Is Your Child Gifted and Challenged? They Could Be Twice-Exceptional

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Maybe your kid has an insane memory and an awe-inspiring creative streak, but can’t sit still in class. Or perhaps her math skills put yours to shame, but she’s paralyzed by perfectionism and struggling to fit in socially. Those are just a couple examples of a whole host of gifted-and-challenged combinations that fall under the “twice-exceptional” umbrella. Read on to learn more about this descriptor (it’s not a formal diagnosis), and better understand how to nurture a child that fits the twice-exceptional criteria.

Meet the Expert:

What Does Twice-Exceptional Mean, Exactly?

Twice-exceptional, or 2e, is a term used to describe children who are gifted or highly intelligent, but also show signs of having a learning disability or other neurodivergent condition. “Gifted children who present with this unique combination of strengths and challenges often struggle in a traditional educational setting designed to meet the ‘majority needs,’ rather than the needs of those on either end of the spectrum. This may result in a 2e child getting mislabeled as ‘a problem’ rather than the school taking time to see the brilliance beneath the behavior,” says Dr. Cook.

While not an official diagnosis, the twice-exceptional assessment could apply to more than 400,000 kids in the U.S., says Davidson Institute, a non-profit organization that supports gifted young people .

What Are the Signs That a Child Is Twice-Exceptional?

It’s important to note that the twice-exceptional category is pretty broad, in that there are multiple combinations of gifts and disabilities that might qualify a kid for this descriptor. “Identifying 2e kids can be hard,” says the Child Mind Institute, adding that the best way to see if a child fits the criteria is through a neuropsychological evaluation. In general, though, the most common sign that a child might be twice-exceptional is when adults observe “...a significant disconnect between certain skill sets,” says Dr. Cook. The expert also tells us that “in addition to their high intellectual ability, these children may also display a deep passion for a particular subject or sport, or exhibit exceptional creativity.”

 Some examples include a child who is gifted musically but struggles to focus on tasks outside of music; one who can recite countless Jeopardy-type data but doesn’t know when to stop talking socially; or a child who can tell you the answer but can’t write it down.

It’s worth noting that there is no universal standard or definition of “gifted,” and as U.S News reports, “the process for identifying gifted children has been plagued by racial and socioeconomic disparities.” If parents suspect that their child may be 2e, the first step is to approach their teachers to find out what’s happening at school—are there any issues and if so, do these stem from potential learning disabilities or unrecognized giftedness?

What’s the Difference Between Twice-Exceptional and an ASD Diagnosis?

Children who are gifted may have behaviors that look like ADHD or autism, says the Child Mind Institute. And while it’s possible that a twice-exceptional individual may also have an autism diagnosis, the two terms actually refer to two different things. 

Per Dr. Cook, “Autism Spectrum Disorder primarily impacts social interactions and communication; children on this spectrum may also exhibit repetitive behaviors, have sensory processing difficulties and sometimes exhibit exceptional abilities. It’s a myth that all individuals with ASD are gifted in one area or another; they may be twice-exceptional but it’s not the norm. Those who have a learning disability, ADHD, dyslexia or struggle with a mood disorder (anxiety or depression) present very differently than ASD even if both individuals are gifted in the same area.” 

The takeaway? The combination of gifts and challenges in a twice-exceptional individual varies greatly, which is why, labels aside, the most important thing is that these children receive personalized support and accommodations.

What Challenges Do Twice Exceptional Kids Face?

Children who are both academically gifted and have a learning disability face a range of challenges—including feeling misunderstood or frustrated by their academic experiences, struggling with executive functioning skills and experiencing anxiety or depression.

What’s more, their giftedness may mask their learning challenges: “Sometimes children who are gifted are given a ‘hall pass’ for bad behavior because they excel in other areas, as with exceptional athletes who are given passing grades for ‘the team’. This is unfortunate because it means not getting an accurate diagnosis to help them in all areas of life and learning,” says Dr. Cook.

Per the NAGC, twice-exceptional children often find the school environment particularly difficult. “They can be highly creative, verbal, imaginative, curious, with strong problem-solving ability, and a wide range of interests or a single, all-consuming expertise. However, at school, they may have difficulty keeping up with course rigor, volume, and demands—resulting in inconsistent academic performance, frustration, difficulties with written expression, and labels such as lazy, unmotivated, and underachiever.”

How Can Parents Help a Twice Exceptional Child Thrive?

We hinted at this already, but one of the most important things parents can do to help a twice-exceptional child thrive is to advocate for their needs within the educational system and seek out specialized resources and support. Beyond that, Dr. Cook emphasizes the importance of fostering a positive sense of identity around their child's unique strengths and challenges. Some ways to do this outside the home include “...identifying support networks where your child shines (chess tournaments, mathletes, sports, music) as well as places and environments where they are able to ‘unmask’ and be themselves completely without judgment.”  

As for the academic component, traditional educational settings only work when the advocacy is there and the school in question has the resources to meet the child’s needs—and the bureaucracy can be a lot for parents to navigate alone. For this reason, Dr. Cook says that some parents may also choose to homeschool or seek out alternative educational programs that can better meet their child's needs. Ultimately, parents should choose an educational setting that provides the child with the support and resources they need to reach their full potential, while also aligning with the needs of the whole family unit. 

But, above all, the expert advises parents to “not feel stressed but blessed in their child’s unique combination of strengths and challenges. Twice-exceptional children grow up to become adults who change the world.”

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