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Investigating ‘twice exceptionality’ in English secondary schools

Yunus Emre Demir, Doctoral Researcher at University of Plymouth

‘Twice-exceptionality’ describes high-functioning individuals who also have a disability or learning difficulty that demands additional support. Twice-exceptional (2E) students may display creativity or excel in one or more areas despite the ‘special’ educational needs or disabilities (such as moderate learning difficulties, ADHD, autism, and emotional-behavioural and physical disorders) that co-exist with their high potential (Reis et al., 2014). Additionally, savants displaying high performance in one area and having similar social problems to those experienced by other autistic individuals are mostly considered as 2E (Demir & Done, 2022). 

Conceptualising studies of twice-exceptionality commenced in the US in 1981, and the term twice-exceptionality is gaining recognition and importance globally. In the UK, these individuals are also described as ‘dual/multiple exceptional’ (Yates & Boddison, 2020). The fact that giftedness is a concept that is not measurable and has no fixed description indicates that twice-exceptionality is a research topic that needs to be addressed and developed. Most studies about twice-exceptionality are descriptive and conducted in the United States and Australia, while research in Turkey adopts the definition used in other European countries (such as Germany) and tends to focus on high-functioning students with ADHD or learning disability.  

Recognition of 2E students can be problematic since their gift may obscure their special need or disability, and vice versa. Additionally, teachers may find the term to be paradoxical and confusing (Schultz, 2012). Emotional and behavioural disorders can arise in these students when their talents and disabilities are unacknowledged and their special needs are unmet (Gelbar et al., 2015). All these issues refer to a description problem and misconception of twice-exceptionality, and research is needed to gain a better understanding of 2E and prevent such misconceptions. It could be argued that twice-exceptionality should be approached as a special educational need. Eliminating prejudices and identification problems around high-potential students would enable more qualified solutions to be developed. It has been found that once a student is diagnosed as 2E, a sense of belonging through participation in school activities can be enhanced by membership of social clubs and group activities (Renzulli et al., 2007). 

‘Recognition of twice-exceptional students can be problematic since their gift may obscure their special need or disability, and vice versa.’

Twice-exceptionality is an under-researched and contested area. In the UK, a lack of attention may be attributable to the disbanding of a Talented and Gifted programme in 2010 and to its omission from statutory guidance as a diagnostic category. This may explain the apparent reluctance of schools to participate in research on this topic. Research is in progress at the Plymouth Institute of Education that seeks to understand the experiences and perspectives of 2E students of secondary age, their teachers and parents. One of the project’s aims is to contribute to the development of a programme addressing 2E students’ needs and to provide ideas for different teaching methods.  

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