Twice-Exceptional Basics

What is Twice Exceptional?  

Twice-Exceptional is the term used to describe an individual who has at least one form of intellectual giftedness AND also one form of disability.

What is giftedness?  What is disability?  

According to National Association of Gifted Children…

“Gifted individuals are those who demonstrate outstanding levels of aptitude (defined as an exceptional ability to reason and learn) or competence (documented performance or achievement in top 10% or rarer) in one or more domains. Domains include any structured area of activity with its own symbol system (e.g., mathematics, music, language) and/or set of sensorimotor skills (e.g., painting, dance, sports).”

According to the World Health Organization

“Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Disability is thus not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.”

Can Gifted & Disabled Definitions be combined to define Twice-Exceptional?  Yes and no.  In the simplest sense, yes, the term twice-exceptional is acknowledging the descriptions that both the educational and medical communities have given to signify the the gifted and disabled experiences and abilities.  However, the oversimplified combination of the terms misses the greater, total definition of twice-exceptional.   The Either/Or definition of gifted = brilliant and high performing and disabled = impaired and low performing is in direct conflict to the Both/And reality of Twice-Exceptional Living.  

The National Education Association created a report on Twice-Exceptional Learners in 2006, to further the awareness and discussion of the twice-exceptional learner and experience.  The report points out that individuals who are twice exceptional are inherently unique because “…of the relationship that exists between their enhanced cognitive abilities and their disabilities.” More specifically, the expression of one’s giftedness is obstructed due to the co-existing disability or the giftedness is not identified because of the dominate interference of the disability.  Individuals who live through a gifted and disabled experience are integrated, whole human beings,

How Many Individuals are Twice-Exceptional?

The short answer is, no accurate or current data exists because it has not been formally defined or collected by current federal education or medical professions.  Yet, numerous, parents, teachers and medical professionals have been speaking to the identification, understanding, and support of individuals with twice-exceptional experience.

On a national scale –The National Associated of Gifted Children produced a white paper in 2009 on Twice-Exceptionality  In this paper, they indicated, “Estimates made through various sources, such as the U.S. Department of Education, suggest that there are approximately 360,000 twice-exceptional students in America’s schools (National Education Association, 2006)”  So while the prevalence of twice exceptional life is likely a small percentage of the US population, to the hundreds of thousands of families who live through the experience, it’s implications are life-defining.

In context – Gifted: According to The National Association of Gifted Children “Academically gifted and talented students in this country make up approximately six to ten percent of the total student population (three to five million students).”  Disability: In a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 22.2% of U.S. adults (53,316,677 persons), approximately one in five adults, reported a disability in 2013.  So generally speaking, while tens of millions have identified as disabled and several millions have been identified as gifted – individuals described as twice-exceptional, who live at this intersection are rare, truly significant, and at-risk.

At Risk How?:

Individuals living a twice-exceptional experience find that their experience can be described as having skills defined on both ends of the bell curve.  One aspect of their ability and experience could be described as a powerful, complex, beautiful “ferrari,” yet another aspect of their ability  and experience could be described as an simple, slower, basic “go-cart.”  Depending on an individual’s unique design, he/she is constantly managing the internal and external realities of both the “ferrari” and the “go-cart.”


Having an exceptional life experience, like a disability or a gifted ability means that one’s experience is rare and at the edges of the “bell curve.”  In a US society that seeks to “normalize” and “standardize” life to the “middle” or the “mean,” – being differently abled means that one is literally distanced from the majority of those whose experiences are more common, central to the middle or the “norm.”  The statistical term “standard deviation” is used to describe this distancing difference.  “Distancing” can mean anything from having less in common to those in one’s community, to being out-right separated from experience, resource or opportunity because of one’s exception.

While the words and labels of twice-exceptional convey cultural statuses and stigmas, twice-exceptional life goes beyond educational terms or medical labels, to encompass an entirely unique way of experience and living.  No two twice-exceptional individuals are alike.  The “jagged” variation of individual human experience – across intellect, physiology, sensory, emotion, and spirit.  While it is critical that awareness of and education about twice-exceptional grows, it is MOST critical that individuals who live a twice-exceptional experience be seen and honored for the whole, entire person he/she is -at home, in school, in health, and in life.