How to Nourish and Nurture a Gifted Child with ADHD
Academically gifted children with ADHD are called “twice-exceptional” or “2e.” They are also incredibly misunderstood and underserved. Here’s what you need to know to secure the resources, accommodations, and understanding that she needs.
Twice-exceptionality means the coexistence of high intelligence or giftedness and a condition like attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) in the same child. It makes life and school confusing for parents, teachers, and kids, since the disability often prevents a child from expressing and developing her strengths.
A child doesn’t have to be “globally gifted” or have a high IQ — 130 or above, say — to be twice exceptional (2e). In fact, most 2e children have significant discrepancies within IQ, so an IQ score is not an accurate measure of what they can achieve. If a child has a significant strength in any area — verbal ability, nonverbal ability, fluid reasoning, or visual-spatial thinking — I consider her to be gifted. And if she also has ADHD, she is twice-exceptional.
As a psychologist specializing in the 2e population — and also the parent of 2e children with ADHD — I’d like to share some thoughts on how parents can support and advocate for the twice exceptional teen or child.
1. Get an accurate diagnosis.
2e children with ADHD are often underdiagnosed and misdiagnosed.
Sarah was a well-behaved, daydreamy girl making average grades in school. It was her anxiety that prompted an evaluation. Sarah turned out to be gifted and also to have inattentive ADHD. If she hadn’t shown emotional secondary effects, she might have continued to “fly under the radar” for her entire school career.
Max was distracted in class and constantly out of his chair. He challenged authority and argued with everyone. He was diagnosed with hyperactive/impulsive ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. No one bothered to “diagnose” his giftedness, or consider the impact his intelligence and boredom in class had on his behavior. To help a 2e child, you need to see his areas of strength and areas of challenge.
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2. Advocate and educate.
Armed with accurate information as to what your child needs, you’re in a better position to advocate for gifted services, an IEP, a 504 Plan, or whatever else. You will probably need to educate your child’s principal and teachers about twice-exceptionality. They may not have even heard of it, and some will have trouble understanding how a child could be gifted and have a disability. Perhaps you can enlist the support of key school staff, such as the coordinator or programs for gifted children, school psychologist, and principal. You may have to reach out to other parents and form a committee. Be a squeaky wheel, as your child’s greatest champion.
3. Focus on strengths and interests.
Developing the child’s strengths and interests is far more productive than focusing solely on their weaknesses. Too often, strengths are neglected in an effort to “fix” the child and get her to conform to the expectations of others. Lobby for your child’s gifted needs, as a gifted person. This could take the form of participation in a program for gifted children, grade or subject matter acceleration, placement in challenging classes, and after-school and summer enrichment activities.
Be guided in this effort by your child’s interests.
Dreamy Sarah loved stories, so her parents supplied books, took her to a storytelling conference, set her up with voice dictation software for creative writing, and enrolled her in a speech competition. She took advanced classes in English.
Max liked to know how things work, so his parents let him take things apart, took him to science museums, and enrolled him in a robotics class. He took advanced classes in math and science. A nice benefit of enrichment in areas of interest is that it can increase your child’s motivation across the board.
4. Don’t forget about addressing challenges.
Your child will probably need support to address areas of challenge. This may take the form of behavioral support, medication, executive function coaching, and accommodations, like movement breaks, at school.
Inattentive Sarah benefited the most from executive function coaching. She learned strategies for keeping track of assignments, dealing with procrastination, and managing her time. Max benefited from medication and getting involved in the martial arts (which teach discipline and respect). At school, Sarah needed teacher reminders and extra time to complete assignments because she was distracted by her own thoughts. Max needed social skills training to help him control his impulsivity.
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Each 2e child is unique and has different needs. When designing an intervention and accommodation plan for a 2e child, think about the impact their giftedness will have on what will and won’t work. Typical behavioral modification programs may backfire. Your tech-savvy 2e/ADHD teen may be able to hack any parental controls you try to put on screen time. Ask your child what she needs to get where she wants to go — and listen to what she says.
5. Celebrate your child’s uniqueness.
Twice-exceptional at least! I say “twice” and “at least” because many 2e children have multiple exceptionalities. It may be hard to accept that your child is 2e, but consider two important things. First, your child is likely to have real advantages by virtue of having ADHD. Individuals with ADHD tend to be more creative, have higher energy, enthusiasm, curiosity, spontaneity, plus an ability to multitask. The divergent thinking and fresh perspectives they bring to problems could be just what our world needs today.
And that’s not all. Your child is intellectually gifted, with all the benefits that brings. When you accept and appreciate your child for who he or she is, your perspective as parent will shift. Instead of always trying to “fix” your child’s “disability,” you can celebrate her abilities. See the good in her. See what she can do rather than what she can’t. Work with her to develop her talents and help her achieve her goals. There is beauty and advantage in being “different.”
Devon MacEachron, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist who is knowledgeable about twice-exceptional and gifted learners. You can reach her at drdevon.com.