When Bright Kids Struggle: The World of the Twice Exceptional Child
Dylan was always a bright, active child. By the age of one he’d already mastered all the child locks that stood in his way, At three, he was completing 500-piece Lego kits meant for 10-year olds. And when he was eight, his favorite pastime was creating new contraptions out of discarded household items.
Yet today, Dylan resists reading like the plague. He has trouble sleeping, is prone to epic tantrums, and can’t sit through a single meal at the dining room table. At school, you’d never peg him as a gifted student. He struggles to pay attention, can never remember to turn in his homework, and often shuts down because he is easily overwhelmed. His parents get repeated emails from his teachers, concerned about his lack of work ethic and inability to fit in with the other children. “If only he’d try harder…,” is how most conferences begin.
If this sounds familiar, your child may be twice exceptional – and learning how to properly identify and support his or her unique blend of strengths and challenges will be crucial for the bumpy ride that lies ahead.
What does Twice Exceptional mean?
What Dylan’s teachers don’t realize is that he isn’t lazy or unmotivated – he’s a twice exceptional (2e) child. This means he falls outside the norm in not just one, but two (and sometimes more!) ways – being gifted intellectually, but also possessing learning, emotional, behavioral, or developmental deficits, such as ADHD, dyslexia, autism, or anxiety. In fact, many 2e students are “multi-exceptional,” meaning they have several exceptionalities.
It’s not uncommon for parents of 2e kids to seek help for what becomes an alphabet soup of struggles. Yet, diagnostic labels like ADHD and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) rarely tell the whole story.
It is estimated that between 2-5% of all school-aged children in the U.S. are twice exceptional. That said, experts agree that this number is probably low because so many 2e kids fly under the radar, never getting the diagnosis or support they need.
This is due to the fact that a 2e child’s unique blend of strengths and weaknesses often mask their true learning profile. Sometimes it’s hard to see their difficulties because their strengths are so pronounced. Other times, their challenges make it hard to notice the intelligence that lies beneath. Or, their strengths and weaknesses work to cancel each other out, making it look like the child is “average.” It doesn’t help that, in most schools, identification for giftedness and identification for disabilities are often separate processes, conducted by separate personnel, who concentrate on one area and not the big picture.
Unfortunately, this lack of awareness and identification can lead to a lifetime of underachievement and emotional scars. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With proper identification and support, these creative, innovative thinkers can not only find success in school but thrive in all areas of life.
What does 2e look like?
The profile of a 2e learner is one of sharp contrasts. They often show extraordinary talents in one area, but significant deficits in another. Their cognitive testing scores can be all over the map. The same holds true for their academic performance. They may be three grade levels ahead in math, but well below grade level in reading. Mastering complex concepts might come naturally, but following “simple” two-step directions does not. They are highly intelligent, but often chronic underachievers.
2e students are typically creative problem-solvers. Yet, in school, they usually struggle with organization and find it hard to keep up. Educators and other professionals may look at the huge discrepancies between their ability and performance and misjudge them as lazy, disruptive, or unmotivated. Others only look at the end results and see a “typical” kid. For example, quiz grades of 99, 27, 54, 98, 71, 10, & 100 average out to 65%. So, the student is “just average,” right?
This same thing can happen when these kids are given IQ tests by professionals who don’t understand twice-exceptionality. A 2e child might have verbal reasoning abilities in the 99.8th percentile and visual-spatial skills at the 93rd percentile for their age, while their processing speed falls at the 9th percentile. Psychologists who don’t understand 2e will focus only on the full-scale IQ score (the average of all subtest scores). While technically falling in the Average range, a student with this cognitive profile is anything but average!
Is your child twice exceptional?
Complex and multilayered, twice exceptionality is often missed in gifted screenings and other single measures. That’s why getting to the bottom of your child’s unique blend of strengths and challenges requires a comprehensive psychoeducational or neuropsychological assessment.
A detailed assessment should consist of several measures, including an in-depth interview with both you and your child, cognitive functioning (IQ tests), academic achievement, social and emotional measures, and executive functioning tests. Depending on your child’s unique situation, it can also include other components, such as psychological or neuropsychological testing.
There are so many variations and nuances that come with twice exceptionality, making it extremely important to choose a professional who has experience and expertise in working with 2e kids. You want to look for someone who will work closely with you, is flexible enough to choose the right tests for your specific situation, then dives deep to get to the bottom of what’s really going on.
Detailed reporting and recommendations are just as important as the test results themselves. A good provider will take the time to meet with you, go over the results and explain, in detail, what they mean. They will also arm you with concrete recommendations on how to best support your child. They can help you identify the best educational environment for your child, as well as provide the tools and techniques to be used in both the school and home settings.
How to best support your twice exceptional learner
Once the assessment is complete, it’s time to build your child’s support system. They say, “It takes a village.” With twice exceptional children, this couldn’t be truer. Parents and 2e kids need a team of allies on their side. You can use the recommendations from your child’s report as the foundation, including enrichment activities to develop their talents, as well as remediation strategies to support their challenges.
The importance of social and emotional supports
Twice exceptional kids have a lot to contend with. When you think about it, their intelligence is often hijacked by their internal processing issues, making them extremely frustrated by their own limitations. Being consistently misunderstood or mislabeled can also do a number on self esteem. Even worse, they are keenly aware of being out-of-step with their peers, putting them at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and feelings of social isolation. By providing ongoing social and emotional support, your child will have the space they need to process their feelings, and the techniques they need to manage the many emotions that come with being 2e.
Advocating for their needs
You will undoubtedly come up against educators, doctors, and even family and friends who misinterpret your child’s actions and misjudge their motivations. As a parent, it’s your job to fight to ensure they are treated fairly, and their needs are met. The more educated you are on things like special education law, research-based interventions, and gifted and talented education, the more empowered you’ll become. There are many online resources where you can learn more about twice-exceptionality and special education, including Wrightslaw, the 2e News, and Bright and Quirky, to name a few.
Families need support too
Raising a 2e child is no walk in the park, and no one should go it alone. That’s why it’s important for parents to find their tribe too. You can find support locally by connecting with other parents of 2e students and finding providers who truly understand your child. Most school districts and states have gifted and talented organizations that may be able to offer resources, as well as connections to other families like your own.
“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
Hope for the future
So what does the future hold for 2e kids? If you look back in history, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Walt Disney were all gifted thinkers who learned differently. We don’t know for sure, but our guess is that they were 2e. What we do know is that they changed the world through their abilities to think outside the box.
Creative, intelligent, and highly divergent thinkers, the 2e kids today will be our innovators of tomorrow. Yes, they face many challenges. But with empathy, understanding, and support, they are poised to do great things.
PEAK Exceptional Services provides comprehensive psychoeducational and neuropsychological assessments for kids, teens, and adults with learning differences, as well as parent coaching for parents of differently wired children. If you’d like more information on twice exceptionality or how we can help you better understand your divergent learner, call us at 720-377-3250 or email email@example.com