Is Your Child Twice Exceptional?
What it means and how schools aren't serving them
There’s a saying in the autism community: If you know one autistic person, you know one autistic person. And yet there’s a tendency among educators, in particular, to assume that they can apply generalizations to all autistic students. The reality is that just like neurotypical individuals, autistic folks are all unique and have their own individual learning and social strengths and need. Applying a checklist of things that worked for someone else or are prescribed by a professional development class is never going to work for everyone, and from what I’m seeing in the Facebook autism support groups, it really doesn’t seem to work for anyone.
My oldest son was diagnosed as autistic at a fairly young age, and he has always struggled with processing information, particularly social information and sensory information, but he also struggles with receiving too much information all at once. At the same time, he has always had a strong aptitude for creativity, critical thinking, and reading, and was identified as a college-level reader in elementary school. Twice he was recommended for his school’s Gifted program, but both times he did not pass the testing, which is not geared for neurodiverse students. Nonetheless, Noah still struggles with many of the same issues that gifted students struggle with in addition to his autism-related challenges.
There’s a common misconception that “gifted” simply means advanced. In reality, gifted students are just another example of neurological diversity, and frequently, are another example of underserved neurologically diverse individuals who face unique classroom challenges. Students like Noah who share characteristics of neurodiversity (having a nonstandard cognitive function like autism, ADHA, or dyslexia) and giftedness (having exceptionally high intellectual aptitude) are called twice-exceptional (2e) students. 2e students are more common than most parents and educators realize, and they’re desperately underserved.
While many school districts nationally are beginning to recognize the unique needs of these students, the support available for 2e kids in Tulsa, especially in Tulsa Public Schools, is basically nonexistent. Failure to serve these students does more than leave them behind – it also costs society as a whole in terms of innovation and progress.
When 2e Individuals Are Overlooked, The World Loses
As the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) notes, many of our society’s greatest innovators, athletes, and leaders are twice-exceptional:
- Albert Einstein quite famously did not speak until he was three years old.
- Tom Cruise faced tremendous challenges as a student due to his dyslexia.
- Henry Winkler also spent his childhood feeling “stupid” because of dyslexia and performed very poorly in school.
- Many experts have noted that Bill Gates shows prominent signs of autism spectrum disorder.
- Ghostbuster Dan Akroyd has been very open about his experience as an autistic individual.
- Experts have speculated that Thomas Jefferson was on the autism spectrum.
- Susan Boyle is autistic and spent far too many years of her life without an autism diagnosis believing that she had brain damage.
Susan Boyle should strike everyone as a cautionary tale. Her song is a gift to the world, and yet she almost spent her life in anonymity because her incredible talent and potential were never fully recognized and nurtured. Just imagine how many 2e kids are failing school, getting overlooked, feeling lost and lonely because no one sees what they are truly capable of?
Undeserving 2e Individuals Puts Individuals at Risk
The individual consequences of undeserving 2e individuals can be quite significant. Gifted students whose learning needs are not met are at a higher risk of experiencing depression, anxiety, and poor classroom performance. As the NAGC noted, gifted students with access to gifted services in their schools have better long-term outcomes that affect their lives as adults. Considering that as many as 75% of autitstic adults are underemployed or unemployed and autism directly correlates with socioeconomic challenges, the idea that we’re overlooking gifted autistic or otherwise 2e kids should be a chilling thought to educators and parents alike.
A Long-Overdue Need
As a member of several groups for parents of autistic youth and autism advocates, one theme I continue to see is parents being told that their neurodiverse child or adolescent has “behavioral issues” and a general sense that they are the only person to have a child with significant classroom challenges as an autistic or neurodiverse problem. I see it in Tulsa parenting groups as well, with dozens of parents begging others for answers and support because they believe their local school has labeled their child a problem.
These are some of the more common issues that crop up:
- Students are either underserved in a mainstream classroom or warehoused in a special ed classroom where they are given lower expectations and lower performance standards.
- Students struggle with social challenges and anxiety.
- Students struggle with school refusal, refusing to physically get out of bed in the morning.
- Students are miserable and hate school.
- Students are considered rude and disrespectful but don’t understand why.
I could go on and on. But suffice it to say that every one of these parents is given the distinct impression that their child is difficult, and the tendency in most school districts is to treat these issues as behavioral issues.
These are not behavioral issues. They are service issues. And families, hear me loud and clear: YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONES. In fact, as many as 5% of students are 2e. That’s 1 out of every 20. And most of them are receiving precious few services for their learning needs, especially in Tulsa-area schools.
Recognizing a 2e Learner
If your student has been recognized as neurodiverse or you suspect your student is neurodiverse, it’s essential to do everything you can to support his or her long-term outcomes both in school and to prepare them later for adult life. And that should include advocating – even demanding – that your child is served as a 2e individual.
These are some signs that your student may be a 2e learner (not a comprehensive list):
- Above-average curiosity
- Great at focusing on areas of interest, not great at other areas
- Cognitive processing deficits in reading or writing
- Teachers or school sees your student as having behavioral problems
- Labeled as unmotivated or lazy at school
- Labeled as not living up to their potential
- Bored in school or doesn’t see the point
- Is exceptionally good at something in or outside of school
If your neurodiverse child is having difficulty in school and 2e services aren’t provided, he or she is not being fully supported in their learning needs.
What School Districts Can Do to Serve 2e Students
Like many parents with 2e kids, I have fought long and hard to have my child fully seen so he can reach his full potential, and I have felt like a failure time and time again. Over the years, I’ve dragged advocates into meetings, begged for service changes, and written about our struggles. My son was performing well for a while when Tulsa Public Schools had a program that included small class sizes and individualized learning, but that program has since closed. In the years to follow its closure, our family has been lost in the wilderness as our son has faced the choice of attending an oversized classroom aimed at neurotypical information processors or staying at home to be underserved via virtual learning.
The reality is that even though our son has an IEP, TPS just doesn’t offer services aimed at targeting successful outcomes for 2e kids. I don’t blame his educators, but the recommendations in every IEP meeting are from a laundry list of less-than-adequate options because that’s what they have to offer.
Tulsa schools need to realize that 1 in 20 of their kids are being underserved and develop a program that supports 2e learners. Parents, educators, and community advocates need to call on Tulsa school districts to create a Neurodiversity Task Force, a group aimed at understanding how neurodiverse and 2e students could be better served within the district. These task forces need to also include ambassadors from the neurodiverse community to advocate from personal experience, not just educators who studied special education back in college. Just as the healthcare community is constantly changing its understanding of autism and neurodiversity, the education sector needs to realize the important role of evidence-based research in serving neurodiverse individuals.
For 2e learners, access to services that fully support their unique learning needs will likely include more than just curriculum. These are just a few examples of things that might be included in a successful 2e program:
- Learning alongside mainstream or neurotypical gifted learners
- Smaller class sizes for individualized support since many neurodiverse students struggle with processing information
- Counseling or social support services to help students manage the social and emotional challenges of being 2e
Additionally, all school districts should be taking the time to educate neurotypical students on neurodiversity. Many of the challenges that students face on the social side including bullying could be averted if educators only took 15 minutes out of their overall curriculum to explain that neurodiversity is cool and we should all be more supportive of each other’s neurological uniqueness. And honestly, even neurotypical kids will benefit from that message, since neurotypical students themselves are all unique and have their own cognitive and social processing needs.
What You Can Do To Advocate For Change
Whether you are a parent of a 2e student, an educator, you know a 2e student, or you’re just an ally, you can be an advocate for change.
Here’s what you can do:
- Be willing to educate others about neurological diversity and the importance of supporting individual cognitive needs educationally.
- Demand that your school district implement evidence-based programming for 2e students.
- If you know your child isn’t being served, don’t back down. You’re not alone.
This was an intense topic, and I appreciate you sticking with me all the way through it. If you have any thoughts on supporting 2e learners, please hit me up in the comments, and have a beautiful week in your little nebula.