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The Twice-Exceptional Adult

We often hear about "2e" children but what about adults?

Although the word “gifted” has been used to describe people of higher levels of intelligence for decades, the term twice-exceptional, often abbreviated as 2e, has only recently entered the lexicon of educators and mental health professionals referring to intellectually gifted children who have some form of disability. These children are considered exceptional both because of their intellectual gifts and because of their special needs.

These so-called disabilities include diagnoses on the autism spectrum and ADHD. While we have been seeing more and more parents seek help for their children in this realm, there is also an increased trend of many adults seeking similar guidance, as the term “2e” is relatively new within everyday society. I asked Dr. Paula Wilkes, our gifted education consultant, and adult gifted expert, at Summit Center Los Angeles, for her thoughts about twice-exceptional adults.

Dr. Peters: Why are more adults seeking understanding, and finding out they are twice-exceptional?

Dr. Wilkes: These labels are given to people to describe aspects of who they are. I think more people are finding out for many wonderful reasons. We are in the midst of a huge shift toward authenticity and self-awareness. There is a greater acceptance of the diversity of what it means to be human. The greater acceptance of gay marriage and the greater awareness of transgender people's experiences are all a part of a shift toward authenticity. And the willingness of adults to acknowledge and explore their gifts and challenges is another indication of that shift toward authenticity.

It could be that an adult struggled through school barely able to read, and that adult is now a parent who is witnessing his child suffering in the same way. We often see parents who have their children identified with a learning challenge only to hear that the parent would like to be formally tested to see if he has the same learning disability.

Many adults are not identified as kids because they are twice-exceptional (2E) and their gifts help overshadow the challenges. Some adults have “stealth dyslexia” which often goes undiagnosed with standardized tests.

Dr. Peters: How has awareness around twice-exceptionality changed in our social landscapes?

Dr. Wilkes: The Internet and media in general have had a positive impact on informing us about learning challenges. The television show Parenthood gave us a glimpse into the lives of an adult and a teenager on the autism spectrum. The boy had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (high functioning autism), and the adult saw himself in the boy, which led him to seek out his own diagnosis.

When I put the words “adult learning disabilities” into a search engine, I came up with a wide range of websites and organizations. is one of many sites dedicated to informing people about their own learning challenges, or those of their children. The adult learning disability process is explained by the Learning Disabilities Association of America as well. There are many websites and blog posts created by adults with learning challenges, so, more than ever, adults are able to find resources and support on the Internet. This wealth of information extends to books and magazine articles.

This easily accessible information means that adults with learning challenges are able to research their learning challenges and find appropriate assessment centers and therapists. There have always been career and life coaches, but now there are psychologists and coaches who are more focused on the strengths and challenges of people who are twice-exceptional.

It also helps that people like Steven Spielberg speak publicly about their learning challenges. Spielberg was 60 before he was formally diagnosed as having dyslexia. While dyslexia set him up for bullying and caused him to be labeled as lazy, Spielberg also credits dyslexia with forcing him to slow down and re-read scripts so that he ends up with an ever greater understanding of the direction he’ll take the story.

Dr. Peters: What symptoms or life issues usually prompt an adult to seek diagnoses, when older, to problems they have struggled with lifelong?

Dr. Wilkes: As I mentioned above, sometimes parents see their own struggles being mirrored in the school struggles or social/emotional issues of their children. The pain of their children can trigger pain in the parent that is calling to be acknowledged.

Sometimes adults find that as their roles at work expand, their learning challenges prevent them from being as productive and effective as they would like to be. An adult with ADHD might struggle with tasks requiring strong executive functioning skills such as organization, focus, attention to details, emotional regulation, memory, and more. Adults with poor executive functioning skills might also struggle with the tasks of daily living such as keeping a household organized, and paying bills in a timely manner. Those professional and home life challenges might prompt an adult to seek diagnosis and coaching.

A sense of loneliness, or the inability to develop and maintain significant social relationships, might prompt adults to see what role Asperger’s Syndrome or other challenges might play in their lives.

Dr. Peters: How does a diagnosis of a 2e condition as an adult affect their personal and professional life and what do they need to know?

Dr. Wilkes: Once adults are diagnosed with the gifts and challenges of being twice-exceptional, it enables them to better understand the challenges that have held them back from fully realizing their passions. There is a great sense of validation and relief in that newfound understanding, and by exploring that diagnosis with a therapist or coach trained in working with adults who are twice-exceptional, that client has the potential of improving their personal and professional life.

Dr. Peters: What do you suggest to an adult who feels they may be on the spectrum or have another learning disability?

Dr. Wilkes: I would suggest that any adult who is questioning whether they have a learning disability or other diagnosis that is impeding their personal life or their professional life should meet with a therapist or coach who specializes in twice-exceptionality. Together you can explore your gifts and challenges, and that person can recommend an assessment center that specializes in the appropriate assessments for twice-exceptional adults.

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