Twice Exceptional: When Exceptions are the Norm

DSCN0301I realize that after three years of blogging about my twice exceptional boys, I’ve never written about what twice exceptional means. The conventional definition of twice exceptional, or 2e, is gifted with learning differences. Parents would tell you that it’s a life of contradictions and contrasts, often pulling against each other resulting in a child who looks, well, average, whatever that is. They’d also tell you stories of advocacy twice failed, kids who work twice as hard with half the results, and twice the concerns about where a child will fit in the world. And the kids? Some might tell about wondering who they were, wondering at why life seems so hard, and perhaps about just feeling not so smart.

Until my older son struggled in school with handwriting tasks, I didn’t know a child could be learning disabled and gifted. Since he was my first child, I took much of his way of being in the world as normal kid stuff. Well, I knew he was ahead in areas, largely in the academic realm, but I also knew he lagged in fine motor skills, from writing to tying shoes to buttering bread. The diagnoses of his level of giftedness and dysgraphia, a disorder of written expression, arrived in tandem, making sense out of what we’d noticed while making the job of finding an appropriate educational setting that much harder. The poor fit of school was made no easier with those pieces of information.

So eventually we came home from school. Three years later, the ADHD diagnosis came along for the ride, with a trail of question marks still following, challenges undefined and unexplained. And three years after that, my younger was formally diagnosed with Aspergers, changing everything and nothing in a few sentences that were too long in coming.

That’s what those second exceptionalities do. They change everything. And nothing.

Ideally, they how we frame our children’s challenges. What was once seemed stubborn is now likely anxiety about what just doesn’t come with effort alone. What looked lazy is avoidance of what just feels bad or is simply beyond one’s skill set. What appeared to be neglect is a brain that struggles to make sense out of time and space. When I knew that my older son’s refusal to write more than the briefest phrase was because holding the pencil hurt and that making each letter took intense concentration that made it impossible to focus on content, I stopped thinking of his resistance as stubborn or lazy. It was a reasonable reaction to facing a Herculean task. When I found out that his trouble following a list of tasks, never mind create his own, came from a frontal lobe that was taking its time maturing, I stopped seeing his day as strewn with neglect.

Or at least I mostly did. Truthfully, it’s hard to look at a kid who started to add at three and explore the details of earth science at four and understand why the trajectory of learning that came so easily when no product was demanded comes screeching to a halt when it seems to be time to write a simple sentence about the moon. It’s not much easier at 15, when detailed monologues about computer guts dominate conversations but writing a list of tasks and following it still requires Mom.

Parenting a gifted kid often means parenting a child who was somewhat like you. Even if time and thousands of questions without answers seem to have beaten the giftedness out of us, apples don’t fall far from trees, as my father would say. For many of us, there is something familiar about the intensity of our gifted children, if only in shadowy images as we remember our childhoods.

But if you are not also learning disabled — and my children’s father and I are not — the dichotomy of the 2e kid is frankly mysterious. I don’t know what it’s like to be unable to write  with ease, to be unable take notes during a lecture, to look for my homework that I’m sure I did only to find that I never did it, or be stymied by the social norms of conversation. I just don’t know. It’s an unfamiliar way of being in the world.

Now, that’s expected to some degree. I don’t expect my kids to like what I like or see the world the way I see it. They are individuals. But when their operating systems seems so foreign, it’s sometimes hard to parent effectively and respectfully. In a fit of frustration, I once asked my older if the world in his head was as chaotic as it appeared from the outside. “It’s much worse,” he replied, without hesitation or, thankfully, frustration with his stymied, frantic mother.

Having a child who is twice exceptional means school will never be a sure fit. Or at least not a simple and comfortable fit. Mid-second grade, when my older came home, I was exhausted by meetings where I tried to explain what seemed like impossible partners, my son’s disparate needs for more information and challenge with less written output (although a keyboard would have been welcome). Having mercy on my son, myself, and even the school, I took the challenge home. That doesn’t make any exceptions vanish, but it does return your child to being your child, free of as many comparison points and evaluations. The dissonance with the world persists when field trips are missed (too loud, too many people, too many places to go in a day, or just too something else) and when reading through boards for parents of gifted kids, but being at home is a respite from the expectations of the world, where “gifted” and “learning disabled” mean different classrooms, methodologies, and outcomes. And as I’ve returned one to school (dual high school and college enrollment), I’ve been reminded that the differences persist, causing different challenges than eight years back, but still making fit difficult.

And for the kids? It’s even harder. For my older, having learning disabilities has caused him to question his intelligence. How can being smart and a quick learner coincide with forgetting to do assignments and struggling still to write a legible sentence? It seemed a more likely explanation that he wasn’t very smart at all, I suppose, and at an age where being “normal” is valued above being oneself, it seems reasonable to want to wish both away. Having both his giftedness and other challenges negated by school didn’t help, either, although by now I thought time would erase those feelings fo poor fit. Thankfully, college experiences in schools with strong disability resource offices have somewhat ameliorated of those feelings. (See Accommodating Disability, College Style for more on that adventure.)

My younger, at least on the surface, has an easier time. At home and in online classes, his difference doesn’t often interfere. After all, a preference for no eye contact, fewer bodies in the house, and a tight routine all mesh well with homeschooling. He’s also comfortable in his own skin, embracing his difference. (Don’t you dare call it a disability, Mom!) But I worry. The accommodations for him are largely invisible to him — careful scheduling, plenty of time for transitions, and adequate downtime happen without him realizing it. And while he’d likely be eaten alive in a live middle school classroom, he’s just one of the pack in his online classes. I’d not say it’s been easier to parent him over the years (oh, it’s not been), but out of school, the social issues just don’t cause as much difficulty day-to-day. He sees himself as smart and capable and enjoys the friendship of some wonderful children and adults who accept him as is. I’m grateful for his comfort within his own skin.

There is no ending. Twice exceptional kids become twice exceptional adults, and with guidance, support, and a bit of luck, they enter adulthood confident in their talents and equipped to seek and use supports for their disabilities.  I keep my fingers crossed, admittedly, but mostly I just keep guiding and supporting. And loving.

If you want to know more about supporting 2e learners, follow the links below. 


13 thoughts on “Twice Exceptional: When Exceptions are the Norm

  1. Terrific post. We have the twice exceptional thing going on here too. It is one of the main reasons I think homeschooling is working so well for us. It seems that their needs are met in multiple ways. I really enjoy your blog posts! Thanks

  2. Wow. Thank you for this article! I have one gifted child in 5thgrade and a 2e in 3rd grade. We moved to a new state this year and academics are killing my 2e. I resonate with so much of what you wrote. It is hard not to get frustrated. I think my 2e may have yhe writing issue you spoke of. Do you have any good resources to learn about it, or links for 2e kids with that particular issue? She had ADHD and is in 99th percentile of giftedness. Has some sensory issues but I am just starting the game of trying to weed it all out, and wondering if it is even possible really. 😉 thanks!

    • That diagnosis came from psychology, with testing with a Gestalt-Bender II and WIAT as the measurables. The writing tests were markedly below grade level (all done by hand) on the WIAT, and some of the reading tests were also notably lower than expected given his other testing. OT was helpful in confirming the diagnosis, but they really couldn’t help him learn to write.

      Some of the resources at the bottom of my post may prove helpful, as they are all decent 2e sites. I’ll be writing soon about dysgraphia specifically.

      Thanks for writing.


  3. I struggle with the term 2E, because I’m never entirely sure where the ‘gifted’ cutoff is. Since my state has no testing requirements, it’s difficult for me to quantify that term. One of the “E”s is easy. My son has several diagnoses/struggles, but is he really *twice* exceptional, or is he just smart? I dunno. It’s probably just a personal hangup about labels.

    • The learning disabilities can make it harder to see the magnitude of the giftedness, especially as a child gets older. Many of the second “e” issues become much larger with age, either because output requires more planning, the work load is larger, or because the need for strong executive function is greater.

      If the question is whether labels matter, the answer would be yes and no. Knowing that LDs are dampening the expression of giftedness is helpful. Any child dealing with a learning disability is likely to feel the dissonance between what happens in their heads and what they read/write/produce. And we’re willing to accommodate for the typically learning kid with LDs to bring them on par with the norm. The norm is in a different place for gifted kids, and I’d hold that knowing where their norm is (and I know that’s not the best word) allows us to understand how much we really need to accommodate the 2e kid’s LDs. It’s about reaching potential, but I use that phrase on a personal level, not on a big achievement level, if that makes sense.

      Do the labels change the child? No. But a profoundly gifted kid with learning disabilities can appear startlingly “average” (another lousy word). The level of frustration in this situation is huge (not to mention anxiety, depression, and angst). Teachers don’t see the gifts, and, if the child is working near grade level, they don’t see the LDs. But the child? The child feels the mismatch, at least in my experience. (For some children, knowing that they have a LD is a relief. It affirms that there is a glitch that they’ve undoubtedly noticed. It also affirms that they are still bright/gifted/smart. In short, the LD doesn’t define them.)

      We were fortunate to have all my sons’ testing done by a psychologist who understands and appreciates twice exceptional kids. This makes a difference in the evaluation experience for the child and the parent. It also increases the chances of receiving advice that fits both the exceptionalities, rather than fitting neither. Testing these kids is a skill. Caring for them is, too.

      Good luck on your journey!


  4. This is a great post — you’ve expressed so well the experience dealing with a 2e child! My son is almost 11, profoundly gifted and dealing with dual diagnoses of ADHD and PDD-NOS. He figured out as early as second grade that he is “different” in many ways from other children; with all of his issues, we brought him home about 2/3 of the way through 4th grade. He’s certainly a challenge for us, but he’s also a challenge to himself: he doesn’t understand why he is anxious, frustration-intolerant and unable to write a word on a page without going into fits of anxiety. And that’s what I tell myself every day: no matter how hard I find it to deal with his quirks, it’s that much harder for him to deal with those same quirks in a world not made to accommodate them.

    • Well put. While home has been a haven, especially for my younger son with AS and anxiety, the pain is that the world won’t always meet him with the compassion and appreciation our little pocket of the world meet him with. Heck, the world doesn’t meet anyone with that, but a mom can dream, right?

  5. I love your post, Sarah – you put it so well. My niece is 2e, and has Turners as well. She is 19 now, and in college, and things are much better, but when she was younger, my sister was told – ‘pick a classroom – special ed or gifted.’ Neither fit her well, so she stayed in mainstream, until she discovered the International Baccalaureate Program in her H.S. which seemed to work well for her. BTW, do you happen to know any good resources about profound problems with working memory?

    • I’m sorry I let this sit too long. Life likely got away from me. We experienced the “all or nothing” mindset of some gifted education programs, and it was quite the disheartening blow. Thus we’re still all home. I don’t have any particular resources for working memory challenges, I’m sorry to say.

      Good luck to your niece!


  6. I am happy to see that this is being recognized and accounted for in today’s children.

    I was a 2e child who was only labeled gifted. In 4th grade, I produced the second highest gifted test scores the gifted teacher had ever seen, yet my homeroom teacher wanted to have me tested for a learning disability. My mother did not approve of the latter, so that door went unopened.

    Flash forward to high school, and I was having severe difficulty with social situations, anxiety, depression, and focus. I still aced my tests, but my overall grades were just awful. I could not bring myself to do homework, and most days, I just didn’t show up at all. In fact, the anxiety became so bad that I would literally stare in silence if someone I did not know approached me with what I now understand to be a friendly greeting. To make a long story short, I dropped out of high school.

    It took me until the age of 25 to get my GED (top 1%) and my driver’s license, after which I tried to go to college. I tested out of the critical thinking and reading requirements, and the quality of my work in the two classes I were excellent and drew a lot of praise from my teachers. I was determined not to allow myself to -not- do homework, so I forced it on myself. It was not easy, but I did it. I did ALL of my homework, and then toward the end of the semester, I sat in my car in the parking lot, wrestling with my anxiety instead of going to class and turning it in. That was the only semester of college I attended.

    You have no idea how happy I am to see that this is getting some recognition. I barely skate by, and it has never been easy for me to talk about with counselors or doctors. It would feel much too awkward trying to fit in, “But I’m really, really smart! That’s a huge part of my life and my condition!” into a discussion, so I never bring it up. And try explaining to a doctor how you can have so many problems and be part of a profession that demands seemingly opposite qualities! It’s nice to know that today’s children might be spared some of that pain, confusion, and guilt.

    Now, if only there were more resources available for adults in the same situation… because as you said, one day your 2e children will grow up to be 2e adults.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Dan. Yours is a painful tale, and it sounds like you’ve come to terms with both your giftedness and your other exceptionalities. Knowing they can exist together and that the second don’t negate the first is part of the battle. But as you know, it still makes life enormously hard, knowing you’re quite smart while not seeing product that shows it. Best of luck to you.


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