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Gifted, ADHD, or Both?

Gifted and Twice-Exceptional
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Gifted, ADHD, or Both?

Both gifted identification and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnosis have been hot button issues that have circulated within the education community for several decades. There are valid concerns on both sides regarding misdiagnosis, overlooked diagnosis, social stigma, and a lack of opportunities for these children. However, the two may share more similarities than differences, especially in terms of what parents and educators can do to help these children thrive.

Consider a child in an average public-school classroom who blurts out the answer to a question before they are called on, who does well on math concepts but makes many simple mistakes on tests, and who appears inattentive for large portions of the class. Is this child gifted, ADHD, or both? This child may be gifted but not receiving curriculum that matches their intellectual level, which can result in rushing through repetitive work and disengaging altogether from a class they find unstimulating. The child may have ADHD, which makes it hard to control their impulses or focus for long periods of time unless it is their area of interest. The child may be both gifted and have ADHD, which presents as an inconsistent (or even average) performance across school subjects. It can be difficult to correctly address a common situation like this even for experienced teachers.

There has been considerable concern from parents, educators, and childhood developmental experts over how to differentiate between giftedness and ADHD, as well as how to tell when a child may be both. The presence of twice exceptional (2e) children, who are both gifted and have a developmental or learning disability, is well known, but the similarity of characteristics for giftedness and ADHD makes it particularly difficult to tell these two apart.

How Are Giftedness and ADHD Similar?

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is considered a brain-based disorder characterized by hyperactivity, inattention, and/or impulsivity. An assessment is often recommended by a teacher and diagnosed by a professional when children consistently demonstrate six of the nine traits for the inattentive-type, six of the nine traits for the hyperactive-type, or a strong combination of many of the two.

Giftedness is also considered a brain-based difference that is commonly characterized by high intelligence, creativity, and/or achievement. Diagnosing giftedness often involves above-level testing, IQ tests, or standardized achievement tests. Gifted behavior checklists are also frequently included in gifted identification.

The two are both thought to be linked to genetics but lack a precise explanation. Since neither condition is fully understood, they both lack a definitive test, genetic or otherwise, to identify these students. Thus, both rely on trained professionals who can consider the full profile of the student in order to make a diagnosis. Both require a specialized approach to a student’s education and development, particularly in the areas of executive functioning. Both have implications for social-emotional development as well as a student’s academic performance. Both have considerable overlap when it comes to their core characteristics as James Webb and Diane Latimer have noted in their research, and which the following table demonstrates.

Shared Characteristics of ADHD and Giftedness

Gifted Behaviors *Taken from NAGC & the Davidson InstituteADHD Behaviors *Taken from psychiatry.org
Difficulty concentrating on tasks that are not intellectually challengingHas problems staying focused on tasks or activities
Highly energetic—needs little sleep or down timeAlways “on the go,” as if driven by a motor
Rapid comprehensionBlurts out an answer before a question has been finished
Impulsive, eager and spiritedInterrupts or intrudes on others
Non-stop talking/chatteringTalks too much
Issues with executive functioningHas problems organizing tasks and work
Need for constant mental stimulationIs easily distracted

How Do You Know When a Child is ADHD and Gifted?

Because of the similarities outlined above, 2e children who are both gifted and have ADHD can be especially difficult to detect. While many experts agree that these children do exist, there is currently no formal criteria to identify giftedness in children who are ADHD or to identify ADHD in children who are gifted. Professionals often assess both giftedness and ADHD through a series of behavior checklists from parents, teachers, and their own observations. This means that, when trying to distinguish between characteristics that could be either giftedness or ADHD (or both!), it often comes down to the one professional’s judgement call. Unfortunately, few clinicians are trained to think about how giftedness and ADHD might overlap or influence one another. Similar challenges can be found for those seeking to differentiate between giftedness and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

There are several ways professionals have sought to distinguish between the two and identify 2e children who may be both. Promising research from the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction suggested that three particular hyperactive and impulsivity traits (difficulty regulating physical activity, difficulty regulating talkativeness, and speaking out of turn) may be more severe for these 2e children, and thus more useful for identifying ADHD in children who are gifted. In the reverse situation, Deirdre Lovecky’s research suggested that giftedness may be identified in children who are ADHD by considering the presence of other notable gifted characteristics, such as the ability to learn things rapidly, increased sensitivity, more predominant asynchrony in their development, and unique interests compared to age-peers.

While they pose a challenge, twice exceptional students who are gifted and ADHD can be identified by experts who have knowledge and experience working with both populations by conducting in-depth evaluations and taking a holistic look at the child’s behavior in and outside of the classroom.

How to Support Gifted Students with ADHD?

All children benefit from a strengths-based approach that allows them to pursue their areas of interest while providing scaffolding for their areas of weakness. For students who have been identified as gifted and ADHD, this approach is crucial to promote their positive development. Parents and educators will need to collaborate to provide an array of opportunities and supports for these unique children, including:

For parents of children who are gifted, have ADHD, or both, it is important to remember the words of Mark Twain when he said don’t let “schooling interfere with [an] education.” Your differently wired child may struggle in school at times, but that doesn’t mean they won’t develop projects and ideas that they are passionate about. There will be good days and bad, and it is all about supporting the areas of challenge so that they can pursue their goals. By helping your child learn about and understand themselves and their ADHD and/or giftedness, you are giving them the tools to thrive.

Interested in reading more? See also ADHD and Giftedness: What Do Parents Need to Know? 

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Please note, the Davidson Institute is a non-profit serving families with highly gifted children. We will not post comments that are considered soliciting, mention illicit topics, or share highly personal information.

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