Can ADHD adults be twice exceptional (2E)?

Your giftedness doesn't just disappear on your 18th birthday.

woman holding a drawing of an eye on a piece of cardboard over her actual eye

Does any of this sound familiar?

  • Were you ever labeled as the “smart kid” in school?
  • As a child, did adults ever call you a “precocious child”?
  • As an adult, are you struggling to keep up with work, relationships, or personal growth, and feel like you’re under-performing in many areas in life?
  • Does the sentence, “you had so much potential” ring a bell?

If you said “yes” or “it’s not just me?” then you’re also likely familiar with “Gifted Kid Burnout Syndrome”. And while you may laugh at the painfully relatable memes about it, the truth is that twice exceptional adults deserve the chance to liberate themselves from the emotional burdens of that label.

Let’s dive in.

Twice exceptional (2e)

What is 2e?

The label “twice exceptional” or “2e” is often used to describe a child that is intellectually gifted while also experiencing the challenges that come along with neurodevelopmental conditions, such as Autism, learning disorders, and ADHD. In other words, 2e individuals are both neurodiverse and gifted.

What are gifted traits?

According to the Summit Center, a trusted resource for neuropsychological assessments and neuroeducational support, “gifted traits” for children can be sorted into the following categories:

Cognitive

  • Strong reasoning abilities
  • Curious and asks a lot of questions; may challenge authority
  • Creative and imaginative ideas; often thinks “outside the box”

Mathematics

  • Thinks logically at high levels
  • Relating math concepts to new situations

Reading 

  • Strong vocabulary
  • Quickly understands the “main idea”

Writing

  • Often comes up with new ideas or content
  • Elaborates and gives great detail

Who can be twice exceptional?

Generally, people with the following conditions are considered to be 2e if they display the above gifted traits:

However, Dr. Dan Peters — co-founder of Summit Center and author of Make Your Worrier A Warrior: a guide to conquering your child’s fears — explains that it’s impossible to measure some gifted abilities, such as being a natural leader or having an aptitude for performing arts. While these skills qualify someone as “gifted”, individuals possessing these gifts are often overlooked.

The balancing act of giftedness and neurodiversity

Dr. Peters also uses a bell curve analogy to describe the common experiences of twice exceptional individuals. Those who fall at the higher end will exhibit distinct strengths, the lower end with more pronounced impairments and challenges, and the middle as the neurotypical standard.

Bell graph titled "twice exceptional experiences". The far left shows low strengths and high neurodivergent challenges. the far right shows high strengths and low neurodivergent challenges, and the middle is labeled "neurotypical standard" and  has high strengths and high neurodivergent challenges.
Twice exceptional experiences chart LEGEND: the arrows represent the degree of intensity for individual strengths and challenges, with an upwards arrow indicating a high degree, and downwards indicating low. Likewise, the colors of the arrows represent whether the degree of strengths or challenges is favorable or unfavorable - green as favorable, red as unfavorable.

With 2e, one of the following situations usually occurs:

  1. The child’s strengths (gifted abilities) far outweigh their neurodiverse challenges, so whenever the child does struggle with something, they’re often invalidated.
  2. The child’s neurodiverse challenges are more obvious than their strengths, so their advanced abilities aren’t acknowledged and/or adults spend energy trying to “fix” the child.
  3. The strengths and challenges crash into each other, canceling each other out and making the child appear to be neurotypical.

But what happens when 2e extends to adulthood? Is that even a possibility — or does this idea only apply to children?

Gifted adults with ADHD

a woman lying on a bed covering her face with her arm

The “smart kid” label and other toxic narratives

The problem with being a 2e adult is that you’ve probably gone your entire life hearing a lot of harmful narratives regarding your abilities and your worth. For example, if you were labeled as the “smart kid,” you may equate your self-worth with your intellect — likely prompting an overwhelming pressure to do things perfectly. Or maybe you were told that you’re smart enough to overcome your challenges! (...as if the presence of your strengths just… erases your struggles..?)

And there it is - that toxic notion that gifted people have easier lives by default. People that might initially have good intentions will say harmful things that cause us to feel more ashamed than confident:

  • “Why can’t you just focus? You’re smarter than this.”
  • “Stop making excuses. This should be easy for you.”
  • “If you could just pay attention…”
  • “You’re not working towards your full potential.”

When you’re exposed to an environment that repeatedly nitpicks at your neurodivergent tendencies, it reinforces the idea that you need “fixing” — that you’re not living your life “correctly”. This kind of conditioning nurtures feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, anxiety, and depression. 

Struggling in a neurotypical society

We live in a society that values a person’s unique strengths… as long as they don’t require support for their struggles. In other words, gifted adults with ADHD (and/or autism, OCD, learning disabilities, etc.) are set up — from the very beginning — to struggle their way through a neurotypical society.

It’s essential to acknowledge the other side of the coin with 2e. We need to accommodate the challenges while also bolstering the strengths. Let’s change the conversation and work to build healthy support systems for twice exceptional adults to thrive — not just survive. 

Advice for 2e adults

What’s important here is to redefine the label of being twice exceptional and adopt a strength-based approach. Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D, secretary of the Maryland Superintendent’s Gifted & Talented Advisory Council, states, “self-esteem lies in the foundation for success,” which is why it’s critical to adopt practices that build you up. Here are just some of the ways to build solid support for 2e adults:

1. Free yourself from labels.

The labels that you believed defined your worth during childhood do not define you as an adult. You are not your neurodiverse challenges. You are not your intellect, either. By freeing yourself from labels that box you in, you can reclaim your agency, freeing you to set kinder, more realistic expectations for yourself.

2. Embrace both your abilities and disabilities.

More often than not, people choose to focus more heavily on someone’s inabilities, while disregarding their unique abilities. It’s important to acknowledge both. Work to understand your challenges on a deeper level, and adopt practices to help accommodate them. At the same time, play to your strengths — and don’t be afraid to shine the spotlight on them from time to time.

3. Seek out a community.

Whether you do so by reaching out to a trusted friend or an ADHD coach (or even an online community like ADHD Twitter), having a community to turn to that understands your perspective can help you feel validated and seen without judgment. 

4. Focus on your interests.

The best way to build yourself up is by pursuing your passions. Where do you naturally thrive? What topics or activities boost your mood? By focusing on what lights you up, you can avoid that dreaded ADHD burnout.

5. Practice self-compassion.

Self-compassion is probably one of the hardest (but most powerful) practices you can master. Whenever you feel like beating yourself up, or pointing out your flaws, learn to pause and separate yourself from the situation.

Final thoughts

The truth is, you don’t have to be “exceptional” all the time! Freeing yourself from the constraints of being twice exceptional, forgiving yourself when you stumble, and nurturing what lights you up — that’s what you can do to regain the balance between the struggles of ADHD and the gift of intellect. Like every other human being out there, you contain countless possibilities for personal growth. Alan Whitman puts it beautifully:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.

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