Dual Exceptionalities. ERIC Digest. 

by Willard-Holt, Colleen

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. 


Gifted Students with Visual Impairment 

fast rate of learning 

superior memory 

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 

great persistence 

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 tasks 

impressive store of knowledge 

advanced academic skills 

superior memory 

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 

persistence, patience 

motivation to achieve 

curiosity, insight 

self criticism and perfectionism 

cognitive development that may not be based on direct experience 

possible difficulty with abstractions 

possible limited achievement due to pace of work 

(Cline, 1999; Whitmore & Maker, 1985; Willard-Holt, 1994) 

Gifted Students with Hearing Impairments 

development of speech-reading skills without instruction 

early reading ability 

excellent memory 

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 

self starters 

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 

advanced vocabulary 

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 contexts 

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. 

(Barkley, 1990; Cline, 1999; Webb & Latimer, 1993) 

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 inappropriate behaviors? 

Has the child been interviewed? What are his/her feelings about the behaviors? 

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. NJ: Merrill. 

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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