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Opinion: students who are intellectually gifted can also have learning difficulties

Mention the terms ‘intellectual giftedness’ and ‘learning disability’ and there is a general understanding of what each term means. However, most people are unaware that in many circumstances the two can go hand-in-hand.

Current US research suggests that 14 per cent of children who are identified as intellectually gifted may also have a learning disability. While their intellectual gifts are acknowledged, their learning disabilities are often ignored. Though teachers are required to undertake training in special education, they aren’t trained in identifying gifted children. Without training in both areas, these students will not be able to reach their full potential.

Identifying a gifted student with disabilities

Internationally, these students are referred to as either ‘Twice Exceptional’ (2e) or ‘GLD‘ (gifted with a learning disability), or ‘double labelled’. Their disabilities can include ADHD, dyslexia, processing disorders, autism spectrum disorders, as well as physical and emotional disorders. These children may be in gifted programs, but it is more likely that they would be in specialist remedial programs, with their intellectual giftedness ignored.

Twice Exceptional children are often hard to identify. The most common and significant feature of a Twice Exceptional child is uneven academic performance, which is unexplained and unpredictable.

They may achieve outstandingly high results in academic activities outside of school, yet this same level of achievement is not reflected in their school assessments. For instance, they may excel on multiple-choice tests, yet struggle when asked to compose answers on a blank page. Others may excel verbally but perform poorly on pen-and-paper tasks.

Difficulties arise with identifying these children, as they generally fall into three categories:

  1. Those whose intellectual giftedness is recognised and whose disability only becomes apparent as the difficulty in their schoolwork increases.
  2. Those who are not identified as either gifted or with a learning disability because they are demonstrating average achievement.
  3. Those who are identified as having a learning disability and may be in a learning support program but their intellectual giftedness is not recognised.

To further complicate things, the identification processes for gifted programs and learning disability services are mutually exclusive. In schools, there is usually a gifted education coordinator, who caters to the needs of gifted students, and a special needs team, whose role is to provide support services for students with learning disabilities. Their roles are specific to these two groups and there is rarely any overlap or consultation between them.

The consequences of not being recognised

Twice Exceptional children continually struggle to make sense of having high intellectual potential and a disability. They begin to doubt their abilities and become increasingly frustrated. After repeated failures, unidentified or unsupported Twice Exceptional children tend to conclude that they are ‘just stupid’ and can’t see the point in trying. As such, teachers may label them as lazy.

The result is continuing underachievement, lack of motivation, behavioural issues and disenchantment with school. The longterm results are often school refusal, school dropout, social and family problems, chronic underemployment, low socioeconomic status and serious mental health concerns.

These results ripple outwards; splintering families, putting financial strain on parents, burning out support workers and reducing quality of life for all involved. I spoke to one such child in my research who told his parents how he feels about school:

You don’t know what it’s like when you bring me to this place. It’s like a nuclear bomb going off in my stomach, it spreads to my head and I can’t think and it spreads to my hands and I can’t make them move.

Children who are intellectually gifted with a learning disability are frequently misunderstood. Some educators, on the one hand, point to the child’s giftedness to ‘prove’ that the child has no real learning disabilities and, on the other hand, point to the child’s learning disabilities to suggest that the child is not really gifted.

What needs to be done?

Failure to recognise these children stems from a failure by federal and state governments to ensure that teachers receive training in identifying these children and meeting their educational needs.

There needs to be sufficient and consistent levels of community, university, teacher and institutional awareness and understanding of Twice Exceptional children. The earlier a child can be identified, even in the early childhood setting, the greater the chance that the issues can be addressed and the child will reach his or her potential.

Dr Catherine Wormald is a lecturer in gifted education and special education at the University of Wollongong. For support regarding these children, Dr Wormald recommends you visit GLD Australia, an online support group for parents, educators and other professionals concerned about children who are intellectually gifted with learning disabilities.

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