Learning Challenges

Unlocking the Potential of Gifted Kids with ADHD

ADHD and intelligence are uncorrelated. Yet so many of our kids score off the charts on IQ tests and are clearly smarter than their grades and conduct reports might suggest. Teaching and parenting these twice-exceptional (and easily bored) students takes persistence and creativity, but the hard work is more than worthwhile when their gifts are unlocked.

A boy who is both ADHD and gifted resting his head on a book during class
Gifted boy with ADHD rests head on folded hands on book in classroom

Many parents and teachers don’t realize that a child can be gifted and have learning disabilities, a combination called “twice exceptional,” or 2e. Debra Hori, an education therapist, didn’t. Her son, Ben, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at age eight, but it took three years to learn that his verbal skills and IQ were well above average. “He was tested, and he scored in the gifted range,” says Hori. “I decided to enroll him in a different school that accommodated all of his needs,” she explains. “It made a world of difference.”

The twice exceptional teen or child often has a rough time in school. Her gifts mask her special needs, and her special needs hide her academic ability. As a result, she is usually labeled “lazy,” “unmotivated,” or a “slacker.”

Several factors contribute to the delayed diagnosis of students who have both ADHD and gifted abilities. Inattention and other ADHD symptoms may result in lower scores on tests used to determine eligibility for gifted programs. Also, teachers are less likely to notice ADHD symptoms in students who are not disruptive. Parents are likely to be skeptical of an ADHD diagnosis when they know their child is bright. Remember, though, that a high IQ alone is not enough to be successful in school. Working memory, say experts, is a better predictor than any test result.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have a Learning Disability?]

How to Meet the Learning Needs of Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities

“Unlike mainstream students, twice-exceptional students — gifted students who have ADHD and learning disabilities — struggle with getting their thoughts down on paper, writing legibly, doing calculations accurately, staying organized, and following step-by-step instructions,” says Linda Neumann, editor and co-publisher of 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter. “They appear distracted or lazy, but they are trying very hard.”

As a result, many so-called 2e students feel “dumb” and wind up hating school. “It can be devastating when a student knows he’s smart, but is not able to reach his potential,” says Chris Dendy, who developed a DVD, Real Life ADHD, for children and teens.

Placing a gifted child with ADHD with other gifted students is an automatic — but sometimes misguided — strategy. Without schoolwork that meets their cognitive needs, gifted children with ADHD find it hard to sustain attention and often develop poor work habits. On the other hand, some gifted students avoid 2e students because of their lack of organizational skills and social skills.

Twice-exceptional students need a program that nurtures their talents while accommodating their weaknesses, says Susan Baum, Ph.D., an educator, researcher, and author of To Be Gifted and Learning Disabled. Gifted children with ADHD need accelerated learning, even while they are working on the cognitive skills that will support the faster pace. They should have a “differentiated curriculum” — with options in what they learn and how they learn it. Teachers and parents should ensure that a 2e student has the support skills to manage his tasks and to compensate for his weaker executive function.

Work with the school to secure services for your child. Some gifted students need more time to complete tasks than other students. They often benefit from using assistive technology, such as a portable word processor or a calculator.

“All of Ben’s problems didn’t disappear when he attended a new school, but his outlook on life improved significantly,” says Debra Hori. “I had my son again, and that was good enough for me.”

[Free Guide: Solving Disorganization at School]

Five Tips for Parents of Gifted Children with ADHD

  1. Trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone else. Don’t assume that professionals know better because they have credentials.
  2. Trust your child. If he says he can’t do something, don’t assume that he’s being lazy or obstinate, and don’t believe anyone who says he is.
  3. Don’t ignore the gifts while trying to fix the disabilities. Gifted children get depressed when they aren’t able to learn new things.
  4. Don’t ignore the disabilities while nurturing the gifts. Children get frustrated and depressed if they are constantly required to do things they can’t do.
  5. Know that your child can be in a gifted program and also have an IEP or a 504 Plan. Gifted students with ADHD may be eligible for IDEA services, in certain circumstances, under the Other Health Impairment or Specific Learning Disability category.

-Meredith G. Warshaw, M.S.S., M.A., uniquelygifted.org