Is My Child Gifted or Twice-Exceptional? A Guide for Parents

There is probably no term that does as much harm to the population it’s meant to serve as “gifted.” If one stops to think about it, one vaguely assumes that it means the child is lucky and special and well, gifted. People vaguely expect a gifted child to be well-behaved (emotionally well-regulated and socially well-adjusted), self-motivated, and able to get good grades easily. There’s a problem with this thinking. That’s NOT a gifted child (or at least, most of them) – that is a high-achieving child.

If you have a high-achieving but not gifted child, don’t wish for the latter, because your parenting journey is probably going to be easier than most. If you have a gifted child – well, stuff may have gotten a whole lot harder. Not any less rewarding or even joyous on the whole, but definitely harder.

What does Gifted mean?

Defining giftedness is itself complicated. Generally, a gifted or talented student is one that performs, or has the capability to perform, at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment in one or more areas. A determination of giftedness is usually made based on a high score (top 2%, IQ of 130+) in one or more subdomains of an IQ test like the WISC-V. These subdomains tested are verbal comprehension, visual-spatial, fluid reasoning, working memory, and processing speed.

But this ability to just perform at an enhanced level is FAR from the complete picture. Taken in isolation, this definition vaguely conjures up the high achiever I described in the first paragraph. Gifted kids are often nothing like that. First, the brain wiring and maturation of the cortex in a “gifted” brain differs from that in a “neurotypical” brain – gifted brains often show slower processing speed, and a 3-4 year delay in the maturation of the cortex (which means the development of executive functioning is similarly delayed) compared to neurotypical kids. This delay explains very well the asynchrony seen in this population: For example, a gifted 7-year-old may have 6th-grade level language skills, 4th-grade level math skills, but still may have the focus, fine motor skills, and emotional maturation of a 5-year-old. This kind of not-in-sync development is so characteristic of this population that some experts believe it should be included in the definition of giftedness.

Twice-exceptionality (2E) in the Gifted Population

Twice-exceptional (2E) kids are the ones who are gifted (first exceptionality) in one area and have a learning disability (second exceptionality) in a different area.

To understand twice-exceptionality, it is important to first think about the neurotypical brain: this is the brain type of the majority of kids in a public school. The average IQ of neurotypical children is about 100, and the most important thing to keep in mind is they would have similar scores across all 5 indices of the WISC-V (pictured above).

I imagine few kids would fit this exact profile, but picture a child that gets a score of 100 in each subdomain (verbal comprehension, visual-spatial, fluid reasoning, working memory, and processing speed), to end up with a full-scale IQ (FSIQ) of 100. A high-achiever may be the one who ends up with an FSIQ of 120, with all subdomain scores clustered closely together. Children with this sort of even IQ profile would likely fit the model of a socially well-adjusted, emotionally well-regulated average or high-achiever child. A twice-exceptional child may be one that gets a score of 150 in verbal comprehension, 125 in visual-spatial, 120 in fluid reasoning, 114 in working memory, and 95 in processing speed. Basically, a very spiky IQ profile, with at least a difference of 2 standard deviations between the highest and the lowest subdomain score. Usually, the lowest score is seen in processing speed. This drop, while present in the vast majority of gifted kids, is extra pronounced (at least 2, sometimes 3 SDs) in the 2E population. The more pronounced the difference, the more support needed.

To complicate matters further, twice-exceptional kids may not even be identified as gifted – their giftedness may be obscured by their learning disability, and their learning disability is masked by their giftedness. They hence often remain undiagnosed, leaving them in no man’s land. The school report often received is: oh, your child is so smart and creative, but they are just not working to their potential for some reason. There are many flavors of twice-exceptionality that present very differently:

⏩⏩⏩The child may appear dreamy, unfocused, and scatterbrained with bad executive functioning, or may be impulsive (central auditory processing disorder, inattentive ADHD, or both). They could be highly wound-up, hyperactive, and impulsive (ADHD or psychomoter overexcitability).

⏩⏩⏩They may be behind in reading or not (stealth dyslexia), math (dyscalculia), or writing (dysgraphia).

⏩⏩⏩They could have a different neurodiversity such as autism.

Autism, giftedness, and ADHD (and central auditory processing disorder) have overlapping traits, making it really difficult to tease them apart. Kathy Higgins Lee, a therapist who has all three, created this wonderful, very useful Venn diagram that may be of some help to parents:

IMO, the labeling of conditions like dyslexia or ADHD as “bad” or purely as a “learning disability” should be rethought to a degree. ADHD is not a pure liability – it can also be a strength. In a gifted individual with ADHD, where creativity/divergent thinking and the abilities to make connections across domains, hyperfocus, to become supercharged in a crisis come together, it CAN sometimes create a recipe for dramatic success, IF you manage to overcome the negatives. Indeed, research shows that ADHD provides fertile ground for entrepreneurship. This blog does a nice job of talking about entrepreneurship and ADHD, both the positives and the negatives. From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that if I did not have many ADHD traits, I’d still be in a 9-to-5 job with way less flexibility and money. It’s been startling to realize that I need to be grateful for my ADHD, but here we are!

The same with dyslexia. The altered wiring underlying dyslexia may confer an advantage in another area, like pattern recognition. When professional astrophysicists with and without dyslexia were tested for their ability to spot a particular characteristic in a black hole, they found the following:

“The scientists with dyslexia … were better at picking out the black holes from the noise, an advantage useful in their careers,” said dyslexic astrophysicist Matthew H Schneps in an article for the journal Scientific American.

Incidence of twice-exceptionality

Based on who you talk to, twice-exceptional children can form as low as 10-20% of gifted kids, while others put it as much higher. An expert who has made incredible strides in understanding giftedness and twice-exceptionality, Dr. Linda Silverman at the Gifted Development Center, had this to say:

In the last 41 years, more than 6,400 children have come to Gifted Development Center for assessment from all over the world, and the vast majority are twice exceptional.

Two things could be responsible for the dramatic difference between these two estimates: 1) Though the population coming to get tested at the GDC may have some selection bias, the GDC is undoubtedly better at catching twice-exceptionality than your local school resources. 2) The low-end estimate (10-20%) may be so because many 2E kids may not even be identified as gifted, especially if they are in minority economically disadvantaged populations, further artificially reducing the 2E representation in the gifted pool. Consequently, many public school gifted programs may be overstuffed with higher IQ (say 115-130) high-achievers, while some of the more spiky profile 2E kids in the same school may be missed.

Indications your child may be twice exceptional

⏩⏩⏩May exhibit lots of overexcitabilities (see the section on Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities below).

⏩⏩⏩ May melt down repeatedly

⏩⏩ ⏩May struggle with perfectionism and become frustrated if they don’t get something right immediately

⏩ ⏩⏩May be very strong in one area (e.g., math) but may struggle with reading or vice versa, or may struggle with fine motor activities (e.g., writing)

⏩⏩⏩ May get overwhelmed in noisy environments (a sign of auditory processing disorder)

⏩⏩⏩ May be very smart academically and be extremely creative, but also dreamy, unfocussed, and unable to follow simple directions (also a sign of auditory processing disorder and/or ADHD), or be able to complete assignments and work by themselves (sign of executive dysfunction/ADHD and auditory processing disorder).

⏩ ⏩⏩May often get into trouble because of impulsivity (could be psychomotor overexcitability or ADHD)

How can you tell if your child is gifted?

Here is a great compilation of the characteristic hallmarks of gifted children (and adults!). I’ve elaborated on a few points below:

Gifted children learn by themselves in leaps and bounds, tend to be fiercely independent, and resist teaching. In my own experience, they don’t seek or even want guidance from their parent. As an example to distinguish how high-achieving vs gifted kids learn: If your child can sing the alphabet at age 3 because you sat with them to teach them the alphabet song, that’s probably more high achieving than gifted. But if you were not actively teaching them to read, but they just woke up reading one morning, and were reading three grade levels ahead in a matter of as many months, that’s giftedness. Here is an excellent chart (see its source here) detailing how high-achieving kids learn differently from gifted kids, and creative thinkers.

Gifted kids are intense and “extra”: Many gifted kids exhibit overexcitabilities across 5 categories (psychomotor, sensual, imaginational, intellectual, and emotional) described by a Polish psychologist, Dabrowski.

You can look at this list and say, why, many children may have one trait or the other,. But gifted kids with overexcitabilities have so many of these traits, across multiple categories. And not a small, measured dose of a trait either. It’s a smack-you-in-the-face, this-is-so-extra, will-it-ever-end kind of dose.

For example, if they have psychomotor overexcitability, you may never ever get them to sit at the table for the entirety of dinner, ever. They may never walk anywhere but skip everywhere. They may exhibit insane, inexplicable impulsivity that gets them into serious trouble.

If they have intellectual overexcitability, they may get so lost in their thoughts that they frequently fail to respond to what someone s asking them. You may get random questions that make your brain hurt. They may wake you up in the middle of the night to go pursue some random project that is of paramount importance to them.

If they have sensual overexcitability, they may lose their mind if you put a shirt with a slightly scratchy tag on them. Or never consent to wear socks when younger. Or throw up if they have artificial food coloring. Or be extremely picky about food.

If they have imaginational overexcitability, they may belt out show tunes every day, for hours. They may be obsessed with musicals. Their dreams will be vivid and detailed and they remember them years later. Their fear of monsters may be a hundred-fold that of other kids.

If they have emotional overexcitability, they may melt down when they see a perceived injustice. They may be so anxious that they cannot function without the strictest of schedules. You could see things like existential depression at age 5, or crippling shyness. As a note, overexcitabilities in this category are probably the most challenging to deal with.

The path forward if you have a gifted child

If you have a gifted child, your path forward depends on what flavor of giftedness you are dealing with. This is based on the full-scale IQ score itself, and whether or not the child is 2E (has a huge separation in subscale scores). In children where subscale scores are clustered together (not 2E), needs differ based on full-scale IQ itself: for example, a moderately gifted child with IQ 130 has very different needs compared to a profoundly child of IQ 160 – only one of them would need radical grade acceleration.

Deborah Ruf has detailed a useful guide (long version here, short version here) that uses early childhood benchmarks to try to guess what level of giftedness you are dealing with. I found this to be on the money for my child.

⏩Group 1: If you have a moderately gifted child of say, IQ 130 where all the subscale IQs are grouped tightly together, chances are, your child may do fine in the public school gifted program. He or she may be slightly bored, but their needs will be more or less met, and chances are they may be socially and emotionally well-adjusted too. You may get by without needing to have a psycho-educational evaluation and may not need any sort of supportive therapy. These kids may just need some more academic stimulation outside of school.

⏩Group 2: If you have an exceptionally to profoundly gifted child (IQ 145-160 or beyond) who is not 2E, then you probably have a more Sheldon-Cooper-Esque path – they will be too bored in age-normed classes, and may need severe grade acceleration. In this case, you will end up having to get IQ assessed (See my notes on who to go to in the next section). You may end up homeschooling them or paying for a private gifted school. This group will also find it much harder to relate to peers, may not be as socially or emotionally well-adjusted as the first group, and may need to see a psychologist or occupational therapist depending on the individual presentation.

⏩Group 3: If you have a highly to profoundly gifted child who is 2E (my child falls in this category, so I speak from experience) then your child will have a much smoother childhood if you follow the:

Familiarize yourself with what a 2E child may present like (see the section above). If the signs suggest you have a 2E child, then get an assessment done. But who you go to becomes crucially important. Your local psychologist who works with gifted kids may be able to competently select and administer the test. They may also be able to give you an accurate IQ score (none of this is guaranteed btw, as it takes a lot of skill to test accurately) and identify that your child is twice exceptional. But they may not always be able to pinpoint what are the issues underlying the 2E diagnosis. The learning disabilities in 2E kids are usually tied down to slow processing, but there are many roads leading to that one destination. Here is a great writeup by Dr. Micheal Postema on all the potential issues underpinning slow processing speed in a 2E child.

As an example, my daughter is 2E, and I went into testing expecting an inattentive ADHD diagnosis. during testing, her processing speed index score showed a huge 55-point drop compared to her highest score, but that may have been all that the local psychologist familiar with giftedness might have been able to tell me. Because I instead went to someone trained at the Gifted Development Center, they were also able to pull out a potential auditory processing issue and a visual processing issue (this is one of the many “roads” outlined in Dr. Postema’s list) from really subtle clues (see comments for the clues). After going to the audiologist and the developmental optometrist as recommended, both issues were confirmed, and are being addressed.

When I heard the symptoms of central auditory processing disorder, I realized I had been dealing with the same issues all my life. So I got tested with my daughter, and we both turned out to have it (!!). I spoke to multiple people, and it looks like auditory and visual processing issues are fairly common in the 2E population, but are often missed if the people testing don’t know what to look out for. Going this path also got us a really actionable 504 plan.

So my advice is, if possible, instead of spending $3000 at your local psychologist, plan a trip to Colorado where the Gifted Development Center is – even with airfare and hotel stay, total costs may be lower (my evaluation cost me $1350, and gave me much more actionable data).

There is no set clear path for schooling for 2E kids; the population varies too much. You have to take it on a case-by-case basis. Public education or a charter school with a good gifted program + 504 accommodations and great teachers may work out for some. Others may need a private school environment geared for gifted or 2E learners, if affordable. In some cases, homeschooling is the only option that works.

In Conclusion

Giftedness is not about the potential for great success, and should never be viewed in that way. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about IQs, but IQ scores are meaningless in themselves. In this case, they just serve as a tool to get your child the support they need. Gifted kids have unique social, emotional, and intellectual needs, and if they are not met, your child can flounder, badly. They can be depressed, lonely, and feel worthless in the worst-case scenarios. Gifted education needs to be a type of special education for this special-needs population, but the resistance towards it is tremendous, all because this population is so misunderstood. In the best-case scenario, every area would have a public magnet school to serve this population, but that remains a pipe dream. Meanwhile, parents with means shell out tens of thousands of dollars to support their kids, while lower-income gifted students without economic clout are left to fend for themselves. I can only hope this state of affairs changes, and that in the meantime, this post will help some kids somewhere get the support they need.

Also, this post is more on the gloomier side, but on a personal note, I have to also add, raising a gifted child can be utterly joyous. Mine is full of life and energy and joy, and is so creative, curious, kind, and empathetic. She has a wacky sense of humor and would totally win class clown awards. Sure, there are struggles with things like impulsivity and realizing we are never going to win “best behavior” awards, but it’s not a journey I would want to change in any way.

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