Children's Voice Nov/Dec 2007

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Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education

Giftedness and LD: Twice Exceptional and Still Struggling

By Sheldon H. Horowitz

Learning disabilities (LD) is an umbrella term that encompasses disorders in listening, speaking, reading, writing, and mathematics. Children, adolescents, and adults with LD have unique learning profiles, meaning they struggle in some areas of skills development and perform well or excel in others. By definition, having a learning disability means an individual's struggle with learning is not due to limited intellectual capacity, and 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 or areas, such as math, reading, instrumental music, or art, but shows significant and unexpected weakness in other areas of learning. 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!

Learning Disabilities and Giftedness...Together?

Use LD and reading in the same sentence, and people are likely to shake their heads knowingly. Try 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 people believe giftedness belongs in it's own special category and students who qualify as gifted and talented and still struggle with learning are victims of school systems that don't acknowledge their special gifts, keep them shackled to unchallenging curricula, and create 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 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?

Nearly half of states 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 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 the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but the law doesn't address giftedness. No comparable federal legislation addresses the rights and responsibilities of children who are both gifted and disabled. School systems effectively identify and provide services to students with learning disabilities whose learning progress is significantly lower than their ability level. But here's the rub: Students with LD who are also gifted rarely meet the criteria for special education services, except for those whose progress is so delayed they are unable to compensate for (or mask) their disability. And when they finally are identified as eligible for special education help, they often are 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 workload. Reluctant to double-label these students, school districts often are at a loss as to what, if any, special services to provide.

A Closer Look at "Twice Exceptional" Learners

Without generalizing about student characteristics based on labels, it may be helpful to look at some examples of how these gifted students with LD present at home and in the classroom.

Common Attributes

  • Excellent long-term memory, extensive vocabulary, and an ability to grasp abstract concepts
  • Thrives on complexity
  • Highly creative, imaginative, inventive, perceptive, and insightful
  • Able to solve very difficult puzzles or problems
  • Keen observer
  • Somehow manages not to fail academic subjects
  • Appreciated as a "great thinker"
  • Able to cope well with standard classroom expectations, especially if she has a good understanding of her disability and a repertoire of compensatory strategies
  • Parents and educators often view his underachievement as a sign of disinterest, boredom, or just a lack of motivation
  • Much better able to shine outside of school, in clubs, hobbies, and so on, than in the classroom
  • Takes pride in the insights she bring to learning situations
  • Often is quite sensitive and aware of how actions can affect his life and the lives of others
  • Expresses concern about world issues and apprehension about the future
  • Good at covering up and compensating for areas of weakness (e.g., he often can get through tests and assignments without drawing attention to his struggles)

Common Challenges

  • Poor short-term memory
  • Poor organizational skills
  • Illegible handwriting
  • Difficulty with rote memorization
  • Poor learning unless interested in the topic
  • Performs poorly on timed tests
  • Often struggles with homework
  • Notorious "underachiever"
  • Easily bogged down in the details that contribute to school success
  • Often not sufficiently challenged to advance in content-area learning due to administrative details or insufficient planning
  • Student may eventually believe his problems are due to poor effort
  • May try to conceal learning problems by acting lazy, disinterested, or unmotivated
  • Often attempts to jump straight from an idea to a finished product and bypass important steps in between (e.g., prefers to play an instrument by ear rather than actually reading musical notes)
  • Difficulty remembering shortterm sequential information (e.g., forgets details of plays, signals, codes, or rules during sports)
  • Often just gives up or hides rather than ask for help or admit to a problem
  • Can become somewhat obnoxious in efforts to be sure others appreciate his intelligence
  • May become anxious or depressed by her difficulties or her insights into troubling issues or events
  • Can experience profound frustration by the inconsistency in his skills and abilities
  • Can be verbally combative when challenged

Common Myths

In surveying the research on students who are gifted learners, many myths and stereotypes exist about these students. Although the literature on this topic is sparse, research has shown that gifted students are not
  • sickly and physically fragile,
  • quirky and predisposed to emotional problems,
  • usually born to parents who are themselves gifted and talented,
  • prone to feelings of grandiosity and superiority over their peers,
  • likely to lose some of their special abilities and "intelligence" over time, or
  • at greater risk than other students for acting out and socially inappropriate behavior in school if their academic learning needs are met.

Looking Forward

There is much we don't know about students who are gifted, and even more we need to learn about students who are twice exceptional, embodying the challenges of both giftedness and LD. This special group of learners demands a very different and often unsettling type of attention at home, in school, and in the community. Let's be sure we're ready for the challenge!

Sheldon Horowitz EdD is Director of Professional Services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, New York, New York. NCLD provides essential information to parents, professional, and individuals with LD; promotes research and programs to foster effective learning; and advocates for policies that protect and strengthen education rights and opportunities. This article was adapted from a Research Roundup column in LD News, September 2006, available online at Visit for more information about LD and resources for families, educators, and more. For permission to reproduce this article, or to contact Dr. Horowitz, e-mail © 2004, 2005, 2007 National Center for Learning Disabilities. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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