Gifted But Disabled (Twice Exceptional)

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Gifted people are said to learn and master knowledge quickly especially in the classroom. Chances are, they accelerate and finish schooling (college and post graduate) earlier than their peers. But giftedness has a wide range of learners, from fast learners to slow learners; some of them are truly intelligent but cannot cope with school’s demands. They are the gifted people who end up without educational achievement. But their giftedness go unnoticed and may be diagnosed with a learning disability or a neurodiverse condition. Yet they have extraordinary gifts from making art masterpieces to solving algebraic equations in mind.

Learned but cannot learn??? How possible is that?

A person can be profoundly gifted yet have certain learning styles not fit for modern education. This kind of gifted is the opposite of the child prodigy. He is called twice exceptional.

What is twice exceptional?

Twice Exceptional (2e) is a kind of giftedness combined with special needs like learning disabilities and developmental disorders. refers to intellectually gifted children who have some form of disability. These children are considered exceptional both because of their intellectual gifts and because of their special needs.[1] A 2e child usually refers to a child who, alongside being considered intellectually above average, is formally diagnosed with one or more disabilities.[1][2] The disabilities are varied:dyslexia, visual or auditory processing disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, sensory processing disorder, Asperger syndrome, Tourette Syndrome, or any other disability interfering with the student’s ability to learn effectively in a traditional environment.[1][2]

2e children are said to be one of the most misunderstood of all exceptionalities.[1][3] This means they can be both intelligent and dumb at the same time. In each situation, the 2e student’s strengths help to compensate for deficits; the deficits, on the other hand, make the child’s strengths less apparent.[1][4] For example, he might be a skilled artist or builder but turn in assignments that are messy or illegible. She might complete assignments but lose them or forget to turn them in.[1] This makes him or her look lazy or not trying at all, which frustrates parents and teachers alike. In fact, many 2e children work as hard if not harder than others, but with less to show for their efforts. This struggle to accomplish tasks that appear easy for other students can leave 2e children frustrated, anxious, and depressed. It can rob them of their enthusiasm and energy for school and damage their self-esteem.[1]

2e can be classified into 3 profiles, according to educator and researcher Susan Baum[1][4]:

  • Bright but not trying hard enough – students who have been identified as gifted yet are exhibiting difficulties in school and are often considered underachievers[5]
  • Learning disabled but with no exceptional abilities – students who have been identified as having learning disabilities, but whose exceptional abilities have never been recognized or addressed[5]
  • Average – the students may appear to possess average abilities due to the fact that their abilities and disabilities mask each other. They typically perform at grade level but unfortunately are also performing well below their potential[5]

Image courtesy of 2e children can be divided into 3 groups.

How is a 2e child identified?

2e children, like other gifted children, have asynchronous development (a larger gap between their mental age and physical age). They are often intense and highly sensitive to their emotional and physical environments.[1] Twice-exceptional students are atypical learners who are often characterized as smart students with school problems. These students assume that learning tasks will be easy for them and are not prepared for the difficulty that arises from activities in areas of their disability. This leads to frustration, tension, and fear that eventually becomes defensiveness. Due to this frustration, these students often tend to be aggressive, careless, and frequently off-task. They also cause classroom disturbances, and, similar to learning disabled students, seem deficient in tasks emphasizing memory and perceptual abilities. In other areas, their learning characteristics resemble those of high ability students.[5]

Below is a chart of the strengths and weaknesses of 2e children[1][6]:

Strengths Deficits
  • Superior vocabulary
  • Poor social skills
  • Advanced ideas and opinions
  • High sensitivity to criticism
  • High levels of creativity and problem-solving ability
  • Lack of organizational and study skills
  • Extremely curious, imaginative, and inquisitive
  • Discrepant verbal and performance skills
  • Wide range of interests not related to school
  • Poor performance in one or more academic areas
  • Penetrating insight into complex issues
  • Difficulty with written expression
  • Specific talent or consuming interest area
  • Stubborn, opinionated demeanor
  • Sophisticated sense of humor
  • High impulsivity

Other common traits 2es have are[7][8]:

  • creativity
  • excellence on tasks requiring abstract concepts
  • difficulty with tasks requiring memorization
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • acting-out behavior
  • poor organization
  • poor motivation
  • active problem solving
  • analytic thinking
  • strong task commitment when interested
  • withdrawal/shyness

What makes hard for parents, teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and developmental pediatricians to identify 2e is that 2 children are more mistakenly identified as either problem students, kids with disabilities, or just simply not bright; they only are average, which makes it more complicated for the 2e child.

More often than not, 2e children’s giftedness are masked by their deficits, both academically and emotionally.

What is 2es are not identified?

Complications arise when 2e children are not identified. Unfortunately, most 2e children are not identified as gifted and are more identified as problem children; if not, problem adults later on life. Twice-exceptional children feel trapped between two worlds: Many have the internal motivation and strong belief in their abilities of gifted children, yet the lack of confidence in certain areas common with children with learning disabilities.[7][8] They tend to have high expectations of themselves that are continually frustrated by their disabilities, and thus may develop an overdeveloped fear of failure. Twice-exceptional students also experience the paradox of feeling bored and confused at the same time, which leads to increased frustration and sometimes depression.[7][9]

According to an article in Learn NC, the self-concept of a 2e is in danger because inside she knows she is more than capable of knowledge acquisition (characteristic of giftedness) yet she cannot learn or cope alongside her peers. This can ultimately destroy her self-esteem.

The self-concept of twice-exceptional children is in particular danger due to their condition. Even if these children are achieving at grade level in school, their sense that they should be able to do better may contribute to a lower self esteem than would be seen in a typical student.[7][8] Depending on where the disabilities and gifts lie, teachers and parents may be sending mixed messages as to the student’s disabilities, and twice-exceptional children can have a hard time sorting out different expectations. Socially, studies have shown twice-exceptional students to feel more isolated than either their gifted peers or those with learning disabilities. While gifted children are often popular, children with learning disabilities are less likely to be leaders and face more rejection than typical children.[7][10] They struggle with feelings of isolation and difference, and need more special attention than other children. However, when they come to terms with both their giftedness and their learning disability, they can easily build self-concept in both academic and social areas.

Image of Your Gifted and Talented Child. Characteristics of a twice exceptional (2e) child.

To avoid this, proper identification is needed to nurture the gifts of 2es. Although there are standardized tests available for giftedness and various learning disabilities, oftentimes, the 2e child neither passes these tests, slipping through the cracks of specialized or gifted education. Instead, teachers and specialists should use holistic methods for classifying a child as twice-exceptional.[7]

Managing 2e children

When a child is finally identified as a 2e, strategies are formed to help her manage her disabilities as well as nurturing her strengths in order to reach her potential.

There are no easy answers for helping our twice-exceptional kids learn to tolerate difficulty, especially after they have been burned. It certainly helps if you can recognize when a task is hard for them and let them know that you understand.[11]

One way to identify 2e children is through the use of the IQ test Wechsler Intelligence Test (WISC III ). Here, a child’s IQ is measured and if found to be high (beginning at around 115 and above, click my giftedness blog for more details), combined with observations made by the tester can suggest that a child receive further assessment for possible special needs.[11] But be careful when administering IQ tests. 2e chldren usually perform poorly at IQ tests. Considerations must be given especially with their special needs. Below are some tips from Davidson Institute[11]:

  1. The Arithmetic subscale is in the verbal section – it requires the ability to understand word problems and keep the information in memory while solving the problems (i.e., it is not a paper and pencil test)

  2. The Comprehension subscale is based on understanding social situations.

  3. Digit Span is a measure of auditory memory.

  4. A child with hearing or auditory processing problems may have trouble with the verbal subscales (some won’t, since some will do fine in a quiet, one-on-one setting, especially if they can see the tester’s mouth and lip-read).

  5. The performance scales all have time limits, and almost all give bonuses for speed. This penalizes children who are either slow processors, have fine motor problems (i.e., take longer to manipulate objects even when they understand the relationships involved) or who are perfectionists and want to be sure they are right before moving on.

  6. The performance scales all require visual processing and/or fine motor skills. A child with poor vision or motor problems will do poorly on these tests.

This is because 2e children don’t readily finish on IQ tests especially if this involves time limit. Also, aside from measurement, a written report of observation is a must as well to better identify both her gifts and special needs.

Image courtesy of A high IQ must be present as well as a special need to be considered twice exceptional.

Her IQ is high and also has identifiable special needs. Now what?

After identifying a 2e, educational strategies are made to ensure her potential development as well as managing her special needs. This is to nurture the 2e’s gift that have made and will make some of the most extraordinary contributions to our world.[12]

The needs of 2e students can be met through appropriate identification and an individualized approach to education.[12]

Programming for 2e students must include strategies to[12][13][14]:

  • Nurture the student’s strengths and interests – An encouraging and exciting learning environment for 2e students is one in which their giftedness is recognized first, not their disability. Despite their difficulties in reading, writing, math, or attending to the task at hand, these learners must be allowed to engage in a challenging curriculum tailored to their strengths[15]. Strength-based instruction is one of the most effective strategies for 2e students, emphasizing talent development over remediation of deficiencies.

  • Foster their social/emotional development – 2e students need a nurturing environment that supports the development of their potential. An encouraging approach is recommended over implementing measures from a punitive perspective.

  • Enhance their capacity to cope with mixed abilities – The drive to achieve perfection, common in many gifted children, generates much psychological conflict in academically talented children who have difficulty achieving. Furthermore, 2e students can be very self-critical, which can lead to a particularly dysfunctional form of perfectionism. Counseling is recommended to address their unique needs and should be available on an as-needed basis.

  • Identify learning gaps and provide explicit, remediative instruction – A lack of organizational, time management, and study skills can have a negative impact on both the emotional wellbeing and school performance of twice-exceptional students. Many in the 2e research community agree that it is critical that students receive explicit instruction and support to develop this battery of skills.

  • Support the development of compensatory strategies – Accommodations, particularly the use of assistive technology, are highly recommended to help these academically talented students compensate for their learning challenges.[16][17]

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Individualized education is designed for the 2e child because 2e students have needs that differ considerably from those of gifted students without LDs, students without exceptional abilities who have LDs, and average students whose abilities are more evenly distributed.[12] There must be a paradigm shift from a remediation or deficit model to a strength-based model of education.[12]

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Final Note

Twice-exceptional children need an education that fits, and it’s in all of our interests to give it to them.[12]  By knowing, understanding, accepting and helping 2e people, they will surely bring out the best in them to the world.

“…failure to help the gifted child reach his potential is a societal tragedy, the extent of which is difficult to measure but what is surely great. How can we measure the sonata unwritten, the curative drug undiscovered, the absence of political insight? They are the difference between what we are and what we could be as a society.” –James J. Gallagher


  2. National Education Association, 2006. The Twice-Exceptional Dilemma.Washington D.C.:NEA.
  3. Brody, L.E.; Mills, C.J. (1997). “Gifted Children with learning disabilities: a review of the issues”. Journal of Learning Disabilities 30: 282-296.
  4. Baum, S. & Owen, S. (2004). To Be Gifted & Learning Disabled: Strategies for Helping Bright Students with LD, ADHD, and More. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press
  6. Higgins, L. D. & Nielsen, M. E. (2000). Responding to the Needs of Twice-Exceptional Learners: A School District and University’s Collaborative Approach. In K. Kay, (Ed.),Uniquely Gifted: Identifying and Meeting the Needs of the Twice-Exceptional Student (pp. 287-303). Gilsum, NH: Avocus Publishing.
  8. King, E.M., “Addressing the Social and Emotional Needs of Twice-Exceptional Students,” Teaching Exceptional Children 38(1) (2005).
  9. Assouline, S.G., M.F. Nicpon, & D.H. Huber, “The Impact of Vulnerabilities and Strengths on the Academic Experiences of Twice-Exceptional Students: A Message to School Counselors.” Professional School Counseling, 10(1) (2006).
  10. Stormont, M., M. Stebbins, & G. Holliday, “Characteristics and Educational Support Needs of Underrepresented Gifted Adolescents,” Psychology in the Schools 38(5) (2001), 413-423.
  13. Reis, S. & McCoach, D.B. (2000). The underachievement of gifted students: What do we know and where do we go? Gifted Child Quarterly, 44(152-170).
  14. Smutny, J.F. (2001). Meeting the needs of gifted underachievers—Individually! Gifted Education Communicator, 32(3).
  15. Baum, S. & Owen, S. V. (2004). To be gifted & learning disabled: Strategies for helping bright students with LD, ADHD, and more. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
  16. Baum, S., Owen, S. V., & Dixon, J. (1991). To be gifted and learning disabled: From identification to practical intervention strategies. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
  17. Howard, J. B. (1994). Addressing needs through strengths. The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education,5(3), 23-34.

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