Gifted and Learning Disabled?

For many, the notion of an individual being both gifted and learning disabled is a paradox that is not easily comprehended.  These children and adults do exist however, and the identification and teaching of such individuals is a great and immediate challenge to those of us who are evaluators and educators.  While the field of gifted/LD is one of potential controversy, research has shown us that these two conditions can, and do, exist simultaneously.  Children defined as such display remarkable strengths and/or talents in some areas and disabling weaknesses in others (Baum, 1998).  According to Susan Baum, the key to identifying this heterogeneous group is to understand three categories: 1) identified gifted students who have subtle learning disabilities, 2) unidentified students whose gifts and disabilities may be masked by average achievement, and 3) identified learning disabled students who are also gifted, although not recognized as such.

For students identified as gifted who possess a subtle learning disability, the gaps in their achievement often widen with age.  A common mistake made by professionals is to consider average achievement in a child whose aptitude is superior or beyond to be sufficient.  Somehow this type of under-achievement does not seem as insidious as the under-achievement seen in a child of average ability.  Yet what we know is that such an aptitude-achievement discrepancy within a gifted person can have dire consequences in terms of self-esteem and being able to perform to one’s potential.  A comprehensive evaluation that considers not only aptitude-achievement discrepancies, but more importantly, intra-cognitive and intra-achievement discrepancies (strengths and weaknesses within one’s own cognitive and achievement profile) can help determine the cause of  the under-achievement.  Identification of a disability would help the student understand why s/he is experiencing academic difficulty and help him/her and teachers use strategies to go beyond a mediocre level of achievement.

Students who are gifted/LD, but are not identified as either, use their cognitive prowess to maintain achievement at  grade level.  Their precocious abilities allow them to work overtime to compensate for one or more processing weakness which may be an undiagnosed learning disability.  These students are often difficult to identify, and they may not recognize their disability until they are adults.  These students, however, may display unusual talents in non-academic activities and settings and their creativity, leadership abilities, and/or problem solving abilities may be unmasked in an environment that nurtures such traits.

Identified learning disabled students who are also gifted often have significant problems in school and their talents may reside in a non-verbal capacity that is not fostered in a traditional academic environment.  Their failures may overshadow any glimmer of talent and the great effort expended on remediation leaves little time to focus on any strengths.  These students are often described as disruptive by teachers and may use their advanced abilities to avoid tasks.  Yet these students too may excel outside of school.  They might be the ones who create elaborate cartoon strips, build incredible structures, organize a community plan for recycling, etc.  According to Renzulli (1978) “the creative abilities, intellectual strengths, and passions they bring to their hobbies are clear indicators of their potential for giftedness.”

What Can Be Done?

Evaluators and teachers of children have an obligation to educate themselves about this population. Vermont does not mandate identification or education of gifted and talented students. As such, many teachers do not obtain information about how to recognize or teach this population.  Special education services will often address the learning disability, but not the gift.  Advanced placement classes, which would serve the intellectual needs of many, are often out of reach of these students because their problems with reading, or writing, or spelling have not allowed them to obtain grades necessary for entrance.  With time and information, however; we can begin to create humane educational practices for these individuals.  First, we must recognize the seriousness of under-achievement in high ability students, even if that level of under-achievement is “average”.  Second, we must investigate processing problems (there is usually a history of problems that began when the child entered school).  Next, if a processing deficit, or learning disability, is discovered, we must not only remediate the weakness, we must also focus attention on the development of the student’s intellectual capabilities.  Enrichment that bypasses processing deficits and allows students to thrive with their intellectual peers might include an advanced math class, computer class, technical class, drama club, debate team, etc.  Furthermore, students need to have a nurturing environment where individual differences are honored and compensations strategies encouraged.  Perhaps most importantly, students must have their learning differences demystified.  When the intellectually precocious part of the intellect sets the standards, it is indeed frustrating when certain parts of the brain or body do not measure up.  Helping students understand and accept both their strengths and weaknesses will make life much easier and in turn they will become better advocates for themselves.

In closing, I would like to share an excerpt from John Dixon’s, The Spatial Child, “We educators must attempt to recognize any childhood behavior that could be a precursor to adult accomplishment.  Had Isaac Newton’s teachers recognized his construction of gadgets as an indication of his potential, he might have been seen as gifted rather than learning disabled.  Had the childhood theatrical and journalistic activities of Winston Churchill been regarded as an indicators of potential, he might have been seen as gifted rather than hopeless…..Had his teachers appreciated his childhood speculations on the nature of magnetism, Albert Einstein might have been seen as a future scientist rather than a failure.”

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