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“I Grew Up Gifted and Autistic — and Suffered the Burnout of Twice Exceptionality”

“No matter how bad my mental health got, I clung to the idea that I needed to be the smartest. If I couldn’t have friends, I would have a perfect GPA.”

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I’ll say it: Being gifted isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Especially if you’re also neurodivergent.

I was identified as gifted in kindergarten. At age 6, I began participating in my school’s Challenge program, where gifted students were pulled out of class once a week to engage in a curriculum that focused on critical thinking and self-directed learning. I loved it. Challenge days were the only days I looked forward to school.

Unfortunately, my giftedness didn’t come alone. I am also autistic, though I remained undiagnosed until my senior year of high school — in part because my giftedness masked or distracted attention away from my autism.

I am twice exceptional — basically a neurodivergent gifted student. Today, the term twice exceptional (2e) has become popular in parenting and educational circles to describe gifted children who also have autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning differences, or other similar conditions. 2e wasn’t in the academic vernacular when I was a kid. My parents, teachers, and even my therapist simply saw me as a weird gifted kid.

If I Couldn’t Have Friends, I Would Have a Perfect GPA

2e children need specific support, but because of their seemingly contradictory conditions, they don’t always receive it. Some children may become withdrawn — school becomes overwhelming, so they stop trying. They are then predictably but unhelpfully told they need to apply themselves; that they have so much potential. I took the other route: I kept up my high academic performance but also developed severe anxiety and depression from the pressures I felt thanks to my gifted label and the lack of support for my autism.

[Read: How to Nourish and Nurture a Gifted Child with ADHD]

By my sophomore year of high school, I was burnt out. School had grown harder, but my gifted support had ended in fifth grade; I was left to fend for myself. I grew up making straight As without studying, but I couldn’t skate through anymore. I clung to the gifted label yet felt like I was wasting my potential. I had never learned to persevere or withstand academic failure, but suddenly I had no choice. I couldn’t rely on my intrinsic abilities anymore. I had to work, but I didn’t know how.

I was essentially abandoned by my school, and also began noticing stark contrasts between my classmates and me. They socialized effortlessly and made friends. I didn’t. They could juggle school, extracurriculars, a social life, and self-care. I couldn’t — I didn’t hang out with anyone and showered twice a week at best. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I had executive dysfunction that was exacerbated by my mood disorder. Everything was harder for me than it was for my neurotypical peers, but I kept holding myself to the same, if not higher, standards.

At my lowest, I was suicidal, having weekly breakdowns, and battling an eating disorder. But my grades stayed high — that was my only priority. No matter how bad my mental health got, I clung to the idea that I needed to be the smartest. If I couldn’t have friends, I would have a perfect GPA.

After receiving medication and an autism diagnosis, I recovered. I am now a university student who has learned to balance classes, a personal life, and self-care. I recognize how important it is to receive support for my autism. I know how to be kind to myself. But I can’t help but wonder if learning these healthy habits from an earlier age could have saved me so much hurt.

Being identified as gifted is a blessing and a curse. Early identification gives parents and educators the opportunity to provide necessary support, but it also labels the child in a way that may create a pressure to excel. Especially when the necessary support and foundations aren’t provided, the pressure can prove overwhelming.

[Read: My Twice Exceptional Son Isn’t a Problem to Be Fixed]

Supporting Twice Exceptional Kids: 3 Tips for Parents and Educators

  1. Watch gifted children for signs of neurodivergence. The criteria for giftedness often overlap with autism or ADHD symptoms, and though no study has been conducted on the topic, a correlation between giftedness and neurodivergence may exist. Gifted children may display neurodivergent traits without being neurodivergent, but because missing a diagnosis carries risks, parents and educators should err on the side of caution and be willing to assess gifted children.
  2. 2e children should receive support throughout their educational careers. They should receive a curriculum that challenges them intellectually, and 2e students should become acquainted with difficulty. The National Association for Gifted Children encourages gifted programs to provide “supported risk,” where children are encouraged to take risks with proper foundational skills and educator support. 2e children need these challenges to develop necessary social-emotional skills such as resilience, frustration tolerance, and self-management. Overcoming adversity also builds self-confidence and encourages a growth mindset.
  3. 2e children need to know that they are more than their intelligence or test scores. For some children, the gifted label can become a burden rather than a compliment. Though there’s nothing wrong with identifying children as gifted, parents and educators should be careful to praise them for effort as well as skill. Studies have shown that praising effort leads to greater persistence and positive outlook when children face challenges. Grades and performance may ebb and flow, but there are always opportunities for effort and growth. Gifted children need to know that their effort matters.

As more parents and educators talk about the challenges unique to 2e children, I am hopeful that struggles like mine will diminish. I hope greater awareness will bring more support, and that more 2e children will grow into flourishing adults who dazzle us with their talents — but, more importantly, ones who feel confident, healthy, and happy.

Twice Exceptional Children: Next Steps

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