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Meeting the needs of kids with learning and thinking differences can be a lot. Add giftedness into the equation, and parenting takes on a whole additional dimension.

That’s what Lexi Walters Wright hears from co-host Amanda Morin on this episode about raising twice-exceptional (or “2E”) kids. Amanda swaps shared experiences with guests Penny Williams, a parenting trainer and coach, and Debbie Reber, author and creator of TiLT Parenting — all of whom are raising 2E sons.

They talk about finding the right school program for students who are gifted and struggling. They also rethink what intelligence really means and what they hope the future looks like for their 2E young adults.

Episode transcript

Amanda Morin: Hi. I'm Amanda Morin, a parent to kids with learning differences — and a writer for

Lexi Walters Wright: And I'm Lexi Walters Wright, community manager for

Amanda: And we are "In It."

Lexi: "In It" is a podcast from Understood for Parents. On this show, we offer support and practical advice for families whose kids are struggling with reading, math, focus and other learning and thinking differences.

Amanda: And today we're talking about supporting kids who have learning differences and who are gifted.

Penny Williams: That's something we've heard from teachers for a long time. You know, he's being told, "I don't understand why you can't do this. You're so smart."

Lexi: Penny Williams is a writer best known for her book, Boy Without Instructions.

Amanda: The boy she's referring to is her son, Luke, who is now a teenager.

Penny: So Luke is 16. No, he's not driving yet. We are not ready for that yet.

Amanda: Luke is intellectually gifted. He also has learning and thinking differences. And he and his parents have had to figure out how to deal with these gifts at home, at school and just in the world.

Lexi: Amanda, we're going to get to Luke and Penny's story in a minute. But first I want to ask you: There's a term that people often use when kids are both gifted and have a disability. It's "twice exceptional," or "2E" for short. And I'm guessing that those listeners who are hearing this term for the first time are thinking. "Well, what's the big deal? Isn't it just like, a kid has a learning disability and that's tricky — but hey, bonus, it's not so bad because he or she is gifted?"

Amanda: Wouldn't it be nice if it were that easy, right? So twice exceptional or 2E, I think the key there is the exceptionality. We're talking about exceptionalities that are rare in both ways. You have a kid who has a learning disability, which means they're struggling with some type of processing or learning difference or that kind of a thing.

And then you have a kid who's, like, sort of off-the-charts really smart in a way that separates them from the rest of the kids in their class also. And some of the concern with twice exceptionality that makes it really tough is oftentimes one "E" will mask the other. So a kid who's really strong in one area — gifted — the learning disability or the learning difference gets in the way and it makes them look average. Or sometimes you'll only see the giftedness because they can really do a good job of masking the disability.

Lexi: And this is a topic that you know a lot about, Amanda. So, not only as a parent advocate but also as a parent.

Amanda: Oh yeah, definitely. I have two twice-exceptional kids at home. I don't know what the math on that is. Exponentially? It's a challenge.

Lexi: Can you give us an example of how or when you know that you have 2E kids?

Amanda: In my house? I can give you an example in my house. It looks different in everybody's house. So, for example, yesterday — I live here in Maine. We had a snow day and my 9-year-old, who is one of my twice-exceptional children, I said to him, "Hey, it's a snow day!" And he says to me, "Great, I'll be sitting here reading this interview with the CEO of Mitsubishi in 'Motor Trends Magazine.'" Whereas I expected it to be, like, "Cool, I'm going to put on my pajamas and just hang out playing LEGOs."

Lexi: This is your son who also has other learning and thinking differences.

Amanda: Yeah, he also has ADHD and he has autism, and he's sort of all wrapped up in that. I have a teenager who is also twice exceptional, who thinks in these amazing ways. We can have deep conversations. And yet he can't seem to grasp the idea that if he left his hat in his room and it was the last place he saw his hat, his hat literally has to be in his room somewhere — it didn't walk off. That sounds like a lot of teenagers, but literally it's that idea that it is still there is hard for him to keep in mind.

Caller 1: I have three 2E kids and one of the stories when I was very aware my kid was struggling was with my son when he was about 3 years old. He had been reading, pretty much, words since he was 2. But I noticed that he was also having a really hard time keeping it together in nursery school. And I said to myself "he's either gifted and bored or he has ADHD" and it actually turned out he has both. Both are true.

Caller 2: In third grade I started getting calls from my son saying, "I think I've tried hard enough today, Mom. It's time for me to come home." People were always focusing on his deficits or challenges or misinterpreting his actions. Reading in class was actually a way for him to calm his nervous system and to pay attention. It was his brain's way of doodling.

Caller 3: The hardest thing to get people to understand about my 2E kid is that he is not lazy or unmotivated. And I actually have a story: When he was in ninth grade, he was finally able to get into their advanced class, which was a math class. And the teacher was so upset that he was able to get into her class that she went to the principal and told him that my son was too unorganized and immature for the class.

That was when the principal pulled out my son's file and showed the teacher my son's math scores. Not only that, but he told her that my son has the highest math scores in the entire K through 12 school. And that he does deserve to be in the class and he also let her know that she will teach my son.

Lexi: On today's episode, we're going to draw on your experience, Amanda, and we're also going hear from two moms whose paths have taken many twists and turns as they try to make sense of the learning strengths and challenges that their children have.

Amanda: First we're going to go back to Penny, mom to Luke.

Lexi: When Luke was little, Penny and her husband didn't know about "gifted," "learning disabled," "2E," any of these labels. All they knew was he was a sweet, smart, curious kid.

Amanda: Then he started school.

Penny: Kindergarten was a disaster. It was one of the worst years that we've had. He is an October birthday kid. So he was still 4, but we could all see that he was super, super intelligent. So, you know, not knowing anything, we went ahead and we started. And by the end of the second day, I was in a parent-teacher conference.

The morning of the second day she had already called me: "You need to stay after you pick him up, we have to talk." Like, oh, this is not great. And I thought, well, he's just not prepared. You know, he didn't go to preschool. He stayed with his grandma when I was working and so I thought, you know, they just really need to give him some time.

Lexi: The calls and notices kept coming. "He's not sitting still, he's wiggling too much during carpet time. He's flailing with scissors, endangering other kids."

Penny: You know so the onus was put on us, that we hadn't prepared him and we had more work to do for him to fit in this classroom. You know, no one ever said "hey there might be something else going on." You know, "This could be a learning disability. This could be a developmental disability. You know, you might want to go to your pediatrician."

Lexi: Penny and her husband figured it was the school that was the problem. So the next year, they switched. And the new school seemed like a much better fit.

Penny: He had the most amazing teacher in first grade and she had differentiated instruction. She was so kind and sweet and understanding and very flexible with kids' needs. And the same sort of notes were coming home: Luke can't stay on task, Luke is behind in reading, Luke doesn't have control of his body. You know, the notes were kinder, but they were still the same issues. And that's what ultimately led us to the pediatrician, to the developmental pediatrician and to the ADHD diagnosis.

Lexi: The team that did the evaluation recommended that Luke try medication for ADHD. Penny hated the idea. But she could see that they needed to do something for Luke.

Penny: He was really, really suffering. He was sad all the time. He was crying all the time. I mean he was really severely affected by the fact that he couldn't meet expectations and that people didn't understand him.

Lexi: So, Amanda. Can you relate to any of this story?

Amanda: I can relate to all of this story and it really hits home for me. Any time your child feels like they're not meeting the expectations is really hard. But when they can't meet them and people don't believe that to be true, it's so much worse.

And I don't know about you, Lexi, but I've never met a kid who wants to stand out from the crowd in a negative way, and it can happen with both giftedness and learning differences. And you know Penny and I, we have these quirky, amazing kids who think differently in so many ways, and it's so hard when that makes them stand apart when they just want to fit in.

Lexi: Well, Luke began taking medication for his ADHD, and that did help some. But Penny could see other things going on with Luke, and a few years later he was given an additional diagnosis of autism. That diagnosis was useful, in that it helped Penny understand why being in school could be so challenging for Luke.

Amanda: Part of what was difficult, and it's not just a problem for kids like Luke, was that his school didn't seem to know how to deal with a student who was lagging in some areas and leaping ahead and others.

Penny: You know we don't even have a program here for twice-exceptional kids in our school system at all. You have to choose one track or the other, gifted or special needs.

Lexi: So Amanda, I know that there are private schools specifically designed for twice-exceptional kids. Are there ways to meet the needs of 2E kids in public schools?

Amanda: There are definitely ways to meet those needs in public schools. Some school, and it's fairly rare, some schools have specific programs to meet the needs of 2E kids. And most of the time what should and can be happening is putting into place the same accommodations you would put into place in any general education classroom for a kid with a disability in advanced placement classes. Now we know, though, that this doesn't always happen.

Lexi: Why is that?

Amanda: I think schools just aren't prepared to see sometimes that it's possible to have accommodations and be excelling.

Caller 4: One of the most frustrating things about having a 2E kid is that people are constantly underestimating her. Even she gets very frustrated because she says things like, "People don't think I can do anything," but she can do lots of things. And people are all saying they're blown away when she's allowed to show people exactly what she's capable of.

Caller 5: People were thinking and saying, "If you can do this, why can't you do that?" Instead of saying, "Since you can do this, I bet we can find a way for you to be able to do that."

Caller 6: It just makes me so angry because I feel like he falls through the cracks on both sides. He falls through on the class isn't interesting enough for him because they don't think that he can be smart enough because he has an IEP. And class isn't supportive enough of him because they know that he is smart and so they don't provide the accommodations that he really does need. It's so frustrating. I often don't know what to do about it.

Lexi: So to get around the tracking issue that's common in schools, some parents of 2E kids decide to homeschool. At least that's what one mom found out when she shared with a teacher friend all the troubles her own son was having at school. The friend said, "Why not give homeschooling a try?"

Debbie Reber: And I was not having any of it because I was so relieved when he left the house every day because he was so intense, you know, and angry a lot of the time, and just a lot. I really like to be alone and I worked for myself and I had my little routines, you know.

Lexi: Debbie Reber hosts TiLT Parenting, a podcast and online community for parents of what she calls "differently wired" kids, which is also the name of her book.

Amanda: And Debbie is mom to Asher, who's 14.

Lexi: And what does Asher love to do?

Debbie: Right now, he's just back into his typography font phase and he's also a gamer guy. Like he loves, you know, Minecraft for making not just playing Minecraft but like making mods for Minecraft and light maps and, kind of, the inner workings.

Amanda: Asher's parents picked up pretty early on the fact that he was gifted. He started reading when he was 3. But there were other things about him that also caught their attention. Things that worried them.

Debbie: You know, he was just a very intense human. And so initially it came out as just a lot of inflexibility and rigidity and strong-willed. Very sensitive in terms of, you know, changes to his environment and schedule things.

Amanda: Once Asher started school, those behaviors got even more pronounced.

Debbie: You know, he's not a rule-follower. If he disagrees with an assignment, he's going to let you know that he thinks it's stupid or he's not interested or he doesn't see the value. And just constant pushback.

Lexi: Debbie finally decided to give homeschooling a try. At first, she had as hard a time with Asher as his teachers did.

Debbie: It was like a battle of wills, because I am a very organized person and I was like, OK, if we're doing this then I'm gonna rock it. You know, I'm going to have the best homeschool and I'm going to have curriculum and plans and schedules. And it was about four months of me trying to impose my vision on someone who was pushing back on everything, and it was horrible. It was really horrible.

Amanda: Eventually Debbie realized she was going to have to stop trying to do things her way and figure out what it would mean to do them Asher's way.

Debbie: I just started to completely lean into the way that he learns and to what he needed. And if, you know, and so I stopped him trying to enforce my vision or my approach for homeschool and instead tried to get him out of that fight-or-flight mode. And sometimes that meant if he was having a bad day, saying you know what this day is completely shot. Let's go to the movies. I just had to. you know. continually meet him where he was.

Lexi: Debbie's been homeschooling Asher for six years now and it seems to be working for him. Amanda, did you guys ever try homeschooling?

Amanda: No. Did we ever think about homeschooling? Yes. You know, I'm a teacher by trade. You know that. I am not a teacher of my own children. It would not have gone well in our house.

Lexi: I have a feeling many, many people hear that and shake their heads in agreement.

Amanda: Yes.

Lexi: Not all parents realize that homeschooling doesn't have to be an either-or proposition. You can do it for a few years and then pick back up with regular school. Or as is the case with Luke, you may find it works to do both.

Lexi: So Penny, it sounds like your son is now in 10th grade?

Penny: Yes.

Lexi: And what does a typical school day look like for him?

Penny: It's actually really different for him. When we hit freshman year last year, the environment was a big issue for him. The noise, the other kids not following directions, you know, just all of these things that he was perseverating on and getting really emotional and upset about and angry about.

And so he wasn't participating in school at that point. He was sitting there and feeling kind of assaulted, honestly. And it was a fairly new thing for us and we didn't know quite what to do with it. And after six months of that, you know, after the first semester, I asked if we could do some of his school at home. I didn't want to just pull him out and homeschool him, he didn't want to get pulled out. He liked being at school sometimes and being with his friends and stuff. But all day was a real problem.

And so he goes to school for two periods in the morning and then I pick him up around 11 a.m. And I do two online classes with him in the afternoons: Virtual public school online at home. And I have to sit with him and go through it with him or he will not, he will not do it. He will pretend to do it, but he doesn't really do it. And he would fail them. We learned that the hard way with the first class.

Lexi: As you both have kids who are twice exceptional, I'm wondering: Are there specific roles that you find yourself playing that maybe only other parents of twice-exceptional kids play?

Amanda: I think we do a lot more monitoring, right? Do you feel that way, Penny, that you're monitoring things and keeping track of…?

Penny: Yeah, I mean, I think I'm assisting a lot more than most parents. I am my son's frontal lobe for him even at his age because he doesn't have those skills. And so, you know, for us it's really hard for him to show what he knows and what he's learned. The output and the executive functioning, the management is super poor for him. And so he has all this crazy knowledge and he learns really well. And so I'm kind of that mediator that tries to help him keep it together and be able to show it in the ways that he's required.

Amanda: That's such a good word. That's the word I would use for our 16-year-old too, is that mediator role — where I find myself a lot of times being the translator, or I'm trying to explain to him things that he doesn't understand, social interactions and those kinds of things.

Penny: Or refereeing. Feels like a referee.

Amanda: Yeah, we need the whistle.

Lexi: There's no magic formula for all of this. But Penny feels pretty good about where they're at at this point.

Penny: You have to figure out what's going to work for your child and find people who are willing to think outside of the box, too, and go with it. And I have really battled with our school system. Our IEP meetings have been horrendous for many years. And I thought that I would get more resistance by asking for this part-time situation than I had gotten for anything else. And they actually were like, "Yes, let's do it."

At that point they really could see, at least a special ed teacher, who could really see how much duress he was under. You know he was texting me constantly: "Pick me up. Now, you have to pick me up. Come now." So a lot of input from him — they just really could see that he wasn't learning when he was there. If he was going to be there all day and he wasn't going to learn anything, he wasn't going to progress. He wasn't going to pass his classes. What was the point?

And there was no forcing him. You know we all know that we just couldn't force him out of these feelings, out of these sensory sensitivities and social struggles, and you know, all of these different things that were really kind of piling on into this.

Lexi: Hey Amanda, now's the time when we play feedback from our listeners about our recent episodes. But first, I hoped you would answer a question that several parents have written in about: Why have you sometimes on the show identified yourself as a "recovering teacher"?

Amanda: It's so funny, because it didn't occur to me that that sounded like I was saying I was trying to get over teaching. So I'm glad that people are asking. I don't like to say former because teaching is always a part of who I am and what I do. And I truly think, "once a teacher always a teacher."

Lexi: Got it. OK. So here's what we heard from all of you following Episode 3, The Legit Fear Behind, "Please Don't Call On Me to Read."

Caller 7: Hello my name is Kelly Hinkel, and I am a speech-language pathologist and a mom of four dyslexic children, ages 7, 7, 9 and 11. I'm definitely in it, and I am also dyslexic. I remember struggling in school, definitely counting how many people ahead of me before it was my turn to read.

I remember being in grad school and my neurology teacher at Vanderbilt telling me I'll never be a speech-language pathologist because of my language learning disability. And here I am, 20 years later, a successful speech-language pathologist.

But lo and behold, the apple does not fall far from the tree. And here I have four kids who are struggling in school. The most severe dyslexic is my oldest, who's failing math and reading. And it wasn't until earlier this year through a settlement that we're finally getting some appropriate intervention and trying to get that same for the other three. With early intervention, it's a lot more successful than waiting until fifth grade to provide appropriate intervention. So I'm happy to be part of the podcast and I really appreciate the information you're providing, and I look forward to hearing more.

Caller 8: Hi. My name is Sarah in Baltimore, Maryland. And I just appreciate so much your podcast that you're doing. I am a middle school teacher. I'm dyslexic myself. I have two dyslexic children and it's just poignant, it hits home and I just appreciate you getting the message out there. So just keep doing what you're doing. We appreciate it so much. Thank you.

Lexi: Thanks again for your feedback on that episode. Now on with the show.

Amanda: Lexi, one thing we haven't really gotten into yet but I think about a lot is how having 2E kids forces you to examine your assumptions about intelligence and what it means, and what success means, too.

Lexi: Will you say more about that?

Amanda: Well, for instance with my sons, I know that both of them are always going to be academically successful even if it means they're teaching themselves. But I don't always feel confident that they're going to be successful in the life that they want for themselves or the life that other people expect for them.

So I'm working on that more in our house. You know we work more on self-sufficiency and self-advocacy and how you learn to get along with other people even if you really don't want to get along with other people, which I think is a skill we all work on. And to me that's just another aspect of intelligence that I think a lot of us learn innately and that for my kids I need to teach them explicitly, because it's a skill they don't pick up on. And they really need to learn.

Lexi: Right. And in fact Penny had something to say about that too.

Penny: Yeah. You know we all kind of bob around in the world thinking that intelligence equates to a person's capability. So if my son has an IQ in the 130s, his capability must be you know off the charts as well. And I have figured out over time that that is not true. That's very not true, that there's so much more that goes into functioning, and that functioning plays a big part in in showing your intelligence. You know you can have the knowledge, and then you can show the knowledge.

And I think a lot of kids that are twice exceptional, they definitely have that capacity for a lot of knowledge, but they struggle in showing it. They struggle in and showing it in the ways that our schools and our society expect them to show it. You know, if my son could take his test in English or whatever it is verbally he would get an A every time. You know he has strengths — several of them — but those weaknesses just tend to be those things that look like that someone is not capable, but then you have this intelligence and you think "oh but they are capable."

Lexi: Debbie what do you want listeners to understand about your journey with Asher.

Debbie: Well that I'm still in it, I think. You know, I don't have all the answers. It's not like I have figured this out and now we're just humming along. Everything's great. You know I still am very much in the trenches and a work in progress and that can be a challenging place to be.

But I would say that I you know I wake up every day and I set that intention just like I encourage other people to do. Like who do I want to be as a parent today? How can I help this human today more fully develop into who is meant to be? How can I continue my own journey, and just kind of move through this as gracefully as I can? And I have I still have really bad days. I have dark days and I just get up and start over again the next day with a clean slate.

Amanda: That's a really hard thing for people who are maybe on the outside of it a little bit to understand that the giftedness doesn't make things easier. Right? It adds a layer of complexity.

Debbie: It sure it does. I feel a tremendous responsibility for this person. You know, his potential is so high and his, you know, challenges him executive functioning areas and things are equally high, and I feel a lot of pressure honestly to make sure that I do right by him. And I know every parent feels that. But I often just feel, I question myself, like: "Is this working? Am I doing right by him? Or, Is this what he needs and will this help him get to where he wants to be someday?"

Amanda: Penny, what would success for Luke look like to you? Success in life?

Penny: Success in life would be taking care of himself. Being able to pay the bills, being able to see the floor in his apartment, and, you know, have a few good friends and to be happy, you know, to have some joy in his life. I learned a long time ago to really throw out those norms that we all kind of grow up with expecting. And you know, the path can look much different for him, the outcome can look much different for him. What matters is that he's happy and he's successful in his own way.

Lexi: Well here's the question though: What does success look like to Luke?

Penny: Right exactly and that's what we've been trying to figure out. You know, over the years we've come to the conclusion that four-year college is probably not right for Luke. And so what does he do in the interim? And what we've been exploring is what is he interested in and what is he good at? He has really gotten into music in the last two years maybe. He started creating his own digital music on his iPad and he's really starting to get into that. And so now our conversation is, hey, we can find a certification program, we can find a two-year degree for sound engineering.

Amanda: He sounds like such a cool kid.

Penny: He just he's the sweetest kid. I mean the sweetest kid. That's, that's part of what's so challenging is in the school environment, teachers don't really see that unless they try to get to know him, unless they look past some of these other issues. But I mean, he has a heart of gold and he is super kind to others and he's very empathetic, you know, and I think that'll take him really far.

Lexi: Amanda, what do those of us who are new to 2E need to really understand? And what about this parenting experience can we have maybe a little more compassion for?

Amanda: I think that there are a couple of things that are really important for me as a parent of kids with 2E to have other people understand. And that's the fact that these kids really do need help in some areas. And you know, sometimes the problem is as soon as people hear your kid is gifted, they stop listening. And I just want people to understand that as a parent when I'm talking about my child's challenges and how that worries me, that's still real and that the giftedness doesn't erase those challenges.

I think one of the other things I would love people to understand is sometimes the thing that's most challenging is the giftedness. When my son is trying to have a really in-depth conversation about something he's read and the other kids aren't ready to have those really in-depth conversations yet, he's frustrated and he feels really alone. And that gifted isn't always as much of a gift as it sounds like.

Lexi: That makes total sense to me because it doesn't sound like he's in a space always where people can meet him where he's at, because clearly he is maybe a couple steps ahead.

Amanda: Yeah. Not as many as he thinks sometimes.

Amanda: You've been listening to in it a podcast from Understood for Parents. Our website is, where you can find all sorts of free resources for people raising kids with learning and thinking differences.

Lexi: We also want to hear what you think of our show. "In It" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to to share your thoughts and also to find resources. That's the letter "u" as in "Understood," dot o-r-g slash podcast.

Amanda: And if you like what you heard today, please tell somebody about it. Share it with the parents you know. Share it with somebody who might have a twice-exceptional kid. or just send a link to your child's teacher. You can also go to Apple Podcasts and rate us, which is a great way to let other people know about "In It."

Lexi: You can subscribe to "In It" on Apple podcasts. Follow us on Spotify, or keep up with us however you take your podcasts. Between episodes, you can find Understood on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube. Or visit our website. U, that's the letter "u," dot o r g.

Amanda: This is our last episode of the season, and we'd love to know what you thought about "In It." If you'd like to tell us more about "In It" and your experiences with it, please go take a really quick survey at That's U dot org slash podcast, and we promise it's just a quick survey to get your thoughts on "In It."

Lexi: "In It" is a production of Understood for Parents. Our show is produced by Blake Eskin of Noun and Verb Rodeo, Julie Subrin, and Julia Botero. Mike Errico wrote our theme music, and Laura Kusnyer is our director of editorial content.

Amanda: Thanks for listening, everyone, and thanks for always being in it with us.


  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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