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Disabled? Gifted? Both? How to Support Twice-Exceptional Kids in a Problematic Australian Education System

Parent or older sibling hugs child wearing backpack

Gifted 2E Support Australia is a volunteer-run association focused on supporting parents, families and those who work with twice-exceptional children, through the provision of educational consultancy, advocacy, support, networking systems, services, and products to ease the complexities of life with twice-exceptionality. So, what exactly does “twice exceptional” mean?

The term twice exceptional, 2E, or gifted learners with disability (GLD), refers to children of high intellectual ability who also have one or more disabilities or perhaps other problem such as social emotional. In IQ tests they typically score very highly in some sub-tests and poorly in others, and at school are often hard to identify due to the fact they tend to have uneven or inconsistent academic performance which is unexplained and unpredictable. The opposing characteristics of both giftedness and disability mask each other, leading to children slipping under the radar and performing well below potential. 

Amanda Drury, Managing Director of Gifted 2E Support Australia reveals:

“2E kids can spend their whole day at school focussing on masking a persona, and once in a safe environment like at home, will explode or fall apart. We see many 2E children not getting their learning needs met by the system due to lack of information. I don’t really blame the teachers as  they try their best, but they aren’t being educated about this at a university level. They barely even get taught about special needs. The system is failing these kids.” 

According to a study by Dr Michelle Ronksley-Pavia from the School of Education and Professional Studies and the Griffith Institute for Educational Research, more than 280,000 of all Australian students may be classed twice-exceptional. However, as she points out:

“These students are largely unrecognised in Australian schools and education policies. I really wonder if teachers realise the potential of these kids. They could be the next Einstein!”

As Ms Drury further explains:

“You will have one school in a suburb that is very supportive to gifted children with disabilities, and a complete lack of support in the school just one suburb across. Often parents can’t cross their school catchment zone to get the support their child needs. There are also too many students for one teacher, and I have heard many times that schools are not adequately differentiating the curriculum.”

One support forum member Bridgette Gable, has found both private and state education systems within Brisbane inadequate for their eleven-year-old son. Although a couple of staff members at the private school were understanding and extremely supportive of their son’s ASD and ADHD needs, as well as his incredible giftedness in mathematics, they had very little understanding, training or resource to support him. As Bridgette revealed: 

“There was no collaboration of how to best support our son and everything was so negative about him. This culture was also evident in the bullying my son received and the way parents spoke to and treated us.” 

Although Bridgette was initially happy with the state school their son next attended, as it was better resourced, and more proactive and positive, a behavioural program offered in conjunction with the state school ended. This pulled away necessary supports, leaving Bridgette now needing to distance educate her son.    

Sue Grant, mother of an eleven-year-old boy with ASD and ADHD who also attends a South East Queensland State school, is absolutely outraged by the inadequacies of the education system. Every year she has had to chase the school for an education adjustment program, and has even had to buy sensory equipment for her son to use at school. She states:

“My son has been manhandled by teachers, injured by other students, as well as been suspended, punished or sent home for taking breaks during class time or not completing work. Although he has learning difficulties, he is capable of completing his sister’s year nine maths homework. Despite this, his grades are constantly marked down due to his behaviour and his difficulties writing answers compared to verbalising them. None of the specialists can ever get the school to respond to their suggestions for learning alterations, and the Special Education Teachers and Deputies don’t even communicate! The inability to adapt a way to educate my child, and others, creates even more problems for my son.” 

According to The Department of Education Queensland’s policy on inclusive education, schools must adjust a child’s education to meet their specific ways of learning. 

Although Sue Grant has made complaints to the department of education, and although they have provided good advice about what to say or how to “handle” the school, nothing has lasted. She reveals:

“It is a widespread issue, and without a school willing to adapt or to communicate with parents or outside specialists, it seems nothing will change.”

We requested comment from the Minister for Education QLD, who forward our questions on to the Queensland Department of Education. We asked if they were aware of the huge difficulties that parents of twice exceptional children are facing in QLD state schools, regarding inadequate adjustments for twice exceptional children. They responded:

“Parents that are having difficulties with learning, programs and strategies to support their child should address the school directly with their concerns. The department also provides professional learning and a range of inclusive resources designed to provide targeted support for schools and teachers of gifted and talented students including those with disability.”

Emma Burk, a South East Queensland State School teacher with almost ten years of teaching experience, admits she has never heard of the term ‘twice exceptional’. She has however worked with a broad spectrum of children with disabilities, and feels that the workload of a teacher is so overwhelming that it’s almost impossible to meet the needs of such children adequately. As Ms Burk states: 

“I love my job but there is a lot of constant pressure, and we are often micro managed and left feeling inadequate. We’re pressured by principles and deputies to do things so many different ways, and keep changing the program like a new diet. Kids are taught seven or eight ways to get to one answer and given too much reason to get to that answer! We’re suffering having to cover so much curriculum, meet the diverse needs of all of the children, and report on a continual basis. And if a teacher is stressed it all goes to the children.” 

Data sourced from the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) indicates that up to 25% of beginning teachers may leave teaching within the first five years. This departure has been associated with an overload work and a lack of support from leadership. 

Ms Burk has seen some children present with a very high intellect and believes that they should be levelled to their ability so that they are challenged, take risks, and do their work, which prevents poor behaviour. However, she argues that:

“The state system is a nightmare! It doesn’t support the teachers, the parents or the child. If it’s too much for the school they simply won’t support you, so many parents have not been happy with the system. Every child has a right to education, and to learn and be safe. If a school promises something and doesn’t follow through on the delivery of a parents request then what are they doing to the children? As a parent, you scream and shout and that is very vile that your kid isn’t getting the help they need.”  

Although it seems that state schools appear to have serious issues meeting the needs of children with learning difficulties, parents of private school students are also be facing major challenges. 

Michelle Burns, mother of a five-year-old boy with ASD, has had a rough start to prep in a Queensland-based private Christian school. Her son Brian is an extremely talented artist, and even created his own comic book at age five. However, Ms Burns says:

“We have been gobsmacked with the lack of support. I was told by the teacher that my son is more “special school material” and will never graduate high school as it’s not an option for us. The experiences we have has so far have left us insulted, frustrated, and completely traumatised with the school and school environment.”

With NDIS funding not covering any educational supports whatsoever, and with inadequate access to suitable schools for many twice exceptional children, parents struggle to face the reality that they may either have to home school, fork out thousands of dollars for a specialised school and likely relocate, or watch their gifted child waste their potentially huge full potential.

There may be some light on the horizon for 2E children in some states however. The NSW Department of Education began operating the High Potential and Gifted Education policy (HPGE) in all NSW public schools from the 27 January 2021. This policy is explicitly inclusive of a whole range of reasonably under-represented students, including those with disability.

Pru Wirth, mother of Alex Cutcherwirth is happy to see her son’s needs finally being met in a NSW-based school. Although Alex is highly gifted, his talents were overlooked for years due to his learning difficulties. Pru argues that twice-exceptional students are not a problem but can do well if supported appropriately. She reveals:

“Although sometimes teachers can get really frustrated as they lack understanding about the particular learning needs of 2e kids, their allyship can really turn a kid’s confidence and behaviour around. It makes such a difference.” 

Ms Wirth also worries about the cultural change required to implement the new NSW policy effectively under-resourced schools. She explains:

“I wonder how the kids fare that are not as strong in advocating for themselves or with parent advocates, have never been identified or tested for giftedness, or have behavioural issues that have developed over many years. That really saddens me that they will continue to be overlooked, and the impact can be so great.” 

Melinda Gindy, President of the National Gifted Association (AAEGT) also believes it’s all about resourcing. She says:

“We regularly receive a number of enquiries from both parents and teachers of 2E children. Parents often worry about how the school is going to meet their child’s learning and wellbeing needs. Education for 2E children should be all about providing opportunities of choice. For instance, if a 2E child is ready to access the curriculum at levels beyond their aged peers, it is essential that barriers which exist due to disability are removed.”

Until the resourcing and cultural change required to effectively support 2E kids across Queensland and the rest of Australia takes effect, perhaps the best option for parents is to jump at the support offered by community organisations like Gifted 2E Support Australia. Their website offers a lot of free information, including articles, adverts for authentic organisations that help 2E children, and links to information web sites. With an aim to educate the community, access to the website and Facebook Group are free to anyone who wants information about 2E.

Click here to access the Gifted 2E Facebook Support Group. Click here to access further 2E information and support.

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Simone Francis

While studying a Certificate IV in Communications and Media in 2007, Simone Francis initiated her journalism career with an internship at the International Federation of Journalists. Since then, she has reported to capacity build for many organisations throughout the world. Simone also started a social enterprise in 2007 called Nomadic Hands and travelled throughout Latin America and Asia, bringing awareness via blogs and documentaries about issues such as oil exploitation in the Amazon rainforest and child sexual exploitation. With a Masters in Development Practice, and with a successful entry into a law degree this year, Simone plans to utilise her academic knowledge in conjunction with her reporting skills to continue supporting social and environmental causes globally.

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