Navigating the Twice Exceptional Bind with NVLD, by Kristen

By June 9, 2022 NVLD Bloggers

At the beginning of my senior year in high school, I had a meeting with my AP English Language/Film Studies teacher. A brilliant lady, she was using her Ph.D to teach inner-city high school students. I was hoping her pedigrees from Tufts and University of Michigan would help slide me into a good college through a letter of recommendation. 

We had a great conversation, and I dropped a bomb. 

“Just so you know, I tend to struggle in class.” 

“Oh, don’t worry! You’re in high school, and I’ve seen you, you’re not bad.”

“No, I mean, I’m learning disabled.”

She laughed.

“I’ve loved your writing in the school newspaper and literary mag, and I’ve always given you A’s. You know I don’t just hand those grades out. How are you learning disabled?”

I don’t blame this teacher, not one bit, for being confused about my declaration. Dr. Y had only had me in classes that were heavy on verbal ability, and her doctorate was in French, not psychology. No wonder she was confused–I would have been too! 

I was a baffling student to have, when regarded overall. Need someone to write an essay within a day? Knock out a written analysis within the hour? Have a fresh classroom debate on a Lars Von Trier film on the duality of man’s hedonistic nature within modern society? Or why ‘Dancer in the Dark’ is the worst film ever made and needs to be tossed into that new black hole they discovered in space? 

I could do all of those with a flourish and a smile. I was clearly gifted…if, and only if, you had me in a class that relied on verbal or visual skills. 

You see, when it came to performing within nonverbal, theoretical subjects (of which Dr. Y never had me in), I floundered, furiously. As a child, I couldn’t explain why numbers seemed to leap around on the page in my math courses, and half the time, I felt like an Old Testament Prophet, pulling an answer out of thin air in order to just write something on my math sheets to satisfy the teachers. The theories behind the numbers just always seemed to elude me, and I always felt so very, very dumb in my remedial math courses, whereas I seemingly flourished in any class that required writing or application of routine memorization.  

(God help those poor, poor people who had to ever grade, review, or otherwise analyze one of my academic performances). 

It surely flummoxed, if not full out frustrated, a lot of my teachers throughout my academic career, and I remember a few of them actually screaming in my face when I did not understand something (Dr. Brown, I see you, fam).  

How I could memorize route subjects, but struggle to apply them in an abstract sense? How could I be calm and enjoy a lively conversation in class, then begin to ramble when clearly everyone was done with the subject at hand? How could I write an amazing essay, but then absolutely bomb my geometry quiz? 

But that’s the challenge of being ‘twice exceptional’ ( Those of us with high IQs and learning disabilities, balancing the two together in a strange bind. After all, everyone has a general idea of what learning disabled students behave, and how gifted students act, so what is that like when the two are combined?

Let me give you some examples, just from my own experiences: 

When you test into gifted programs and keep up with one subject, but struggle with others, irritating and angering the teachers, which, in turn, anger and irritate the principals and administration because clearly there was a mistake letting your stupid self into the program.  

When you’re in AP classes in English, History, and Geography in high school, but in the lowest classes in chemistry and math–your classmates are so confused as to why you’re not in all AP classes with them, and clearly, there’s something odd or lazy about you. 

When you read at an 8th grade level, but can barely keep up in 3rd grade math–or score a 35 in Reading on the ACT, but a 21 in Math, keeping you from the top universities that you know you’d flourish at. But that’s not what the admissions committee sees:  if you can’t score perfectly across the board, there’s no point in taking you and your flaws in, there’s someone better, go away, lazy idiot.

When you can write out elaborate stories for a college-level course as a fifteen year old, but struggle to maintain the complex back and forth banter with a social conversation with a peer. 

When you can pick out individual bass lines within a song and tones within a beat, but can not keep the volume of your voice at a comfortable pitch for others in an art gallery. 

Being twice exceptional is not fun. You feel like a constant, ugly, disappointment, because your brain just. Doesn’t. Work. 

I would also like to include the challenge of being a cisgendered woman in a Western society to make this experience even more frustrating and complicated. Girls are often expected to ‘stay within their lane’ and be at the same level as their peers in order to be socially acceptable. We are not encouraged to stand out, either as smarter or dumber, uglier or prettier, thinner or fatter, then our group of friends. This is where I struggled the most, and honestly, still do. 

I not only was considered ‘too dorky’ for most girls (see: insane verbal ability), but when I was amongst the ‘gifted’ kids, I still had issues being friends with them, as they could not comprehend why I didn’t grab theoretical concepts like they did, or why my eye-hand coordination was so terrible. 

As a ‘twice exceptional’ person, however, I quickly found camaraderie at my very competitive high school with other twice exceptional individuals including Dr. Y, who helped me get into a top writing program at an excellent university. Friends who spoke multiple languages who were also clearly autistic, brilliant writers with BPD, and mathematical geniuses who struggled with ADHD. This is a hallmark I still have to this day, and not only for social reasons. 

As I continued in my education, I soon found other ways to not only learn, but also flourish in subjects that had brought me to tears once upon a time. I got A’s (A’s!) in both data science and quantitative methodologies in my doctorate program–but unlike algebra, I literally could see where the math problems would be plugged in and analyzed. 

I’ve also never rested on my laurels. I always know that I am not the smartest in the room, especially when I’m at academic conferences. This has worked well in my favor, as it has made me unafraid to seek challenging situations, or to be more inclusive of individuals who are brilliant in multiple ways. It has also helped me better comprehend different methodologies in which to teach and write about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). 

It hasn’t been easy, but it has been useful. And I’d rather be useful then be perfect. 


Personal essay on navigating the twice exceptional bind.

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