By Emily Kircher-Morris, author of Teaching Twice-Exceptional Learners in Today’s Classroom
Twice-exceptional (2e) learners are a unique layering of advanced cognitive ability (giftedness) and neurodivergence (autism, ADHD, dyslexia, etc.). Sometimes, their giftedness hides their struggles, until they are no longer able to compensate for their difficulties. Other times, their disability overshadows their giftedness, leaving them without the opportunity for advanced learning. Teachers who understand how these factors interplay and develop strategies to use strengths-based accommodations give 2e learners the chance to succeed that they deserve.
On September 15, in a webinar through edWeb, Emily Kircher-Morris shared the attributes of 2e learners, considerations for their assessment and identification, and how to identify and provide appropriate accommodations in the gifted, general, and special education classrooms.
Watch the webinar recording: “Neurodivergent and Gifted: Supporting Twice-Exceptional Students,” then read on for a bonus Q&A with Emily (lightly edited for clarity).
Q: How can we support unmasking older kids?
A: Many neurodivergent people mask the traits of their neurodivergence. An example of this might be a person who avoids calming their sensory stims, or goes to great effort to match others’ facial expressions, even when doing so doesn’t come naturally and requires significant effort. We can talk about masking and encourage neurodivergent people to be aware of how they are hiding these characteristics, and let them know they can engage in behaviors that feel authentic to them. Doing so may require self-advocacy, and some individuals may still prefer to mask in some situations.
Q: What happens when the disability overshadows the cognitive—meaning conditions like apraxia of speech, mixed receptive-expressive language disorder, or inattentive ADHD hamper results on language-based cognitive tests such as IQ?
A: This is one of the factors that can cause 2e students to go unidentified. Universal screening assessments (like the NNAT or CogAT) do not require a student to reply verbally. Gaps in scores (like very strong Fluid Reasoning and Visual-Spatial scores combined with a personal weakness related to Verbal Comprehension) should be a sign that further assessment may be necessary.
Q: What are some of the universal screening tools available for schools?
A: The NNAT (Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test) and the CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test) are the two universal screening tools I see used the most by schools, although there are others. A good universal screening assessments is easily implemented in group settings and provides a score that is reflective of overall cognitive ability.
Q: Can you share some accommodations to help students with developing and managing emotional regulation?
A: Accommodations that provide help with emotional regulation should be tied directly to the types of situations where the student becomes emotionally dysregulated. Do they need frequent sensory breaks? Individual check-ins when difficult assignments are given? Intentional placement with peers for group work? An option to leave class when feeling overwhelmed?
When working with students to develop emotional regulation skills, I focus on emotional literacy (recognizing and labeling emotions), advocating for help when dysregulation begins, and implementing emotional regulation skills that can be taught and practiced on a regular basis.
Q: As someone working with high school dropouts (ages 16+) I have two questions. (1) Do you feel that the universal assessments are still appropriate, or are there better assessments for older students? (2) If they are still at the age of assessment, do you think it is worthwhile to pursue an IEP or do you recommend moving toward a 504 plan?
A: The purpose of a universal screening tool is generally to identify younger students who are appropriate for gifted identification or advanced curriculum. Determining whether to use an IEP or Section 504 plan would be dependent on a child’s diagnosis and what types of services are available. If they need additional support and services at the school and can qualify for a diagnosis under IDEA, go for an IEP. If they have a medical/psychological diagnosis, a 504 plan is generally more common.
Q: How can we provide executive function support for a 24-year-old gifted human who went under the radar? Also, are female 2e students different than males?
A: Psychoeducation on the topic of executive functioning and working from a strengths-based approach to build executive functioning skills is a good place to start. This would mean engaging the person in learning about executive functioning, having them determine the specific areas where they are struggling (perhaps through a questionnaire or survey available through a variety of books or websites), and then working with them to build the skill in an area of interest. For example, building organizational skills and task initiation skills related to a favorite hobby can be a good starting place, rather than focusing on an area of struggle, which generally has lower levels of intrinsic motivation.
There are differences in how individuals of different genders present with various diagnoses. For example, women have been historically underidentified as autistic or ADHD because much of the research has been done on boys and because women are often better at masking. Of course, however, this all varies greatly among every individual.
Q: What assessments would you recommend for students that are neurodivergent and have language-based disorders to get properly assessed with cognitive scores?
A: The Weschler Nonverbal Scale of Ability (WNV) is one option for a full-scale score, however, there is value to completing the entire Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) and seeing the discrepancies between composite scores. If the second option is utilized, recognition that the overall full scale cognitive score may be suppressed is an important consideration.
Q: What is the youngest age bracket you could see bringing the child into the conversation?
A: I believe that having straightforward conversations at a very young age to encourage kids to begin to learn the skill of self-advocacy is vital. Kids as young as five or six can begin to learn to self-evaluate and self-regulate their behaviors and emotions with support from adults too.
Q: I find that an “evaluative” accommodation that many students need is to have an assessment in print form rather than online. What testing results can you use to advocate for that?
A: I totally agree! This may be based on more observational data—for example, look at the student’s history to gather evidence that print tests/assignments are better for them. You may also need to base your evidence on subjective observations from teachers and a student’s own report.
Q: How can I learn more about 3e students?
A: Dr. Kristina Collins, Dr. Joy Lawson Davis, and Dr. Shawn Robinson are all leading the way with information about supporting 3e students.
Note: Free Spirit recommends Empowering Underrepresented Gifted Students, a forthcoming book coedited by Dr. Joy Lawson Davis.
Q: Where would an OCD diagnosis fit into all of this, if it even would?
A: Some people would categorize OCD as a neurodivergent diagnosis and others would classify it as a mental health/psychological diagnosis. Either way, a student who is both OCD and gifted is twice-exceptional.
Q: I get told by teachers they can’t make these changes because then the child will never learn how to do things to get to the next grade (i.e., various ways to show content mastery) or the teacher has no time with 25 other kids.
A: Whether a person has a disability that impacts their physical, cognitive, executive functioning, or communication skills, they deserve accommodations. We would never tell a person who uses a wheelchair to “try harder” and we shouldn’t dismiss the needs of neurodivergent people either.
Q: I am delighted to hear you discuss PDA (pathological demand avoidance) and have introduced that to many families of children with autism but it is not recognized as a subset of autism in the US. What can we do to move the needle on this?
A: Let’s keep talking about it!
Q: How do you address PDA in the classroom?
A: The primary thing PDA kids need is rapport and trust. Feeling in control is key for these kids, so using language that is collaborative instead of directive is helpful. Giving them time to process information and begin a task is important (processing speed is often an area of relative weakness for autistic students) and knowing that putting pressure on them to get going or work faster is probably going to backfire. Also, check out the PDA Society resources for more information.
Q: What accommodations work for avoidance behavior?
A: Helping students to become aware of the avoidance behavior is the first step. Once they notice it, we can work with them to develop strategies for how they are best able to tolerate the stress that is causing the avoidance. Let students take the lead to develop the accommodations that work best for them.
Q: Can trauma show up as neurodivergent behavior?
A: YES! I would also suggest that trauma combined with giftedness is a type of twice-exceptionality.
Q: How do we balance the need to operate in society with the desire to be supportive and allow students to unmask? Often school staff and some private therapists push “typical” behavior because they want the student to “be able to live and work in the world,” and yet many autistic students do best when they can stim, pace, etc. What is the balance?
A: I believe the balance lies within an individual person’s comfort level. We can talk to kids about how certain behaviors may be perceived and encourage them to weigh the benefits of the behavior. To be truly neurodiversity-affirming, we want to encourage people/kids to be their authentic selves and if that means they pace, rock, or flap, we should encourage them to do so. I understand this concern, and I fall more along the idealistic view of wanting to change the world instead of trying to change the person. (Instead of trying to force a square peg into a round hole, why don’t we just make the holes bigger?)
Q: Any advice for parents who live in a district that doesn’t provide gifted programming?
A: There are many online options for enrichment. Try GHF (Gifted Homeschool Forum, although the program has outgrown the name and is not exclusive to home school families). You could also attempt to advocate for academic acceleration (either whole-grade or single-subject skipping). Check out episode 11 of The Neurodiversity Podcast for information about advocating for acceleration; we discuss both gifted and 2e students.
President and founder of the Gifted Support Network and inspired by her own experience as a twice-exceptional (2e) learner, Emily Kircher-Morris, M.A., M.Ed., L.P.C., is dedicated to supporting 2e children in a way she wasn’t during her academic years. She has taught in gifted classrooms, has been a school counselor, and is now in private practice as a licensed professional counselor, where she specializes in helping gifted and twice-exceptional kids. Emily lives near St. Louis, Missouri.
Emily is the author of Teaching Twice-Exceptional Learners in Today’s Classroom.
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