Dealing with too good a problem child

Dealing with too good a problem child

Twice-exceptional children have twice exceptional needs that can be identified only with twice exceptional efforts.

If we think of gifted children as one population, and special-needs children as another, there is some overlap between the two. This overlap contains twice-exceptional children.  Special-needs children include those with learning disorders (eg dyslexia, dyscalculia), behavioral disorders (ADHD/ADD), sensory or sensory processing disorders, psychological and emotional disorders, and developmental disorders (e.g. autism).  A twice-exceptional learner is one who  has one or more special needs and yet demonstrates above-age-level potential in one or more areas.

Special education is gaining a foothold in India, with special schools, resource rooms, and an emerging move towards inclusive education.  Most special educators, however, are not trained to identify twice-exceptional learners.  Psychometric tests of ability such as the WISC, designed to identify ‘mainstream’ giftedness, are occasionally used to identify learning disabilities. This is done using the discrepancy between the highest and the lowest subscore. However, for twice-exceptional learners, both highest and lowest scores may still fall in the normal range, leading to failure of identification (Silverman 2000).  Academic performance, too, many fail to suggest twice-exceptionality.  While their special-need holds such children back from their full potential, their coexisting gift often compensates to some extent.

In the classroom, they often achieve at average levels – even though this represents under-achievement for them.  Even in countries with established gifted education programmes, twice-exceptional learners may never be identified, or identified only in college. This is bad news: both gifted educators and special educators know that early identification is crucial to appropriate intervention and optimal development.
What teachers are likely to notice are problem signs: restlessness, incomplete work, and hyperactivity.  The child may then be labelled a ‘problem child’ and experience the disturbed relationships with school, teachers, and peers that this label usually entails. Even without such labelling, twice-exceptional learners are already at elevated risk for socioemotional problems such as poor self-concept and high frustration.

In other cases, parents may notice signs of giftedness, but the special-need obstructs full assessment of the child’s potential. A complete assessment of a potentially twice-exceptional learner thus requires concurrently identifying the special-need and the gift.


Twice-exceptional learners are a heterogenous population. They do however frequently display certain characteristics (McEachern & Bornot 2001):

1.  Advanced vocabulary and good oral communication
2.  Poor handwriting and trouble spelling basic words
3.  Trouble sitting through class, but can become immersed in special interests (in ADHD children, this is called ‘hyperfocus’)
4.  Divergent thinking skills and novel problem-solving strategies

Characteristics specific to disorders include:

ADHD/ADD: While ADHD often co-occurs with a learning disorder, ADHD itself is different from a learning disorder.  At the core of ADHD is a problem in executive function, i.e. the brain’s ability to organise, direct, and control behaviour including control of attention, appropriate responses to stimuli, and goal-oriented behaviours.

Diagnosing twice-exceptional learners with ADHD is complicated by the fact that ADHD and giftedness, separately, share many traits including rapid speech, impulsivity, hyper-sensitivity to stimuli, intense curiosity, and adjustment problems (Kaufmann, Kalbfleisch, & Castellanos 2000).  How then do we distinguish a child who has ADHD and a gift, from a child who has either one or the other?

Compared to children with ADHD only (who tend to demonstrate general inattention and dislike for school), gifted children with ADHD demonstrate high-level interest and performance in one or more areas.  Compared to other gifted children, gifted children with ADHD demonstrate inconsistent academic performance, poor handwriting, and preference for group activities. There is a possibility that gifted children with ADHD may even display areas of superiority over gifted children without ADHD, especially in creative problem-solving.


Autists differ widely in the severity of symptoms. Their intellectual development too is varied. There are two categories of twice-exceptional learners with autism:
n  Autistic savants: Extremely limited general cognitive, metacognitive, social, and emotional development. Extraordinary ability in a specific area: usually memory, mathematics, or music.

n  Asperger’s syndrome: Individuals with this mild form of autism have poor motor coordination, formal speech, hyper-sensitivity to certain stimuli, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.  Strengths are in visual-spatial ability, memory, and intense focus on specific intellectual topics (Frith 2004; Neihart 2000).


Gifted children with dyslexia tend to be poor readers and have low sequencing skills, but excel at performance tasks and display high visual-spatial ability.

Auditory/Visual Processing Deficits
Children who perform normally on tests of vision and hearing may still have problems with the brain functions that allow us to attend to discriminate, recognise, and understand auditory/visual stimuli.  Either type of deficit can impede language learning. Gifted children with visual processing deficits may however excel in learning rates, memory, communication, and problem-solving skills.


Clinical assessment methods that have shown promise in identifying the twice-exceptional learner use nonverbal and performance-based tests and tests of creativity in addition to traditional verbal IQ tests.  For example, gifted children with ADHD may perform well on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking-Figural. The use of multiple criteria is crucial in diagnosing twice-exceptional learners: including psychometric tests, standardised achievement tests, teacher observations, and parent and peer reports.


Twice-exceptional learners need to be challenged in their area of giftedness while also receiving services at a level appropriate to the degree of their disability. Presentation of academic material via multimedia, alternative methods of assessment, and focus on creative problem-solving within structured environments optimise the development of a twice-exceptional learner.  Most Indian schools however are not in a position to design such individualised interventions. A psychologist or psychiatrist can help parents to implement appropriate interventions outside school.

Teachers can, however, take simple steps to facilitate the adjustment of twice-exceptional learners:

1.  Reward creative responses and alternate problem-solving strategies;
2.  Promote social skills by encouraging children to present their work before peers;
3.  Take into account different learning styles when teaching or testing. Supplement verbal instructions with visual aids, and encourage students to supplement their answers with pictures or concept maps;
4.  Allow children to select their own rewards (such as a book or puzzle in their area of interest) for completing tasks.

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