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Twice-Exceptional (2e) Means What???

By Dr. Patty Williams on February 13, 2024

Bright Insight Support Network founder and president Dr. Patty Gently (Formerly Williams) is a trauma therapist and coach who specializes in EMDR, ND-Affirmative DBT, and IFS modalities. Through Bright Insight she works to counsel, coach, and advocate for gifted, twice-exceptional, and neurodivergent persons, along with other marginalized populations.

Twice-Exceptional (2e) Means What???

What Does 2e mean, and what Is Twice-Exceptionality? Well, the concept of twice-exceptionality dates back to the 1970s when 2e students and individuals were recognized as “gifted handicapped” as per the so-titled book by Maker (1977). On the Bright Insight Support Network home page, ​we share how Linda Silverman (2009), a long-time contributor to the field of gifted education, therapy, and twice-exceptionality, reports in her hallmark article about gifted compensation that the identification of twice-exceptionality distinguishes those who have both accelerated ability and learning struggles.

Reis et al. (2014) consider a more operational outlining of this term, using the Joint Commission on Twice Exceptionality’s definition that identifies 2e persons as those who display high-potential and exceptional talent, along with social, attention, and learning adversities, placing them at an identified risk of social-emotional difficulties and underachievement without early, professional intervention. The topic of underachievement though, is a hairy one and will be discussed further in a different space. Know, however, that it is not a term I appreciate as it can boil the value of a gifted person down to what they can produce rather than who they are. Regardless, Reis et al. further suggests that this risk to 2e persons can be mitigated by important leaders and professionals who remain consistently aware of and responsive to needs related to twice-exceptionality. ​

There is no clinical definition for twice-exceptionality in the DSM-V or other diagnostic manuals though, as it is NOT a diagnosis.

Why is Twice-Exceptionality Difficult to Understand?

In relation to the difficulty with comprehending twice-exceptionality, Linda Silverman (2009), highlights how it can be perplexing to some individuals as it may seem contradictory. To further explain this, Silverman writes in her article about gifted compensation that: 

There are two basic misunderstandings here: that the learning disabled aren't smart, and that giftedness means high achievement. If someone thinks learning disabled means “dumb,” and that the gifted are “smart,” you can't be smart and dumb at the same time. However, federal and state definitions of learning disabilities specifically limit the term, “learning disabled,” to children of at least average intelligence. So, you have to be smart to be learning disabled! (p. 115) 

Confusion about being both ‘smart’ and disabled comes partially from a difficulty with detecting learning struggles in gifted individuals, though the exertions related to compensatory efforts can be devastating for them. Silverman explained in her article that since gifted persons tend to excel in areas of abstract reasoning and problem-solving, they can use these strengths to compensate for and often conceal this devastation, thus also concealing a need for support. And even when gifted individuals speak up about their struggles or seek support, they are often met with the assertions: but you’re so smart, you are just lazy, and the infamous, if only they would apply themselves (Williams, 2023). 

So Can It Be Difficult to Identify 2e Folks?

To further explore the challenges associated with identifying 2e persons, Gilman et al. (2013) emphasize in their article the difficulties in recognizing students who are gifted with coexisting disabilities. They highlight how an emphasis on below-average performance can cause professionals and families to overlook the giftedness of 2e students. In other words, instead of giftedness concealing a learning disability, the disability can conceal giftedness. Gilman et al. also point out that learning disabilities and giftedness can mask each other. Through case studies, they found that individuals who are not identified for special education services may perform at grade level by compensating for significant issues using their advanced conceptual abilities, while still experiencing struggles. 

Assessing 2e individuals for giftedness or other supports can also be problematic since they may not perform as well on IQ tests or other gifted assessments. For instance, if a 2e person is dyslexic, their intelligence may not be fully captured by neurotypical-normed evaluation tools. Aubry and Bourdin (2018) discuss how the commonly used Wechsler Scales for assessing intellectual giftedness may not be suitable for individuals with learning disabilities, further complicating the proper identification of giftedness for 2e individuals. 

Another study by Wai and Lovett (2021) emphasizes the importance of using multiple and concurrent evaluations to assess for giftedness to prevent overlooking 2e students. While there may be concerns about the value of gifted assessment and programming, improving these practices globally and including underrepresented students, as highlighted by Wai and Lovett (2021), can contribute to addressing real-world problems and promoting a higher standard of living for all. ***It is essential to note that placing the burden of improving the world solely on gifted individuals may be misguided. Instead, it is preferable to focus on supporting the well-being and life satisfaction of gifted individuals, as is my common plea. Focussing only on what they produce or offer is unkind at a minimum.***

2e children are also often characterized as having a heightened language ability, which can inhibit identification for services (van Viersen et al., 2016), while increasing vulnerability to developing mental health disorders (Alesi et al., 2015). This is particularly true since giftedness can act as a limiting factor when development is supposedly asynchronous. Along with enduring and adjusting for this supposed asynchronicity, 2e individuals tend to compensate for second exceptionalities, again adding to the masking seen and experienced by many neurodivergent persons.

So What?

Well, again... we need to know how to help the outliers of outliers. We need to seek out the underrepresented gifted. 2e individuals are part of this group. Other marginalized populations need this support too, as has been and will continue to be addressed in future posts.

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