Gifted & LD: Misdiagnosed and Misunderstood

By Susan Baum, Ph.D.

Education professor Susan Baum, Ph.D. is a leading authority on children who are both gifted and learning disabled. Here she discusses the unique challenges facing this often misunderstood, misdiagnosed group of students.

 Many people assume that learning disabilities and giftedness are at opposite ends of a continuum. In some states, a student may be identified with either LD or giftedness, but not both. In fact, we know that LD and giftedness can—and often do—exist simultaneously. You’ve probably come across people who exhibit remarkable talents or strengths in some areas and disabling weaknesses in others. This is the 8-year-old bug expert who can name and classify a hundred species of insects, yet he can’t read; or the obviously bright student who is struggling to stay on grade level.

Missed Diagnosis

Often, bright children who are having difficulty maintaining their grades are neither identified nor offered services because they are not failing or performing below grade level. Likewise, children who have been diagnosed with LD are passed over for gifted programs. Their overall IQ test scores, depressed by their learning disability, prevent them from being identified and receiving services they deserve as gifted or talented.

Different Shapes and Sizes

 Students that are gifted and LD can be grouped into three categories, each resulting in unique challenges:

  1. Identified gifted students who have subtle learning disabilities. While increased effort may be expected of them due to their obvious intellect, they often do not know how to do what’s being asked of them due to their LD.
  2. Unidentified students whose gifts and disabilities are masked by average achievement. These students are struggling to stay at grade level. Their superior intellectual ability is working overtime to compensate for undiagnosed learning difficulties.
  3. Identified LD who also are gifted. These students are most at risk because of the implicit message that often accompanies an LD diagnosis: something is wrong that must be fixed before anything else can happen. As a result, their talents are put on hold, when in fact, nurturing their gifts is the key to helping them deal with their learning challenges.

In the final analysis, students must learn to be their own advocates . But parents and teachers can help by following these general guidelines:

  • Focus attention on developing your child’s gifts
  • Provide a nurturing environment that values individual differences
  • Encourage compensation strategies
  • Encourage awareness of individual strengths