Twice Exceptional or Just Exceptional? Let’s Find Out

by Teresa Currivan, LMFT, Parent Coach

The term “Twice Exceptional” or “2e” is commonly used to describe children and adults who are intellectually gifted and who have some form of disability: they are exceptional both in their abilities and in their disabilities.

What might we be missing when we use the term “2e” too broadly? Because the highly to profoundly gifted child has a very high risk of being missed and misdiagnosed due to many factors, it would be helpful to be more clear about what we are saying when we mean twice-exceptional vs. highly to profoundly gifted. These terms overlap, and we often use them interchangeably for various reasons, but there is much room for improvement in our ability to get more specific in our understanding of our gifted children and their needs. 

Here is a typical list of characteristics of a 2e child: 

  • advanced language
  • analytical thinking
  • intense drive to find out the meaning of things on their own terms
  • the ability to find connections between things that others can not see
  • unique or higher level sense of humor
  • heightened sensitivity to needs and motivations of others
  • aversion to being judged; they may do really well with one teacher, and be “the awful child” with another
  • strong sense of fairness and justice
  • accelerated learning beyond their age group in one or more areas, while also possibly appearing to be behind in others
  • intense sensory processing issues –eg, heightened sensitivities to foods, touch, sounds, sights, movement — or conversely the need for more stimulation in any of these areas. (See my article on sensory issues, link below.)
  • lack of executive functioning and attention issues. In very simple terms, this is the child who has a hard time getting organized or following several steps of instructions before getting sidetracked. (ADHD is also a 2e trait that can stay through adulthood, but often the frontal lobe catches up by age 12, and then again by age 18, and the ADHD-like traits lessen.  See Davidsongifted.org for more on this.)
  • fluidity in learning and interest. They may be the expert in history one month and appear to have no interest the next. They also learn best when able to learn across subjects such as learning math while measuring for cooking, etc.

The “2” in “2e” implies that these gifts are paired with something wrong  – commonly dyslexia, dysgraphia, autism or ADHD, among others. While 2e children can have these disabilities, these same labels are too often applied without fully understanding the specifics of each gifted child. Being in the exceptionally gifted category comes with heightened sensitivities, intensities, perfectionism, and intense drive to learn and create. As we all know, these traits can be misunderstood as pathologies. The same child who is profoundly gifted but mistaken to be moderately gifted with disabilities is going to be less likely to thrive. This is something I see all too often. The highly to profoundly gifted cannot accurately be diagnosed, I believe, until things specific to their needs are understood and addressed such as appropriate learning environment, accurate testing, and sensory issues. Any combination of these can exponentially increase the likelihood of misdiagnosis. At the same time, once addressed, it will become clear if there are other issues that need to be identified, or if the child is simply highly to profoundly gifted with all of the complicated the side effects that can come with it.

As the father of a profoundly gifted 11-year-old said of gifted individuals, “It’s like we’re all lopsided, and the more gifted, the more lopsided.” It is often difficult to describe the differently wired brain. I would add to this that the children can appear even more lopsided than the adults. Assigning labels too early can create a story of pathology that sticks not leaving any room for growth early on. Many gifted adults can tell me where their strengths and weaknesses are, and in most cases, there has been a significant change since they were young.

What I see in my practice are gifted children who are given a diagnosis, such as ADHD, by a professional who does not understand all that can come with giftedness. Often the diagnosis is not a certain one. “I’m not sure it’s ADHD. Take these meds, if they work, then you know he has it,” is something I have heard a few times. I worry that we are assigning pathologies too soon, before we really know what might be going on. Does the child have dysgraphia or are they just resistant to handwriting because writing is going too slow compared to the speed their brain is going? Maybe they are highly visual-spatial and have vision issues? Why assign the work “dysgraphia” until we know for certain? Words, after all, have power, and using them can take power from the child’s own agency and desire to keep trying, or to let it go for awhile and not worry about it, maybe returning when they are ready. As we know, asynchrony can even out a bit as gifted children grow. Pathologizing language leaves less space for that.

I have a protocol that I run through with every gifted child I work with. Once the issues I suspect are ruled out or addressed, and only then, labels can be appropriate. What I hope to avoid is the over pathologizing and getting stuck focusing on a deficit when focusing on the child’s strength is what can address the weaknesses. I think most of us are more comfortable sharing with the world that our child “has ADHD” or “dyslexia” rather than share that they are gifted. As adults, they may have both, but wouldn’t it be nice to be allowed to focus on the bigness (and challenges of fulfilling these needs!) of giftedness rather than only focusing on the pathology as they are growing? Especially when there might be space to move on from it at a certain age by addressing it.

Most professionals who do not understand the highly to profoundly gifted population are not going to understand or be able to accurately diagnose them fully. Whether your child is identified as highly to profoundly gifted, twice-exceptional, or both, I find it helpful to focus on your child’s gifted strengths. There can be an entire untapped world in there.

 

Teresa Currivan is a mother, licensed marriage and family therapist, school therapist,  coaches parents by phone at Help My Child Thrive Coaching, and offers parent support groups. Teresa has been published on sites such as Mother.ly, Filter Free Parents, and is a blogger at GHF and Hoagies Gifted Education. She specializes in giftedness, twice-exceptionality,  educational fit, and family dynamics, as well as gifted adults. She lives in the San Francisco, California Bay Area with her husband and son. You can find more articles on this website. Follow her on her Facebook at  fb.me/TeresaCurrivanCoaching.

***Not sure if your child is gifted? Or maybe you would like to find out if I can help your gifted or twice-exceptional child? I offer free 20 minute consultations for first-timers. Email me and we’ll set up a time to talk. I’d love to hear from you. TeresaCurrivan@gmail.com ***

 

Want to read about a typical 2e child’s story? I recommend this article:

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Why It Is Vital To Know If Your Child Is Gifted

 

 

You may also find these helpful:

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What is a Visual-Spatial Learner?

 

 

 

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How to Obtain Proper Testing for the Gifted Underachiever

 

 

 

or

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How Can I Tell the Difference Between Sensory Issues and Other Childhood Disorders in My Child?

 

 

As of March 1, this article is part of a blog hop over at Hoagies Gifted Education. Hoagies Gifted Education page is an amazing resource for everything gifted. Go check them out, and check out the other bloggers on the Topic of Special Gifted Populations: HoagiesSpecialPopulationsBlogHopHoagiesSpecialPopImage

©2019 Teresa Currivan