How to Support Your Twice-Exceptional Child

Twice-exceptional children are both academically gifted and have a learning difference or disability. From advanced readers with ADHD to students with autism spectrum disorder who perform above grade level in math, twice-exceptional or “2e” students have diverse skills and needs. Here are some of the common challenges facing 2e kids and their families, as well as tools and resources for supporting them.

Identifying 2e Children

A report from the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) estimates that approximately 6 percent of students receiving special education services are also academically gifted, even if they have not all been identified as such.

Getting children identified as 2e can be difficult, as they need to be screened for both giftedness and learning differences.

Twice-exceptional children commonly experience either a missed diagnosis, where their gifted abilities mask underlying academic challenges, or a misdiagnosis, where behavior or learning differences mask their academic talents, says Laurel Griffiths, director of family services at the Davidson Institute, a nonprofit that supports gifted youth. Others may present as neurotypical, she says, “because the masking is working so well” that both the giftedness and the disability remain unnoticed.

Andrea Hartman is the mom of a 2e eighth grader living in Troy, New York. She says that she and her husband noticed learning differences in their son, George, when he was very young. At 14 months old, he was able to point to specific shapes in a deck of flashcards after hearing their names only once. By 18 months old, “he seemed to already know a lot of what we were teaching him,” Hartman says. At the same time, George’s autism spectrum tendencies “developed in parallel to, and in tandem with, recognizing how bright he was.”

Receiving a recommendation from a pediatrician for an early intervention evaluation was key to getting his diagnosis for autism. Later screening for giftedness at age 4 identified his abilities.

[READ: What Is Dyslexia?]

Experts say many students are identified in one area (as gifted or learning disabled) first. Griffiths says that sometimes the evaluation that initially identifies giftedness can be a starting point in finding a learning disability. For instance, if a student shows large differences in abilities, testing high in one subject and average or below in others, it could be a sign for parents to ask more questions. Parents who hear from teachers that their child is off task or not meeting standards might also follow up about what the underlying causes might be. She notes that it’s common for families of 2e students to consult with multiple experts in order to be fully identified as 2e.

Twice-exceptional children who attend schools in low-income communities and children of color may face additional difficulties in getting their giftedness recognized, since students in these groups are under-identified for gifted programs in general. In the United States, there isn’t a national definition for “gifted,” and the process for identifying gifted children has been plagued by racial and socioeconomic disparities.

Parents can advocate for their children by approaching teachers with questions that explore what’s behind problems at school — whether they stem from unidentified learning disabilities or unrecognized giftedness. Shelagh Gallagher, president-elect at the NAGC, suggests saying something like, “It seems to me that my child is not reaching potential. … I wonder if there’s something we could do to see if my child could be achieving more.” She stresses the value of conversations that invite collaboration with teachers and school staff.

[READ: Is a ‘Lab School’ Right for Your Child?]

Supporting 2e Children

In public school, when a child is diagnosed with a learning disability, the school is required to create a written education plan. This will be either an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a legally binding document that provides accommodations to meet the student’s special education needs, or a 504 plan, which supports students with disabilities but may be more flexible than an IEP in terms of student eligibility and implementation.

It’s important to note that both IEPs and 504 plans are connected specifically to disabilities or differences and not necessarily to gifted services, which are not protected by federal law and can vary widely by district. Because of that, Gallagher encourages parents of 2e children to ask that gifted accommodations be written into their plans so that schools are meeting the range of student learning needs from the beginning. Otherwise, she says, “very often what schools will do is they’ll say, ‘Well, we’ll fix what’s wrong before we accommodate what’s right.’ And it’s really, really important that it becomes a both/and, and not a first/then.'”

Twice-exceptional students often display asynchronous learning development, experts say. That means they may show advanced abilities in one subject, but might be at the same level or even behind their peers in other academic or developmental areas, such as executive functioning. Caregivers should keep in mind that asynchrony can be particularly frustrating for 2e children, whose abilities to express themselves may not keep up with the ideas circulating in their minds.

Megan Cannella, manager of family services at Davidson, recommends using specific examples of what works for your child outside of school — drawing from moments when they are most “themselves” — to come up with strategies for the classroom, and bringing specific ideas about what you’d like to see in school.

Gallagher suggests parents take the time to learn some of the language and terminology educators and clinicians commonly use to talk about 2e children, or find an ally who can help them understand and advocate for their children during conversations around learning plans. And while these discussions can be stressful, Gallagher adds that parents should remember teachers are also rooting for their child’s success, and it helps to work together.

[READ: Private School vs. Public School.]

Where 2e Kids Succeed

Hartman says that they sought out a private school for her son that would allow him to delve deep into the topics he studies, which helps him stay interested. She also looks for educational environments that emphasize social and emotional learning. “Our focus has always been on making sure that he’s a good person, because being bright is only going to get you so far.”

Gallagher says that competition — and the relationships built through teams — can be great for 2e kids, suggesting programs like Odyssey of the Mind, which families can join from home or through their school, as settings where they thrive.

And though school can be a struggle for 2e kids, Gallagher says their futures are bright. “These kids are often the creatives … or the very original thinkers,” she explains. “They grow up to be amazing adults.”

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