Twice-Exceptional: Learning Disabled and Gifted. (Research Reflections)

By Blacher, Jan | The Exceptional Parent, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Twice-Exceptional: Learning Disabled and Gifted. (Research Reflections)


Blacher, Jan, The Exceptional Parent


It's September and our children are heading back to school (whew!). I thought it appropriate in this back-to-school issue of EP to reflect on research that addresses a narrow but fascinating topic: children who are twice-exceptional, meaning that they have abilities in the gifted range as well as some significant learning challenges, and what parents and educators can do to help them.

Most school children can identify at least one famous person who had, or has, a disability (or two) but went on to achieve great things (e.g. Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, Ludwig van Beethoven and Stevie Wonder). If you read EP's July, 2002 Research Reflections you know that Jim Eisenreich went on to play major league baseball despite his Tourette syndrome. Yet the combination of a learning disability and giftedness is not something we expect to find, and so it is often missed.

Many of us are old enough to remember learning the three R's: Reading, Writing and `Rithmetic. Today's children often don't recognize the names of these skills, as they are now called "language arts," "writer's workshop," "core skills," "math" or, worse yet, "new math." Despite these new titles, about 7 percent of children are reported to have a disability, known as a "specific learning disability," in one of the three R's. This qualifies both the children and their parents for the title exceptional.

Children with remarkable abilities in these and other areas are also called "gifted," and denoted professionally as exceptional. Oddly enough, federal legislation that provides funding to children with exceptionalities does not include children with special talents or gifts, yet these children--and their parents--are also exceptional.

I was I think in 5th or 6th grade when I was given an IQ test, and they found my IQ as eligible for the gifted and talented program. Then they gave me a test they used for placement in the program. They told me I didn't make it but not to feel bad, because learning disabled [persons] usually score about 15 percent lower than normal people, so I probably would have made it if I had not been learning disabled. [From: Reis, Neu, & McGuire, 1997, p. 468]

Who is learning disabled and/or gifted?

The U.S. Department of Education reported that in 1994 more than four percent of school children in the U.S. (approximately two million children) received services for learning disabilities over one school year (http://www.kidsource.com).

The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) currently reports that five percent of the student population in the U.S. (approximately three million children) are gifted (http://www.nagc.org).

What is a learning disability?

According to the 1997 IDEA Regulations: "Specific learning disability is defined as ... a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations, including conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia." Of course there are additional criteria and alternative definitions, but these are beyond our scope here.

What is giftedness?

NAGC defines a gifted person as "someone who shows, or has the potential for showing, an exceptional level of performance in one or more areas of expression. The term giftedness provides a general reference to this spectrum of abilities without being specific or dependent on a single measure or index."

M. Elizabeth Nielsen and her colleagues are researchers focusing on children who are twice-exceptional. Their Twice-Exceptional Child Projects take place in the southwestern United States (Neilsen, 2002). Through their outreach and advocacy they have found that 3.5 percent of children with LD) could also be identified as gifted.

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