Twice Exceptional

By Debra Viadero — May 31, 1995 6 min read

From an early age, Dayle Upham remembers feeling like two persons. The person on the inside was quick, competent, and would always know the right answers in school. The person on the outside kept getting in the way.

It wasn’t until Dayle reached her 40’s that she discovered why she may have felt that way. Dayle is “twice exceptional": She is both gifted and learning disabled.

That students like Dayle exist at all may come as a surprise to some educators.

“If you ask a lot of educators, they will say that’s kind of like an oxymoron,” says Upham. “You can’t be gifted and learning disabled at the same time.”

But three researchers at the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut say Upham is not alone. She may well be keeping company with the likes of Albert Einstein, Auguste Rodin, and Charles Darwin--brilliant individuals who are thought to have had learning disabilities. In fact, one estimate suggests that as many as 180,000 gifted students with disabilities may attend schools nationwide.

And chances are, these researchers say, these twice-exceptional students are not faring well there.

Researchers Sally M. Reis, Terry W. Neu, and Joan M. Mc~Guire studied the lives of 12 University of Connecticut students who were both gifted and learning disabled. They found that these students suffered in school because they were considered too bright for special education and not bright enough for gifted programs. Because they excelled in some areas, their teachers sometimes considered them lazy. Because they were bright, they found ways to compensate for--and mask--their disabilities.

“It was not just the presence of a learning disability that affected school academic success,” the University of Connecticut researchers write in a report that was released last month. (See Education Week, 4/5/95.) “It was the combination of giftedness and the learning disability that created many negative school experiences for this population.

“They struggle and struggle, so they appear to be achieving at average or slightly-below-average levels when actually it’s taking enormous amounts of work,” says Reis, who led the study. With the right kind of help, she adds, “they could be soaring.”

Lessons of Success

A handful of researchers have been studying children with these twin exceptionalities for a decade or more. Even so, the topic has received little attention among mainstream educators.

Center investigators decided to look at this population for two reasons. First, the federal grants they received under the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Act required them to look at special populations. Second, the center was getting calls from frantic parents who did not understand why their children seemed to be exceptionally talented in one area and yet could not read or write. Other calls came from teachers who did not know what to do with such students.

The researchers concentrated on “best case examples” of these students, hoping to find in their stories lessons for less successful students.

To find those examples, they reviewed records going as far back as elementary school for students enrolled in the University of Connecticut Program for Students with Learning Disabilities, a student-support program. They chose those who had either been singled out as gifted as children or who would have been identified as gifted because of high I.Q. scores or because of outstanding performance in one academic area.

All of the students had a language-based disability of some kind, ranging from spelling problems to severe dyslexia. Their strengths tended to lie in spatial or creative areas. One, for example, won top honors in engineering from the university.

The researchers interviewed the students and at least one of their parents. They checked the information those interviews generated against the students’ school records and against questionnaires the participants completed.

Critics of this kind of qualitative research methodology might suggest the study is an isolated collection of stories. But Reis says this process allowed them to take an unusually close look at their subjects.

“You are able to really know these young people,” she says. “And, given that these 12 people came from four different states and attended different schools in different school districts, they had very common experiences in school.”

And, for the most part, those experiences were overwhelmingly bad.

“It was the most horrible experience of my life,” says Upham, who was one of the 12 subjects. “I’ve always been extremely good at athletics, and that was the only reason I stayed.”

Half the students were held back one or more grades in school. Most were not identified as learning disabled until middle school, high school, or college. Yet, many had been tested for a disability at some earlier point in their schooling.

“My mother had me taken to a psychologist,” another subject told the researchers, “and then she met with the people in the school and they said they couldn’t put me in the learning-disability program because I was too smart.”

In Upham’s case, educators did not figure out she was dyslexic until she reached 7th grade. She knew something was wrong in 1st grade. But she was able to get along by memorizing entire stories that her mother read to her, using the pictures on each page as cues.

“I also learned very quickly to become much more observant than other kids, picking up body-language signals and changes in tones of voice,” she says. “I always knew when teachers had had enough.”

Another student, whom researchers gave the pseudonym “Peggy,” recalls elementary school teachers who yelled at her to “shape up” and who kept her after school when she could not memorize her multiplication tables.

And “Joe,” another subject, told the researchers how other students threw rocks at him and called him a “retard” during recess.

“It would’ve been sad for any group of youngsters but, because these young people were so bright, they caught every nuance,” Reis says. “They recognized whenever someone was making fun of them.”

Half the students sought help for the social and emotional scars that resulted. Joe, for example, said he had blocked out the years he spent in a self-contained special-education classroom with students who were mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed. Another subject attempted suicide.

Compensate, Not Remediate

Once their disabilities were identified, the quality of the special-education services students received varied widely from year to year. Even students who were not, like Joe, lumped into special classes with more seriously disabled students complained about the remedial nature of the services they received.

“I kind of wondered why I was there, because everything they had me do was so simple. I kind of felt like I was doing it for them,” recalls one subject. “I would go into this room, and the teacher would have me read this story that I had read 10 times already in 2nd grade, and fill in questions about it, and it seemed so obvious.”

“We just worked on vocabulary and spelling,” recalls another student. “I figured I guess they would teach you to spell better, then your disability would go away.”

Not all the students had completely negative experiences. Three of them said that working with a learning specialist had been a major positive influence in their lives.

More useful to these students, however, were the services they received at the university level. There, the focus was on helping students find ways to compensate for their disabilities and to advocate for themselves. They might, for example, learn study strategies or ask professors for more time on tests.

Many of the factors that helped these students succeed are those other researchers have found in children who have overcome other kinds of adversity. (See related story

A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 1995 edition of Education Week as Twice Exceptional