Gifted students with disabling conditions remain a major group of underserved
and understimulated youth (Cline, 1999). The focus on accommodations for
their disabilities may preclude the recognition and development of their
cognitive abilities. It is not unexpected, then, to find a significant
discrepancy between the measured academic potential of these students and
their actual performance in the classroom ((Whitmore & Maker, 1985).
In order for these children to reach their potential, it is imperative
that their intellectual strengths be recognized and nurtured, at the same
time as their disability is accommodated appropriately.
Identification of giftedness in students who are disabled is problematic.
The customary identification methods (standardized tests and observational
checklists) are inadequate, without major modification. Standard lists
of characteristics of gifted students may be inadequate for unmasking hidden
potential in children who have disabilities. Children whose hearing is
impaired, for example, cannot respond to oral directions, and they may
also lack the vocabulary which reflects the complexity of their thoughts.
Children whose speech or language is impaired cannot respond to tests requiring
verbal responses. Children whose vision is impaired may be unable to respond
to certain performance measures, and although their vocabulary may be quite
advanced, they may not understand the full meaning of the words they use
(e.g., color words).
Children with learning disabilities may use high-level vocabulary in
speaking but be unable to express themselves in writing, or vice versa.
In addition, limited life experiences due to impaired mobility may artificially
lower scores (Whitmore & Maker, 1985). Since the population of gifted/disabled
students is difficult to locate, they seldom are included in standardized
test norming groups, adding to the problems of comparison. In addition,
gifted children with disabilities often use their intelligence to try to
circumvent the disability. This may cause both exceptionalities to appear
less extreme: the disability may appear less severe because the child is
using the intellect to cope, while the efforts expended in that area may
hinder other expressions of giftedness.
The following lists are intended to assist parents and teachers in recognizing
intellectual giftedness in the presence of a disability.
CHARACTERISTICS OF GIFTED STUDENTS WITH SPECIFIC DISABILITIES
Gifted Students with Visual Impairment
fast rate of learning
superior verbal communication skills and vocabulary
advanced problem-solving skills
creative production or thought that may progress more slowly than sighted
students in some academic areas
ease in learning Braille
motivation to know
sometimes slower rate of cognitive development than sighted students
excellent ability to concentrate
(Whitmore & Maker, 1985)
Gifted Students with Physical Disabilities
development of compensatory skills
creativity in finding alternate ways of communicating and accomplishing
impressive store of knowledge
advanced academic skills
exceptional problem-solving skills
rapid grasp of ideas
ability to set and strive for long-term goals
greater maturity than age mates
good sense of humor
motivation to achieve
self criticism and perfectionism
cognitive development that may not be based on direct experience
development of speech-reading skills without instruction
early reading ability
ability to function in the regular school setting
rapid grasp of ideas
high reasoning ability
superior performance in school
wide range of interests
nontraditional ways of getting information
use of problem-solving skills in everyday situations
possibly on grade level
delays in concept attainment
good sense of humor
enjoyment of manipulating environment
ingenuity in solving problems
symbolic language abilities (different symbol system)
(Cline, 1999; Whitmore & Maker, 1985)
Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities
high abstract reasoning ability
good mathematical reasoning ability
keen visual memory, spatial skills
sophisticated sense of humor
imaginative and creative
exceptional ability in geometry, science, arts, music
good problem-finding and problem-solving skills
difficulty with memorization, computation, phonics, and/or spelling
distractibility and/or disorganization
grasp of metaphors, analogies, satire
comprehension of complex systems
unreasonable self expectations
often, failure to complete assignments
difficulties with sequential tasks
wide variety of interests
(Baum, Owen, & Dixon, 1991; Silverman, 1989)
Research indicates that in many cases, a child is diagnosed with ADHD
when in fact the child is gifted and reacting to an inappropriate curriculum
(Webb & Latimer, 1993). The key to distinguishing between the two is
the pervasiveness of the "acting out" behaviors. If the acting out is specific
to certain situations, the child's behavior is more likely related to giftedness;
whereas, if the behavior is consistent across all situations, the child's
behavior is more likely related to ADHD. It is also possible for a child
to be BOTH gifted and ADHD. The following lists highlight the similarities
between giftedness and ADHD.
Characteristics of Gifted Students Who Are Bored
Poor attention and daydreaming when bored
Low tolerance for persistence on tasks that seem irrelevant
Begin many projects, see few to completion
Development of judgment lags behind intellectual growth
Intensity may lead to power struggles with authorities
High activity level; may need less sleep
Difficulty restraining desire to talk; may be disruptive
Question rules, customs, and traditions
Lose work, forget homework, are disorganized
May appear careless
Highly sensitive to criticism
Do not exhibit problem behaviors in all situations
More consistent levels of performance at a fairly consistent pace
(Cline, 1999; Webb & Latimer, 1993)
Characteristics of Students with ADHD
Poorly sustained attention
Diminished persistence on tasks not having immediate consequences
Often shift from one uncompleted activity to another
Impulsivity, poor delay of gratification
Impaired adherence to commands to regulate or inhibit behavior in social
More active, restless than other children
Often talk excessively
Often interrupt or intrude on others (e.g., butt into games)
Difficulty adhering to rules and regulations
Often lose things necessary for tasks or activities at home or school
May appear inattentive to details
Highly sensitive to criticism
Problem behaviors exist in all settings, but in some are more severe
Variability in task performance and time used to accomplish tasks.
Questions To Ask in Differentiating between Giftedness and ADHD
Could the behaviors be responses to inappropriate placement, insufficient
challenge, or lack of intellectual peers?
Is the child able to concentrate when interested in the activity?
Have any curricular modifications been made in an attempt to change
Has the child been interviewed? What are his/her feelings about the
Does the child feel out of control? Do the parents perceive the child
as being out of control?
Do the behaviors occur at certain times of the day, during certain activities,
with certain teachers or in certain environments?
Implications for Students with Dual Exceptionalities
Commitment to identifying and nurturing the gifts of students with disabilities
implies specific changes in the way educators approach identification,
instruction, and classroom dynamics. Identification * Include students
with disabilities in initial screening phase. * Be willing to accept nonconventional
indicators of intellectual talent. * Look beyond test scores. * When applying
cutoffs, bear in mind the depression of scores that may occur due to the
disability. * DO NOT aggregate subtest scores into a composite score. *
Compare with others who have similar disabilities. * Weight more heavily
characteristics that enable the child to effectively compensate for the
disability. * Weight more heavily areas of performance unaffected by the
disability. * Allow the child to participate in gifted programs on a trial
basis. Instruction * Be aware of the powerful role of language; reduce
communication limitations and develop alternative modes for thinking and
communicating. * Emphasize high-level abstract thinking, creativity, and
a problem-solving approach. * Have great expectations: these children often
become successful as adults in fields requiring advanced education. * Provide
for individual pacing in areas of giftedness and disability. * Provide
challenging activities at an advanced level. * Promote active inquiry,
experimentation, and discussion. * Promote self-direction. * Offer options
that enable students to use strengths and preferred ways of learning. *
Use intellectual strengths to develop coping strategies. * Assist in strengthening
the student's self concept. Classroom Dynamics * Discuss disabilities/capabilities
and their implications with the class. * Expect participation in all activities;
strive for normal peer interactions. * Facilitate acceptance; model and
demand respect for all. * Candidly answer peers' questions. * Treat a child
with a disability the same way a child without a disability is treated.
* Model celebration of individual differences. Gifted students with disabilities
must be provided with appropriate challenges. The personal and societal
costs of not developing their potential cannot be overstated.
Barkley, R. A. (1990). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Handbook
for Diagnosis and Treatment. New York: Guilford Press.
Baum, S. M., Owen, S. V., & Dixon, J. (1991). To Be Gifted &
Learning Disabled. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
Cline, S. & Schwartz, D. (1999). Diverse Populations of Gifted Children.
Silverman, L. K. (1989). Invisible Gifts, Invisible Handicaps. Roeper
Review, 12(1), 37-42.
Thurlow, M. L., Elliott, J. L. & Ysseldyke, J. E. (1998). Testing
Students with Disabilities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Webb, J. T. & Latimer, D. (1993). ADHD and Children Who Are Gifted.
ERIC Digest #522
Whitmore, J. R. & Maker, C. J. (1985). Intellectual Giftedness in
Disabled Persons. Rockville, MD: Aspen.
Willard-Holt, C. (1994). Recognizing Talent: Cross- Case Study Of Two
High Potential Students with Cerebral Palsy. Storrs, CT: National Research
Center on the Gifted/Talented.
Colleen Willard-Holt, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Education at Pennsylvania
State University-Capital College.
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