Young, gifted and special


Being gifted and talented can be hard enough, but what if you also have SEN?

Some children seem to be struggling with an area of their learning, yet you have no doubt that they understand exactly what is covered in lessons. Others, you feel, may have a special need but just do not quite fit the classic profile and you are left wondering just how to support them in the classroom and beyond. Still others may have a learning need which is clear to see, but are just too bright for the support programmes you can offer. Have you ever considered that these children might be dual or multiple exceptional (DME)?

This article explains what DME is, how it can affect a child and their learning within the classroom, and what can be done to support a child who is DME.

High learning potential and SEN

Teaching children who are both bright and have a learning difficulty can be confusing. They can seem so able and yet struggle to carry out basic tasks. Often they are misperceived, by both teachers and parents alike, as lazy, inattentive, stubborn, careless or unmotivated. Whilst everyone suspects that these descriptions are not wholly accurate, sometimes it is almost impossible not to fall back on them when something is not quite right but it is hard to describe what is wrong.

Yet this is just what can happen with DME children. These children have a disability or learning difficulty but at the same time they have high ability in one or more aspects of their learning.

What is dual or multiple exceptionality?

Dual exceptionality (sometimes referred to as twice exceptionality or 2e) is the term used to describe a child who is not only exceptionally able but also has an additional learning difficulty or a disability.

Multiple exceptionality is the term used to describe a child with high intellectual ability and more than one special need or difficulty.

Put them together and the term used is dual or multiple exceptional or DME.

A child who is DME can face several barriers to their learning, both in the classroom and at home. The most common include:

  • his/her strengths conceal a learning difficulty, making their SEN extremely difficult to identify
  • his/her needs and abilities can be misdiagnosed or misinterpreted
  • where a  need is identified, emphasis can be placed on supporting this to the exclusion of the child’s high learning potential, which also needs to be recognised and supported
  • typical measures to support a learning difficulty or disability are not successful for a child who also has high learning potential
  • where the child’s strengths are identified, traditional gifted and talented support is not suitable as it is reliant upon basic skills being in place
  • the child may have a diagnosed learning difficulty but because his/her high ability allows them to achieve slightly above average, s/he does not qualify for additional support.

Because of my son’s high IQ, he is managing to keep up with the average in reading even though he has dyslexia. The school is not interested in what his reading level should be in relation to his potential and is not providing any additional support as in his teachers words “he is managing to keep up”.
Parent of DME child

For the child him/herself, the results of being held back in these ways can be catastrophic, with many children reporting low self-esteem and feelings of failure both at home and at school. Without appropriate support this can result in underachievement far below what might have been expected if their potential had been realised.

If you are gifted and autistic you are invisible at school. Everyone says “oh, she’s doing really well in lessons” but no one cares that you are always bored. The other kids don’t like it when you can do things well and they bullied me for four years. School is a foul place for children like me and I am really angry and upset that I can’t go to any secondary school even if I wanted to because I don’t have the right sort of brain for them.
DME child with autism

Common difficulties seen alongside giftedness include:

  • Asperger’s syndrome
  • dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia
  • auditory and visual processing disorders
  • sensory processing disorders, including dyspraxia
  • non-verbal learning disorder.

Identifying a DME child

Sometimes I get frustrated as I know the answer to the question but something goes wrong between what I think and what I write on the page. I feel so stupid and I wish I knew what to do about it.
DME child with dyspraxia

The signs of DME are often misunderstood or missed altogether.Dual or multiple exceptionality is probably one of the most difficult areas of special needs to identify. To do this it is important to have evidence of both the specific learning difficulty and the potential for giftedness in order to assess any discrepancies between intellectual ability and performance.

A multi-dimensional approach to assessment involves the SENCO consulting across the curriculum and looking at discrepancies between subject areas and what is required for different skills. An example of this would be a child who might write one or two lines for a written essay but who flies in terms of both content and creativity when they type or dictate a piece of homework or produce a presentation about what they know.

A person outside the school system, such as an educational psychologist, may also be involved to observe the child and carry out an assessment. The results of a standardised reading test and a listening test might show huge varied ability – a score on the 90th percentile for listening and 60th percentile for reading would suggest difficulties in interpreting written things. Assessments in art, music, drama and physical education might rate considerably higher in some cases than reading, writing and spelling ages and vice versa.

When assessing a child informally, the school would look at a range of different evidence, including:

  • schoolwork
  • work from home
  • drawings and paintings
  • parents’ comments and assessments
  • classroom observations
  • advanced reading and/or number ability
  • verbal ability
  • advanced use of equipment
  • use of language and communications skills
  • reports from both the gifted and talented coordinator and the SENCO
  • reports from the class teacher and/or subject teacher
  • reports from other professionals.

In addition, the professional would look for a range of characteristics associated with a particular learning difficulty and also those associated with high ability. However, this cannot be done in isolation because of the complex interaction between the two. For example, many of the characteristics of high ability are similar to children on the autistic spectrum; indeed, the two are often confused and there is a high level of misdiagnosis of one (usually autism) for the other.

How to spot a DME child in the classroom

  • written work and verbal work out of synchronisation
  • tries to cover up difficulties. For example, may be the joker in the class or use wits rather than results
  • issues with homework. Common problems include poor standards of work compared to answers in class, forgetting to hand it in or misinterpreting what is being sought by the teacher
  • test results at odds with knowledge of a subject
  • vast knowledge about a subject or an area of interest outside school where there is no pressure to perform
  • extreme frustration or anger with self (and possibly teacher or parent) when cannot get something right
  • very low self-esteem
  • shows flashes of brilliance
  • good problem-solver
  • thinks conceptually
  • poor self-control
  • disorganised.

Supporting a DME child’s strengths and special needs

The sensitivity and awareness that DME children often have means that, from an early age, they are able to see that their peers out-perform them on simple tasks. Doubts about their abilities begin to creep in, resulting in deteriorating perceptions of their own strengths. Parents and teachers who focus on their difficulties reinforce these negative feelings. The resulting self-image damages the child’s academic, social, and emotional progress.

Focusing on the gifts, talents and interests of DME children whilst accommodating their difficulties, on the other hand, results in improved resilience and the experience of success. If they are given opportunities to develop their strengths, these children can develop a positive image of who they are and a vision of what they might become.

Working in the area of their strengths is motivational for DME children. Some of the skills they lack show dramatic development when practiced in the context of projects in their gift or interest area. They may also be more willing to push themselves through the practice of a difficult skill when the effort is related to a project they want to complete.

For those who lack social skills and understanding, working with others in the same interest area greatly expands opportunities for positive and productive interaction. Their weaknesses can and must be addressed, but they need to be addressed creatively and preferably in their interest area, not at the expense of the development of their strengths.

A potential strategy to support the DME child in school

  • SENCO and gifted and talented lead teacher develop a joint programme to support all the needs of the child
  • individual education plan supports the child’s special needs and stretches their abilities
  • challenge in areas of strength
  • involve parents to develop a plan to support learning at home. Agree how issues in school will be handled where the DME child may have particular difficulties, for example, exams, project work or writing
  • provide information and/or training to all relevant class and subject teachers and encourage a flexible approach to learning. For example, if handwriting is an issue for the child, look at other ways for them to record what they have learnt
  • celebrate success by focusing on what the child can do rather than what they can’t do
  • support to develop resiliency and self-control.

Further information

Denise Yates is Chief Executive of the NAGC, a charity providing social, emotional and learning support for children with high learning potential, including dual and multiple exceptional children.

The quotes in the text are taken from the NAGC’s publication, Hidden Gifts: Dual and Multiple Exceptional Children (2012).

Denise Yates
Author: Denise Yates

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  1. I can’t believe someone has written rubbish.
    This article has brought together years
    of anguish and frustration trying to have my child understood at school. This is such a revelation and shows you need not be one or the other but be gifted and have SEN at the same time.The author is right..this is a very hard journey for the child,I am witnessing it!They feel SO misunderstood by all around them. Thank you to the author,she may have just helped a family more than she knows!


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