Twice exceptional is a relatively new term known only in education and research circles. Some parents know it because they have a twice exceptional child. A simple definition of twice exceptional would be a person who is both gifted in some manner and challenged in another. I am intellectually gifted and dyslexic and epileptic. Some are mathematically brilliant and autistic. Some may be AD/HD and unbelievably artistic. It is usually not so simple as to identify only “two” labels. The labels start to pile up over time.
There are never just two things to label or address, so twice is a misnomer. We are talking about people who may have multiple challenges such as slow processing, poor attention, social anxiety, mysterious health problems, emotional challenges, and poor school performance. These very same people may be incredibly articulate and have an unbelievable memory for data. Some may be incredible problem solvers able to think outside the box. Some may even be savants.
I am a grown up twice exceptional person who works with 2E people and families. I have a house full of them (the nuts don’t fall far from the tree). So, what’s it like?
It is hard.
It can be a source of self judgment and self hatred.
To have an incredible mind with extraordinary power that is limited in some way can generate anxiety and depression. It’s like owning a Ferrari and only being able to drive it 40 mph. You know you own a Ferrari, and you cannot experience the full potential of the car. Your neighbor may be driving a Prius and passing you on the highway.
This happens in schools all the time. A profoundly gifted student may be sitting next to a student of average intelligence who is outperforming them in every way. Good students tend to be organized and motivated by their own success. This is not a luxury of a 2E student. If they are organized, the effort involved can be extraordinary. There is a heavy price to pay to exert such effort over a long period of time. It might look like psychiatric problems, anxiety, depression, illness, chronic fatigue, and an unhappy life. And if there is success, it is quickly overshadowed by daily failures or dismissed as a fluke.
2E students often receive poor or mediocre grades, spend more time on homework, and despite caring deeply, cannot organize their way out of a paper bag. 2E students know they are not performing to their potential because the environment they must function in is not designed with their strengths or weaknesses in mind. 2E students are powerless to change the education system. So are their parents. We have been trying for decades. It is too easy for the 2E person to believe that they are broken and unwanted because they are living in an environment that does not suit them. It is like asking a tiger to live in Antarctica. While the tiger is an impressive animal in its own right, it does not possess the survival skills necessary to survive in Antarctica.
Another way to consider it is this: imagine a child bound to a wheelchair for life. Now imagine the child’s parents, school, and society demanding that the child get up and walk. What’s is even more frustrating for the 2E person is they can sometimes walk and in other moments it is completely impossible and even more impossible to explain to others. Plus, there is no reminder to the rest of the world that they even have a challenge. No wheel chair, no deformity, no obvious indication that they deserve special consideration. They “look” normal. Yet, they are not, and by law, deserve accommodations they must repeated remind people they need knowing that the person may or may not really buy it. It can be humiliating.
Here is a definition of a learning disability you might want to consider: “The experience of brilliance in one’s own head, behind closed doors, behind closed eyes, followed by a heart-wrenching blank piece of paper and no sound.”
One of the hallmarks of being twice exceptional is that you have your moments of brilliance and then you have those moments when you are completely exhausted and you cannot function. This baffles teachers and family members. It can also be a source of enormous shame and anxiety. You never really can count on your brain being brilliant or available.
Being twice exceptional is exhausting. Being expected to perform in an environment not designed with your strengths or weaknesses in mind taxes you in ways you cannot imagine. I came home every day from school with a headache, suffered from seizures, nausea, body pain and exhaustion. I had to lie down on my bed and rest. Homework was next to near impossible. I often could not even begin it until I fully recovered which might not have been until 9pm at night. Homework takes 2E people much longer than typical people. So it is a never ending downward spiral. School is exhausting, homework is even more exhausting, you get to bed late, and on it goes.
We live in a society dedicated to achievement, scores, and rank. This is unfortunate because twice exceptional people tend to fall short of their potential in school leading to relatively poor achievement, scores, and rank. It is not until the 2E person finds their area of passion that they truly can shine. That might be in rebuilding a car, decorating a hotel, engineering a bridge, managing a company, caring for animals, working in the outdoors, painting a masterpiece. These skills don’t necessarily show up on an SAT score. Very often a potentially amazing surgeon will never make it to medical school because they lack the ability to memorize semantic data - which has little to do with being a great surgeon and everything to do with getting through medical school.
2E typically never includes a lack of ability to understand the material. They understand Shakespeare and advanced mathematics and physics and the significance of historical events. They do not need tutors. They need help organizing their lives and managing their symptoms and their overwhelm. So if the 2E person was taking only one class without the output pressures, they might really shine. This is why those colleges that offer block scheduling can be helpful. Understanding that it is NOT a lack of intelligence or understanding of what is being taught is very important.
The real challenge with servicing 2E people in school and at work is no two people are the same. One student may need extra time, the other may need to not take gym. The uniqueness of 2E people makes researching them even more difficult. How can you find someone who has an IQ between 130 and 140 and just AD/HD? And actually, you need hundreds of them for the research to have any real weight. The scientific method requires that we only test one variable at a time. So having participants with various other diagnoses such as OCD or dyslexia confounds the research. Given the loose diagnostic criteria for some of these disorders, you may not even get two psychiatrists to agree that the same person has a particular disorder.
Even IQ testing is subjective. Without great research, we have little to go on other than common sense as to how to help twice exceptional people meet their true potential.
My son needs a scribe because he is dysgraphic (meaning he cannot write with a pen or pencil). My other son needs extended time due to slow processing of written material. My other daughter needs to be able to stop working on an exam if she starts to fade due to seizures. My other son needs to be in regular level course work due to his inability to produce the required output of AP or honors level course work. His anxiety is too severe. I have yet another son who needs incredible structure due to a poor decision making ability. All of these children have IQs that would be considered well above average and some are profoundly gifted. You would not know it by their report cards maybe minus one of them. They all have incredible gifts which include outstanding reasoning and problem solving, music, engineering, applied science, humor and a deep, deep passion for learning. And most would admit to a deep, deep hatred of school.
How can you love learning and hate school? Think of the tiger in Antarctica. Tiger loves to hunt and eat and cannot do so in an environment that does not value any of the tiger’s strengths and instincts, not to mention a tiger stands out like a sore thumb on white snow.
Too many of our twice exceptional students quit school. Too many of our twice exceptional adults fail to thrive. This is a waste of some of our greatest minds.
So where do we go from here? Value people for who they are not how they conform. Allow them to demonstrate their mastery in ways that line up with their strengths. Why are we so attached to having everyone do everything the same way? Isn’t it more important for us to help everyone find their place in society? I had to find a university that didn’t push reading and focused on hands-on learning.
Am I any less impactful in my work than someone who learned from a book?