What does twice-exceptional mean?
When giftedness co-occurs with other neurotypes or ‘learning disabilities/difficulties’ people are known as twice-exceptional.
Exceptional – or an exception – through giftedness, and exceptional through the learning disability or difficulty – the language varies internationally, with difficulties used in the UK, and disabilities elsewhere.
Twice-exceptionality is sometimes referred to as G/LD (in the US) for gifted/learning disability, or DME – dual or multiple exceptionality (in the UK).
Being twice-exceptional can feel like trying to run through life with your shoelaces wrapped around your ankles: so much potential, so little delivery.
Let’s have a list, shall we?
Conditions that co-occur with giftedness
First, neurotypes. AKA neurodivergence. These include:
- Tourette’s Syndrome
- and many more!
In fact, you can be twice- or more exceptional: some people have, for example, a giftedness + ADHD + autism combo. Others have giftedness with dyslexia. Or giftedness with dyspraxia and ADHD… The combinations go on. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use ‘twice-exceptional’ as shorthand for ‘twice-or-more-exceptional’.
Basically, humans are human, meaning we’re a diverse bunch with lots of things happening individually and together. Gifted people are – badoom-tish – no exception to this: we get other neurotypes as much as other humans. How much and how frequently has yet to be established by research, and I for one would be very interested to know the stats for twice-exceptional people.
Next, other conditions that co-occur with giftedness are… too many to list. Seriously. We could start with the top options: depression, loneliness, anxiety, complex PTSD (difficult childhood/relationship or other experiences that have left serious marks on your psyche). Most gifted adults are going to have some degree of trauma (stuck emotion and wonky beliefs about self/other/world) through the basic fact of going through the world as a gifted person – especially when your giftedness is undiagnosed or unknown in its depths, breadths, heights, speed, dimensionality, and [insert other kinds of extremes here, dear reader. You know the ones that make sense to you.].
One of the main tasks facing a gifted person is to figure out their exceptionalities. Which ones have you got? How have you managed them so far (or not)? What new skills, tools, and knowledge do you want to add to the mix? And who might help you do that?
When giftedness masks being twice-exceptional
In twice-exceptional humans, the giftedness can mask or compensate for the other neurotypes (brain-types). We mask to make other people feel comfortable around us. We compensate for the difficulties in our other neurotypes by applying our intelligence to solving the problems for us.
At school, twice-exceptional kids can be too academically good to receive support, and yet not academically good enough for the gifted programs (if they exist). Your reports probably say something about ‘potential’. Asynchronous development – where some aspects of your intellect/creativity/emotional world are vastly more developed than other parts of yourself – is tricky for most teenagers, and even more so for gifted teens.
Growing up, twice-exceptional adults can find themselves frustrated by a sense of enormous potential and yet equally massive invisible blocks to their progress (read: overestimating other people’s capabilities as equivalent to your own, ADHD time-and-organisational difficulties, autistic difficulties in reading-the-room and getting on with people…).
When your giftedness is missed at school, you enter the world of the undiagnosed gifted adult – which is commonly hallmarked by an incredible frustration with a lot of people for not understanding things that are absolutely plainly obvious to you.
When your giftedness is identified at school – but your other neurotypes aren’t – there can be a big sense of frustration with yourself for being so exasperatingly unable to do ‘easy’ things – like being on time, or make small talk – while being exceptionally good at hard things. If you’re persistently trying to find out ‘what’s wrong with you?’ and coming up blank, it might actually be that there’s a lot right with you – but just very different from most other humans.
In both masking and compensating, your gifted brain works twice (or more times) as hard to make up for the other conditions. Which is not a problem – if you’re gifted – until it is.
If you don’t know your neuro-type(s), it’s hard to self-manage. It’s as though your buttons are all wired up wrongly. Everyone else gets the standard set of functional buttons – and yours just don’t seem to work as well, or at all.
After a long period of consistent masking and compensating, you may end up in burnout – often mistaken for depression – because you’re overclocking your engine with all this compensating and masking. You might be trying desperately hard to be a gifted kind of assumed-normal human, whereas by nature you’re actually a gifted kind of unusual human. You might not know who you are, lost somewhere under the veneer.
Finding out your neurotypes – by self-diagnosis and/or professional diagnosis – and embarking on the mental, emotional and practical journey of figuring yourself out and setting up your world in a way that makes sense for your brain – that’s the actual path to success for you. You can’t follow someone else’s path – you very likely need to create your own.
When you know your neurotypes, you understand yourself better, you understand your needs for systems, structures and supports better, and you have the right kinds of words to find and advocate for these supports.
At 3+ deviations from the mean, highly/exceptionally/profoundly gifted people are, by definition, edge cases. We’re a different kettle of fish from the vast majority of people – and from what is assumed to be ‘normal’. Which is why many things don’t work for us gifted types: planners, prioritising, the education system, workplace management strategies…
There’s a lot of standard knowledge we need to throw out the window in order to operate ourselves successfully.
And there’s a whole bunch of missing manuals you need to find, largely by figuring it out yourself and with support from other gifted and twice-exceptional people.
So, you want to figure out your twice-exceptionality and get your life running hunky-dory?
1. Do nothing
The seeds have been sown. Your brain will do its thing in its own sweet time and pop up in – who knows? – a few days, weeks, years to ferret around in the field of twice-exceptionality. Or not. Also an option.
2. Do it yourself
Most gifted people who recognise some twice-exceptionality in themselves – especially but not exclusively the ADHDers – will now dive head first into the rabbithole of looking for everything about the topic and figuring themselves out, while simultaneously doubting themselves for about 2-3 years until validated by 1) confidence in self diagnosis 2) professional diagnosis 3) diagnosis by peer review, wherein all the friends you really click with start to pop like corn in the microwave, dyslexic here, ADHD there, autistic-ADHD (AuDHD) over yonder hill, and a whole heap of shared brain-smarts that mean you all *get* each other.
3. Do it with some people
Either in the peer-reviewed popcorn fashion, or put yourself on the fast-track (why not? feel the G-force!) with someone who knows what they’re on about.
The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this webpage are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this webpage. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this webpage. Sue Mahony PhD disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this webpage.
Sue Mahony PhD is gifted, autistic, and ADHD. She provides 1:1 specialist support for brains similar to her own, giftedness group programmes, speaking and bespoke support for organisations, and a wealth of articles on this website.
You can sign up for her mailing list for articles, insights, and announcements in your inbox.