Rethinking Thinking

Dear Mr. Dad: There’s something going on with our nine-year old son, but it’s hard to describe. We know that he’s very smart—he reads at a high-school level, does the most amazing math calculations in his head, and is a wonderful artist. But only at home. At school, his grades are horrible, he gets in trouble a lot, is often called an underachiever, and has been diagnosed with ADHD and other learning disabilities. I always thought that being gifted and having learning disabilities were mutually exclusive. Is it possible for someone to have both?

A: The quick answer is an enthusiastic Yes! In fact, your son sounds like what some people are now calling “twice-exceptional.” And one of the biggest risks he faces is that he won’t get the attention he needs for either of his exceptional sides. Twice exceptional (2e) kids often fall through the cracks, say Diane Kennedy and Rebecca Banks, authors of Bright Not Broken: Gifted Kids, ADHD, and Autism.

According to Banks and Kennedy, a 2e kid’s disabilities may make people overlook his giftedness by getting the adults in his life to focus more on his shortcomings than his talents—in other words, to see him as a problem that needs to be fixed. At the same time, his intellectual gifts can mask his disabilities, meaning that he won’t get the help he needs to fully achieve his potential.

At the root of the problem are the words we use to describe children like your son: deficit, disorder, disability. But nearly 20 years ago, educational psychologist Bonnie Cramond did a comparison of the ways people describe the behavior of children who might be labeled as having a disability with those who might be labeled as highly creative. Aside from the words, there wasn’t much difference. For example, the ADD child is “impulsive,” while a creative child is “spontaneous.” An ADD child would be “hyperactive,” but the creative one would be “high energy.” One child is “inattentive,” while the other is “a creative thinker.” One is “oppositional,” the other is “questioning authority.” One is “unable to finish projects,” the other is “able to switch gears quickly” or “always looking for new challenges.” One “daydreams,” the other “is lost in thought.”

So what can you do? To start with, remember the old expression: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” People in special education tend to focus on disabilities. People who work with gifted kids, focus on gifts. You need to find someone who will look at your son from all angles, someone who can encourage him to develop his talents, while helping him work on minimizing the negative effects—if any—of his “disabilities” on his life.

I’m saying “minimize the effects” because your son doesn’t necessarily need to be “cured”—he may just need to find activities (and later, a career) that make use of his gifts. Kids with Asperger’s, for example, often excel in math and science and might be happy as adults in engineering, physics, and accounting. Kids with ADD often do well in music, art, and sports and can be quite successful as emergency-room doctors, inventors, salespeople, or air traffic controllers.

It’s also very important that you and your spouse educate yourselves about different ways of thinking about learning disabilities and gifts. In addition to Kennedy’s and Banks’ book, I recommend The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain, by Thomas Armstrong. I’ve interviewed all of these authors on my radio show, “Positive Parenting.” You can listen to podcasts at mrdad.com/radio.