ADHD & Giftedness

Instructor: Jocelyn Cherry

Jocelyn has taught Special Education for over two decades and has three post secondary degrees all in the field of Education.

In this lesson, we'll explore the common characteristics among ADHD and giftedness. You'll also look at some teaching strategies and suggested classroom accommodations for the twice exceptional student.

Twice Exceptional Students

The term 'twice exceptional' is used when referring to a student who is both gifted and has a disability, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Contrary to the common myth that ADHD is a trendy diagnosis for the lazy or unmotivated, it is a real disorder that can cause difficulty paying attention, impulsive behavior, and hyperactivity.

About 6.4 million children ages 4-17 (about 11 percent) have been diagnosed with ADHD, making it the most common childhood disorder. Giftedness, while rarer, is not uncommon: Between 6 and 10 percent of the U.S. student population is considered gifted and talented.

Students with special gifts or talents are students who excel in some way when compared to age-alike peers. The difficulty lies in that there is not a federal definition or standard criteria for giftedness. States and school districts have not reached a consensus as to how giftedness should be defined and diagnosed, resulting in variance across states and school districts.

Only a medical professional can diagnose ADHD, and the diagnosis is subjective--based on their professional opinion. Like giftedness, there is not an assessment or definitive measure for a diagnoses. Because the symptoms of ADHD and giftedness are similar, controversy surrounds children who may be mistakenly identified as ADHD when they are actually gifted. Regardless, there is a growing number of professionals recognizing and diagnosing children with both exceptionalities, resulting in increasing numbers for the twice exceptional.

Twice Exceptional Versus ADHD-Only

A twice exceptional child differs from a typical child with ADHD. A twice exceptional child may have:

  • Higher-than-normal asynchronous development. Asynchronous development refers to variations in development that lead to uneven skill levels. For example, an 8-year-old child may be reading on a 9th-grade level, but he cannot tie his shoes or cut with scissors on a straight line, which are age-appropriate skills.
  • Unable to focus on tasks for an extended period of time.
  • Will become less engaged at a quicker rate, even for topics of interest.
  • More difficulty with self-control and self-monitoring of behavior. If fully agitated, will require more time to cool down.
  • Problem behavior in all settings--home, school, social situations.
  • Higher-than-average hyperactivity level than children with ADHD.
  • Inconsistent student performance. May excel in one subject area one day and fail miserably the next day in the same subject area.
  • Will have a few topics/subjects they really enjoy and work hard in but will disregard and fail other subjects/topics without care.
  • May have a discrepancy between intellectual age and social/emotional age.


If a child has two or more disabilities, the main focus is generally not placed on the disability that's the most prevalent. The focus becomes the specific needs for both disabilities. It is important to provide these twice exceptional students with the supports and opportunities they need, such as high levels of challenge and problem-solving opportunities.

Encourage questioning during instruction, give the student opportunities to think outside the box, and introduce thought-provoking topics. Use a team approach, collaborating with experts for both the gifted student and special educators. Lastly, be a student advocate and motivating factor to ensure academic success.

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