Can We Accurately Test Twice-Exceptional Children?

By Teresa Currivan, LMFT, Parent Coach

Twice-exceptional (2e) children are difficult to test for the same reason they struggle in a typical school.  

Differently wired and twice-exceptional children can have secondary issues that impact their success in school. In addition to low intellectual stimulation, they may have undetected auditory, vision, or other sensory issues that are common among the twice-exceptional, as well as other strengths and challenges such as ADHD, autism, and non-neuro-typical learning styles. Lack of engagement and school trauma alone can impact the ability to accurately assess a child. By definition, twice-exceptional children are difficult to test for the very reason they struggle in a typical school.  

Why is IQ important?

Getting an accurate IQ number, or at least an accurate IQ range is important. 

It seems to me that we are in a bit of a negative feedback loop around testing for giftedness and understanding giftedness. Each informs the other. So here we are. I’ll explain. 

I’ll begin with why it is important to know at least the range of IQ that your child is in. Of all of the diagnosing we do with students who struggle in school, this is perhaps the most important to understand, and the most easily addressed. I believe there is a lot of money, time and effort to be saved in understanding this one thing. The more highly gifted an individual is, the more “side effects” you get. As James Webb, the grandfather of giftedness says, “2e individuals are all in the highly to profoundly gifted range.” Temple Grandin, a leader on autism, has stated that she feels that giftedness is involved in many forms of autism, with the more extreme, quirky people being more gifted. (She states, proudly, that the more gifted a person, the more “nerdy” or quirky they are.) These two statements are in line with my experience of individuals in the differently wired community. The paradox is that the more highly gifted an individual is, the more difficult the giftedness can be to understand because the way this person thinks is so far outside the box of what most of us can perceive. Their gifts are invisible to us unless we are willing to learn. That brings me to….

Why is learning style important? 

I talk a lot about visual-spatial learners. You can read one of my articles, listed below.* But there are all kinds of learners. Most schools today teach in a certain way. I would say that the Common Core State Standards Initiative was a brave attempt at addressing different learning styles. But most 2e students find the system even more challenging because they are required to show work in styles that are not their own. I think if we were to turn the idea around: instead of having students show their work in every possible way, but allow them to both do the work and show the work that is organic to their natural way of thinking and learning, then we’re on to something.

This same idea applies to testing: if we assume a child thinks a certain way, only the students who think that particular way will be able to give you an accurate test result. 

As an aside, teaching to different learning styles can be less work. (You’ll see some ideas in my article on visual-spatial learners.) Testing requires a deep understanding of differently wired learners, but it can be done. 

How do 2e challenges impact testing? 

Because many 2e children struggle with overlapping strengths and challenges, it’s important for the tester to understand these and to be able to discern the varying components and how they impact the child’s ability to function, both in the test itself and at school and in the world, which, as we know, is the point of an assessment.

For example, if a child is unable to see the paper in front of them, or to think when there are noises, even quiet noises around them, or to read due to sensory processing disorder, clearly they will not test to their ability, especially if the tester does not thoroughly understand these disorders. Additionally, any combination of school trauma and previous testing, shame, and perfectionism can contribute to a skewed test score. Many parents report to me what they feel is a conclusive test when I find out later that the child was not actually able to focus or complete the test. Due to sensitivities, for example, even a mismatch in the personality of the child with the tester can impact test results. A child with ADHD or attention issues can be tested for that particular disorder, but the overall test results show a lower score, and there is not clarity about how the attention issues were accounted for. There are many high IQ individuals who have attention issues: an example of two very different traits that can appear to an outsider to cancel each other out both on a test and in life.

So how are we understanding their abilities in the context of their challenges? The key is in understanding the challenges and learning styles precisely so that the strengths can be more obvious. I have heard more than a few times, a profoundly gifted learner being addressed in passing by a teacher as “cognitively delayed.” Being cognitively delayed and profoundly gifted are miles apart in terms of accuracy, but this is an understandable mistake that is made all too often. If you look at the same student with the understanding of all of their challenges in wiring, such as sensory processing, executive functioning, etc., and the accommodations are made (often simple ones), the strengths become profoundly clear. Once this is resolved, not only are academic issues resolved but behavior and mental health issues fall into place, in part immediately and in part over time. 

What is being done? 

I’d like to end on an upbeat note. But honestly, we are in the midst of resolving this issue. Because testing so deeply impacts the mental health of the differently wired community, I did some sleuthing (begging and complaining) a few years ago. What I found out was that Pearson, one of our largest testing companies, had asked some of our gifted experts for data on testing requirements so that they could extend testing into the higher ranges. They submitted it, and what we have are the new, extended norms for the WISC 5, as I understand it. What this does is allow the testers to keep going when they see that a child can keep going. So that if they are testing a fifth-grade student at a fifth-grade level and can keep raising the difficulty going into say, 11th grade in any area, they are allowed to, and their score will reflect that. (This has always been the case, but the new extended norms allowed for a bit more.) So there’s hope. But I’m concerned that this still does not compensate for learning differences, challenges, and putting the bigger picture altogether. Like I said, the more highly gifted, the more different, and therefore more difficult to test. For example, this same child may have an 11th-grade knowledge of the subject, but if they are a predominantly visual-spatial learner, (due to auditory challenges, or just learning style,) the test most likely will not be able to measure this.

The twice-exceptional population is an underserved population. I wish I could be more polite about this, but I see too many children suffering unnecessarily in school. I believe teachers and parents are suffering too. There’s nothing worse than wanting to help a child but not knowing how. To quote my favorite person in the gifted field, Linda Silverman, “We are bigoted against our gifted population.” That there is currently a lack of proper testing for those who are in the higher ranges of giftedness, many of whom are twice-exceptional, is emblematic of this, leaving them vulnerable to misdiagnosis and improper care.

The bottom line is that if you suspect that your child is wired differently and is confusing to teachers and to yourself, and particularly if your child is in crisis, please seek help from a professional who knows this population. Consulting with parents and support groups who know this population can also be life-changing (and can also be anecdotally diagnostic as you will hear similar stories). If their school years have been confusing to you, it may help you understand them from a strength-based approach.

©2021 Teresa Currivan 

Teresa Currivan is a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, Headshotcroppedschool therapist, coach and consultant for individuals and parents at Help My Child Thrive Coaching. She developed The Currivan Protocol™ Qualitative Assessment Tool to assess and address co-occurring issues related to being differently wired. This has been popular in her private practice, and she is currently adapting it to be used in public schools. She is the author of the book, My Differently Tuned-In Child: The Right Place for Strength-Based Solutions. Teresa has been published on sites such as, Filter Free Parents, and is a blogger at GHF and Hoagies Gifted Education and is a contributing author to the GHF Press book, “Perspectives on Giftedness.” Teresa has connections to San Francisco Bay Area schools such as Fusion Academy, Big Minds Unschool, The Academy of Thought and Industry, and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD.) 

*What Is a Visual-Spatial Learner?