The Twice Exceptional: A Population Explosion?
by Michael Postma
As I sat enjoying the Carolina sun sitting near our community pool last summer, I could not help but overhear a conversation between a mother and her husband regarding the educational dilemma facing their six-year-old son who, by the looks of things, was struggling to keep pace in his first grade classroom. You may brand me nosy but whenever I hear the word school, education, and/or issues within the same sentence, my ears quickly gravitate toward the source of the vocalization. This particular conversation went something like this:
“Its just not fair. I know he’s smart and he should be getting this stuff. He was….”
The women paused as the aura surrounding her became increasingly aggravated as the muffled voice of a distraught male interrupted her.
“Yes, but how do we know the school is right? They are already suggesting special education and even medication…. I don’t know what to do now. He’s not dumb. There is something missing but I just don’t know what.”
Her voice trailed off blending into the playful sounds of kids splashing in the pool. A quick glance over revealed a frustrated mother slamming her phone onto the table while slowly sinking back into her chair.
“Hello, my name is Mike…perhaps I can help.”
It has always seemed strange to me that these types of conversations follow me wherever I find myself; the pool, a neighborhood gathering, at church, at the ballpark, or some other strange place. Granted, I have worked within the field of education and more specifically gifted education for more than two decades but now I work in my home office as a speaker and consultant a year removed from the halls of the school building. Within that year I have had no less than ten conversations with complete strangers regarding the plight of their children who are struggling to adjust to the expectations and parameters placed upon them by their local school district. Not surprisingly, the conversations remain eerily similar; my intelligent child cannot make the grade; they struggle to perform to their potential. Welcome to the world of twice-exceptional parenting…you’re not alone.
I began working with children identified as gifted and talented in the late 1990’s as a middle school gifted and talented specialist. At that time the twice-exceptional label was not as prevalent as it is within the modern realm of public education. In fact, the vast majority of twice-exceptional (2e) children, those who have both high intellectual potential and one or more crippling disabilities, were either languishing in a special education program or struggling to adapt to the rigors of regular classroom expectations. On occasion, I might get called into to consult in the case of a student who ‘seemed bright’ but was exhibiting behavioral extremes. However, those cases were few and far between. As the 21st century dawned these cases began to increase in frequency and the field of twice-exceptionality seemed to explode. The kids were coming out of the woodwork, or so it seemed, with the majority of the students that I worked with being white and male (I did work in a couple of suburban Minneapolis school systems at that time). As the 21st century progressed it seemed that the numbers of twice-exceptional students increased, as did the field of study surrounding them. What happened? Did someone tamper with the water? Is it a case of over-identifying? Has the research caught up with the numbers? Perhaps our diets have changed? While there is no definitive evidence linking any of these hypothesis there are some distinct possibilities that might explain the sudden popularity of twice-exceptionality within our student population. Let us examine a couple of these options.
It is undeniable that within the field of educational research a growing sample of studies, books, and articles has focused exclusively on the topic of issues surrounding twice-exceptionality. These samples include research on brain development, student identification, classroom issues and strategies, social/emotional issues, and much more. One example within this growing field are the studies conducted by neurological scientist and researcher, Beth Houskamp, who has identified differentiated patterns of brain growth in twice-exceptional children from that of ‘normal children’. Her work at Alliant University in California suggests that the brain development in 2e children is characterized by the early advancement of sensory prints that embed both positive and negative experiences much earlier than most children (Houskamp, 2011). These sensory prints, in turn, can be easily triggered at a later state by environmental stimuli and can lead to extreme sensitivities overwhelming the Limbic System (responsible for regulation). Over-excitabilities, anyone?
This research, in addition to many other contributions, has brought the field of educating 2e children to the surface and may coincide with the increased preponderance of identified children. Indeed, the sheer volume of research focused on twice-exceptional students has grown in both volume and sophistication (see Foley-Nicpon, M. (2013); Foley-Nicpon, M., et al. (2013); Gilman, B.J., Peters, D., et al. (2013); Kalbfleisch, M.L., (2013); Merrill, J., (2012), and many others). Within just the last few years more than five-dozen scholarly articles and research projects along with advocacy websites, and other information focused on the needs of 2e children have been published. This research, tackling issues such as the questions of identification, useful coping mechanisms, successful classroom strategies, and more, have aided in informing the general populace of the plight of the twice-exceptional. Perhaps it is this increased attention that has invariably led to greater awareness and conceivably, greater numbers. Then again, perhaps not as there remain a disturbing number of school officials who continue to doubt the reality of twice-exceptionality. The only surety is that the additional attention has amplified the cause beyond the privacy of personal family struggles and into the psyche of the world of public education, well, to some degree. Are the increase and sophistication of identification tools used for diagnostic assessment justifiable possibilities?
We currently live in an era of educational accountability. The federal government’s introduction of No Child Left Behind in 2002 ensured that a heavy focus on student accountability would dominate the landscape of public education. This onslaught of testing, the intent of which was to bring struggling students up to acceptable performance standards, had far reaching effects even beyond the classroom. Suddenly, it seemed, we were all underperforming especially in the areas of math and science. In response schools began to experiment with new assessments, new programs, and new classroom strategies that, in turn, placed higher demands on tight school budgets. A secondary effect of this new era was the intensified pressure on special education programs to meet the demands for higher performance. This new burden led to new ideas like the implementation of Response to Intervention; a program designed to tier remedial efforts by placing struggling students into different categories of intervention thereby sharing the load of remediation with regular classroom teachers who also had the added responsibility of identifying RTI candidates (see more on this issue in RTI and the Gifted Child). In addition, parents in increasing numbers began to seek the help of non-school professionals such as psychologists and psychiatrists to pinpoint their children’s academic, social, and emotional issues. Could it be that the renewed focus on assessment, intellectual, performance based, and social/emotional, have led to increased numbers of identified twice-exceptional students?
The answer is difficult to surmise given the number of varying factors. First, there remains no agreeable working definition of twice-exceptionality. The fact of the matter is that twice-exceptional students come in all shapes and sizes, have varying levels of intellectual potential, are inhibited by a variety of disabilities including, but not limited to, Aspergers, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder, Dysgraphia, and other inhibitors. In addition, these disabilities display themselves in different ways, have varying degrees of affectation on children, and can be influenced by gender, ethnicity, and environment making the task of identification an exceedingly difficult one. Second, many twice-exceptional students have the ability to disguise, or camouflage, their disability. Given their high intellectual capacity, the twice-exceptional child has the ability to overcome their deficits and appear average to teachers and parents alike. Often, twice-exceptional students perform at or above average on standardized assessments thereby failing to alert school officials of any potential problem or identification. Third, a great majority of public schools refuse to accept the fact that twice-exceptional kids do indeed exist and need extra support. I have witnessed on many an occasion the blatant refusal of school officials to support these children even with professionally documented outside assessments. This common negation means that the majority of twice-exceptional students are not documented, leaving their numbers in question.
It appears that while we may have a great deal of anecdotal evidence in the form of parental information and defined evidence in the form of private psychological assessments, legitimate estimates of the twice-exceptional population remain elusive.
I am no conspiracy theorist (well, maybe a little) but I have often wondered about the make-up of the average American diet and it’s affect on brain development, especially in our children. What is in the products that we eat? How are our grains, cereals, meats, and drinks produced? What chemicals are being used that had not been used decades earlier? Could it be possible that the content of our food in the era of genetically engineered proteins have any connection to what I see as an increase in the population of twice-exceptional children? Using information gathered from the U. S. Food and Drug Administration I learned some information about U.S. food production that apparently is widely known. In 1994 scientists injected a new genetically engineered, synthetic protein into milk producing cows in the hope that those cows would increase milk production. It worked but left many of the cows sick and diseased leading to further genetic alterations intended to maintain the health of these cows. Increased profits led to the adoption of this practice nationwide. As no testing was completed on the effect of this new protein on humans the majority of first world nations including all European countries and Canada refused to import this chemically altered milk. The United States did not follow suit and this milk remains widely available and much cheaper than milk obtained from chemically free cows. Similarly, in 1996 other common foods began to undergo the genetic engineering process with the intent of increasing productivity. Synthetic proteins have enhanced edible grains such as corn and soy, the basis of many other food sources, even to the extent that these crops are able to internally produce insecticides needed to ward of pesky insects. Again, the new developments lacked any component of human testing and were rejected as viable food sources in most modern countries with the exception of the United States.
These are the nutrients that our children consume on a daily basis across the nation. While no definitive evidence can link chemically enhanced food sources to an increase in non-typical brain development there just might be some link between what we eat and how our brains develop. As a parent of two teenage children with Aspergers, I am hoping that somebody or some organization with more knowledge and understanding of this issue finds the time and energy to investigate this possible link further. In the interim, I need to be a little more vigilant as to what constitutes the diet of my children and I.
We have taken a brief look at a perplexing question. Why does it seem that the number of students exhibiting the characteristics of twice-exceptional children is expanding? It seems everyone I meet has some story in regards to difficulties of children with co-existing disabilities adapting to the demands of educational settings. Yet, as I have attempted to outline, there are no definitive proofs outside of some anecdotal evidence, of this upsurge. Perhaps it is our increased awareness that perpetuates increased diagnosis. Perhaps it is the increased emphasis on assessment or identification. Maybe our changing diet is a factor, or possibly it is something completely different. To be sure, twice-exceptional persons have always existed and still do as adults working as artists, technicians, musicians, computer whizzes, and the like, having survived the educational gauntlet in an era before any available diagnosis. Regardless, our twice-exceptional students continue to live, work, play, and learn beside us and it is our duty to defend their rights to a free and appropriate education despite the necessity for additional efforts, resources, and understanding.
Foley-Nicpon, M. (2013). Gifted Child Quarterly’s special issue on twice-exceptionality progress on the path of empirical understanding. Gifted Child Quarterly, 57(4), 207-208.
Foley-Nicpon, M., Assouline, S.G., & Colangelo N. (2013). Twice-exceptional learners: Who needs to know what? Gifted Child Quarterly, 57 (3), 169-180.
Gilman, B. J., Lovecky, D. V., Kearney, K., Peters, D. B., Postma, M., Wasserman, J. D., Silverman, L. K., … & Rimm, S. B. (2013). Critical issues in the identification of gifted students with co-existing disabilities the twice-exceptional. SAGE Open, 3(3), 2158244013505855.
Kalbfleisch, M. L. (2013). Twice-exceptional students: Gifted students with learning disabilities. In C. M. Callahan & H. L. Hertberg-Davis (Eds.), Fundamentals of gifted education: Considering multiple perspectives (pp. 358-368). New York, NY: Routledge.
Merrill, J. (2012). Stealth Schooler. Understanding Our Gifted, 24(4), 15-16.
Obrien, Robyn. (2009). The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
United States Department of Food and Drugs Administration. www.fda.gov
©Michael Postma, 2015