Twice Exceptional: ADHD and Giftedness

Behind the hyperactive child or one with attention problems, often hides someone with high intellectual capacities. However, we have a tendency to pay more attention to their problem behavior than to their actual needs.
Twice Exceptional: ADHD and Giftedness
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 22 December, 2022

ADHD and giftedness can go hand in hand, escaping identification. As a matter of fact, this is so common that people often reach adulthood without it being identified. What’s worse is that they’ve been unable to develop and take advantage of their potential. It’s a reality that’s repeated on a daily basis and that invites further reflection.

Why does it happen? Why are there no earlier diagnoses in respect of intellectual giftedness or high capacities? Firstly, it’s because we tend to harbor false myths. We don’t accept that not every bright student wants to obtain outstanding grades or be exceptionally well-behaved in class. In fact, the brightest children are sometimes more restless than normal and have a history of failing at school.

Dr. Thomas E. Brown is a clinical psychologist at Yale University (USA). He’s one of the foremost experts on ADHD. He claims that there are many people with this condition who have a high IQ but have significant problems displaying their intelligence effectively due to ADHD.

As a rule, we only focus on the behavior of these children without addressing their real needs. Let’s dig a little deeper into this particular topic.

Girl playing the piano representing the relationship between ADHD and giftedness

In recent times, the term twice-exceptional has been used to describe a gifted child who exhibits attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The combination of these two conditions is problematic because hyperactivity or attention problems affect the optimal development of their potential.

ADHD appears with a large constellation of symptoms. Among these are impulsivity and the inability to regulate behavior or control emotions. Dr. Thomas E. Brown states that bright children often show a delay in the development of their executive functions.

This means that they lack cognitive abilities that regulate various functions of the mind such as attention, reflection, analysis, etc. Therefore, the greatest challenge for children or adolescents with ADHD and giftedness isn’t in not understanding what they’re being taught. It’s in their ability to demonstrate that they understand it.

What are gifted children with ADHD like?

The Department of Psychology at Nottingham Trent University (UK) conducted research that claimed it’s not easy to identify the child with ADHD and high abilities. Moreover, these students are usually associated with school failures and developmental delays. This suggests that we’re facing a reality to which we must be more sensitive.

Let’s take a look at how this feature manifests itself.

  • These children present a great discrepancy between their potential and their executive abilities. Some may be extremely adept at verbal comprehension and others at visual-spatial reasoning. However, it may be difficult for them to maintain their attention or to be able to express their knowledge in a regular exam.
  • They have great competence in abstract reasoning (the solving of logical problems).
  • They have multiple and varied interests.
  • They’re verbally fluent at an advanced level for their age.
  • They’re highly creative.
  • They tend to abandon many of the things they start. They’re not consistent.
  • They don’t work well in the classroom. In fact, they get bored, don’t pay attention, and don’t respond to structured tasks.
  • They act before thinking. They’re impulsive.
  • They don’t do well in team tasks.
  • They show great emotionality. In other words, they live intensely and exaggerate their emotions.
  • They’re extremely empathetic.
  • They reject authority figures.
  • They usually experience difficulties with other classmates and have problems integrating.
Shy guy

How to address the needs of twice-exceptional children

Giftedness that coexists with ADHD can be quite a challenge, both in children and adults. In fact, these twice-exceptional individuals experience learning and life itself in a different way. For example, the child or adolescent who doesn’t adjust to ordinary learning and fails feels increasingly unmotivated and their relationship with their environment becomes difficult.

On the other hand, the characteristic that most defines the adult with giftedness and ADH is emotional mismanagement. They feel overwhelmed by their feelings and are disoriented and frustrated in various areas of their lives, both socially and at work. This has a significant effect on them.

What should be done in these cases? The most important thing is to act early. Let’s take a look.

Strategies in the school environment

  • Early detection strategies in children with special educational needs.
  • Stimulating and personalized school environment for students with giftedness and ADHD.
  • Smaller numbers in classrooms.
  • Curricular adjustments adapted to their high capacities.
  • Teachers trained in caring for students with these characteristics so the child learns to trust in their own abilities.
  • Making use of various educational tools, such as new technologies.
  • Instruction in study skills, time management, problem-solving, and resistance to frustration.
  • Emotional management techniques.
  • Psychological assistance for the student to understand their personal reality.

Family strategies

Having the support, sensitivity, and understanding of the family is essential for the proper development of the child with ADHD and giftedness. In these cases, it’s critical that they understand the following:

  • Have high expectations of the child and that the child perceives this fact.
  • Promote well-structured life habits that help the child to integrate their routines and habits.
  • Validate the child’s interests, stimulate their motivation, and help them manage their emotions.
  • Stay in constant contact with the school.

In conclusion, people with this psychological reality can achieve great potential as long as their needs are understood. We need to be able to go beyond their appearance and nervous and inattentive behavior. Behind these, are minds and hearts with great needs and high capacities.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Baum, S. M., Olenchack, F. R. & Owen, S. V. (1998). Gifted students with Attention Deficits: Fact and/or Fiction? Or,Can We See the Forest for the Trees?. En Gifted Child Quarterly 42 (2), 96-104.
  • Bouchet, N. & Falk, R. F. (2001). The relationship among giftedness, gender and overexcitability. En Gifted Child Quarterly 45 (4), 260-267.
  • Brown, R. T. et Al (2001). Prevalence and Assessment of Attention-Deficit/Hiperactivity Disorder in Primary Care Settings. Journal of Pediatrics 107 (3), 43-53.
  • Cadenas, M., Hartman, C., Faraone, S. et al. Cognitive correlates of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents with high intellectual ability. J Neurodevelop Disord 12, 6 (2020).
  • Gomez, R., Stavropoulos, V., Vance, A. et al. Gifted Children with ADHD: How Are They Different from Non-gifted Children with ADHD?. Int J Ment Health Addiction (2019).

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.