As a parent of a gifted/learning disabled (LD) child there is a strong chance that you have had an alien encounter or two in your quest to raise your precocious child. Perhaps it was the time that mouth foaming, toy throwing, fist clenching three-year-old boy who didn’t quite understand the need to ‘go to bed’. Funny, that youngster just recently brought you a bouquet of wild flowers just because they looked ‘strikingly beautiful’. Or, perhaps your wonderful thirteen-year-old daughter who, having just been reminded of her curfew, has instantly morphed into a she-bear and locked herself in the room screaming incoherently about ‘incomprehensible injustice’. Have you been there before? Are you still there? As a father of multiple twice-exceptional children I can testify to the fact that this is not uncommon in our household. So, what in the world is going on? How is it that such an intelligent creature can go off so unexpectedly and with such intensity? What could possibly turn the beauty into the beast? One of the answers can be found in chemistry. Yes, I repeat, chemistry. It’s in the brain. Now, before you run off and tell all your friends and neighbors that it’s not you fault; that you are only responsible for one half of that child’s gene pool (wink, wink), you should know that nurturing also plays an important role in the development of the gifted/LD child’s brain. However, there are certain elements that you cannot control and it is these factors that we will discuss below.
Neuro-scientist’s have been studying the incredible three-pound collection of nerve cells for quite some time and to be sure have only scraped the surface of understanding how the brain works. The development of advanced techniques such as computerized tomography (CT scans), positron-emission tomography (PET scans), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scans) as well as the use of electrical signaling through EEG’s (electroencephalography) and magnetic field analysis through MEG’s (magneto-encephalography) have allowed scientists to study the electrical impulses that travel within the brain’s vast network of neurons. These recordings then allow the scientists to localize the source and response to signals emanating from the brain (Sousa, 2003) thereby providing information as to how the brain functions. As the sophistication of these techniques increases so to does our knowledge of brain functioning and its incredible power. As such we are able to learn not only about normal brain functioning but also that of non-typical brain functioning such as found in persons with any variety of mental impairment or, as in the case of the gifted child, mental acuity.
Dr. Beth Houskamp
More recently, special attention has been given to the gifted and gifted/LD brain. One such scientist is Dr. Beth Houskamp who, as a Clinical Psychologist specializing in neurology, has spent a number of years focusing her research on the development of the twice-exceptional brain. During this time she has and has discovered new evidence that just might help to explain why our children sometimes act that way they do. It is this research that has provided another piece to the puzzle that is the gifted/LD child.
Within the twice-exceptional community there has always been an understanding that there was something developmentally different about our twice-exceptional children. From early childhood we have observed that they tend to reach milestones earlier (or later), communicate in non-typical ways, and experience life more intensely than their peers. For example, many gifted and twice-exceptional children can have strong reactions to external stimuli such as loud noises, types of food, synthetics, music, or even art. In addition, I have heard from many a parent (and witnessed in my own children) regarding what they can only describe as an extra sensory perception or awareness. Indeed, even before they can utter a word, their bright eyes appear to inhale the surrounding environment. However, there have also been many reports of violent outbursts, social isolation, inappropriate behaviors, and difficulty with school environments? To be sure, rearing the twice-exceptional child can be extremely frustrating, isolating, and down right exhausting. Hopefully the following information can provide some clues and a better understanding of the daily journey each twice-exceptional child endures.
Impaired Social/Emotional Development: The Gifted/LD Brain:
Dr. Houskamp found that gifted children develop what are called sensory prints (or images) in their brain at a very early age. These sensory images are derived from a range of childhood experiences that register both pleasant and negative experiences depending on how the child reacts to the stimuli. Combined with an extra sensitive nature, or a larger capacity to register sensory inputs, the gifted child will record numerous intense experiences as they develop through childhood. It is these memories that can be drawn on, or even simply appear at a sub-conscious level, at any time later in life. Some examples of sensory prints might be a reaction to a loud noise, the taste of a strawberry, or a nip from a dog. These experiences implant themselves in the sensory print as lasting memories that can resurface when similar experiences are encountered later in life. Therefore, a negative classroom experience or any traumatic life event can impact how the 2e child responds to like situations. Furthermore, Houskamp found that the band of sensory input is more expansive and more highly developed in gifted/LD children than those who experience more typical brain development. This means that both gifted and 2e children have a greater repertoire of negative/positive memories and a greater capacity to experience those memories at a deeper, more intense level as well. Add in the a dose of intense emotions triggered by these sensitive prints and it is not surprising that the twice-exceptional child can experience ecstasy at one time and feel deep sorrow almost simultaneously. It is no wonder that that they can appear completely engaged one hour and have a temper tantrum the next. As you may begin to surmise, the under-trained educator is no match for the 2e student and must have very specific training regarding the social/emotional and academic needs of the twice-exceptional student.
Dr. Houskamp also found that in addition to a deeper reservoir of intense memories, the limbic system, that which regulates behavior, tends to be underdeveloped in twice-exceptional children and is easily overwhelmed by the intense messages being sent from the child’s sensory prints. Thus, at the very moment that they are experiencing an intense emotion they do not have the capacity to regulate how to respond in an appropriate manner. Nor do they have the advanced language processing skills to be able to negotiate or mediate a stressful condition. It seems that due to the overdevelopment of problem solving, coding, and critical thinking skills distinctive to the gifted mind, language-processing skills tend to be underdeveloped leaving the 2e child incapable of properly communicating calming messages to an overwhelmed limbic system. Thus they are forced to regress to the usage of primal instincts such as fight or flight to deal with sensitive situations. In short, the behavioral patterns in twice-exceptional children are similar in nature to that of children much younger than themselves. For instance, a gifted/ADD nine-year old boy might still have a meltdown that eerily resembles that of a typical six-year-old that in expert terms is called Asynchronous Development.
Finally, the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that is responsible for executive functioning relies on the full development of the limbic system to reach its full potential. Again, given the delays in development of the regulatory, language processing, and sensory systems, the growth of this part of the brain is also suspended, leading to further issues such as struggles with attention, organization and planning, decision making, perfectionism, and the ability to transition properly. Combined, it is clear that the twice-exceptional child faces a strenuous period of development that is wholly untypical of the norm. They are forced to participate in a world designed for normalcy and without the proper understanding, flexibility, and advocacy will suffer immensely at the hands of those who misunderstand. It is therefore essential to educate the uneducated and demand empathy for those in the position to lead our twice-exceptional children.
The twice-exceptional child has the intellectual capacity of a young adult but the emotional capacity of a child, experiences life at an extremely high level. However, when that same child encounters a stressful or frustrating situation, a negative emotional sensory image/print is triggered sending him/her into an emotional tailspin. Unfortunately, these triggers can be initiated by a variety of experiences including boredom (especially at school), frustration, adversarial confrontation, anxiety, stress, or even negative flashbacks. Whenever this occurs the limbic system must be given time to reset itself. Once this occurs, the child will be able to return to their normal selves. To be sure, it is essential not to engage the child who is experiencing an emotional letdown but to remove him to a safe, low stress environment where he can regain his composure. Confrontation during an episode will only lead to increased tension and a prolonged meltdown.
The gifted/LD brain is a complex mechanism that can both astound and perplex. It has the capacity to produce masterpieces and the capability to reduce the twice-exceptional child to unexpected tears. It is both brilliant and wild. It is inventive yet stubborn, complex, exasperating and intense. But most importantly it is incredibly vulnerable, needing special care and attention to thrive. Are we up to that task?
We have only begun to understand the enormous potential of the twice-exceptional brain. Indeed, this article only reveals only a minute amount of detail in relation to building knowledge and understanding of the 2e child. Other factors such as parental nurturing, proper educational techniques, and communal understanding also influence the development of the twice-exceptional brain. However, knowing what we know will help those adults responsible in rearing this precious resource to provide nurturing environments that accentuate 2e learning rather than detract from it.
Beth Houskamp is a Clinical Psychologist working at Neuro-behavior Services in Los Angeles.
Sousa, David (2003). How The Gifted Brain Learns. Corwin Press:
Thousand Oaks, CA.