Understanding the Twice-Exceptional: Easier Said Than Done

I having been living in data hell for the past few years. Actually, lack-of-data hell.

Nobody seems to be able to get a handle on my most complicated kid: a 5-year old with 2nd grade math and reading skills, the emotional meltdowns of a 2-year-old, and significant developmental delays relating to basic self-care skills. Figuring out what is simply asynchronous development and what is a disability or learning difference is hard. He has dysgraphia, sensory processing issues, and challenges with pragmatic social skills, but what else is going on – and there definitely is more going on – is hard to fit into diagnostic categories.

Understanding twice-exceptional children can be challenging. When a child’s areas of strength are enough to compensate for their weaknesses, both academic giftedness and disabilities can be missed. If the weaknesses win out over the strengths, the gifts can be missed. And, if the child compensates adequately for the weaknesses, the deficits do not get addressed.

To complicate things further, twice-exceptional children often develop emotional and behavioural problems as a result of the frustrations they experience.

While the adults around are busy struggling to understand these kids well enough to help them thrive, the kids themselves are experiencing their own frustrations. Remember, these are gifted kids – they are tuned in to the signals around them. They know that they are smart, that they have skills others do not have. And, at the same time, they have problems that they do not see other smart kids having. Adults often misconstrue failures as lack of willpower and self-discipline and accuse them of laziness. Frustration is hard to avoid, self-compassion hard to maintain.

A teacher or parent who has seen average academic performance from a child and then witnesses the secondary emotional and behavioural issues often has a hard time accepting that a child’s giftedness is contributing to the behavioural problems.

The kid I am most concerned about lives in a useful-data-free zone. Every comprehensive assessment comes back with a “well, he doesn’t really fall into any diagnostic categories beyond needing OT for his handwriting and sensory issues, but he has many other minor issues that collectively negatively impact his ability to function but at least he’s doing so well academically” report, a report that is neither useful in building a treatment plan nor in advocating for accommodations at school, despite the fact that the combination of issues is agreed to be a substantial problem.

For now, I work with the child in front of me, based on hunch and experience without benefit of theoretical framework for understanding and I wait for him to get off the waiting lists for the next rounds of assessments. I am always on the hunt for useful data, but I am not expecting much.

For a more theoretical look at the challenges of identification of twice-exceptional kids, here are a few resources:

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Kate can usually be found writing about writing at www.katearmsroberts.com.

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13 thoughts on “Understanding the Twice-Exceptional: Easier Said Than Done

  1. If the self-care is buttoning a shirt and tying shoes… being unable to do this at 5-7 is well within the realm of asynchronous ie they need pull-on pants and velcro shoes. A highly sensitive child could also cry like a two year old if overstimulated (large class, noise). The writing, it is very difficult to tell at 5. Often these correct with moderate practice, except for the sensitivity, but not always at the pace the schools prefer. It will be hard to get a diagnosis for what sounds like a borderline case. On Hoagies, you probably see that a situation like your son’s will garner a lot of different opinions even among the pros. I have come to believe it is not a science. I empathize and wish you luck. :)

    • You are absolutely correct that the specifics of the issue matter.
      I was intentionally vague as to the specifics of my child’s issues because he does not need me telling the world about things that may or may not matter when he is old enough to care what has been said about him on the Internet in his past.
      However, I would be very happy if handwriting, buttoning shirts, and tying shoes were the issues I cared about.

  2. Yes, that’s the hard part, sharing without too much sharing. I just saw a post about The Dabrowski Congress (never heard of it before). Some really interesting and unusual topics including:
    •Twice exceptional learners who are diagnostically homeless
    •Gifted women writers who wrote their way through positive disintegration
    I think we are at a moment in time when we are the trailblazers. So far most of what people share is anecdotal, which offers ideas but it is such a long haul trying them out. I look forward to following your story. :)

  3. Me too bc I know they are home all along. Folks just need to come knockin’. :)

  4. I am very interested in what issues meltdowns focus on. I know you didn’t want to get specific, but maybe someone else will say. I don’t know whether it is different from norm, but my daughter gets fixated on her imaginational world (ages 4 to now 8). To me, that is the most flexible part of the brain. You know, creativity = flexibility and fun. But it’s like a hollywood director lives in my house sometimes. We are traveling right now and yesterday, she wanted me to move my suitcase because there was an orphan sleeping on the couch where it was.
    incidentally, I recommend the books The Mysterious Benedict Society which portray the gifted poplation fictionally in all the glory.
    Robin

    • I have 4 gt kids, including 2 borderline Aspies, 2 self-directed, intrinsically motivated, self-absorbed with OEs, 2 who collapse onto the floor and retreat into themselves when frustrated and 2 who rage. Without being specific about who does what, here is what I feel comfortable sharing.
      Meltdowns of the autistic meltdown variety happen in my house triggered by: something not happening exactly the same way as it did the very first time it was experienced; too much noise; too much light; one frustration too many; bringing the wrong book to read in the car and other forms of regretting a previously made choice; rules not being followed exactly; being asked to turn the computer off; the wrong kind of pepperoni on the table, a sibling changing the CD, being hurried in self-care tasks, being reminded to do an incomplete task, and more. The list is long. And inconsistency is more common than consistency: what triggers a reaction today may not trigger a reaction tomorrow, but something else probably will. (See http://theautismfactor.com/meltdowns-vs-temper-tantrums/ for an explanation of the distinction between an autistic meltdown and a tantrum)
      I need to read The Mysterious Benedict Society. My eldest has read some of them, but I haven’t had a chance.

      • That article on meltdowns vs tantrums was a really helpful distinction. I would say my daughter is someplace in between the tantrum and the meltdown. Meltdowns would tend to occur, I would think, even in typical children who are tired. That is to say, the tantrum “going away” once the wish is granted, isn’t as typical in the typical, as is described? I remember reading this article by Brazelton about babies being “disorganized” or something at the end of a long day and crying as a way of putting themselves back together. This didn’t make much sense theory wise to me, but I did witness it and I still do. My kid holds herself in a sort of nervous tension all day I think (we run a little anxious) and then sort of both collapses and rages over something differing from her expectations (of even the simplest nature as you described) when home with me after school. She saves it up for me. (how nice) But this does mean she has some control over it. In fact, it is her almost daily goal to not start yelling over stuff. I had finally found a psychologist who kind of put it on her to calm herself down. I know autistic kids have little control over this.
        My child would be helped by naps. I am. But she has not napped since she was 2 except when very ill. Life is just too interesting. Which I guess is good.

  5. Seriously, Kate, I think we must be raising the same 5 year-old! I hate that we are having to muddle our way through things, but I am deeply comforted by the fact that I am not alone in this. Please let us know how things are going with you and your child!

  6. The description of your child is so much like my child that I could have written it last year. OT has helped with basics like buttoning, zipping, etc. He still struggles with writing, but that has been ruled as more of a perfectionist issue than delay. The sensory issues have also improved with OT. He will turn 7 in December. He was totally unable to be in a regular classroom. It was too slow as far as learning, but too fast (busy) for his sensory issues. We are now doing a virtual school at home and he is thriving. I hope with maturity and opportunities in a gifted program (starting in 4th grade in our school district) that he will be able to return to a regular school in a few years. He doesn’t fit into any one diagnosis. The only conclusive information we have ever gotten out of any assessment/evaluation is that he has an abnormally high IQ. While we never anticipated how high, it has been obvious to us for many years since he began to read at the age of 2. I wish you luck and send you hugs. It is not easy to navigate or advocate when you have a child that is “diagnostically homeless.”

  7. Diagnostically homeless – a fabulous phrase! I’ve two kids – 1 “borderline, borderline aspie” (what in the heck does even mean?!?), 2 exceptionally gifted, 1 extreme introvert, 1 average introvert (but who seems almost an extrovert to me), 2 passionate, stubborn, perceptive, sensitive beings, 2 perfectionists, 1 struggling with school because its just too structured and fools are not suffered gladly, 1 exceptionally kind soul, one “eighty-year old curmudgeon” reborn soul. As I say (repeatedly) – its really hard becoming human; but after 15 years for one and 11 for the other, I think they’ve stopped buying it.

    I’ve been so fatigued (emotionally & intellectually) that sometimes the quest to nurture these “becoming humans” that it seems insurmountable. Your entries often remind me of hurdles crossed (sometimes more than once per child) successfully, hurdles to come. Most of all, they remind me to stop, breathe and remember that its the journey not the destination that is important. When I focus on that, I don’t feel so fatigued and inept.

    Perhaps, diagnostically homeless is a good place to be – skills, abilities, weaknesses that are composed into a collage or mosaic that is undefinable but gloriously rich, varied and just fabulous.

    • Ah, yes, the fatigue. I have been stuck in the fatigue recently. Thank you for the reminder to breathe and focus on the journey.
      These children are compex and it is easy to focus on how that is challenging. I love the phrase “gloriously rich, varied, and just fabulous”; it reminds me to see the rich beauty and incredible uniqueness that these kids have.

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