The Twice Exceptional: A Population Explosion?

By Mike Postma.

As I sat enjoying the Carolina sun sitting near our community pool last summer, I could not help but overhear a conversation between a mother and her husband regarding the educational dilemma facing their six-year-old son who, by the looks of things, was struggling to keep pace in his first grade classroom. You may brand me nosy but whenever I hear the word school, education, and/or issues within the same sentence, my ears quickly gravitate toward the source of the vocalization. This particular conversation went something like this:

“Its just not fair. I know he’s smart and he should be getting this stuff. He was….”

The women paused as the aura surrounding her became increasingly aggravated as the muffled voice of a distraught male interrupted her.

“Yes, but how do we know the school is right? They are already suggesting special education and even medication…. I don’t know what to do now. He’s not dumb. There is something missing but I just don’t know what.”

Her voice trailed off blending into the playful sounds of kids splashing in the pool. A quick glance over revealed a frustrated mother slamming her phone onto the table while slowly sinking back into her chair.

“Hello, my name is Mike…perhaps I can help.”

It has always seemed strange to me that these types of conversations follow me wherever I find myself; the pool, a neighborhood gathering, at church, at the ballpark, or some other strange place. Granted, I have worked within the field of education and more specifically gifted education for more than two decades but now I work in my home office as a speaker and consultant a year removed from the halls of the school building. Within that year I have had no less than ten conversations with complete strangers regarding the plight of their children who are struggling to adjust to the expectations and parameters placed upon them by their local school district. Not surprisingly, the conversations remain eerily similar; my intelligent child cannot make the grade; they struggle to perform to their potential. Welcome to the world of twice-exceptional parenting…you’re not alone.

I began working with children identified as gifted and talented in the late 1990’s as a middle school gifted and talented specialist. At that time the twice-exceptional label was not as prevalent as it is within the modern realm of public education. In fact, the vast majority of twice-exceptional (2e) children, those who have both high intellectual potential and one or more crippling disabilities, were either languishing in a special education program or struggling to adapt to the rigors of regular classroom expectations. On occasion, I might get called into to consult in the case of a student who ‘seemed bright’ but was exhibiting behavioral extremes. However, those cases were few and far between. As the 21st century dawned these cases began to increase in frequency and the field of twice-exceptionality seemed to explode. The kids were coming out of the woodwork, or so it seemed, with the majority of the students that I worked with being white and male (I did work in a couple of suburban Minneapolis school systems at that time). As the 21st century progressed it seemed that the numbers of twice-exceptional students increased, as did the field of study surrounding them. What happened? Did someone tamper with the water? Is it a case of over-identifying? Has the research caught up with the numbers? Perhaps our diets have changed? While there is no definitive evidence linking any of these hypothesis there are some distinct possibilities that might explain the sudden popularity of twice-exceptionality within our student population. Let us examine a couple of these options.

The Research

It is undeniable that within the field of educational research a growing sample of studies, books, and articles has focused exclusively on the topic of issues surrounding twice-exceptionality. These samples include research on brain development, student identification, classroom issues and strategies, social/emotional issues, and much more. One example within this growing field are the studies conducted by neurological scientist and researcher, Beth Houskamp, who has identified differentiated patterns of brain growth in twice-exceptional children from that of ‘normal children’. Her work at Alliant University in California suggests that the brain development in 2e children is characterized by the early advancement of sensory prints that embed both positive and negative experiences much earlier than most children (Houskamp, 2011). These sensory prints, in turn, can be easily triggered at a later state by environmental stimuli and can lead to extreme sensitivities overwhelming the Limbic System (responsible for regulation). Over-excitabilities, anyone?

This research, in addition to many other contributions, has brought the field of educating 2e children to the surface and may coincide with the increased preponderance of identified children. Indeed, the sheer volume of research focused on twice-exceptional students has grown in both volume and sophistication (see Foley-Nicpon, M. (2013); Foley-Nicpon, M., et al. (2013); Gilman, B.J., Peters, D., et al. (2013); Kalbfleisch, M.L., (2013); Merrill, J., (2012), and many others). Within just the last few years more than five-dozen scholarly articles and research projects along with advocacy websites, and other information focused on the needs of 2e children have been published. This research, tackling issues such as the questions of identification, useful coping mechanisms, successful classroom strategies, and more, have aided in informing the general populace of the plight of the twice-exceptional. Perhaps it is this increased attention that has invariably led to greater awareness and conceivably, greater numbers. Then again, perhaps not as there remain a disturbing number of school officials who continue to doubt the reality of twice-exceptionality. The only surety is that the additional attention has amplified the cause beyond the privacy of personal family struggles and into the psyche of the world of public education, well, to some degree. Are the increase and sophistication of identification tools used for diagnostic assessment justifiable possibilities?


We currently live in an era of educational accountability. The federal government’s introduction of No Child Left Behind in 2002 en