“I’ve fooled everyone into thinking I’m smart” – The Twice-Exceptional Student
When I was in grad school, I had a fellowship at a nonprofit where I tested kids and adults who suspected that they had a reading disorder. This experience was eye-opening. I sat down with countless kids, teens, and adults who would look at me and say the same thing. “I must be stupid because I can’t read well.”
A common misconception about dyslexia is that it relates to a person’s intelligence. This isn’t true. In fact, part of the definition of dyslexia is that a person’s reading abilities are unexpectedly low compared to their age, cognitive ability, and age-appropriate education.
These feelings are often even more exaggerated in an individual identified as cognitively gifted AND as having a learning disability (this is referred to as “twice-exceptional”). Being “twice-exceptional” can often lead to anxiety and feelings of depression, especially when the individual compares their strengths to their perceived (or real) weaknesses, like having a reading disorder.
Being gifted does NOT “make up” for having a learning disability
Oftentimes, when one thinks of being “gifted” in an area, be it intellect, sport, or artistic talent, they assume the benefits of “having it easy.” Imagine being able to pick up and expand upon advanced concepts, retaining information after a quick read, or putting together IKEA furniture without getting totally confused by the directions (is the last one just me?). We often don’t think about the fact there are big challenges that come with being gifted. This is an under-researched topic.
Common Struggles of the 2E Learner
Troubles arise when a 2E child realizes that they are out of sync from age mates, struggle to capitalize on their abilities or get feedback that what they are doing doesn’t meet standards. These feelings may manifest in the following ways:
Twice-exceptional students often hold themselves to a high standard. They’ve likely received a lot of external praise early on for their successes. Frustration can develop when they realize that they have to work harder than their intellectual peers. This diet of frustration and resentment without academic success can lead to anger at the school and with those that hold high expectations (including themselves).
Every student (gifted or not, with a disability or not) will experience this at some point. No one is good at everything! But being faced with this reality when a child has been praised for their intellectual skill and may have identified with it as being their “thing” can lead to problems with their emotional well-being.
2. Fear of Failure
When a person doesn’t have explicit instruction or alternative ways to compensate for their weaknesses, they may develop an expectation of failure, or a fear of failure. Again, this could come out as anger, or as anxiety. Others may attempt to avoid or refuse to complete the task. In the psychology world, this phenomenon is referred to as “learned helplessness” (watch my video about it here).
One way to avoid feelings of anger, fear or anxiety, is to control situations. A person may try to gain control over their environment (ie, missing class so that they can do the test at the front office or going to the bathroom during oral reading time). Or it might result in attempts to hyper-control other areas of their lives (ei, eating disorders, rigidity over social relationships or routines).
4. Low Self-Esteem
The negative coping mechanisms adopted to deal with the anger, fears, and frustrations regarding academic struggles can take a toll on self-esteem. I often have clients say things like, “If people knew how much I struggle, they would reject me.”
The burden of hiding a “secret” is often much greater than the burden of the secret itself. When a 2E individual fears judgment or rejection from their loved ones or peers self-esteem, the walls they build can keep them prisoner.
5. Fear of Success
When you are at the top of the mountain, the only way to go is down. It’s not unusual for a 2E student to worry about a bad performance. It may seem counter-intuitive that anxiety could increase when a person who has a learning disability has success. But consider this. If a person does well on a particular task and everyone celebrates their success, they may feel added pressure for the next challenge. This often creates a fear of not being able to replicate this level of success consistently. Not succeeding may feel less threatening than future failures! In fact, anyone can be prone to these tendencies.
How A Growth Mindset Can Bring Relief
How do twice-exceptional students thrive? 2E individuals (and people in general) who are most likely to achieve a healthier mindset typically have a “growth mindset” in common.
People who have a growth mindset accept their strengths and weaknesses, utilize accommodations when necessary and accept that they might have to work harder than their peers to achieve the same results that will find the most personal success and emotional peace. These individuals have developed a positive sense of personal competence in addressing difficult academic tasks and see challenges as opportunities to stretch themselves.
One common theme that I hear from older teens and adults that I’ve worked with in therapy has been that they wished that they hadn’t waited so long to seek help. The future is bright for twice-exceptional students when you can see it clearly.