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Twice Exceptional: Definition, Characteristics & Identification

Gifted and Twice-Exceptional
Students attending REACH Summer Seminar

Twice-exceptional students (also known as 2e children or students) are among the most under-identified and underserved population in schools. The reason for this is two-fold: (1) the vast majority of school districts do not have procedures in place for identifying twice-exceptional students and (2) inadequate identification leads to the lack of access to appropriate educational services. Additionally, twice-exceptional students, whose gifts and disabilities often mask one another, are difficult to identify. Without appropriate educational programming, twice exceptional students and their talents go unrealized. In this article, we’ll be reviewing common characteristics of twice exceptional students, how these students can be identified and ways to support their development and growth.

What is twice exceptional (2e)?

The term “twice exceptional” or “2e” refers to intellectually gifted children who have one or more learning disabilities such as dyslexia, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorder. Twice-exceptional children think and process information differently. Like many other gifted children, 2e kids may be more emotionally and intellectually sensitive than children of average intelligence. At the same time, due to uneven development (asynchrony) or their learning differences, twice exceptional kids struggle with what other kids do easily. Because of their unique abilities and characteristics, 2e students need a special combination of education programs and counseling support.

What are the characteristics of twice exceptional children?

Twice exceptional kids may display strengths in certain areas and weaknesses in others. Common characteristics of twice exceptional students include:

  • Outstanding critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Above average sensitivity, causing them to react more intensely to sounds, tastes, smells, etc.
  • Strong sense of curiosity
  • Low self-esteem due to perfectionism
  • Poor social skills
  • Strong ability to concentrate deeply in areas of interest
  • Difficulties with reading and writing due to cognitive processing deficits
  • Behavioral problems due to underlying stress, boredom and lack of motivation

Check out this article from the Davidson Institute on twice-exceptional characteristics for more traits and characteristics.

How do you identify twice exceptional students?

Identification for twice exceptional students is often a complicated process and requires the unique ability to assess and identify the two areas of exceptionality. Sometimes the disability may be hidden, also known as “masking,” which can complicate the identification process. At the same time, most school districts have no procedures in place for identifying or meeting the academic needs of twice-exceptional children, leaving many 2e kids under-identified and underserved.

According to NAGC’s report on twice exceptionality, 2e kids may be identified in one of three categories:

    • Students identified as gifted but do not have an identified disability may:
      • Go unnoticed for possible special education evaluation
      • Be considered underachievers, often perceived as lazy or unmotivated
      • Achieve at grade level until curriculum becomes more difficult, often during middle and high school
    • Students identified as having a disability but not as being gifted may:
      • Be a part of programs that focus solely on their disability
      • Be inadequately assessed for their intellectual abilities
      • Become bored in special programs if the services do not challenge them appropriately
    • Students not formally identified as gifted or disabled may:
      • Be considered achieving at grade level and assumed to have average ability
      • Struggle as curriculum becomes more challenging
      • Never be referred for a special education evaluation due to deflated achievement and standardized test scores

Due to the difficulty of identifying twice-exceptional students and the lack of awareness in school districts, 2e kids may go undiagnosed for being either gifted, disabled or both. This can affect twice exceptional students in significant ways including a higher likelihood to drop out of school.

If you are a parent seeking identification, it is important to work with a professional who is knowledgeable about twice exceptionality and can provide recommendations on how to appropriately address both the child’s strengths and weaknesses. TECA (Twice Exceptional Children’s Advocacy) offers a searchable database of professionals who work with twice exceptional children and their families. This free resource can be used as a tool for researching practitioners.

Tips for identifying twice-exceptional students

Oftentimes, multiple classification in giftedness and disability can complicate proper identification and lead to a misdiagnosis. To help with this process, we have gathered some tips from experts in the 2e community, including SENG, 2e Newsletter and NAGC, on identifying twice-exceptional students:

      • Take a multi-dimensional approach to identifying twice-exceptional students and consider using both written tests and behavioral assessments
      • Use both formal and informal assessments
      • Separate out test scores on IQ tests; most 2e children are inconsistent performers with uneven skills and asynchronous development
      • Reduce qualifying cut off scores to account for learning differences or disabilities
      • Consider oral questioning instead of formal written testing if the student experiences difficulties with processing details
      • Extend the time available for the student to demonstrate their knowledge
      • Use assessment procedures that accommodate language and cultural differences to avoid bias in the identification process

What percentage of students are twice exceptional?

The number of twice-exceptional students is unclear. However, we can come up with a reasonable estimate based on the number of kids in the U.S. who are gifted or have received special education services for their learning disability.

According to the report on twice exceptionality by NAGC, there are approximately three million gifted children in grades K-12 in the United States. This accounts for approximately six percent of the total student population. When comparing this data with the number of students who received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 2019-20 (approximately 7.1 million ages 3-21) according to the National Center for Education Statistics, it is reasonable to estimate that a comparable percentage – approximately six percent – of the students served by IDEA may also be academically gifted.

How do you support twice exceptional students?

2e kids need a supportive learning environment that helps them reach their full potential. This involves finding the right twice exceptional school or program that addresses both their giftedness and disability. 2e students should still be adequately challenged despite their learning difficulties. The best results are often achieved through appropriate identification and an individualized approach to education.

Here are some strategies for supporting twice-exceptional students:

      • Develop and implement individualized education programs based on their interests and talents
      • Accommodate both their academic strengths and academic weaknesses
      • Utilize a strengths-based approach that considers the whole child
      • Foster their social and emotional development
      • Allow students to participate in enrichment programs and experiences
      • Collaborate with other professionals in gifted education, special education or counseling

Additional resources on twice-exceptional students:

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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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