What Really Works for Gifted Kids with ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, or Learning Disabilities


“My son is so amazing but he struggles and we struggle to understand each other. And I know that’s my fault because I’m the adult. It’s just really hard. And I fear everyday that I’m doing it wrong.”

That’s what one mom wrote to me, echoing thousands of parents I work with raising bright and quirky kids. As parents of these complex kids, we share a deep longing for them to have a good life using their many strengths and smarts, but we also share the fear that their lagging skills might prove insurmountable obstacles.

One mom called it, ‘Yale or jail.’

Compounding these fears is that the majority of other parents, teachers and professionals don’t ‘get’ what’s going on for these kids because it’s a very unique situation, affecting less than 1% of the US population under 18.

Twice Exceptional Kids

It’s an exceptional situation. Actually, twice exceptional.

When you have a child with high intelligence, traditionally called, ‘gifted,’ and that child has some atypical brain wiring, i.e. trouble focusing, planning or organizing like with ADHD, or trouble making social connections or regulating emotions like with Autism/Aspergers, we call these kids ‘twice exceptional’ or 2e. Why? One exception to the norm is their high intellect and the other exception is their area(s) of challenge.

Think of the 2e phenomenon like a toolbox with two drawers.

In a typical child, think of the two toolbox drawers filled evenly with an array of tools, representing skills and abilities. In contrast, for a 2e child, the upper drawer would be filled with the best and shiniest tools available and the lower drawer would be missing tools or have tools that don’t work as well as we might expect. For 2e kids, the drawers are massively uneven – you’ve got the jackpot drawer with an abundance of strengths and abilities and the seriously under-resourced drawer with challenges and unsolved problems.

I call this the uneven distribution of tools.

If you looked at this on a bell curve, you would see typical kids in the middle of the bell and parts of 2e kids simultaneously on either end of the bell. We’ve got the high intellect and abilities on one end and neuro-atypical challenges on the other end.

Are We Asking the Wrong Question?

As if this isn’t confusing enough, there’s a big, fat problem that can make life very difficult for 2e kids. I call it, ‘Asking the wrong question.’

When trying to help our kids, the medical system and school system are basically asking, “What is the problem and what needs fixing?”

Seems like a helpful question, right?

But the problem is that this question only looks at the lower drawer of the toolbox, the under-resourced one with the missing or faulty tools.

But your child is not the sum total of his or her weaknesses!

When we only look at what’s missing or lagging, we’re only dealing with half the picture. This question only focuses on weaknesses and ignores all of the super powers a 2e child possesses in their toolbox. It’s difficult to have a successful equation when we’re only looking at one part of the whole.

When we focus solely on the challenge areas, 2e kids tend to feel ashamed, like they’re broken, bad or dumb. In the field, we see this negative self-concept befalling our kids over and over again.

It’s heartbreaking and unnecessary.

Assume Positive Intent with Professionals

I know it’s easy to get bitter and disillusioned if you’re stuck in these systems and your child’s needs aren’t getting met. But I highly recommend that you assume positive intent and tread gently with the people, like teachers, in your child’s village. You need their help and they need your knowledge of how to help. Become your child’s advocate and operate from the belief that the village helpers have your child’s best interests at heart.

The truth is that most teachers and doctors typically have received zero training in 2e and aren’t aware of what your child needs. In fact, the term 2e wasn’t even used until the 1990’s, and still isn’t used in many parts of the world today.

Another pitfall we often see is schools looking only at the ‘gifted’ part of the 2e child, especially in magnet programs, which often don’t take the child’s challenges into account. Kids in this situation start asking themselves, “Why can’t I keep up?” when their challenges aren’t addressed.

Further compounding this is a myth among teachers that gifted kids should be at the top of the class, otherwise they’re not gifted. Patently untrue in the case of 2e kids. How many of our 2e kids have been told they’re not living up to their potential? As Dr. Ross Greene says, “Kids do well if they can.”

The Best Question to Ask for Rewarding Results

So what’s the better question to ask?

The better, more helpful question is, “WHAT WILL HELP THIS CHILD BE SUCCESSFUL?”

Can you feel the possibilities and spaciousness that open up with this question? To find the answer, we need to look at both drawers of the toolbox, the strengths AND the challenges.

If you really want to boil things down, there’s a secret formula to a 2e child’s success, and I’ve seen this prove true whether the gifted child has ADHD, Autism (and the subset formerly called Aspergers), anxiety or a learning disability like dyslexia.

Here’s the secret formula:

Empower and develop strengths and interests + Get help with challenge areas = Long term success

We need to blow on the embers of what a child is already good at and interested in AND shore up their weaker areas. Don’t we all need this? We all have strengths and weaknesses. We can all benefit by developing what we’re good at and as Dr. Ned Hallowell says, “get help with what we’re bad at.”

In other words, how do we figure out what our 2e kids’ strengths and challenge areas actually are?

Identifying Strengths and Challenges in Our Twice Exceptional Kids

As my colleagues say, if you’ve met one 2e child, you’ve met one 2e child. They are all very unique. That’s why many of my clients get what one parent called a ‘cocktail’ mix of diagnoses that don’t fit neatly into one category.

The best way I’ve found to get a clear picture of your child’s strengths and challenges is to get a neuro-psych evaluation by a psychologist who understands giftedness or 2e, like Dr. Dan Peters in CA,  Dr. Philip Dunbar Mayer in WA, or Dr. Devon MacEachron or Dr. Ken Schuster in NY. By the way, neuro-psych evals aren’t cheap, but they can be a very good investment in terms of understanding how your child’s brain is wired and what he or she needs.

Here’s a list of some strengths often seen in 2e kids:

  • High IQ
  • Attention to detail
  • Observant and perceptive to surroundings
  • Highly creative
  • Quick learner
  • Out-of-the-box thinking, insights, and problem solving
  • Quick-witted
  • Unique abilities and deep interests
  • Charismatic
  • Highly articulate

Here are some of the lagging skills often seen in 2e kids:

  • Focus and executive function (planning, organizing, follow through)
  • Emotional regulation
  • Social challenges
  • Working memory
  • Anxiety or worrying
  • Depression
  • Sensory processing
  • Learning challenges like Dyslexia, Dysgraphia or Dyscalculia
  • Slow processing speed

What lists of strengths and lagging skills would you make for your child? Take a moment to jot them down. Your list will be helpful in talking with teachers and psychologists to get a clear picture of what’s going on for your child.

Once you have a sense of what’s in the two drawers of your child’s toolbox, you can work smarter, not harder, to help them be successful.

Some ways to develop a child’s strengths and interests:

  • Be what Dr. Robin Schader calls an ‘opportunity maker’ and expose your child to different experiences and events.
  • Develop interests through classes, tinkering, online learning, clubs, camps, library and museum visits.
  • Make social connections by participating in group activities related to interests, as Dr. Temple Grandin suggests.

Some ways to help with a child’s challenge areas or lagging skills (recommendations for your particular child would typically come in the neuro-psych evaluation):

  • Tutors & Coaches
  • Therapies
  • Groups
  • Counseling
  • Medication
  • Adjustments and accommodations at school

The Secret Mindset

This post wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t tell you the secret mindset that will help your 2e child be successful over the long term, that has changed many, many lives for the positive. It’s this:

Become a self-advocate and a self-scientist.

Basically, a self-advocate is someone who can ask for what they need.

Tip: Give your child opportunities to interact with adults to get their needs met, i.e. ordering food in a restaurant, finding things in a store, asking a librarian for a book, or writing a teacher an email. Make sure you’re not over-performing and doing for a child what they can do for themselves.

Learning to ask for what you need is a superpower worth developing!

And what’s a self-scientist? This is another superpower of successful 2e adults.

Being a self-scientist means figuring out, through trial and error, what your brain needs to be successful. Kids can, with help at first, chunk down an assignment into more manageable bits, use a checklist to perform a morning routine, exchange pleasantries with an acquaintance, or get a fancy router that cuts off the internet an hour before bedtime.  There is an endless number of experiments to run in the pursuit of giving your brain what it needs. Be a self-hacker and find out what works best for you.

As you can imagine, this transformation to 2e success is the journey of a lifetime and it takes a village to find what works for each person.

Helping Gifted Kids with Learning Disabilities, ADHD, Autism, or Anxiety

That’s why I created the Bright & Quirky IdeaLab learning community. We are a group of dedicated parents of 2e kids working together to ease the struggle and help our kids live a beautiful life that fits the way their brains are wired. We work together with the leading experts in the field to discover strategies that really work.  The IdeaLab is ground zero for 2e expertise that is so hard to find elsewhere.

As one mom wrote to me, “I’m hoping that I’m providing myself and my son with the right tools to succeed and overcome any obstacles that come his way, so he can adapt and be confident in himself and live to his fullest potential.”

That’s my goal for you too.