The very idea that someone can be gifted AND have a disability shouldn’t surprise people, but in my experience, it often does. According to neuropsychologist Nadia Webb,
“One of the greatest difficulties in working with twice-exceptional children is helping school personnel move beyond the “One Label per Customer” model. Because of this mode of thinking, children tend to be defined by their gifts or their deficits, but not both. Once one label has been applied to a child, the quest for answers ends.”
I want to share a bit of my personal journey in learning to advocate for one of my own children in the hopes it will help others or even you.
When our son began school, prior to any assessments being done, we heard from school personnel, “He’s not smart like your other kids.” As we sought formal accommodation plans in middle school, we were told, “You almost need to be missing an arm to get a 504 plan in this district.” In high school, when discussing accommodations for College Board and ACT exams, we were told, “No one ever gets extra time for those tests.”
However unfortunate and inaccurate these statements were, I don’t believe there was ever any malice intended. These were good people who were going with what they thought they knew to be true. Because I needed to advocate for my son, I’d learned all I could about his strengths AND weaknesses. But how often had the topic of gifted students with learning disabilities come up in their educator training?
For our family, it felt like it was “One Label per Customer.” For quite a while, our son was being defined by his gifts; he needed to figure out his own way to work out any struggles he was experiencing. There were feelings of frustration that school personnel could be so misinformed. There were feelings of isolation for our son, of not being able to ‘find his tribe’ because his experiences were unlike those of other gifted kids, of learning disabled kids, and of the ‘norm.’ And my husband and I experienced isolation since most teachers, as well as the parents of other gifted kids, didn’t understand either.
We did have some good experiences along the way. Our gifted resource teacher, who understood the challenge our son was facing, was occasionally able to provide activities that allowed his strengths to shine. We were able to find parents of other 2e kids who understood what we were going through. And we reached out to a district level administrator who took those unfortunate comments we’d heard back to the district’s psychologists. His goal was to identify these problem statements, share them with staff, and extinguish them from the vocabulary.
The most stunningly simple thing we ever heard was in at a conference in high school:
“What can I do to help your son?”
My husband and I were speechless. On one hand, we felt appreciation that this teacher, who we knew to be an effective and amazing educator, genuinely wanted to do whatever he could to help our son. On the other hand, we felt sadness and disappointment that this gifted and experienced educator didn’t already know how to help our son attain the skills that so many others had gained through his class.
But this is an example of the kind of opportunities we need. He, and other educators like him, want to learn more. There are resources to be shared and partnerships to be developed. According to the Colorado Department of Education’s publication “Twice-Exceptional Students: Gifted Students with Disabilities”:
“A collaborative effort between classroom teachers, special educators, gifted educators, and parents is needed to identify twice-exceptional students and implement strategies to meet their diverse needs. It is essential that the disabilities are identified early so appropriate interventions can be provided at optimum times. Unfortunately, the struggles of many twice-exceptional students go unnoticed for many years, resulting in learning gaps and undeveloped potentials.
Twice-exceptional students will continue to be at-risk until educators can learn about and understand the educational and social/emotional needs of twice-exceptional students.”
If we can inform parents, administrators, educators AND students about the characteristics and needs of the twice-exceptional, as well as provide educators training in the strategies necessary to ensure success, each one of these kids can emerge from the K-12 system ready to fulfill his or her unique potential.
For more information on the twice-exceptional, see the following:
A Guidebook for Twice Exceptional Students: Supporting the Achievement of Gifted Students with Special Needs
Hoagies Gifted Education Page: Twice Exceptional
Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted
Twice-Exceptional Students: Gifted Students with Disabilities
Wrightslaw: Twice-Exceptional Children (2e)
Accurate Assessment: ADHD, Asperger’s Disorder, and Other Common Misdiagnoses and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children