She has a vocabulary two levels above her peers, but cannot calculate 4 + 6. He can read a symphony but cannot hold a pencil to write his own name. Are they gifted or learning disabled? The answer is, both.
Gifted children with learning disabilities (GT/LD) are known as "twice exceptional." Contrary to popular belief, it’s actually a common issue. What is uncommon is recognizing that the child is twice exceptional in the first place.
Until fairly recently, finding a kid marked both “gifted” and “learning disabled” was extremely rare. Mostly because no one was looking for it. In the school environment, where kids are routinely put on a track marked “honors” or “remedial,” “special needs” or “college prep,” evaluators rarely looked for combination children. They didn’t expect a gifted child to have dyslexia, or realize the child with ADHD might also be brilliant at calculus.
Sally Reis, principal investigator for the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, says that “identifying GT/LD children is very hard because they look to the rest of the world like average achievers. Their superior gifts may be compensating for and masking their learning disability.” And in turn, their disabilities may disguise their giftedness.
In fact, although estimates say that as many as 20 percent of students have some form of learning difference, most twice exceptional children are never identified. Parents and educators tend to throw all their strength at “curing” the disability, dismissing the hidden talents they discover along the way. When they do recognize giftedness, they expect kids to “work harder” or “pull it together.” Reis says, “It’s like saying to a blind person, if you really work hard at seeing, you’ll be able to see.”
So how can we help a child we suspect is twice exceptional? The first step is diagnosis. Qualities and symptoms will differ, depending on the disability holding them back, but here are a few signs common in GT/LD children:
- An outstanding talent or ability
- Discrepancy between expected and actual achievement
- Difficulty getting along with peers
- Low self-esteem
- Evidence of underachieving
- The appearance of laziness and an inability to focus or concentrate.
One of the main problems for twice exceptional children is the fact that today’s schools are very heavily focused on reading and writing. Unfortunately, these are two of the most common problematic areas for gifted children with learning disabilities. Quite often it is difficult for them to learn and excel in a heavily linguistic and auditory school environment. There are several things, according to Reis, that parents can do to help them.
For a child struggling with reading you can:
- Supplement his reading assignments with multimedia materials if available. For example, have him watch the DVD of the novel, in addition to reading it.
- Tape-record reading material for her to listen to while she reads the printed text of assigned books. Or, if you can find it, buy the book-on-tape.
- Include high interest selections from magazines and newspapers in line with your child’s reading assignments.
- Have her paraphrase material orally.
- When possible, modify the reading material. For instance, select shorter books for book reports or books with larger print.
- Avoid reading situations which might make him uncomfortable, like reading aloud in a group.
For a child with writing challenges you can:
- Encourage him to keep a daily journal in which writing and spelling is not corrected.
- Teach her to use available strategies for spell-checking.
- Encourage the use of concept mapping (a technique for visualizing the relations between concepts, in which, for example a "tree" or "plant" might be connected with labeled arrows).
- Tape-record writing assignments.
- Make sure she proofreads her work.
- Change the format of the materials from which he copies (for example, photocopy his assignment so it has larger print).
- Use a frame or window to cover all material except the sentence, problem, or question at hand.
Twice exceptional children don’t need to be "fixed." They’re not broken. They simply need your guidance as to how best to forge ahead. Recognizing your child’s strengths in other areas and focusing your attention on those gifts will empower the child to make his or her rightful contribution to society. These children are bright, sensitive, creative individuals who have a historical track record of achieving greatness in the world. After all, if it weren’t for them, there’d be no Symphony No. 9, no sunshine of your life. These kids are here to stay. Signed, sealed, delivered, they’re yours.