How Gifted Students can be Learning Disabled

William, Sanjay, and, Jonathon are students with something in common. They’re (or were) honor students with Individual Education Plans (IEP) – a contract commonly used for students who qualify for special education services.

William has difficulties with reading comprehension as well as emotional disorders.  Sanjay was diagnosed with dysgraphia (handwriting disorder), and Jonathon has autism.  Despite their conditions, they’ve also taken honor courses at one point in their educational careers and were labeled as gifted.

Gifted students and special education students are not often used in the same context. The two designations are often seen as antithesis of each other.  However, research into educational psychology and learning disabilities have proven learning disorders don’t negate a person’s intellectual abilities.  It’s proving that the definition of intelligence is not as clear as it once seemed to have been.

Also, with recent advances in understanding, diagnosing, and treating learning disabilities, educators and specialists are discovering that these conditions can affect nearly anyone. This includes students with high IQ scores. 

Questions about IQ exams

Students labeled as gifted will show proficiency in a certain academic areas.  Often, gifted students are identified through one or several forms of assessments that measure their IQ. 

IQ exams have been a controversial assessment tool since its inception more than 100 years ago.  It was once believed a single test could accurately measure one’s intelligence and identify the true “geniuses” in society. The tests were also used to identify those who may have low cognitive skills.

While IQ scores may have measured what students knew at the time of the exam, they were never permanently fixed for their lifetime.  Numerous studies into the exam revealed that the scores could change over time.  Another problem with IQ scores was that they once  reflected the social norm of one cultural group as opposed to the rest that may exist in a society (some may argue they still do).  As a result, many ethnic and religious groups – in particular African-Americans and immigrants – were unfairly labeled as having low intelligence.

IQ exams improved over the years; however, many of them followed the same format of only testing in two areas: math and language skills. Creative, musical, or tactile skills were often done separately or not recognized as forms of intelligence.

New Ways of Thinking about Intelligence

The discrepancies and flaws found in IQ exams have led many researchers to look beyond traditional testing tools. It has also forced many psychologists, educators, and specialists to redefine the concept of intelligence.

Theories – such as those pertaining to the concept of multiple intelligence – have pushed forward ideas that there are more than one way to measure intelligence. It also gives rise to the notion that intelligence within a person can exist, even with the presence of a learning disorder.

To date several “intelligences” have been identified (although it should be pointed out that research on this is ongoing and inconclusive).  It suggests that some people are more competent or smarter in one area of discipline than the other. It may explain why someone like Jonathon, a student diagnosed with conditions within the autism spectrum disorder, can be extremely capable in math, yet has trouble understanding figurative language in a written text.

Better Understanding of the Disorders

Jonathon’s condition is another example of the current understandings of certain disabilities. Each one affects students in very different ways. Jonathon can be labeled high functioning Autistic, considering that it only affects in one academic area. Other students with a higher functioning form of autism, Asperger’s syndrome, may only affect their social skills, or  may not be immediately noticeable by teachers or peers.

In fact, those with Asperger’s syndrome have gone on to become very productive members in society. And, in many cases, they’ve earned PhDs or professional degrees.

In some cases, the disorder may have little do with one’s intellect. Sanjay’s disability, dysgraphia affected the way he wrote. If one were to look at his writing, one would make the judgment that he had low academic skills.  In truth, if one were to ask him to answer oral questions on a topic, one would be surprised at the correct answer he’d give.  While his writing was sloppy and unreadable, his ability to answer complex questions clear and concise.

New Technologies Level the Playing Field

Despite his disability, Sanjay started to excel in school when he was given a Smart board or allowed to use the computer in the classroom. His was more productive, and his intellectual abilities began to shine. He rarely, if ever handwrites an assignment. Still, he must attend therapy after school to improve his motor skills in writing.

Technology has helped students with learning disabilities go beyond the special education classroom and enter the general education on a full-time basis.  It has helped them, in some cases, reach the designation of being a gifted students.

Still, it doesn’t prevent them from being exiting from special education, all together. The Smart board – usually portable keyboard which can save the typed notes created on it – is an accommodation service provided by the special education program in a school or districts. These accommodations are either technological devices or teaching practices and techniques that allow the student with learning disability to acquire and learn the same curriculum as their non-disabled peers.  If utilized correctly, these students can excel in almost any classroom, including an honors course.

This leads to another question often asked, if a gifted students can have learning disabilities and excel in accelerated or honor courses, then what is the use of having them labeled as students with special needs?

William’s case is fine example as why these two designations for a student can exist, and why some still need special education services.  According to his IQ scores, William was considered a near-genius. He was a likely choice to be placed in a gifted class, and was during his freshmen year.

However, his slightly-lower-than average reading level was affecting his ability to perform in the English class. Accommodations were given, but this didn’t necessarily help. He was still failing most of his class and was eventually dropped from his school’s GATE program.

Another program began to surface. Another disorder was becoming a major factor: emotional disorders. Suffering depression and undisclosed incidents in his personal life, William failed most of his classes. It wasn’t until his status was changed from SLD (specific learning disorder) to  ED and moved to classroom for students with this designation did he start to improve. Also, he began receiving other accommodations and services – such as DIS counseling and reading intervention courses. Although he had a lot of units to make up by his senior year, he was able to complete his requirements by the end of the summer of the year he was supposed to graduate.

In his case, being designated as a student with special needs helped him change his academic course. It also helped him to eventually regain his status as a gifted student.