel.
Be your child’s biggest champion.
3. Focus on strengths and interests: Best practices for 2e/gifted education inform us that emphasizing the development of the child’s strengths and interests is critically important. Too often, strengths are neglected in an effort to “fix” the child and get them to conform to the expectations of others. Lobby for your child’s gifted needs. This could take the form of participation in a gifted program, grade or subject matter acceleration, placement in challenging classes, and after school and summer enrichment activities. Be guided in this effort by your child’s interests. Dreamy Sarah loved telling and hearing stories, so her parents read good quality books aloud, created a mother/daughter book club, took her to a story-telling conference, set her up with voice dictation software for creative writing, and enrolled her in a speech competition. She took advanced classes in English. Max liked understanding how things work, so his parents let him take things apart in a garage "lab," took him to science museums, and enrolled him in robotics and engineering classes. He took advanced classes in math and science. A nice side benefit of enrichment in areas of interest is that it can increase your child’s motivation across the board. Doing well at something builds self-esteem and confidence, and your child will need a lot of that to work through the hard times.
Build strengths and confidence.
4. Also address challenges (but focus on the important ones): Your child will need support to address areas of challenge. This may take the form of language remediation, behavioral support, social skills training, medication, executive function coaching, or accommodations like movement breaks at school. Inattentive Sarah benefited from dyslexia remediation and executive function coaching. She learned strategies for keeping track of assignments, dealing with procrastination, and managing her time. Max benefited from medication and getting involved in the martial arts (which teach discipline and respect). At school, Sarah needed teacher reminders and extra time because she got distracted by her own thoughts, whereas Max needed social skills training to help him learn to control impulsivity. Every 2e child is unique and has different needs. When designing an intervention and accommodation plan for a 2e child one should factor the impact their giftedness may have on what will and won’t be likely to work. Typical behavioral modification programs may backfire. Collaborative problem solving may be more successful. Your tech-savvy 2e/ADHD teen will probably be able to hack any parental controls you try to put on screen time. What can work is to ask your child what they need to get where they want to go and really listen to them. What are their goals? What frustrates them? What do they think is getting in their way? What do they think might help? Don't try to do everything. Prioritize and focus your efforts on helping your child develop the skills they’ll need to do what they want to do.
Help your child build skills that matter to them.
5. Celebrate your child’s uniqueness: Your child is exceptional. Twice-exceptional at least! It may be hard to find out your child is 2e, but when you consider two important things, it gets easier. First, your child is likely to have real advantages simply by virtue of their brain differences. I wrote about this in my blog articles The Top Ten ADHD Superpowers and Does your Dyslexic Child have a Visual-Spatial Super-Power? Individuals with ADHD tend to be more creative, have higher energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, zest for life, ability to multi-task, and spontaneity than the rest of us. They are more innovative and willing to take risks, leading to entrepreneurial drive and talent. Individuals with dyslexia have strengths in visual-spatial thinking and narrative thinking, among others. Individuals with ASD have the ability to deep dive with intensity into areas of interest. The divergent thinking and fresh perspectives individuals who think differently bring to problems could be just what our world needs today. And that’s not all. Your child is also intellectually gifted, with all the benefits that brings. When you accept and appreciate your child for who he or she is, it can shift your perspective as a parent. Debbie Reber of TiLT Parenting is doing some great work on this topic as is Debbie Sternberg Kuntz at Bright & Quirky. Instead of worrying about trying to “fix” your child’s “disability,” celebrate their abilities. See what they can do rather than what they can’t. Work with them to develop their talents and help them achieve their goals.
There is beauty in being “different.”
Today, Sarah, is a journalist. She literally gets paid to tell stories. Max is a tech entrepreneur. They are living their dreams. Yes – they still have ADHD and dyslexia and sometimes their challenges kick them in the rear (missed deadlines, late to meetings, slow reading). But, they’ve self-selected into careers that fit their 2e/LD/ADHD profiles. Careers that use their brains, offer novelty, and reward creativity. And most importantly – they love what they do.
Can we ask for anything more for our children?
Note: This blog article is adapted from one I wrote for ADDitude magazine published in their Summer 2019 issue titled How to Support and Advocate for a 2e Child.