ADHD. Autism Spectrum Disorders. Dyslexia. Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Anxiety Disorder. Bipolar Disorder. Increasingly, and at younger ages, bright children carry labels that often obscure more than enlighten. As parents seek support for these labels, frequently the most important condition is missed: Giftedness. After all, how often do we consider giftedness with disability?
To be fair, twice-exceptionality (giftedness with physical or mental/learning disability) is hard to identify: giftedness can conceal disability; disability can hide giftedness; or, the two can mask one another. Yet in schools and at home, the tendency is to support weaknesses instead of developing strengths.
Because of troublesome behavior, twice-exceptional students are frequently misperceived as broken instead of bright. Clinicians, educators and parents focus on “fixing” the challenges--daydreaming, distractibility, anger, refusal, learning difficulties -- instead of developing abilities. Rather than recognizing and nurturing the untapped potential of the whole child, this approach centers upon supporting weaknesses in hope of promoting the most positive life outcome.
Despite these best efforts, though, the dropout rate for twice-exceptional students is almost double the national average. They struggle with social isolation, depression, anxiety, and thoughts of worthlessness and suicide. These are our academic underachievers—seriously at-risk students who are exceptionally creative and bright.
Why They’re Falling Through the Cracks
Three common traits of giftedness are intensity, asynchrony, and perfectionism, says Dr. Linda Silverman of The Gifted Development Center. These characteristics lead to behaviors that are often misdiagnosed as disability, with the most frequent being ADHD, according to Dr. James Webb, co-founder of The Misdiagnosis Initiative. Bipolar, OCD, and even Autism are also common diagnoses as well.
Besides the danger of misdiagnosis, twice-exceptional students remain underserved in school. With Common Core’s emphasis on classroom interventions, gifted students whose disability pulls down their performance on standardized tests are at risk of not being identified as disabled or gifted because they often score in the proficient range. Likewise, despite documented learning challenges, many are too “capable” to qualify for educational supports.
Collectively, we buy into the myth of achievement, believing if a child is gifted, he or she will achieve at some point in life, regardless of circumstance or environment.
However, this is untrue. Giftedness creates a unique psychological experience--one fraught with hidden weaknesses, emotional intensities, and the piercing awareness of being different and alone. Unfortunately, many clinicians remain untrained in traits of giftedness and how high IQ can impact the way a child presents during an evaluation for ADHD, Autism, or other disabilities.
How to Help Them
A shift to a whole-child perspective would absolutely improve life outcomes for many twice-exceptional children. As future inventors, artists, entrepreneurs, and engineers, these students require strengths-based educational plans that nurture gifts and talents through flexible programming, mentoring, and internships. Within this context, necessary remediation and support for challenges can occur as needed.
At the same time, twice-exceptional children require highly trained clinicians, educators, and therapists who are sensitive to the complexities, behaviors, and deficits present in twice-exceptionality. These students deserve professionals, parents, and a society who support their valuable talents and who see them as bright not broken.
Rebecca Banks Cull
Rebecca, a veteran educator and mother of two twice-exceptional children, has used her experience to co-author The ADHD-Autism Connection (2002) and Bright Not Broken: Gifted Kids, ADHD, and Autism (2011). Rebecca is co-founder of Bright Not Broken: The Lorna Wing Institute of America, a national speaker, and works to bring together the fields of giftedness and disabilities in order to promote a whole-child approach to diagnosis and intervention.