Special Education

Studies Shed Light on ‘Twice Exceptional’ Students

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 08, 2012 4 min read

Emerging research on the “neurodevelopmental paradox” of twice-exceptional students highlights the need for educators to take an earlier, more holistic approach to evaluating and teaching students with disabilities.

Often, when people think of a gifted student with disabilities, they picture an autistic savant, like Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie “Rain Man,” but in reality, “there are a lot of kids who are really struggling, and we totally miss them,” said M. Layne Kalbfleisch, the principal investigator of the Krasnow Investigations of Developmental Learning and Behavior, or KIDLAB, at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va.

Ms. Kalbfleisch and other experts estimate there were 300,000 twice-exceptional students—intellectually gifted children also diagnosed with learning disabilities—in 2004, when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act first noted that students with disabilities may also be gifted.

Brain Activity Highlights Differences

Researchers say that, when it comes to processing reading and spatial tasks, the brains of adults who are both gifted and reading-disabled look very much like those of other people with reading disabilities.

30Gifted C1s

SOURCE: Jeffrey M. Gilger

No national count of twice-exceptional students has been done, however, and researchers at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference Vancouver, British Columbia last month noted that the recent movement to use response-to-intervention models to identify students for special education—in lieu of the long-standing practice of measuring the discrepancy between a student’s IQ and academic performance—can cause many twice-exceptional students to be misdiagnosed.

Timing of Evaluation

Sylvia B. Rimm, the director of the family-achievement clinic at the Educational Assessment Service in Watertown, Wis., and a clinical professor at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine agreed. The timing of an evaluation can mean the difference between a student being identified as gifted or disabled, she explained, because while giftedness can mask a disability early on, over time, the disability can hide a student’s strengths.

“If they don’t read a lot and they struggle with reading, their verbal IQs really go down—20 or 30 points over a few years,” Ms. Rimm said. “There’s interaction between learning and the brain. The brain of a reading-disabled child who has not figured out how to read actually changes.”

“If we do response to intervention first with these kids, we just assume they have a reading disability and they’re not gifted, and by the time we get to evaluate them, their verbal IQ has gone down.” Then, when the student gets referred for an evaluation, Ms. Rimm added, “it isn’t the disability that’s missed; it’s the giftedness that’s missed.”

At the AERA conference, Susan G. Assouline, the associate director of the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, found more than 60 percent of the difference in reading and writing achievement among students with high IQs could be traced to differences in their working memory and processing speed. Those differences could cause a twice-exceptional student to look average or simply disabled on overall test scores, making it critical for educators to look at a comprehensive evaluation, including differences in scores of different skills or subjects.

“If you just look at a full scale score, especially considering the differences in processing speed and working memory, you will not get the full picture of the student and the student’s strengths,” she said.

Atypical Brains

In an ongoing study contrasting the brain activity of gifted and typical adults with and without dyslexia, Jeffrey M. Gilger, a social sciences professor at the University of California-Merced, used functional magnetic-resonance-imaging, or FMRI, which measures the magnetic fields created by electrical activity in the brain, to compare the brains of 40 college-age adults with and without giftedness and reading disabilities.

Preliminary results show the brains of gifted people with reading disabilities processed both verbal and spatial tasks in the same way as other people with reading disabilities: They had more activity spread throughout the brain than those with regular reading abilities.

“If it is true that dyslexic brains are born into this world with the propensity to be at risk for reading disabilities … and if they also have atypical brains with the propensity to pick up spatial information in a more-effective way than the rest of us do,” Mr. Gilger said, “if you get them early enough, the way the brain molds and shifts itself, early-development [research] tells us there might be sensitive or critical periods to pick up those spatial skills they may have.”

He and Ms. Assouline argued that screenings for early disability intervention should also include analysis of and support for students’ potential strengths.

“If we focus all our attention on the left side of the brain—remediation and getting these kids up to par in terms of reading—and neglect the other kinds of skills they may have a propensity toward, we may actually be shaping the brains of these kids to be locked in reading and miss the opportunity to develop other skills that they may manifest,” Mr. Gilger said.

That’s why the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., has prioritized research to identify potential strengths associated with cognitive disabilities such as autism, dyslexia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

As a student “in elementary school, you’re supposed to be this Renaissance person; if you’re great in every subject except for one, which is an unmitigated disaster for you, then you’ve had a terrible day, just terrible,” Alan E. Guttmacher, the NICHD director, said at the March Society for Research in Educational Effectiveness conference in Washington. “When you are an adult, if you’ve done very well in four out of five subjects, you don’t take that subject—you hire someone to do that subject.

“This thing which is seen in 2nd or 3rd grade as a terrible liability is not the same thing when you are an adult,” Mr. Guttmacher said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2012 edition of Education Week as Research Sheds Light on ‘Twice Exceptional’ Students

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