Now and then throughout my son’s childhood, I wondered whether something was amiss. For example, the way he wrote certain letters seemed odd, like starting at the bottom of a “p,” where I would start at the top. He often couldn’t follow what I thought was a clear a series of instructions, such as “Go upstairs, get your homework, put on socks.” He’d start a freehand drawing, scribble a few lines, then seem to lose interest.
I knew he was smart; he started reading at age 2. So when it came to his penmanship, I figured he’d work it out. When he couldn’t follow instructions, I assumed he just wasn’t paying attention. When he seemed disinclined to draw, I hoped he’d find other hobbies.
Then in fifth grade his academics started to sputter—a sprinkling of Cs and Ds among the As. I reached out to his teachers, the school learning specialist and finally, a neuropsychological testing service. They diagnosed him with attention deficit disorder (ADHD), executive functioning and motor-sensory integration challenges and also giftedness.
That was the first time I heard the term “twice-exceptional” or 2E used to describe someone who is gifted and has learning disabilities. Once I realized I was raising a 2E, I knew had to change how I parented, so I reached out to Paul Rubenstein, a Maryland-certified therapist with degrees in special education and clinical social work. Although he’s my son’s therapist, he’s helped me, and my son, rebuild the way my son must approach tasks both at home and at school.
“Children who are 2E are often misunderstood and often misunderstand themselves,” says Rubenstein, whose own son read at a college level in fourth grade but couldn’t tell time until he was 14. “Imagine what that feels like from the inside out: a brain that moves at supersonic speed in one area but at a snail’s pace in another.”
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But 2Es are hard to spot. “Sometimes giftedness camouflages learning challenges, sometimes attentional problems mask superior cognitive ability,” says Rubenstein. He suggests parents faced with what they feel is an underachieving child shouldn’t just assume the child is slacking. Rather, they should ask themselves, “What’s going on with my kid?”
“If parents are baffled by a child who has terrific ability but underperforms, it’s wise to consider why this happens rather than relying on the intangible and relatively useless bromide of ‘just try harder,’” he says.
In Rubenstein’s experience, a child who seems capable beyond her years but can’t write a coherent sentence, or who completes his homework but never turns it in, is probably not lazy or unmotivated. The biggest clue that a child is twice-exceptional is if the child is bright but just can’t seem to perform as their intellect indicates they should.
While parents should ask “why” a child is struggling, Rubenstein says schools must ask the “what” and “how” questions. Simply knowing that students can be both gifted and learning disabled goes a long way. Because 2Es can have such a broad range of gifts and disabilities, he urges schools with whom he works to look at the individual child’s strengths, learning styles and specific needs for accommodation.
Unfortunately, twice-exceptional students are frequently under identified and their struggles often dismissed because their giftedness can make their rollercoaster grades or erratic performances look like laziness. This puts them at risk for depression, anxiety, underachievement and social withdrawal.
“Parents and schools can mitigate much of the stress and anxiety by identifying kids who are 2E and naming the complexities of being both gifted and learning disabled,” says Rubenstein.
Meanwhile, the newly diagnosed twice-exceptional child might have emotional issues to unpack, as they work to recalibrate their own self-worth.
“2E kids have a lot of knowledge about themselves that’s often hard to express,” says Rubenstein. A 2E’s inability to easily do what they see their peers doing, or what they think they should do, can cause intense distress, as they struggle with heavy pressure to perform and as they try to dig out from having been labeled as “slacking off.”
I remember the day I tiptoed into my son’s bedroom to share his diagnoses with him, worried the label would upset him. Instead, he punched a fist in the air and shouted, “I knew it wasn’t my fault!”
With new supports in place, he’s improving, albeit more slowly than he (or I) wants. But at least now, if someone tells him he needs to “try harder,” he can tell them he needs to “try differently.”