Spend a few minutes with Yasha Broderick and Yale Richardson and you’ll quickly be shaking your head in amazement.
Information and insights spill from them in rapid, articulate sentences. So does typical, delightful middle-school humor. They have a lot in common, particularly a love of all things science and technology. But they share something else. Yasha, 12, and Yale, 13, are what experts describe as “twice exceptional,” or 2E.
These boys rank in the top 1 percent of all students when it comes to intellectual ability. Absorbing information comes easily to them. Both perform well above the eighth-grade level in most academic subjects.
But their extraordinary intellectual capacity comes with a flip side: twice exceptional means that they also face extraordinary challenges.
Yale’s predominant challenges are visible to anyone. Born with cerebral palsy, he wears braces on his legs and uses a walker to skillfully navigate the hallways at The Jones-Gordon School (formerly On-Track Academy) in Scottsdale. He came to the school a couple of years ago, after tough experiences elsewhere.
“I used to get slammed on—bullied all the time,” says Yale. “People used to look at me weird [or] said, ‘At least I can walk!’ to me.”
Still, he is philosophical: “Human beings can be evil sometimes. Think about what happened in World War II. Think about Stalin…Genghis Khan.”
At The Jones-Gordon School, a private school serving diverse learners, Yale has found friendship, acceptance and an individualized educational environment that works for him.
Except for math. “Math is the pure epitomy of awfulness,” he says, grinning at Principal Elizabeth Westerfield, MS, EdD, who was his math teacher last year. There’s that middle-school humor.
Yasha’s attention challenges are not so visible, but his capacity for empathy certainly is. “If mental disabilities were visible, Yale would not be the one getting picked on at all,” he says quietly.
And there’s that unbelievable insight.
The challenges of being 2E
Dana Herzberg, MEd, founder and head of school at The Jones-Gordon School, became interested in twice exceptionality during her master’s degree program at Arizona State University. She was working with a student who had a 130 IQ but couldn’t read.
“His teachers wanted him to have accommodations so he didn’t have to read the textbooks,” she says. “But he was a sponge. He wanted to learn everything. He didn’t want it watered down for him. The challenge was how to continue his gift.”
Herzberg put together a plan that encompassed the disability and the gift—and focused her studies on the concept of twice exceptionality.
“People don’t realize the challenges that come with a 2E diagnosis,” she says. “Being gifted is not easy. There are self-esteem issues. There is being appropriately challenged. There is finding highly qualified educators who understand the executive functioning and other challenges that often come along with it. You need teachers who understand that these kids are not going to do busy work. They won’t comply with that.”
As an educator, she says, “You see the frustration.” Bright kids wonder why others don’t understand when something like reading or math is hard for them. Parents may tend toward impatience: “You’re so smart! Why can’t you get it?”
Sometimes, when Herzberg is with other families at a playground, she hears parents saying things like, “Oh, my gosh—my child is so gifted!”
“I sit on the sidelines thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh—for your sake, I hope not!’”
Misdiagnosed and misunderstood
Walk into the waiting area at Beljan Psychological Services in Scottsdale and you’ll meet the most popular member of the team: Puka. The gentle Labrador Retriever brings a quick smile to those who visit.
Puka belongs to neuropsychologist Paul Beljan, PsyD, who wants the children he and his colleagues work with to know that they are in a safe and caring environment where grownups “get” them. That feeling is rare for 2E kids, who often go misdiagnosed and misunderstood.
“People think ‘You’re smart, you can solve your own problems.’ Or ‘You’re smart, you should know better.’ And that’s a huge fallacy,” Beljan says.
Learning disabilities are just as likely to occur in the gifted population as in the non-gifted population, he says. The problem is that “discrepancy models” used to determine eligibility for special education services do not account for giftedness.
Testing models recognize a problem only when a child’s academic performance ranks one to one-and-a-half standard deviations below IQ. (A “standard deviation” is 15 points.) So a child with a mean IQ of 100 but academic performance ranking in the 77th percentile or lower would be flagged for further assessment. The child could have a learning disability that qualifies for special education intervention.
But what if that child’s IQ was much higher than the mean?
Beljan says he has seen kids with IQs as high as 140 but academic scores ranking near 100—almost three standard deviations lower. “And the school would say, ‘You’re fine. You have a 140 IQ, your academics are average. We have kids with real problems.’ But they’re not looking at it relative to that child,” for whom a 40-point discrepancy is significant.
Compounding that tendency is the fact that gifted children can often beat the system, says Beljan. “If you’re gifted, you frequently can compensate somewhat with the IQ, even inadvertently, and you’re going to score in a way that you beat the discrepancy model.” A significant learning disability could go undetected.
And then there is the risk of misdiagnosis: “A lot of behaviors that are normal for gifted kids look disordered in the regular population if you’re not aware the child is gifted or don’t know anything about giftedness,” Beljan says. That opens the possibility that children are being treated—and even medicated—for mental health disabilities they do not have.
Beljan talks about “a really stellar gifted teacher” he knows. “She will tell you that all day, every day, in her gifted class it’s mad, sad, glad, crying, happy, goofy, upset—it’s everything—with intensity. You take a child like that to an uninformed psychiatrist and say, ‘All day this child is happy, sad, mad, scared, crying, goofy…’ ‘Well, that sounds like bipolar disorder. I guess we should put that child on medication.’”
“If you put that child on medication meant for bipolar disorder, you’re going to flatten those behaviors out and then you’re going to get self-confirming bias that you accurately diagnosed bipolar [disorder], gave appropriate medications and the behavior stopped—so you were right,” says Beljan. “And that’s really dangerous because you’ve changed the trajectory of that child’s life.”
Beljan gives another example: “If I’m really into Iowa prairie grass and I have to know everything about Iowa prairie grass and it’s on my mind all the time, it’s easy to say, ‘Well, he has Asperger syndrome. He’s hyperfocused on one thing and that’s all he talks about. Well, Einstein was hyperfocused on light all his life and that’s all he talked about, but he sure as heck wasn’t Asperger’s or autistic.
“If a 5-year-old loves to line up his cars then mix them up and line them up again in a different way—size, color, shape, tires, whatever—is that autistic? Or is it a child who is really into categories and developing that skill?”
Think about it this way, Beljan suggests: “Any surgeon or engineer is going to have OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] tendencies. It’s the nature of the job—you need to be that way [hyperfocused on details] to do that job, to be good at that job. Does it mean you have OCD? Not necessarily. Does it mean you could have it? Yeah, but you’ve got to look at that in a very detailed way to figure it out.”
“There are normal ways of being for these [gifted] children that look abnormal,” Beljan says. “If you are hardwired to experience learning like eating, you’re going to be pretty driven innately. For a 5-year-old, that can look pretty OCD. But it doesn’t mean it’s OCD.”
In other children, significant learning and/or mental health issues can disguise giftedness. A national organization, Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG), recently launched a Misdiagnosis Initiative designed to help educate parents and health care professionals about the risks of misdiagnosis and how to avoid them.
“Most professionals, psychologists included, don’t know about giftedness,” Beljan says. “I know neuropsychologists who will pooh-pooh the concept of high IQ having anything at all to do with personality. My argument is that there are certain [behaviors] that are perfectly normal for kids with a very low IQ that are not necessarily pathological but just the way they are. The same thing would be true of someone with a really high IQ.”
Twenty-two years ago, when Beljan was completing his doctoral studies, there was only one doctoral-level graduate course in giftedness in the entire country. It was taught by James T. Webb, PhD, at Wright State University in Ohio, where Beljan received his degree. Webb went on to found Great Potential Press, which publishes a catalog of books about giftedness, including one he co-authored with Beljan and four other colleagues: “Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, OCD, Depression, and Other Disorders.”
Beljan and members of his diagnosis and treatment staff are frequently out in the community giving talks to build awareness about giftedness among parents and other professionals.
“High IQ doesn’t make you immune from a learning disability, but it is going to manifest a bit differently and it’s a lot trickier to pick it up,” he says. “I believe, and a lot of my colleagues believe, that you don’t do checklist testing, you don’t simply do observation and make a diagnosis. You always do standardized testing. And anybody doing that testing needs to be well versed in what it is to be gifted.”
It’s also important to do a qualitative analysis that examines “the backdrop of how that child is being raised, the consistency in how they’re being raised, the routines, the belief systems of the parents—all sorts of things factor into who that child is,” says Beljan. “Neuropsychology is the ‘surgery’ of psychology. We’re making huge decisions about the lives of these children. We have to get it right.”
The parenting challenge
It takes “a posse of people” to adequately support a 2E child, Herzberg says. Many 2E kids lack maturity and social skills. Self-esteem can seesaw between the self-doubt of extreme frustration and a seeming arrogance fueled by constant reminders about how smart they are.
Most 2E kids struggle with executive functioning issues—difficulty planning and organizing tasks—that are often confused with attention deficits. And no two 2E kids are alike, meaning that most need an individualized curriculum pairing interventions for disabilities with academic work appropriate to their required level of challenge and advancement.
“And you need to help parents,” Herzberg says. “These are kids who don’t do homework, who fight you, who give you a run for your money when it comes to homework—‘This is boring, busy work, dumb, unimportant, why do I need to do this?’ Parents need support. They agonize, but they don’t know what to do.
“Parents are struggling. Anyone who tells you it’s not hard is lying. These kids are going to win ‘speech and debate’ wars every time. There is a debate for everything, an excuse for everything. They’re very complex.”
Herzberg stresses that having academic ability alone is not a free pass. “Bright people are not more successful than kids who work really hard. Raising a gifted child is equally as hard as raising a special needs child—and having a 2E child is double that.”
Disabilities that can pair with giftedness
- Executive functioning differences
- Sensory/perception differences