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  • Elena Ostroy

Gifted Children with Special Needs - Evaluating Twice Exceptional (2E) Kids

While a child can be gifted in many areas, such as music, art, or math, intellectual giftedness is usually defined by exceptionally high performance on (at least some portions) of the tests of intellectual functioning, or IQ. Just like kids with average intellectual functioning, intellectually gifted children can experience learning and behavioral difficulties. Children who are both gifted and have a learning or neurodevelopmental disability, such as a learning or communication disorder, ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), are referred to as twice exceptional, or 2E. These children need to be identified so that appropriate school placement, interventions and supports could be put in place. Yet the disabling conditions among the intellectually gifted kids are often overlooked and misunderstood.

Perhaps the most common misconception about giftedness is that a gifted child would be expected to function at the same very high level across the board. This may result in overlooking both the giftedness and the disability. For instance, because language-based skills (speaking, reading, and writing) are most apparent in a school setting, a child who excels in visuospatial reasoning but has reading and writing skills that are lagging behind may not be considered particularly bright by his teachers and therefore would not be flagged as possibly intellectually gifted and, more importantly, an intellectually gifted child who may also have a language-based learning disability.

When a child is referred because their behavior is difficult to manage, the behavioral problems can overshadow their exceptional intellectual abilities. A few months ago, I evaluated a little boy who was referred by his teacher. “He’s constantly interrupting and getting out of seat,” the teacher reported. “He has no friends because he makes other kids feel bad.” When pressed for details, the teacher explained that the little boy would often interrupt her, correct her and proceed to lecture the class with what she felt was a completely unnecessary level of detail on the subject. Similarly, he would interrupt and correct his peers constantly, letting them know, quite bluntly, that they were wrong or not very knowledgeable. The evaluation revealed that the boy had an IQ of 145, higher than 99.9% of his peers. All of his academic skills were at least 4-5 years above grade level. He was clearly not intellectually challenged in a regular education class. He also had ASD. While his vast knowledge was quite impressive, he struggled to find ways to share it in a socially appropriate way.

On the other hand, highly intelligent people often learn to compensate for their weaknesses quite well. In 2E kids, the challenges may not become fully apparent until middle school, or even high school, when the underlying disability can no longer be compensated for by the high level of intelligence. An extremely bright 9th grader I recently evaluated began falling behind in math at her new, academically rigorous high school. In middle school, she managed to get all As, even if math required more effort than other subjects. Now that math was more advanced, she was quite lost despite spending hours on math homework, and embarrassed to ask for help for the fear that her teacher would think less of her. Testing revealed a specific learning disorder in mathematics (also known as dyscalculia) that made learning math quite challenging despite having extremely high intellectual abilities.

For many 2E kids, finding the right level of intellectual rigor and support for their special needs can be difficult. Not being sufficiently challenged can lead to behavioral problems in class, as the child may get bored or disruptive. Not getting the needed support may cause emotional problems, such as anxiety or low self-confidence. To get the right support, an individualized educational plan (IEP) or a 504 Accommodations Plan may need to be put in place. Other 2E kids thrive in schools specifically designed to meet the needs of twice exceptional children. A comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation is the best way to identify both giftedness and the areas of learning and behavioral challenges and get recommendations for the best suited school placement, interventions and accommodations specifically tailored to meet your child’s needs.

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