Twice Exceptional: Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities

by Marcy J. Douglass

Awareness is increasing about a unique subgroup of students who demonstrate both superior intellectual ability and specific learning problems. Also known as "twice exceptional," gifted students with learning disabilities (LD) have cognitive, psychological, and academic needs that appear distinct from those of either gifted populations or those with LD (Crawford & Snart, 1994). Although characteristics and methods of identification for twice-exceptional students are well documented, the majority of these students seem to fall through the cracks of the special education system, making actual numbers difficult to ascertain (Brody & Mills, 1997). High intellectual functioning often compensates for the learning difficulty, obscuring both the gifted potential and the learning disability (Baum, 1990). In essence, the gift masks the disability and the disability masks the gift. Despite these issues, this subgroup of students needs distinct and separate interventions and services (Weinfeld, Barnes-Robinson, Jeweler, & Shevitz, 2002).

Students who have both gifts and LD exhibit remarkable talents in some areas and disabling weaknesses in others (Baum, 1990). These students often display high verbal expressive ability and good conceptual understanding concurrently with significant academic underachievement and frustration or lack of motivation (Crawford & Snart, 1994). Gifted students with LD are bright, sensitive, and acutely aware of their difficulties in learning. Many students are forgetful, sloppy, and have poor organizational skills. They may be inattentive in class, unable to master basic spelling or reading skills, show poor peer relationships and low self-esteem, dislike school, or demonstrate school failure. They may act out, daydream, complain of headaches and stomachaches, or use their creative abilities to avoid tasks (Baum & Owen, 1988). At the same time they may demonstrate excellent vocabularies, exceptional analytic and comprehension skills, extraordinary interest or talent in a particular area, or sophisticated problem-solving skills. Creative abilities, intellectual strengths, and the passion that these students bring to their hobbies are clear indicators of their giftedness (Robinson, 1999). Often these students' problems are primarily evident in the school setting, whereas they are highly active and motivated to pursue hobbies and other interests at home (Silverman, 1989).

Baum (1990) encourages teachers to create nurturing environments, for these students, promote self-knowledge about interests and learning styles, and allow compensation and accommodation to take any form that technology can provide. Accommodations in written language, the use of advanced organizing techniques (Baum, 1990; Robinson, 1999), and emotional support are helpful. Gifted students with LD benefit from support and enrichment in areas of identified strengths using high-interest, challenging thematic units that include problem solving. Starting with the giftedness and using LD best practices for support appears to be optimal for helping students in this population succeed (Baum, 1990; Robinson, 1999).

Interests and hobbies outside of school play a key role in effective intervention designed to nurture abilities and develop self-esteem and self-efficacy in gifted students with LD (VanTassel-Baska & Baska, 2004). Youth-based organizations and activities like sports, drama, band, and orchestra give young people opportunities to be a part of a cooperative endeavor with their peers. Connections to interests like photography, computers, and art bolster these students when their academic lives seem to be falling apart. Parents can encourage their children's interests by taking them to museums and concerts, and enrolling them in summer or week-end classes. Camps, workshops, and community groups that nurture their gifts are additional means to support the success of twice-exceptional children.


Baum, S. (1990). Gifted but learning disabled: A puzzling paradox. Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children.

Baum, S., & Owen, S. (1988). High ability/learning disabled students: How are they different? Gifted Child Quarterly, 32, 226-230.

Brody, L.E., & Mills, C. (1997). Gifted children with learning disabilities: A review of the issues. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30(3), 282-286.

Crawford, S., & Snart, F. (1994). Process-based remediation of decoding in gifted LD students: Three case studies. Roeper Review, 16(4), 247-253.

Robinson, S. (1999). Meeting the needs of students who are gifted and have learning disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 34(4), 195-210.

Silverman, L. (1989). Individual gifts, invisible handicaps. Roeper Review, 12(1), 37-42.

VanTassel-Baska, J., & Baska, A. (2004). Working with gifted students with special needs. Gifted Education Communicator, 35(2), 4-7.

Weinfeld, R., & Barnes-Robinson, L., Jeweler, S., & Shevitz, B. (2002). Academic programs for gifted and talented/learning disabled students. Roeper Review, 24(4), 226-245.

Date: May/June 2005