Twice-Exceptional (2e) Children [including: Gifted with Learning Disabilities (gld)

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Twice-Exceptional (2e) Children

[including: Gifted with Learning Disabilities (GLD)]

Carol Barnes
As the volunteer convenor of a support group in another state for parents and teachers of twice-exceptional children (also called gifted children with learning disabilities) , I am often asked at QAGTC events for information on meeting the unique challenges of parenting and teaching these counter-intuitive learners.

Here are the answers to some of the questions I am asked most frequently.

1. Who are twice-exceptional (2e) children?

All gifted children can, and some do, suffer from any one or more of the disabilities, disorders, dysfunctions, deficits, deficiencies, difficulties, disadvantages, detriments, impairments, impediments and ailments which may befall non-gifted children – except of course mental retardation.

Similarly, approximately 10% of students diagnosed with learning disabilities or other special needs may be assumed to be gifted as well. Overseas researchers assert that somewhere between 9 and 17 percent of gifted children are struggling with a (sometimes undetected) disability. Exact numbers are hard to determine, as the percentage of 2e children varies according to each researcher’s definition of “gifted” and conception of the scope of the disability or special need..

The important points to grasp for present purposes, however, are these two:

1. Giftedness does not preclude disability – and vice-versa.

2. Not all gifted children achieve high grades – and not all high academic achievers are gifted.

Both gifted children with developmental differences and special-needs children who are gifted are described as twice-exceptional (2e) because they are exceptional in 2 ways. First, they are gifted (one exceptionality) and second, they are struggling with one or more additional special needs (the other exceptionality). These additional special needs might include a specific learning disability, a medical or mental health condition (eg, ADHD, Asperger syndrome), a physical disability, a sensory issue, a behaviour disorder or a social or emotional concern (eg, anxiety, perfectionism) – in short, the gifted child “with something else going on” - something which runs alongside the giftedness and which interferes with some aspects of school achievement and/or social/emotional well-being, both inside and outside school.

This relatively straightforward definition disguises the enigmatic complexity which characterises the 2e child.

On the positive side, 2e children are those who possess a high IQ and are capable of excellent academic performance – indeed they may be intellectually astonishing. Like other gifted children, they may excel in understanding and identifying complex relationships, vocabulary, abstract reasoning (including mathematical reasoning), creativity, wide general knowledge, problem solving and observational skills. Many have a surprisingly sophisticated or unusual sense of humour. They may repeatedly receive outstanding scores on tests such as multiple choice which require selecting correct answers rather than writing down their ideas on a blank piece of paper. They may be perpetually absorbed in narrow, sometimes all-consuming and isolating, interests and these may regularly change from time to time.

On the negative side, however, the mechanics involved in seemingly simple or sequential tasks such as writing, reading, spelling and basic computation often present greater difficulties for 2e learners than for neuro-typical students. The pencil-to-paper output of 2e learners may match that of their weakest age-peers, and they may have particular problems in performing well on routine academic tasks, especially timed tests. They may have a strong visual/spatial learning style preference, and may arrive at correct answers seemingly by intuition, but they may also be completely mystified when asked to show their ‘working out’ or the ‘steps’ in their thinking, because 2e children often do not perceive that they take ‘steps’ – they claim to ‘just know’.

Some 2e children may have social problems and/or difficulty in correctly interpreting social cues (eg facial expression, tone of voice, body language). Some may also have slow auditory and/or visual processing speeds, and frequently have poor working memory, less-than-adequate time-management and organisational abilities, anxiety, crippling perfectionism, challenging, odd or infuriating behaviours, difficulty following directions or multi-step instructions, inconsistent attention, and wildly erratic school performance. The latter is often a subtle indicator of the lesser-known predominantly inattentive sub-type of ADHD – the dreamy, vague, ‘invisible’ kind of ADHD without hyperactivity, impulsivity, defiance or bad behaviour.

Generally 2e children have trouble not with ideas or concepts but rather with mechanics. They perplex their parents, teachers and other professionals because, although very clever, they do not always learn, think or feel in expected ways.

In summary, 2e children are those who simultaneously and paradoxically possess amazing strengths and glaring deficits but, because the nature and causes of twice-exceptionality are so varied, there is no universal profile and no typical 2e child. If you’ve met one, then you’ve met one.

2. 2e or GLD?

Sometimes 2e children are referred to as GLD – Gifted with Learning Disabilities. Until recently in Australia, this seeming oxymoron has been the more common nomenclature.

Proponents of the 2e terminology argue that often the gifted child’s second exceptionality (ie, the “something else going on”) is not technically an actual ‘learning disability’. Accordingly, the 2e label is more accurate, as it is wider and takes account of more varieties of dysfunctions, disorders and impairments. They point out too that sometimes 2e children don’t actually have a ‘learning’ disability at all - they have absolutely no problem whatsoever with learning new material in the first place. Their difficulties arise only when it is time to be assessed on that material (eg, a child whose disability relates to handwriting or to any kind of writing in limited-time tests). Rather than a ‘learning’ disability, these children have a ‘proving that I’ve really learned it’ disability.

Those who prefer the expression GLD, on the other hand, argue that retaining the word ‘disabilities’ underlines the rights and remedies to which 2e children are entitled under disability discrimination legislation, and also possibly makes some educators more sympathetic to their plight. GLD proponents claim also that the expression ‘twice-exceptional’ is not sufficiently descriptive of the severity of the child’s actual issues and can be easily misunderstood. Hence they assert that you need to already know what it means, to know what it means. They note that the word ‘exceptional’ in Australia is often used as a synonym for ‘exceptionally good’ (eg, “I saw that movie and it was exceptional”). Thus some have erroneously assumed that the expression ‘twice-exceptional’, when referring to gifted children, must in fact mean “twice as exceptionally smart as everyone else”.

While the jury is still out in Australia with respect to the choice between 2e or GLD, for the avoidance of doubt, the wider term 2e will be used throughout this article.

[In the research literature the terms ‘2xe’, ‘2x’, ‘dual diagnosis’, ‘dual exceptionality’, ‘double exceptionality’ and ‘multiple exceptionality’ are also sometimes used.]

3. Early warning signs

2e children are generally hard to identify. The most common and significant feature of a 2e child is uneven academic performance of an unusual kind. They may be good at difficult, abstract problems and poor at simple routine tasks. They may achieve outstandingly high results in academic competitions outside of school, yet be achieving mediocre results on school assessments and exams. They may choose to devote untold time and energy to projects which interest them intensely (even if for no credit) but do as little as possible on tasks which they dislike, no matter how severe the consequences in terms of school grades. They may attend holiday programs for gifted children, which typically have no assessment or exam, ask if they can “go back there every day from now on”, and then when regular school starts again, they may protest every morning or simply refuse to go altogether.

The primary difficulty in identifying 2e children is that their high intelligence may serve to compensate for their disability, and their disability may mask their intelligence. The higher the IQ, the greater the difficulty. This means that 2e children may be viewed at school as generally ‘average’. Even when highly gifted, such children do not usually present as ‘academic’, ‘scholarly’ or ‘precocious’. They are quietly failing to thrive, but they are often simply not noticed in the classroom because they usually perform adequately when measured against their mixed-ability peers and within the framework of the regular mandated, less-than-challenging curriculum. Their continuing ‘average’ performance is deemed satisfactory. If they are a non-squeaky wheel and not actually failing, then they are invisible.

Worse than appearing to be consistently ‘average’ however is the 2e child who occasionally pulls a rabbit out of a hat and performs to his true potential. These are the children whom some experts call ‘their own worst enemy’. Their uncharacteristically brilliant achievement on one test or assignment causes teachers to exclaim, "You see, you can do it when you try! This work shows that you are really smart! If you’re not working like this all the time, it must be because you're just lazy."

The unidentified 2e child certainly doesn't usually feel ‘really smart’. Nor does he suspect that he is the victim of something sinister called ‘disabilities’. He believes that he wants to learn and to move forward with his peers, and he does not agree that he is lazy and choosing to fail. All he knows is that he is capable of extraordinary things – but some of the simplest tasks seem to be beyond him. Feeling perpetually inadequate, confused, disoriented and frustrated, the academically discouraged 2e child acknowledges that it’s a huge mystery why some days he does exceptionally good schoolwork and other days he doesn't. Sadly, he also learns quite rapidly that on the days when he performs brilliantly, he is more likely to get the ‘lazy’ lecture at school. He reluctantly concludes that it's less stressful to be always seen as just plain average because no one notices or comments.

Most 2e children are painfully yet silently aware of their contradictory abilities and characteristics. Despite perhaps enthusiastically protesting that school is not important and that grades ‘don’t matter’, these children do in fact recognise and revisit each of their areas of struggle, but at the same time they neglect to celebrate their areas of strength. If attention is always focussed on what is wrong with the child and what they cannot do, the dispirited child eventually finds it utterly implausible that they may indeed be bright capable learners. If given a choice between viewing themselves as either primarily gifted or primarily a victim of disabilities, sadly most 2e will opt for the latter. And sadly too so will most teachers. One 2e child’s lament: “My teachers always make me feel more disabled than gifted”.

4. Formal identification and diagnosis

Formal identification of 2e students is complex and usually requires the input of many types of professionals. It necessitates assessment in the areas of both giftedness and disability. Only a thorough comprehensive evaluation can set the scene vital for creating an educational environment where 2e learners may thrive in their areas of strength and enjoy appropriate support for their disabilities. Identification must not be based solely on classroom performance or scholastic achievement test scores, although a review of school records may reveal a pattern of inconsistent academic performance which demands further investigation.

Psychometric (IQ) testing by an educational psychologist will usually identify 2e children. They typically score very highly in some sub-tests and poorly in others, often (though not always) in sub-tests measuring working memory and processing speeds. (This discrepancy is sometimes referred to as sub-test scatter.) Further, audiology and behavioural optometry tests may expose a hidden auditory or visual processing disorder, and a developmental paediatrician may identify hidden attention issues such as ADHD (in particular, the predominantly inattentive sub-type of ADHD).

Gifted children with this inattentive ‘invisible’ variety of ADHD may just sit quietly and underachieve for years and years. Possibly because they are generally behaviourally compliant, they tend to be not readily identified by classroom teachers, and they seem, to the casual observer, to fit the profile of ‘plain average’ – though perhaps somewhat vague, preoccupied and dreamy.

If giftedness is suspected, the first recommended step is usually an individual test of cognitive ability (an IQ test) administered by an educational psychologist with experience in dealing with gifted children. Remember that it is not possible to ‘fluke’ an IQ test – it is possible to underscore, but not to overscore.

Once the IQ is known, it is generally best to take the IQ report first to a developmental paediatrician, who will administer individual achievement tests and will screen for all suspected disabilities and hidden causes of underachievement. After an accurate profile of the child’s strengths and weaknesses has been discussed with the parents, the paediatrician will make recommendations to address the issues uncovered, and may also on-refer to allied health professionals such as psychologists, speech/language pathologists, audiologists, optometrists and occupational therapists, depending on the nature of the identified weakness or disability.

In selecting professionals, parents should look for practitioners who are familiar with both giftedness and the diagnostic complexities of 2e children. Professionals should be able to interpret unique patterns of test data (eg, unusual sub-test scatter), and they should always keep in mind that a 2e student may have more than one co-existing second exceptionality – indeed the child may be thrice-exceptional or multi-exceptional. In particular, children with ADHD may be also silently struggling with co-existing but as yet unidentified learning disabilities or emotional issues.

Dealing with a variety of professionals simultaneously can be tricky, and some parents prefer to employ an educational consultant or case manager to assist them. When considering a child with multiple exceptionalities, it is sometimes hard to know which special need on the menu of disabilities should be addressed first. And if several therapies or interventions are commenced at the same time and the 2e child is subsequently seen to improve, it will be difficult to guess which was the one which actually ‘worked’.

As a general rule, it is best to begin by consulting professionals such as developmental paediatricians who diagnose, identify and monitor, but who do not themselves offer regular ongoing treatments or remediation programs. Any therapist purporting to offer an absolute ‘cure’ should be regarded with scepticism, regardless of the number of glowing testimonials and studies cited on their website.
5. Importance of accurate early identification

The earlier a disability can be identified and addressed, the greater is the chance that it can be remediated, or at least accommodated and supported. Identification after age 9 can be particularly problematical. The older the child, the greater is the chance that the child will have already lost some of their spirit, enthusiasm and love of learning. A delayed diagnosis can be as damaging as a misdiagnosis.

However, given the difficulties in spotting 2e children in the classroom, it is not surprising that some do go unidentified – sometimes into high school and even university.

The passage of time often assists. As 2e children progress from primary school to high school, academic work demands more hours of sustained effort, and students are presented with ever increasing organisational and time-management challenges. There are multiple subjects and multiple teachers and untold numbers of books and other possessions. Parents find themselves living at the Lost and Found. Teachers no longer have time to teach the same things over and over until the very last student understands. When 2e children can’t cope with all this seeming confusion, they may increasingly find themselves labelled as ‘lazy’ or ‘careless’.

At this point, the unidentified 2e child may become more and more frustrated and mystified because the compensation strategies which they have unknowingly developed in primary school cease to work as well, if at all. Continually compensating for a disability takes great effort, and strategies tend to break down whenever the child is tired, ill or stressed. Accordingly, the 2e child’s high intelligence is no longer able to compensate for their disability, and the school performance steadily diminishes, even though the child feels that they are making considerable effort. After repeated failures, unidentified 2e children tend to conclude that they are ‘stupid’, and begin to view themselves with shame and doubt.

Some 2e may attempt to hide their feelings of low self-esteem and low self-efficacy by adopting ‘acting-out’ or ‘class clown’ behaviours, which are doomed to make matters worse. It is hardly surprising that a 2e child may eventually become cranky and non-compliant if they are left day after day in an environment where their needs are not being met and where they are regarded as a failure. Defiant behaviour is often a result. Understandably, most children would rather be viewed as ‘naughty’ than ‘dumb’.

The result of this spiral is continuing underachievement, lack of motivation, and general disenchantment with school. If punishment at school and/or at home is added to this equation, the consequences may be disastrous for a 2e child. By mid- to late-high school, many clearly clever children are thoroughly fed up with being labelled ‘lazy’ or ‘naughty’, and they may become sullen, withdrawn and ready to quit. Because they have learned to hate school, they see little point in continuing to play a game whose ultimate goal is to get good grades in order to get a high OP which will then enable them to go on to another place called “university” - which to them just looks, sounds, smells and feels like even more school! If parents make it clear however that quitting school is not an option and never will be, expulsion due to extreme misbehaviour may start to be viewed by the child as the only possible means of escape from a school environment which is causing such distress. The misbehaviour is mistakenly viewed as a deficit in the child rather than a shortcoming in the way he is being taught.
6. What about ‘labels’?

It is critically important to recognise the distinction between a gifted child’s misdiagnosis and missed diagnosis. The former, ‘misdiagnosis’, refers to incorrectly labelling a gifted child with a disability which they actually don’t have. On the contrary, the symptoms noted in the assessment are just the commonly occurring concomitants of giftedness (eg, sensitivity to criticism or inability to relate socially to non-gifted peers). The latter, ‘missed diagnosis’, however, is just as serious – neglecting or refusing to diagnose a genuine disability, on the grounds that the issue is merely a concomitant of giftedness and needs to be addressed just by changing the child’s environment and offering sympathy and understanding.

Problems with accurate identification of 2e can be exacerbated by professionals who misinterpret gifted children’s special characteristics, thereby missing the correct diagnosis and instead simply referring to the 2e child’s area of disability as only a ‘relative weakness’. Similarly, serious disabilities or special needs can sometimes be mistaken by some professionals for a so-called mere ‘overexcitability’ (in keeping with the Dabrowski theory of the five overexcitabilities which are said to be the concomitants of giftedness in some high-IQ children).

It is crucial not to dismiss the possibility of a disability or other special need on the grounds that the child is ‘just gifted’ or ‘just overexcitable’, or because “all children have relative strengths and weakness”. A diagnosis of a learning or other disability, properly made after thorough investigation by a developmental paediatrician or other professional, does not automatically ‘fall away’ or disappear once the child is also later identified as gifted – the child may indeed be both. 

Every missed diagnosis of a disability results in a missed opportunity for early remediation and intervention. It is simpler to craft functioning children than to fix faulty adults.

Accordingly, if it has ever been suggested to you that your child may have a disability or other special need, it is crucial that you have this investigated immediately by a professional, and not summarily cancel out that possibility on the grounds of giftedness or ‘overexcitabilities’, or in the hope that the child may “grow out of it”. Because their problems are neurologically based, 2e children do not generally grow out of their difficulties or otherwise unilaterally self-correct.

Even after proper identification, some parents and educators are reluctant to ‘label’ the 2e child with the correct medical name of their disability or other special need. They argue that they “don’t like labels” or that it’s “not nice to label a child”. They wonder what will happen once the label goes into the child’s ‘file’, and whether it will follow the child into adulthood, perhaps like a tattoo. However often in reality some of these same adults who fear medical labels have no qualms whatsoever about labelling a child as ‘lazy’ or ‘naughty’. Interestingly, the 2e child is usually neither.

In one Queensland study 85% of so-called ‘lazy’ children turned out to be silently struggling with an invisible and unidentified disability or special need. And the ‘bad’ behaviour of so-called ‘naughty’ 2e children tends to improve or disappear once their disability is identified and addressed, and once they are appropriately challenged in the classroom. (Interestingly, some parents report that their 2e child’s chronic ‘bad’ behaviour miraculously disappears whenever they attend gifted education holiday programs.)

Labelling a gifted child as ‘lazy’ or ‘naughty’ or as having a ‘relative weakness’ or a ‘Dabrowski overexcitablity’ entitles the child to nothing. It leaves the 2e child diagnostically homeless.

A professional diagnosis of a disability or other special need, by contrast, brings the child within the protection of disability discrimination legislation, and may entitle the child to in-school funding (eg for a teacher aide), to classroom modifications and accommodations, and to special test provisions (eg, extra time, laptop, separate room, etc). These provisions do not unfairly advantage the child, but they do allow the child to show what they have learned and what they can do, in a manner more closely approximating that afforded to a child without the disability. When 2e children begin to internalise that they are being fairly assessed at school, usually the future seems brighter.

From a practical point of view, the earlier the disability report goes into the child’s file, the greater the weight it carries when it comes time to apply for special test provisions for in-school assessments in later secondary school and for NAPLAN and for state exams (eg QCS). Any disability ‘miraculously’ discovered in Year 11 tends to be dismissed as a desperate attempt by ambitious parents to obtain some kind of unwarranted advantage for the child’s Year 12 exams and assessments.

7. After identification

A correct diagnosis or identification is a starting point, not a solution, Once it is eventually made, and an appropriate management plan, therapy, medicine or other intervention introduced, it is possible for the gifted child (particularly with extensive and possibly expensive targeted remedial tutoring) to “catch up” scholastically, and to systematically learn all the math facts and chemistry formulae and grammar and punctuation rules which have passed them by since early primary school – the years of school which the child was present for, but didn’t quite get.

It is much more difficult, however, for that 2e child to erase the tape which they have for years been playing in their head (the tape about being lazy and naughty and worthless and a perpetual school failure). It is sometimes equally difficult for the child’s parents, teachers and peers to similarly leave behind the old mindset. Clearly it is best to never let the tape start running in the first place.

This was well summed up by one 2e young adult: “Even though I’m now at uni and pretty happy and doing fairly well, there is a voice in my head which regularly reminds me of what happened to me at primary school and early high school – all the punishment and fear and humiliation and shaming, whenever I failed a test or forgot to hand in my homework – and ironically too, whenever I surprisingly topped the grade! Even now, at the least little academic setback, that is what my brain defaults to.”

8. What school intervention is best for 2e children?

This is a simple question with a very complex answer.

As soon as an accurate diagnosis has been determined and documented, it is crucial that appropriate support be given immediately to the 2e child, particularly at school. Without targeted academic intervention, the gifts of most 2e students will never be developed, and the likelihood of underachievement is high – without intervention, school just doesn’t work.

When it comes to school interventions, it is important to start with the premise that square pegs can indeed fit into round holes – it’s really just a matter of increasing the diameter of the hole.

There is no single solution suited to all 2e children. It is a matter of gradually fitting together the puzzle pieces and responding to each strength and weakness. The key to success is usually a well-informed teacher who is able to both feed the gifts and accommodate the disabilities.

Accordingly, 2e interventions should focus primarily on the child’s strengths, teaching to their giftedness and, through those strengths, allowing the child both to experience academic successes and to discover how to compensate for weaknesses and build resilience.

Ordinary remedial programs are generally disastrous for 2e children who are not usually assisted by more repetition of facts presented sequentially. This is especially so if the remedial program entails removing the gifted child from the regular classroom and clustering them in ‘special ed’ or ‘learning support’ classes composed largely of low-IQ students.

Better options include dually differentiated instruction, classroom accommodations and/or modifications including the use of assistive technology, specialised remedial instruction, individualised education plans (IEPs), supported acceleration and ability-grouping, frequent opportunities for enrichment and talent development, and a learning environment which celebrates diversity. Such interventions will allow 2e students not only to develop their gifts to a level commensurate with their abilities, but also to acquire compensation skills and strategies to address and support their disabilities.

Contraindicated in this context are approaches which withhold opportunities to use the child’s strengths and gifts until the child ‘fixes’ their disability or improves their ‘bad’ behaviour . Participation in a gifted program or in extension activities should never be held out as a ‘reward’ for accomplishing what a 2e child cannot unilaterally achieve, or denied in order to allow more time to “fix” what the child cannot do and probably hates.

That being said, the importance of specialised and individualised remedial teaching in a one-on-one situation cannot be over-emphasised. Solutions which modify expectations and accommodate disabilities by merely using assistive technology and special assessment and testing provisions are important and do serve the purpose of providing the 2e child with alternative ways to continue with the educational process. However, with the possible exception of handwriting, it is still necessary for the child to eventually learn to read and spell and multiply and do whatever else they cannot now do.

At some point, every 2e child needs to become competent in functional literacy and numeracy in order to meet their own intellectual demands. Despite initial difficulties, these skills can indeed be taught to virtually all children by an experienced and knowledgeable teacher or tutor who understands both giftedness and disabilities, and who is prepared to capitalise on the preferred learning style of the student. Completely neglecting the child’s deficits and concentrating only on the strengths can leave the 2e learner at a significant and long-lasting disadvantage in adulthood.

Further, even with proper remediation and appropriate interventions, it is important to remember that the 2e child’s underachievement will not be reversed overnight, especially if they have been struggling academically for some time. 2e children who have not had their gifts recognised and have not been given challenges for a long time may no longer know how to deal with them. Introducing new challenges in baby steps is necessary, and 2e children need to know that the challenges represent work that is substantively different, not just more voluminous. Most importantly, the new tasks must also be seen as relevant, authentic and worthwhile.

9. Advocating for 2e children at school

Also of critical importance in reversing underachievement at school are the quality of teaching which 2e children receive and the quality of the relationships which 2e children enjoy with their teachers. Despite all the intervention introduced to support the 2e child, there is simply no way that a child can be motivated to play the game called ‘school’ if the child does not respect – indeed if they passionately despise – the adults who are refereeing it.

The link between academic achievement and mental health can be either underpinned or undermined by the way 2e students are treated by their teachers and school counsellors/guidance officers. In particular, 2e students who are habitually ridiculed, belittled, humiliated or punished in front of their peers because of their disabilities can expect very poor outcomes over the long term.

It is hard to overestimate the stress caused to 2e children by years of sitting in classrooms where a great deal is expected of the child and the child has no control over whether they can meet the expectations, or where teachers have attempted to use humiliation or punishment to force students to perform academically.

When dealing with educators in a 2e context, it is prudent for parents to recognise that most teachers have never been trained in gifted education, and many have had little exposure to training in learning disabilities or other special needs. Those trained in gifted may have no expertise in disabilities and vice-versa. Very few will have been required in either pre-service or in-service training to consider specifically the child who is both gifted and special-needs. Most have received no instruction in interpreting IQ or disabilities reports.

Parents who have had the most success in ensuring that their 2e child’s needs are met at school tend to be ones who start with the assumption that the vast majority of teachers do the very best they can for most children most of the time. When misunderstandings arise, they usually stem from teachers’ lack of familiarity with the field, not absence of good intentions.

School advocacy for 2e children tends to be most effective when parents acknowledge teachers’ lack of training in this specialised, relatively new area of academic endeavour, not to mention the generally recognised difficulties in identifying 2e students in the classroom. Some parents choose to begin by emphasising that their advocacy stems from a desire not to maximise marks but rather to minimise emotional damage. And of course, even the most well-informed and well-intentioned teachers may be in a position to do little for a 2e child if the school’s culture is not supportive, or if insufficient in-school resources are available.

The earlier each teacher is made aware of a 2e child’s learning challenges, the better for all concerned. Sometimes teachers have unwittingly and unintentionally done irreparable harm to a 2e child, simply because they have not been informed of the child’s difficulties in advance. Once a hurtful comment is made, it cannot be “un-remembered”. Even a teacher who later apologises cannot unring the bell.

10. Self-advocacy

As 2e children grow older and learn more about the nature of their giftedness and their co-existing disabilities, many will be in a position to start to self-advocate at school, and they should be encouraged to do this and coached in how to attempt it. Parents can rehearse with the child how to politely remind a teacher or inform a relief teacher that, for example, extra time or coloured paper has been approved for tests.

Children can be taught how to get their needs met in an endearing way and without calling unwelcome attention to themselves. For example, instead of “Could you repeat that please – I wasn’t listening”, the child could try “Could you repeat that please – my working memory seems to have been on break for a bit”. Sometimes it is best for the child to start with email advocacy and then graduate to face-to-face interactions with teachers and other school personnel. With practice, many find self-advocacy quite empowering.

There are some 2e children, however, for whom self-advocacy is never going to be the whole solution, for example children with anxiety. In some cases, the parent must and should continue to play the role of ‘surrogate frontal lobe’ or ‘educational seeing-eye dog’ all the way up to the end of high school and well into tertiary. Saying to a 2e adolescent, “Well by now you should be able to speak up for yourself” is not helpful. No one would say to an adolescent in a wheelchair, “Well by now you should be able to walk”.

11. What happens to 2e children?

The prognosis for 2e children whose disabilities are properly identified and managed is excellent. An identification of twice-exceptionality is not necessarily a prediction of life-long academic underachievement.

Indeed some 2e students go on to perform exceedingly well in late high school when they are able to choose only subjects which celebrate their strengths, and especially if they are lucky enough to have skilled and understanding teachers who know how to remove the ‘naughty’ and ‘lazy’ masks to reveal the gifts beneath. This is particularly so for 2e learners who have been identified early, who have had their 2e profile carefully and sympathetically explained to them and have developed self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses, and who have themselves accepted that their disabilities mean (and will always mean) that they must sometimes work longer and harder than their non-2e peers to achieve similar results.

Some determined and tenacious 2e students score very highly at the end of high school and are accepted into exceedingly competitive undergraduate university programs. Fortunately, at the tertiary level, special test provisions and other classroom accommodations and modifications are generally much easier to obtain. Once continually supported by these provisions, 2e students more readily go on to excel in higher degrees, sometimes rising to the pinnacle of their professions.

Many 2e students, however, especially those who as children have been regularly and severely punished at home or at school for their less-than-sterling academic performance, grow up to do none of those things. These unfortunate students take their 2e-derived difficulties into adulthood, where they continue to impact not only on family and other relationships but also on success in employment and adult life generally.

12. A 2e support group for QAGTC?

Sometimes parents and teachers at QAGTC events ask me if it would be possible to form a support group for parents and teachers of 2e in Queensland. If, after reading this article, you feel that this is something which might be of interest you, please let me know at the email address below. I’m keeping a file of expressions of interest. Often these things start small and then go on to support a lot of gifted children!

I’d also be very happy to hear from Queensland professionals who specialise in, or are particularly interested in, 2e children. If you practise in gifted and want to learn more about disability – or if you specialise in disability and want to branch out also into gifted – please do get in touch!

© Carol Barnes 2011. Republication not permitted without express permission.  May be photocopied for information dissemination among parents and teachers.

Carol Barnes is the convenor of the NSWAGTC support group for parents and teachers of 2e children, vice-president of the Gold Coast QAGTC Branch, and convenor of that Branch’s parent support group.  She is an invited lecturer on 2e at Griffith University and, most importantly, the mother of two gifted young adults with multiple learning disabilities. Carol may be contacted at

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