Twice Exceptional

Twice exceptional, often abbreviated to 2e, means gifted with a learning disability (LD). This is a concept with which many people have difficulty because it seems hard to  appreciate that it is possible. Based on nearly thirty years of assessing gifted children, the Gifted Development Centre  in Colorado estimates that approximately one in six gifted children also has a learning disability of some description. Teachers and other professionals who see past the LD and recognise the child’s potential can change, not just that student’s school experience, but their entire life.

Students are often able to use their exceptional ability to compensate for much of the learning disability, thereby masking it. However, the disability means that they are unlikely to show their true ability. The net effect being a student who appears to be pretty average. Their school report will often state ‘bright but lazy’ or ‘capable, but must work harder’.

Unfortunately, even when a LD is diagnosed and the student applies for learning support, they are assessed on their achievement relative to the norm of all students. However, due to their ability to compensate, gifted students with learning disabilities often do not do poorly enough to qualify for assistance.

Exceptional ability alone, although recognised in the Education Act of 1998 as a Special Educational Need (SEN), is not included in the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs (EPSEN) Act of 2004 and is not on the list of SENs considered for learning support by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) (see page 33 of this report). Therefore, it is only by having a LD that a gifted child can access support. And even then, any support awarded is for the LD, not the exceptional ability. This results in highlighting the weakness while ignoring the strength; trying to make the child do the thing they can’t rather than developing what they can. This can be very damaging to a child’s self-efficacy.

Misdiagnosis: Firstly, it is very important to understand that some behaviours typical of gifted students, can be mistaken for disorders such as Asperger’s, ADHD, OCD or emotional and behavioural disorders. Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children and Adults  by James T Webb is an absolute must-read book for any parent of a child who has been diagnosed as twice exceptional and for all teachers, psychologists and psychiatrists who deal with children with behavioural and learning difficulties. There are many pitfalls to avoid, as Dr Webb outlines in this summary of his book.

For those who prefer to listen rather than read, here Dr Webb gives a video presentation: “Because few psychologists, pediatricians, or other health care professionals receive training about gifted children, this session offers information about characteristics of gifted children, frequent issues that arise, and guidelines to distinguish whether a child is simply showing gifted behaviors or suffers from disorders such as ADHD or Asperger’s Disorder. Because some disorders are more frequently found in gifted children, additional focus is given to these dual diagnoses of gifted children.”

Missed Diagnosis: It is important not to misdiagnose a LD, but it is possibly even more important not to miss one. In Gifted Children with Learning Disabilities : Lost Treasures, Linda Silverman  explains that “In psychology, as well as in other therapeutic fields, such as audiology, speech pathology, occupational therapy, and optometry, the diagnostic question that is usually asked is, “How does this child’s performance compare with the norm?” If the child scores within the normal range, no disabilities are detected. If the child scores below the norms, then intervention is sought to bring them up to the norms for average children. To accurately assess gifted children, it is necessary to ask a different diagnostic question: “To what extent do the discrepancies between the child’s strengths and his or her weaknesses cause frustration and interfere with the full development of the child’s abilities?” “

The National Education Association in the USA refers to The Twice Exceptional Dilemma: “Students who are gifted and disabled are at risk for not achieving their potential because of the relationship that exists between their enhanced cognitive abilities and their disabilities. They are among the most frequently under-identified population in our schools. Twice-exceptional students present a unique identification and service delivery dilemma for educators. Often educators, parents, and students are asked to choose between services to address one exceptionality or the other, leaving twice-exceptional students both underidentified and underserved in our schools.”

Gifted Children with Learning Disabilities: A Review of the Issues

To Label or Not to Label?

The Price: Parents will tell you that one of the biggest challenges facing a 2e student is getting the school to see past the LD. Focus on the LD alone can be very damaging to a student’s confidence and can set in train a defeatist mindset which may be very difficult to change. However, in a system where learning support can only be accessed by diagnosing a disability and in which even educational psychologists and learning support teachers have no training in gifted education, this is generally what happens. Sometimes, the recommended approach for a particular LD (eg repetition, small steps) is precisely the opposite to what will work for a 2e student with the same LD.

In Twice-exceptionality in the classroom, Stephanie Chivers says “It is the attitude of the teacher that determines whether the student succeeds in the classroom situation…To foster students with twice-exceptionality, teachers need a comprehensive understanding of the condition, equipped with a positive attitude and ample curriculum differentiation options tailored to individual strengths and weaknesses. ”

As mentioned before, gifted children can often use their exceptional ability to compensate for the LD. However, this comes at a price, as Linda Silverman explains in The Two-Edged Sword of Compensation: How the Gifted Cope with Learning Disabilities: “Compensation is a two-edged sword:  It helps an individual to adapt, but it also acts to prevent accurate diagnosis and recognition of disabilities by oneself and others.  While modality strengths can be counted on consistently, compensation requires extra energy and tends to be unstable. Fatigue, illness, and stress all rob the person of sufficient energy to be able to compensate…Gifted people with disabilities are heroic. They are to be admired when their compensation attempts work and supported when these mechanisms are inconsistent.”

Teaching strategies:

In Teaching Strategies for Twice Exceptional Students,  Susan Winebrenner gives some good advice: “Rather than trying to use evidence from their weak learning areas to prove they are not “truly gifted,” savvy teachers are now learning how to allow these students to experience the same opportunities available for gifted students when they are learning in their strength areas. When students are learning in their areas of weakness, teachers are learning to provide the same compensation strategies used by other students with learning disabilities. This article offers specific instruction to empower teachers to effectively teach twice-exceptional students.”

Understanding twice-exceptional students by Jennifer Hobb of the University of North Carolina: “This article discusses the twice-exceptional student, defined as a student with both gifts and a learning disability. The author lists three categories of twice-exceptional students, addresses the challenges involved in identifying these students’ exceptionalities, shares strategies for teaching twice-exceptional students, and emphasizes the importance of supporting the students’ social skills.”

Figuring out where a 2e student hits their Zone of Proximal Development, as described by Lev Vygotsky, may not be easy but it is very important.

Here are some of the common learning disabilities and how they interact with giftedness:




Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Aspergers Syndrome:

Sensory Processing/Sensory Integration Disorder:

Auditory Processing Disorder:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)/Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD):

Useful resources