Twice Exceptional


Twice-exceptional students are simultaneously gifted or bright (demonstrating exceptional intellectual strength in an area such as verbal reasoning, fluid intelligence, visual-spatial ability, or overall cognitive ability) and yet also have a learning weakness or disability such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, math disability, ADHD, Asperger’s, auditory, visual, or processing speed problems, and/or weak executive function. Terms used to describe these students include “twice-exceptional,” “2E,” “smart kids with learning disabilities,” “gifted and ld,” and, too often, “gifted underachievers.” While some parents, teachers, and even clinicians are surprised to hear that a student can be simultaneously gifted/very bright and experience difficulty with learning, when one considers the fact that ability is multi-dimensional – that we each have a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses in the many different cognitive skill areas contributing to learning and achievement – it is easy to understand how a student could have peaks of strength in some areas and valleys of weakness in others. Many twice-exceptional students are “undercover” – they have not been identified as either bright/gifted or as having a learning difficulty or disability. This can occur because strengths camouflage weaknesses and weaknesses camouflage strengths, making the student appear to be “average.” The term “stealth dyslexia” was coined to describe verbally gifted dyslexics who “fly under the radar” by virtue of average performance in language arts classes. 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 and has trouble with inferential thinking due to her Asperger’s, is also twice-exceptional. Jacob, a verbally precocious 2nd grader who reads at the 6th grade level yet cannot complete a grade-level writing assignment due to graphomotor difficulties is  twice-exceptional.  And Daniel, a 3rd grader who finds unique solutions to advanced math problems yet does poorly on “mad minutes” math due to working memory weaknesses is also twice-exceptional. Before we met, these  students had not been diagnosed with any exceptionality – giftedness or a learning disability. When challenges are hidden, smart students with learning weaknesses often fall through the cracks in our educational system. Because they present with such complex profiles twice-exceptional learners are also prone to misdiagnosis by evaluators lacking familiarity with this unique population.

What can I do to help?

Twice-exceptional learners are best served by professionals who understand their unique needs. The first step I take is to unpack and understand the student’s complex profile – exactly where and when does he or she have difficulty and where and when does he or she excel?  This can be challenging because some behaviors associated with the student’s high intelligence (e.g. impatience, distractibility in school) can resemble a disability like ADHD or Asperger’s. The diagnostician must understand whether the student is inattentive: because he or she has an attention deficit; because the curriculum is out of step with his advanced learning needs; or due to both factors (i.e. the student is gifted and has ADHD). Once the student’s cognitive profile is understood causal inferences are made to performance across academic subtasks to understand how strengths and weaknesses impact learning and school achievement. Finally, an actionable, detailed learning plan is developed to build weaker skills while simultaneously enriching learning in the student’s areas of strength and interest. Parents are given a road map to follow, and students are often transformed by learning that they actually are smart and have (or can develop) the tools required to pursue their dreams.