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Twice Exceptional – What is Masking Your Child’s True Potential?

ADD? ADHD? Anxiety? OCD? Is a Disability Masking Your Child’s True Potential?

Every child has areas of relative strength – something they can do better than other activities; however not all children are gifted. Every child has areas of relative weakness – something they don’t do as well as other activities; however not every child has a disability.  The use of the terms ‘gifted’ and ‘disability’ indicate a significant degree of difference from the norm; a level of development that exists well outside the range of abilities and skills usually expected of a child at a particular chronological age.  Professor Françoys Gagné, Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Quebec, explains a gifted child has advanced abilities that exist within the top ten percent of the population. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a child with a disability experiences impairments in one or more of the intellectual, cognitive, neurological, psychiatric, sensory or physical areas and around ten percent of the world’s population live with a disability. So we asked Michele Juratowitch to explain how a disability could mask a child’s true potential and what to do about it.

Disadvantaged Students

There are gradations of giftedness, with children identified as mildly, moderately, highly or exceptionally gifted, depending upon their level of abilities, skill development and associated support needs.  Likewise, there are gradations of disabilities, with children diagnosed as mildly, moderately, severely or profoundly disabled, depending upon the level of impairment, reduced functional capacity and associated support needs.  In both these areas, the numbers of children within each level reduce as each level is located further from the average range of abilities; however the child’s needs increase according to greater levels of giftedness or disability.  Provision for children with special educational support needs is a matter of equity and social justice within our society – or at least it should be.

The NDIS legislation has acted as a catalyst for increasing the awareness of disabilities within our society.  State and Federal Government funding provides support in school for children who experience disabilities in specific (but not all) areas of disability.  Despite two bipartisan Federal Senate Select Committee Enquiries (1988, 2006) The Education of Gifted and Talented Children reporting that gifted students are the most educationally disadvantaged students in Australia, there is still limited awareness of the characteristics of gifted children and knowledge of the ways in which schools and parents can provide for gifted children’s intellectual, educational and psychosocial needs.

Everyone is Not Created Equal

One of my favourite quotes, “There is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequal individuals” (attributed to Thomas Jefferson), highlights the importance of providing appropriate supports for these exceptional students, whether their needs are related to heightened abilities, impairments – or both.  Children who are gifted and have a disability experience exceptionalities in two or more areas.  These twice-exceptional children usually have an extremely wide scatter of abilities and disabilities, causing intense frustration and requiring interventions to provide appropriately for each of the areas of exceptionality in order for the child to achieve at the best of their abilities. It is important to understand that twice-exceptional children do not simply have areas of relative strength or interest coupled with areas of relative deficit or disinterest.  The degree of difference from the norm is significant.  When a child who is gifted also experiences one or more disabilities, this creates a huge gulf between these two areas of exceptionality.  The greater the discrepancy between these extremities, the more complex and critical are the child’s needs.

It is incontrovertible that Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, who suffers from an extremely debilitating motor neuron disease, is twice-exceptional.  It is obvious that Hawking has an extreme physical disability coupled with an extraordinary, brilliant mind. If the focus had exclusively been on what he was not able to do, he would never have become a widely acclaimed scientist.   There are, however, numerous twice-exceptional students who have concurrent advanced abilities (within the gifted range) and disabilities but their needs, although complex, are not as extreme nor as apparent as Hawking’s.

In a society that has a largely deficit orientation, twice-exceptional children’s disabilities are more likely to be identified than are their advanced abilities. These students’ abilities can mask their disabilities while their disabilities can mask their abilities; resulting in a child whose needs are not obvious, therefore not easily identified or adequately supported within school. Sometimes twice-exceptional students are sometimes seen as average students or (depending upon the level of ability and disability) perceived as underachieving, above-average ability students.  When neither the child’s giftedness nor their disability is recognized, such children may be regarded as ‘bright but lazy’. This is because there may be occasional indicators of heightened intellectual ability but the undiagnosed disability impedes academic performance.  Such students fail to produce work that demonstrates the full extent of their capabilities.    Rarely are these twice-exceptional children recognized as having gifted abilities as well as areas of disabilities. It can take years for children’s diverse needs to be identified.  Unfortunately, some are never identified.

When to Get Help

Parents, who think that their child is very bright but also suspect that there is ‘something else’ going on that restricts their child from being able to demonstrate abilities, should consider and investigate the possibility that the child might be twice-exceptional. Only a thorough assessment, conducted by professionals with experience and expertise in identifying giftedness and diagnosing disabilities, will provide a clear, comprehensive picture of the child’s abilities as well as any disabilities and clarify whether the child is twice-exceptional.

Michele Juratowitch is Director of Clearing Skies, provides counselling for gifted students of all ages and their parents.  She provides advocacy and consultancy in schools; professional development for teachers; programs for students and workshops for parents. Michele was awarded a Churchill Fellowship, is co-author of Make a Twist: Curriculum differentiation for gifted students.

E:  michele@clearingskies.com.au

W: www.clearingskies.com.au

P: 07 3378 0888

This article was published in Issue 11 of our print magazine, August/September 2015.

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