The National Center for Learning Disabilities
By Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D.
March 11, 2014
Let’s agree that learning disabilities (LD) is an “umbrella” term that encompasses disorders in listening, speaking, reading, writing and mathematics. And let’s also agree that individuals with LD have unique learning profiles, meaning that they struggle in some areas of skill development and perform well (or excel) in others.
By definition, having a learning disability means that an individual’s struggle with learning is not due to limited intellectual capacity, and that there are no social, emotional, environmental or sensory (physical and medical) obstacles preventing them from achieving their learning potential.
Now, imagine what happens when a person is exceptionally gifted in a particular area such as math, reading, instrumental music or art but shows significant and unexpected weakness in other areas of learning. And then, imagine what happens when a person has extraordinary knowledge and accelerated capacity to learn across many areas of content while having pronounced areas of weakness in others, such as reading, spelling or math computation.
Unfortunately, what happens most often is frustration! Read on.
Learning Disabilities and Giftedness...Together?
Use the words “LD” and “reading” in the same sentence and people are likely to shake their heads knowingly. Try the terms “LD” and “math” together and there’s a good chance the listener will have a realistic picture of a student who struggles with numerical skills. Put “LD” and “gifted” in the same sentence and be prepared for puzzled looks, even signs of disbelief.
Some parents and practitioners believe that giftedness belongs in it’s own “special” category and that students who qualify as ‘gifted and talented’ and who still struggle with learning are victims of school systems that don’t acknowledge their special gifts, keeping them shackled to an un-challenging curricula and creating barriers to learning, rather than recognizing their potential and designing ways to accelerate their learning.
If we accept that “exceptional children” are those who are so sufficiently different from “typical” children that they need special educational adaptations to realize their potential, perhaps including giftedness as an educational handicapping condition is not so far off the mark!
Giftedness Is Not a Handicapping Condition...Or Is It?
Almost half of the states nation-wide recognize giftedness as a category of educational need (not necessarily through special education services), and the types of services and supports available to these students is even more varied than those afforded to students who qualify for ‘typical’ special education services.
Add LD to the mix and the landscape becomes even more confusing. Services for children with learning disabilities are covered under federal law (IDEA 2004), but this law does not address giftedness.
There is no comparable federal legislation that addresses the rights and responsibilities of children who are both gifted and disabled. Whether through discrepancy-model approaches or, more recently, RTI approaches, school systems effectively identify and provide services to students with learning disabilities whose learning progress is found to be significantly lower than their ability level.
Except for those whose progress is so delayed that they are unable to compensate for (or mask) their disability, students with LD who are also gifted rarely meet the criteria for special education services. And when they finally are identified as eligible for special education help, they are often already in the later grades, swamped with the demands of content area instruction and lagging behind in grades and assignments because of the intensity of their work load. Reluctant to ‘double label’ these students, school districts are often at a loss as to what, if any, special services to provide.
A Closer Look at ‘Twice Exceptional’ Learners
With apologies for what might appear to be generalizations about student characteristics based on labels, it may be helpful to look at some examples of how a gifted student with LD presents at home and in the classroom.
- Some common attributes
- Some common challenges
- has an excellent long-term memory, an extensive vocabulary and the ability to grasp abstract concepts
- thrives on complexity
- is highly creative, imaginative, inventive, perceptive and insightful
- is able to solve very difficult puzzles or problems
- is a keen observer
- has a poor short-term memory
- exhibits poor organizational skills
- has illegible handwriting
- has difficulty with rote memorization
- exhibits poor learning unless interested in the topic
- performs poorly on timed tests
- often struggles with homework
- somehow manages not to “fail” academic subjects
- is appreciated as a “great thinker”
- is able to cope well with standard classroom expectations, especially if he or she has a good understanding of the disability and a repertoire of compensatory strategies
- is a notorious “underachiever”
- is easily bogged down in the ‘details’ that contribute to school success
- often is not sufficiently challenged to advance in content area learning due to administrative details or insufficient planning by schools
- parents and educators often view his or her underachievement as a sign of disinterest, boredom, or just a lack of motivation
- the student may eventually believe that the problems are due to poor effort
- may try to conceal the learning problems by acting lazy, disinterested, or unmotivated
- is much better able to shine outside of school (clubs, hobbies...) than inside the classroom
- often attempts to jump straight from an “idea” to a finished “product,” bypassing important steps in between (e.g., prefers to play an instrument “by ear” rather than actually reading musical notes)
- has difficulty remembering short-term sequential information (e.g., forgets details of plays, signals, codes, or rules during sports)
- takes pride in the insights he or she brings to learning situations
- will often just “give up” or “hide” rather than asking for help or admitting to a problem
- is often quite sensitive and aware of the impact that actions can have on his or her life and the lives of others
- expresses concern about world issues and apprehension about the future
- sometimes becomes somewhat “obnoxious” in efforts to be sure others appreciate his or her intelligence
- may become anxious and/or depressed by his or her difficulties or insights into troubling issues and events
- is good at covering up and compensating for areas of weakness (e.g., can often to get through tests and assignments without drawing attention to his or her struggles)
- can experience profound frustration by the inconsistency in his or her skills and abilities
- can be verbally combative when challenged
Some Common Misunderstandings
In surveying the research on students who are gifted learners, it is interesting to note some common myths and stereotypes about this population of students. While the literature on this topic is rather sparse, research studies have uncovered (and proven wrong!) the myths which purport gifted students to be:
- sickly and physically fragile
- quirky and predisposed to emotional problems
- prone to feelings of grandiosity and superiority over peers
- likely to lose some of their special abilities and “intelligence” over time
- at greater risk than other students for “acting out” with socially inappropriate behavior in school if their academic needs are not met
Challenges Looking Forward
There is much that we don’t know about students who are gifted and even more that we need to learn about students who are “twice exceptional,” embodying the challenges of both giftedness and learning disabilities:
- How should school practices (and education law) be changed to address the unmet needs of these students?
- How can we assure that gifted children with LD from culturally/linguistically diverse or economically disadvantaged families are identified and provided services and support as special needs learners?
- What evaluation measures and assessment protocols are most likely to identify these students before they show signs of frustration and struggle?
- Can criterion other than IQ scores be used reliably to identify these students, and what kinds of data (e.g., performance-based assessments, portfolios) can be used to accurately reflect accellerated learning potential?
- What instructional services and supports are most beneficial for these students at different ages and stages of development, and how well are they matched to screening and evaluation measures?
- What kinds of information and support do teachers need to meet the needs of these students at different points during the Pre-K through 12 years?
- What types of instructional adaptations and modifications have proven to be effective in supporting students with LD who are also gifted learners?
- Imagine Teaching Robin Williams—Twice-Exceptional Children in Your School offers classroom strategies for working with gifted students with LD.
- LDonline provides readers with a number of articles about “twice exceptional” learners and the unique challenges faced by individuals with LD.
- The Council on Exceptional Children’s (CEC) Information Center on Disabilities and Gifted Education offers answers to some frequently asked questions, as well as an information center.
- Gifted and Learning Disabled: Twice Exceptional Students from the Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development at the University of Connecticut.
- The Twice Exceptional Dilemma from the National Education Association.
- Visit Project U-Stars~Plus to learn more about how the needs of young gifted students from culturally/linguistically diverse and/or economically disadvantaged families can be recognized and nurtured.
Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D. is the Director of LD Resources and Essential Information at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.