Twice Exceptional – Smart Kids with Learning Differences
What is 2e?
Twice exceptional, or “2e,” children are intellectually gifted and also have learning differences or disabilities.
2e children are doubly different from the norm.
- They have the social, emotional, intellectual and physical intensity of giftedness plus the intensity of their learning difference or disability.
- There is cognitive dissonance not just for others (smart but struggling), but also for the child (If I’m so smart, why is this so hard?).
- Twice-exceptional children are more likely to be misdiagnosed and have dual or multiple diagnoses.
- Like all gifted kids, 2e kids are many ages at once. A child can be 7 chronologically, 14 intellectually, and write on a 6-year-old level.
- Children at the far end of the IQ spectrum also have the potential to take a number of life and career paths because of their innate abilities. But learning differences may severely limit that potential if they are not remediated.
Twice-exceptional kids may have any disability. With giftedness, the most frequent learning differences include dyslexia, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, sensory processing disorder (which is a component of autism, but not all children with SPD have autism), dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and visual and auditory processing disorders.
But being twice exceptional also has joys and advantages. These unique children see the world differently than others. They may be exceptionally creative and divergent in their thinking, offer new ways to approach problems and solve challenges, have rich sensory perceptions that lead them to the pinnacles of achievement or artistry, or form deep interpersonal bonds as rewarding as they are intense.
Examples of well-known twice-exceptional people include Temple Grandin, Stephen Hawking, Richard Branson, Ann Bancroft, and many more, including many brilliant and creative minds from history.
What’s it like to be 2e?
Being twice exceptional is just like being anything else: You feel like yourself. At the same time, twice-exceptional children struggle with the dual challenge of already knowing much of what adults are trying to teach them, and yet having to struggle to do what other kids do with ease, either because of asynchrony—being “many ages at once”—or because of their learning difference or disability.
- The more gifted a child is, the more different she is from the norm, by definition. High-IQ kids are often more acutely aware of their differences.
- Those who are 2e, or just gifted, may suffer from imposter syndrome, the feeling that they will soon be “found out” to be an impostor.
- Twice exceptionality causes a child not to perform to full intellectual ability. In fact, the more profoundly gifted a 2e child is, the poorer he is likely to perform in the classroom.
All of these challenges put 2e kids at very high risk for anxiety and depression, even at very young ages.
Asynchrony is part of giftedness, but also may be a symptom of a learning difference or disability, even if the child is performing at or above grade level. In other words, if a child a mismatch between her intellectual age and her writing ability, it may be because of asynchrony, or because of a specific challenge like dyslexia, dysgraphia, or another learning disability, or both.
This can make it very difficult to diagnose such challenges, and some healthcare providers may be reluctant to do so if the child is performing at age-grade level. But these kids need to be allowed to perform at intellectual age level. Holding them back causes long-term harm, and bars them from the benefits and joys of learning to perform to their potential.
Further challenges in diagnosing disabilities come from the fact that some common characteristics of highly, exceptionally, and profoundly gifted children overlap with symptoms of certain learning differences, particularly ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. In teasing out the causes of particular behaviors, and thus correctly diagnosing or ruling out learning differences, the use of very thorough diagnostic checklists can be helpful, particularly when compared against a list of common characteristics of giftedness.
Achievement testing and IQ testing provide, at best, a minimum estimate of a child’s abilities. The IQ of a child who scores near the ceiling of a testing instrument is likely higher than the test can measure, especially if extended norms were not used and/or the child did not hit discontinuation points on one or more of the subtests. Further, learning differences may depress the child’s scores substantially, causing a profoundly gifted child to test like a child just above the norm. Some gifted assessment providers have expertise in interpreting test scores to flag possible disabilities like verbal processing disorder, stealth dyslexia, and auditory processing disorder, based on details like subtest score spreads, individual questions missed, and the like.
The approach for remediation for a twice exceptional child differs from that of a typical child.
- It can be challenging to tease out which asynchronies are a result of giftedness and which are a result of a disability or learning difference for which the child is compensating.
- Remediation or therapy needs to aim at the child’s intellectual level of competence, because that’s who the core child is. Imagine asking a teenager to use only one-syllable words for his hearing therapy or an adult-level reader with poor motor skills to practice writing using elementary-level words. For vision therapy, research indicates vision performance can be brought up much higher than chronological age.
- Yet other challenges, even in the same child, should be viewed in the lens of asynchrony. A 2e dyslexic child may need heavy support to come up to age-grade level; or she may have stealth dyslexia, in which the child has compensated with her intelligence to be at or above grade level, but still below (maybe far below) her intellectual level. Some physical handwriting challenges may be remediated sufficiently to bring a child to or beyond age-level, but the child may never have mechanical writing skills that truly match his intellectual level. Keyboarding is an excellent choice in this situation.
- A maxim for children with disabilities, least restrictive environment, applies to 2e children as well—particularly as concerns their intellectual level. Remediation that focuses exclusively on the disability, without enabling the child to work at the level of her intellectual age, will do tremendous harm. In that setting, a child will never have the satisfaction of accomplishing a challenging intellectual task or learn a solid work ethic.
Let them soar, but scaffold weaknesses
The universal goal to support 2e children is to meet their intellectual needs above chronological age level, while scaffolding their weaknesses. This may require radical accommodations in educational, healthcare, and even day-to-day social, family, and functional settings.
The range of possible accommodations is broad and must be tailored to the individual child. They may include:
- Encouraging keyboarding, storytelling and verbal responses, drawing and other alternative forms of communication to handwriting.
- Allowing for movement while the child is learning. This will vary by child. Minor approaches include fidgets or chewing gum. Major interventions may require things like standing desks, stretchy bands on chair legs, or frequent jumping breaks. Conversely, some children benefit from grounding pressure from a pressure vest or a weighted lap blanket.
- Placing a child in an intellectual-level class, but exempting him from part of the output requirements, with such alternate, individual-tailored provisions for demonstrating knowledge as regular conversational check-ins, giving additional weighting to in-class participation, etc.
- Dramatically reducing homework repetition; exempting a child from homework each time a concept is demonstrated once as having been mastered.
- Providing large-text or spoken-word versions of higher-level reading materials and texts; or providing comparable materials in video formats.
- Having an aide facilitate social interaction while an ASD child attends out-of-grade-level classes.
- Using computer-based, distance-learning options.
- Customizing a twice-exceptional child’s education entirely, either in situ or in a homeschool setting.
These accommodations can and should be adapted to family use, as well. Allow a child to email a thank-you note, or to do it by phone. Permit such educational screen time as documentaries or computer-based learning and creating until a child is satiated, rather than according to a limit geared for typical children. Encourage timing snacks of crunchy foods like carrots at schoolwork time, instead of separately; or allow a sensory-defensive child to eat in another room and have quality family togetherness at a different time of day.
Different, but familiar
Twice exceptional kids can be extremely different from other kids and helping them can require extreme measures. But they are still kids. They need help with their struggles, and they deserve the same chance to learn, to challenge themselves, and to excel. Above all, help 2e children find true intellectual peers, and enable their strengths. Scaffold their weaknesses, so they can soar.