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September 16, 2013
by Christie Hunter

Twice Exceptional Children: Do You Have A Hidden Genius?

September 16, 2013 10:30 by Christie Hunter  [About the Author]

All children are created equal and have equal value as human beings. This does not mean, however, that all children have equal gifts and abilities. Intelligence, language and creativity varies.  Some learn easily,  some have developmental delays; some demonstrate exceptional gifts while others may require extra help. Children who demonstrate notable exceptions of ability are called Exceptional Children. But sometimes a child will have both exceptional gifts and developmental challenges. These children, called twice exceptional children, are often difficult to identify and are at risk of falling through the cracks of the school system.  Their delays may be the center of focus, and meanwhile their exceptional gifts might not be properly nurtured.  If you have a child or know of a child who may fall into this category, it is important you are aware of your local resources and be proactive to make sure your child has every opportunity he or she needs to excel.

The public school system has the job of educating all children, so it is designed around a principle of "norms".  Sometimes children require special education in school because they do not fall into generalized categories. Exceptional children are those who differ from the “norm” to the point that they require the general curriculum be modified in order for them to be successful in school.   The risk for a twice exceptional child is that if the school focuses on the delay, it may not notice the gift, and the child may wind up on medication and miss out on ever reaching their full potential.   The good news is that there are resources available to parents to ensure that a twice exceptional child is properly educated.  It will take additional energy and work, because children who are twice exceptional do not fall into "norms" and will require an individualized education program (IEP).  Parents must be vigilant in ensuring this happens and that their children are properly assessed.  If you suspect your child may have an exceptional gift, psychological assessment is critical so that the school system has on file documentation that substantiates proof of your child's giftedness.  Ask your educators to assess your child by a psychologist.

History of Exceptional Children

So often have children with disabilities been discriminated against that many laws and organizations were created to address the issue of equality in schools for exceptional children, especially those with disabilities. The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) was founded in 1922 at the Columbia University Teachers College in New York to address the gap in the advocacy for special needs children. Their goal was to influence policies affecting children with exceptional abilities in all levels of government so that developmentally delayed children did not risk being exposed to isolation and discrimination. They have been largely successful at integrating children who are developmentally disabled into mainstream classrooms.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates how schools educate students with disabilities, states that children can not be denied access to public education and must be placed in the least restrictive environment possible, which is usually a regular classroom. The idea is that educating children in classrooms with “normal” functioning children will prevent them from feeling marginalized and isolated.

Definition of Exceptional Children

Children are defined by law as a person three years of age to twenty-one years of age or the completion of high school graduation, whichever comes first. Clearly, the definition of an “exceptional child” applies to those children facing certain disabilities. These may be mental, physical, emotional or developmental in nature.

However, exceptional children may also be those children demonstrating exceptional gifts, as well. [1]  The US government defines gifted students as those who demonstrate “high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities." [2] Recent studies show that the most neglected area of education is that of gifted and talented students. Only two cents of every one hundred dollars goes to their education. This may be because there is some fear that publicly funded support of gifted may lead to “elitism”. However this fear does not diminish the fact that gifted and talented students have special needs as well and also qualify for special education programs in public schools if the individual state provides it. [3]

Twice Exceptional Children – A Conundrum

So what happens when a child has both an exceptional ability and disability? How do schools  address the subject of children who have dual needs?

For a time, experts were convinced that a student with both exceptions couldn't possibly exist. However, increasing attention has been given to this subset of exceptional children who until the 1970's had basically been nonexistent in the eyes of the school system. The term “twice exceptional” (sometimes abbreviated to “2e”), was coined by Dr. James J. Gallagher, senior investigator at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to describe a child that demonstrates both a learning disability and an exceptional gift. Perhaps the child has Down Syndrome yet is an exceptional athlete, or maybe they have an unusually mature world view yet are dyslexic. With most of the focus on disabled children and little focus given to gifted children, it is very easy to misidentify these children as only having a disability, causing the child unnecessary hardship, frustration and low-self esteem.

Early identification and intervention of students that are twice exceptional is crucial. In the next section we will discuss how educators and parents can identify and assist children who are feeling the strain of having both exceptional advantages and disadvantages pertaining to learning and how best to educate them. 

(This article is part one of a two part series.  Tune in next week to read the second part).


[1]  [State of Delaware Free Public Schools: Chapter 31. Exceptional Children ]

[2] [Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind, Title IX, Part A, (22). p. 526  ]

[3] [“Unequal Educational Opportunities for Gifted Students: Robbing Peter to Pay Paul?”Fordham Urban Law Journal Volume 29, Charles J. Russo, 2001. ]


About the Author

Christie Hunter

Christie Hunter is registered clinical counselor in British Columbia and co-founder of Theravive. She is a certified management accountant. She has a masters of arts in counseling psychology from Liberty University with specialty in marriage and family and a post-graduate specialty in trauma resolution. In 2007 she started Theravive with her husband in order to help make mental health care easily attainable and nonthreatening. She has a passion for gifted children and their education. You can reach Christie at 360-350-8627 or write her at christie - at -

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