Is Your Child Gifted, Learning Disabled or Both?

Similarities Between the Gifted and ADHD

Girl (9-11) looking at model of Earth orbiting around sun.
Nicholas Prior/Taxi/Getty Images

Gifted students with disabilities remain a major group of underserved and understimulated youth. The focus on accommodations for their disabilities may preclude the recognition and development of their cognitive abilities.

In order for these children to reach their highest potential, schools and parents must recognize and nurture their intellectual strengths while appropriately accommodating for their disability.

Assessment of Dual Exceptionalities

Identification of giftedness in disabled students is problematic. Customary identification methods are inadequate without major modification. Standard lists of characteristics of gifted students may be inadequate for unmasking hidden potential in children who have disabilities. For example:

  • The hearing impaired cannot respond to oral directions and may also lack the vocabulary which reflects the complexity of their thoughts.
  • Speech impairments make it difficult to respond to oral tests.
  • The visually impaired may be unable to respond to certain performance measures, and although their vocabulary may be quite advanced, they may not understand the full meaning of the words they use (e.g., color words).
  • The learning disabled may use high-level vocabulary in speaking but are unable to express ideas in writing or vice versa.
  • The mobility impaired may have limited life experiences, which may produce artificially lower scores.

Is it Giftedness or ADHD?

Research indicates that in many cases, a child receives an ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) diagnosis when the real problem is the child is gifted and reacting to an inappropriate curriculum.

The key to distinguishing between the two is the pervasiveness of the "acting out" behaviors. If the acting out is specific to certain situations, the child's behavior is more likely related to giftedness; whereas, if the behavior is consistent across all situations, the child's behavior is more likely related to ADHD.

Gifted and ADHD Students Have Similar Characteristics

Here are some characteristics of both gifted students and those with ADHD. Remember that it's possible for a child to be BOTH gifted and have ADHD. The similarities include:

  • Poor attention and daydreaming when bored
  • Low tolerance for persistence on tasks that seem irrelevant
  • Begin many projects, see few to completion
  • Intensity may lead to power struggles with authorities
  • Difficulty restraining desire to talk; may be disruptive
  • Question rules, customs, and traditions
  • May appear careless
  • Highly sensitive to criticism
  • Frequent excessive talking
  • Does not exhibit problem behaviors in all situations

Differentiating Between Giftedness and ADHD

Since there are many crossover characteristics between giftedness and ADHD, answering the following questions can help you differentiate between the two.

  • Could the behaviors be responses to inappropriate placement, insufficient challenge, or lack of intellectual peers?
  • Is the child able to concentrate when interested in the activity?
  • Have any curricular modifications been made in an attempt to change inappropriate behaviors?
  • Has the child been interviewed? What are his/her feelings about the behaviors?
  • Does the child feel out of control? Do the parents perceive the child as being out of control?
  • Do the behaviors occur at certain times of the day, during certain activities, with certain teachers or in certain environments?

Gifted students with disabilities must be provided with appropriate challenges. The personal and societal costs of not developing their potential cannot be overstated.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  • Barkley, R.A. (1990). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: A handbook for diagnosis and treatment. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Baum, S.M., Owen, S.V., & Dixon, J. (1991). To be gifted & learning disabled.Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.
  • Cline, S., & Schwartz, D. (1999). Diverse populations of gifted children. NJ: Merrill.
  • Silverman, L.K. (1989). Invisible gifts, invisible handicaps. Roeper Review, 12(1), 37-42.
  • Thurlow, M.L., Elliott, J.L. & Ysseldyke, J.E. (1998). Testing students with disabilities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Webb, J.T. & Maker, C.J. (1993). ADHD and children who are gifted. ERIC EC Digest E522.
  • Whitmore, J.R., & Maker, C.J. (1985). Intellectual giftedness in disabled persons. Rockville, MD: Aspen.
  • Willard-Holt, C. (1994). Recognizing talent: Cross-case study of two high potential students with cerebral palsy.