Could learning disabilities be “hiding” our students giftedness!

Students who are gifted, and who have learning disabilities, may be “exceptionally” difficult to identify: their learning disabilities may “hide” their giftedness and their giftedness may “hide” their learning disabilities. This means that their needs in both areas may not be addressed appropriately.

In the literature, several definitions provide some insight into what is a paradoxical combination of strengths and needs:

Intellectually gifted individuals with specific learning disabilities are the most misjudged, misunderstood, and neglected segment of the student population and the community. Teachers, school counselors, and others often overlook the signs of intellectual giftedness and focus attention on such deficits as poor spelling, reading, and writing (Whitmore & Maker, 1985).

A child who is Gifted/LD is “simply one who exhibits great talent or strength in certain areas and disabling weaknesses in others” (Baum, 1989, as cited in Bees, 2009).

“Gifted/LD students are students of superior intellectual ability who exhibit a significant discrepancy between this potential and their level of performance in a particular academic area such as reading, mathematics, spelling, or written expression. Their academic performance is substantially below what would be expected based on their general intellectual ability. As with other children exhibiting learning disabilities, this discrepancy is not due to the lack of educational opportunity in that academic area or other health impairment”. (Brody & Mills 1997, as cited in Bees, 2009)

In Ontario, and elsewhere, students who are identified as Exceptional Intellectual – Gifted and Exceptional Communication – Learning Disability, may sometimes be referred to as “twice exceptional”. The Ministry of Education (2001) defines giftedness as “An unusually advanced degree of general intellectual ability that requires differentiated learning experiences of a depth and breadth beyond those normally provided in the regular school program to satisfy the level of educational potential indicated”.

Through Policy/Program Memorandum No. 8 (PPM 8), issued August, 2014, the Ministry of Education defines learning disability as one of a number of neurodevelopmental disorders that persistently and significantly has an impact on the ability to learn and use academic and other skills (Click here to access the full PPM 8 definition). The definition states that a student’s intellectual abilities must be at least in the average range to be identified under Learning Disability, and that a student must show academic underachievement inconsistent with their intellectual abilities, or academic achievement that can be maintained by the student only with extremely high levels of effort and/or with additional support. This definition leaves room for identification under Gifted and under Learning Disability, but the Ministry of Education does not provide a definition of Gifted/LD. However, a student may be identified with more than one exceptionality.

The following three tables, Cognitive Strengths, Cognitive Challenges and Markers of the Combination of Giftedness and LD, from the Twice Exceptional packet, identify some of the possible characteristics of this student population (note: the lists are not exhaustive and not every student will exhibit all characteristics).

Cognitive Strengths of Gifted Students with LDs

  • Superior vocabulary
  • Uninhibited expression of opinions
  • Uncanny sense of humor (e.g., sophisticated use of metaphor)
  • Highly imaginative
  • Extreme creativity
  • Extreme sensitivity and intensity
  • Penetrating insights
  • High levels of problem solving and reasoning
  • Interest in the “big” picture
  • Specific talent in a consuming interest area for which students have exceptional memory and knowledge
  • Wide range of interests that are not related to school learning

Figure 1. List of possible cognitive strengths of gifted students with LDs, from the Twice Exceptional information packet (2014).

Cognitive Challenges of Gifted Students with LDs

  • Deficient or extremely uneven academic skills
  • Discrepant verbal and non-verbal performance abilities
  • Auditory, perceptual, or visual perception problems
  • Problems with long- and/or short-term memory
  • Perceptual-motor difficulties evidenced by clumsiness, poor handwriting, or problems completing fine-motor tasks
  • Slow responses; students may appear to work slowly and think slowly
  • Lack of organizational and study skills; often messy
  • Difficulty following directions; nonlinear thinking
  • Easily frustrated: students give up quickly on tasks; will not risk being wrong or making mistakes
  • Lack of academic initiative; appear academically unmotivated; avoid school tasks; frequently fail to complete assignments
  • Difficulty expressing ideas and getting to the point; difficulty expressing feelings
  • Blaming others for their problems
  • Distractibility; difficulty maintaining attention for long periods of time
  • Difficulty controlling impulses
  • Poor social skills: students may demonstrate antisocial behaviors
  • Over-sensitivity to criticism

Figure 2. List of possible cognitive challenges of gifted students with LDs, from the Twice Exceptional information packet (2014).

Markers of the Combination of Giftedness and LD

  • Poor memory for isolated facts, but excellent comprehension
  • Preference for complex and challenging materials; easily distracted
  • Lacking self-regulation and goal-setting strategies
  • Boredom with rote or memorization tasks, but often disorganized
  • Difficulty reading, writing or spelling, but excellent oral language skills
  • Skill in manipulating people and situations, but poor interpersonal skills
  • Poor performance on simple facts such as addition and subtraction, but capable of complex, conceptual manipulations such as algebraic concepts
  • Strong sense of humor, but inability to judge appropriate times to display it
  • Penetrating insights, but inability to determine cause and effect related to own actions
  • Ability to concentrate for unusually long periods of time when the topic is of interest, but inability to control his or her actions and attention when the topic is not of interest

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