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If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that growing up is difficult for nearly everyone.

We each have our own challenges, whether it’s keeping up in school, navigating the ups and downs of peer relationships, dealing with struggles at home, or just plain figuring out who you are.

And when hormonal changes begin…well, everyone, watch out. 🙂

One additional difficulty that I discovered last August was the world of giftedness. (In September, it was twice exceptionalities.) These types of neurodiversities are no cakewalk, either, and the more “different” you are, the more difficult life can seem…and be!

Twice exceptional

If you’re not familiar with the term twice exceptional (2e), it means that the person is “outside the norm” in two significant ways: they’re highly intelligent and they have a disability. The disability can be anything from autism or slow processing speed to clinical anxiety or dyslexia.

Most teachers, pediatricians, therapists and even child psychologists have no training in the world of twice exceptionalities (or even multi exceptionalities). Therefore, 2e kids tend to be incredibly misunderstood.

My family’s experience

I know about the 2e world firsthand experience because my son is cognitively “gifted” (I hate the G word) and also has severe social anxiety. Because he’s also an extrovert, he tries to be funny to win the approval of other kids (classmates, teammates, fellow campers, etc.). Unfortunately, however, they don’t understand his advanced sense of humor or his lack of impulse control.

Because their brains develop differently than most of their age peers, many gifted children – and especially 2e kids – have areas of developmental deficits. Common ones include “social smarts” and executive-function skills (e.g., impulse control, emotional control, task initiation, organization).

When you add social anxiety to all of this, you can begin to see why, even though my little guy is incredibly bright, telling him to calm down and to stop trying to entertain everyone doesn’t work. The anxiety that often surfaces when he tries to fit in with other kids, puts him into Fight Flight or Freeze mode. When that happens, logic and memory go out the window because he can’t even access the thinking part of his brain.

This went on for three years – early kindergarten through the summer after second grade – before we started to piece it together. In the meantime, I was a wreck because he was constantly being pushed, teased, excluded from birthday parties, and more. Nothing that I, or anyone else, did seemed to help.

Counselors’ “friendship groups” don’t help when
there’s undetected neurodiversity. Here’s why.

Shortly after my breaking point, I learned that I could request a full evaluation through his school. Even though it was Summer Break, I wasn’t willing to wait. I couldn’t risk starting another school year with this ongoing dynamic.

When we got the test results, they revealed that he’s “highly gifted,” which I mistakenly thought was the only missing piece to this puzzle. This is partly because I wasn’t told about anything else outside of the norm. It’s also because he began to make social progress that school year (third grade) – largely due to an incredibly perceptive teacher.

Only half of the challenge

About two months into fourth grade, I discovered the rejection was happening all over again and, like most teasing and bullying, it was occurring when adults were less likely to notice.

As this roller coaster of a journey took another sharp descent, my son began to feel hopeless again, even though his desire for more intellectually-challenging work was now being addressed.

(Yes, that need is important, but for some “kite kids,” it isn’t the only key to their internal peace and personal fulfillment.)

It took a few weeks for me to realize there was still a big problem. My husband and I both saw instances of exclusion at a school event, and I noticed that some of his jokes were starting to include more serious topics, like him going to heaven, and also asking what “suicide” meant.

It was then that I finally realized he was truly a 2e kid. (And now a 3e kid because his unaddressed social anxiety was causing depression, as well.)

My aspiring engineer couldn’t control his unsuccessful friendship-making tactics, even though he’s really smart. He couldn’t think clearly when his anxiety took over. More and more, he was again finding himself in a Fight Flight or Freeze state that he couldn’t fix on his own.

(Huge props to Seth Perler, whose work with twice-exceptional kids and his interview with Dr. Stuart Shanker, made this level of awareness possible for me!)

Myths and lack of awareness

Although asynchronous development and overexcitabilities (a.k.a. intensities) were discovered decades ago, widespread myths about giftedness remain – even among educators and clinicians. I have seen this firsthand on countless occasions.

For example, I got surprised look when I explained to a teacher that a play therapist said my son was, emotionally speaking, a four-year-old (maybe five) when his true age was eight. I could tell she was quickly trying to figure out how that would fit in with her classroom management approach, where most students were, emotionally, at about the same level of development.

Additionally, I’ve had a pediatrician and other physicians tell me “how great” it is, when I mentioned the G word. These responses from them came out before I had a chance to explain his social-emotional struggles.

To be clear, I don’t blame any educators, therapists or physicians who didn’t know how extreme these challenges can be, especially when it comes to 2e and 3e kids. They were all intelligent, caring people, who chose their professions because they have a helper’s heart.

When you combine asynchronous development with one or more types of intensities, and then add one or more disorders to the situation, these kids can be really perplexing. Sadly, even misdiagnosis occurs.

In my experience, even most parents of “kite kids” don’t ever hear the terms asynchronous development or overexcitabilities from the professionals who tested their children. If the parents know these terms, and what they mean, it’s because they read a book or watched a webinar to better understand their child.

Simultaneously learning to crawl and fly

When a child struggles like this, it can be easy to focus on the disability — and there is good reason to help the child manage it, particularly when mental health is involved.

All kids who seem different struggle, even if they're intellectually gifted. This is particularly true when a child is "twice exceptional." 2e kids can perplex adults & peers, and struggle greatly if both their strengths & disabilities aren't identified.

However, like all kids, twice-exceptional children are most successful when we also nurture their strengths. Encouraging their specific talents and interests not only boosts their outlook and self-esteem; in some cases, it can even lessen how prevalent their challenges are.

For example, when my son is doing school work that challenges him, he focuses on that and isn’t nearly as preoccupied with entertaining others. (Problems are much more likely to occur during less structured times, like lunch and on the bus.)

Using this knowledge to our advantage

I love everything about Jonathan Mooney’s 2015 Groves Academy speech, including his “old-school Jesuit” story. However, when it comes to 2e (and 3e) kids, one particularly relevant quote is this:

Find your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses.

Jonathan Mooney

At the end of the day, this is true for everyone, regardless of their lot in life. Whichever cards we’ve been dealt, let’s all strive to follow this mantra, and encourage others to do the same – especially those without the tools to achieve this on their own.

For information about about the evaluation process for twice-exceptional learners, listen to episode 44 of the Mind Matter podcast called Accurate Assessment of Twice-Exceptional Kids. In it, host Emily Kircher-Morris, LPC, discusses the history, current state and future of these assessments, with Dr. Megan Foley-Nicpon, counseling psychology professor, and department executive officer for Psychological and Quantitative Foundations at the University of Iowa.

pattias