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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:

Comments

Anita Howard

I’m 68 year old woman, dyslexic and last year diagnosed with Autism. Reading this article about 2e adds to my insight about myself. The characteristics mentioned resonate with me and I wonder how many other women are in my situation. It is great that there is a beginning of an understanding and assistance for 2e people, however those of us who were educated and worked when there was no understanding now suffer from a life of confusion and disappointment

Argenta Davidson

My 73 year old partner checks ALL the boxes for 2e classification. Being able to recognize how his processes work and enhance our communication by better understanding him needs has been a game changer!

Delta

I've been diagnosed as gifted with an IQ over 140 for almost 10 years now. I'm 15 and in my senior year in high school. Thanks to my school, I was detected very early and was able to skip one grade, then another. But now I don't know how to work and am failing successfully at my classes, and I realize I might have undiagnosed ADHD and maybe autism (Aspergers)... I am highly sensitive to all, and any, sounds, smells, etc. My social anxiety is getting worse by the minute and this article has finally convinced me to get professional advice and hopefully get diagnosed, to access something, anything, that'll help me. So, yeah, thank you!

Stefanie Ash

I was identified gifted as a young child based on my 147 IQ. When I retested at the age of about 18, I scored 143 - still on the gifted scale. But that was it. I was never told about any of the other "things" that come with being gifted. I was simply seen as the kid with the high IQ who is lazy. Terribly bullied by my peers, I never understood, nor did I know until recently, that I also had other traits that go with being gifted. Nothing was ever explained to me or my parents. The extra classes that were presented to gifted children were presented in just the same way as all other learning material and basically just focused on teaching you the class of the next year up from the year you were in at school. I remember attending one or two of these classes and finding it so boring and off point that I insisted my dad contact the education dept and remove my name from their records so that they could stop trying to make me sit through their boring lectures that did not help me one bit. No effort was ever made to identify the specific areas where I might be more "talented" than my peers, nor was anything ever said about my emotional and psychological wellbeing. I never knew that being gifted was like a whole aspect of life that I was missing out on. At the age of 43 I finally started experiencing complete burnout and struggled at work. It was so embarrassing because my whole life I always knew that I had greater intellectual capacity than others, but nobody ever understood me. I was a complete perfectionist and because of my intellectual capabilities, I was always the best at everything, but I never realised just how held back I was because of other issues gifted individuals experience if they do not have the correct support network. And then it happened: I got diagnosed with ADHD at age 43. Wow. My whole identity collapsed in one day. Of course, I started hyperfocusing on researching ADHD and there it was: 2e kids. What??? You mean I was gifted AND ADHD all this time and there are actual programmes out there to help people like me?? What?? Why did nobody ever tell me? I started reading up on giftedness and suddenly a whole new level of understanding befell me. Why did nobody ever tell me? Why was I just told I was gifted and left? Why did nobody ever try to figure out that I was masking my ADHD and that my ADHD was to some extent masking my giftedness? What did I miss out on in life because nobody ever stepped up to explain anything to me? Why was I left to feel so misunderstood, to constantly be aware that I have so much more in me but nowhere to place it? And no-one to tell... Even when I tested as a level 5-6 Cognitive Processing Profile (CCP) at age 38 when applying for a position at work, I was still just left to my own devises. Nobody came to talk to me about how my cognitive processes are so different from the people around me. Nobody bothered to find out if it was linked to being gifted. The main thing I have learnt via my recent ADHD diagnosis is how much more work the world has to do to recognise each other's differences and to create a space where each and every individual can flousish.

win cronin

There's so much emphasis on the school's role in the lives of 2e children, I'm curious to know how a nurturing, enriching home life will help such a child. And how singling out the 2e child at home will affect his/her siblings or do they all benefit? ( It's wonderful to know a 2e child.)

Vanessa Taveras

Well, as an 2e adult, I have social anxiety problems from now and then. When I'm in public, I need to feel comfortable in the environment I'm in in order to be myself. I find it quite challenging in my professional life, but I try to overcome the fear of being judged by normal people. We are often seen as "abnormal" due to our high intelligence levels.

Francisco Javier Martínez Gayosso

My life as a 2e student was frustrating and lonely, everyone told me that due to my intelligence in many areas and rapid learning I was going to excel at school and my career of choice, but due to my ADHD and depression I barely managed to get from one grade to another, in my country education is not centered in either gifted or challenged children, so I was forced by my parents to study in a high performance high school, I struggle a lot and I'm overwhelmed most of the time, I wish there was a place for people like us in this world. My dream was to be an astronaut, but due to my mental health issues I've been discouraged to do so. Now my dream is that 2e children around the world can live plentiful lives, and I strive to make a world like that.

Lissette Gonzalez Torres

Jelena and Francisco, my daughter was recently diagnosed with adhd in her HS senior year which makes her 2e. I also have the characteristics of a 2e although not formally diagnosed. Specially challenging because I had to navigate this as a single mom and no other help. Francisco, your testimony and advocacy is so valuable. Big hug!

Jelena Djuric

Oh dear, I feel exactly like you, and now I have a child who is exactly like me. Recently at the age of 40 I discovered that I have ADHD after my son was diagnosed too. But is not only ADHD it was always something more about me and my child. Then I discovered 2e, and everything has sense now. I will do anything to help him to find his place in this world and to live a happy life. That is my mission now, nobody should feel the way we feel. We both love you and send you a big hug!

Owen An

Exactly. I am 2e, being an aspie, adhder, and bipolar sufferer. I am highly gifted in spatial intelligence, while being moderately gifted in multiple areas. Of course, these are only self identified. I think tests with low ceilings limit 2e’s functionality. This stops lots of geniuses from identification. For instance, me, got 104 in WAIS-IV.

Group Memo

Its a very lonely but beautiful life. Wish we were understood and not ostracized with my IQ. I was a forced (and disabled from Thalidomide) prodigy with no support. The shaming and bullying was terrible and being female made it even worse. Jealous and abusive children are life-altering and cause so much harm.

My heart goes out to everyone.

Angela Rose

I am so sorry that someone of such tender years and with their whole promising life ahead of them is so wrongly judged and unfairly mistreated.Everyone should have the same opportunity to showcase their unique array of abilities and many talents to the world.

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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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