I’ve known a lot of very smart people over the years. I’ve also known a lot of people with learning disabilities. These things go together more often than you might think.
There’s even a term for the combination of intellectual giftedness and a learning disability – twice exceptional or 2E. I’ve worked with, known, and even coached quite a number of people who fall into this category.
For some things, like Asperger’s syndrome or ADD/ADHD, this is expected, but there are also a lot of very gifted people living with learning disabilities you wouldn’t necessarily think about, like sensory integration disorders or the lingering effects of a concussion.
Maybe it’s a friend. Maybe it’s one of your children. Maybe it’s you.
Helping them has become a major interest of mine for a number of reasons, but mainly for the huge amount of underutilized potential such people often represent.
What Twice Exceptional Looks Like
There are quite a few different ways that twice exceptional can look.
Sometimes it’s more obvious – someone is clearly very smart but stumbles on something specific, such as organizational skills, paying attention in class, being able process certain stimuli, etc.
Other cases are a bit trickier and can just look like lack of motivation. “He’s so smart but just doesn’t apply himself” or “She’s great at anything she cares about but everything else slides” are common ways of describing this.
To be clear, this can just be laziness, but often it isn’t.
One profile I’ve seen a lot of is the student who does well up through high school but then starts having problems in college when work and prioritization become harder. This is often the case when someone is highly gifted with a minor undiagnosed learning disability.
Often they are talented enough to make up for the deficit so well that it remains undetected. However, past a certain level of difficulty, the disability rears its head (though often the victim doesn’t realize what it is) and performance plummets.
This is a big topic, and many books can and have been written on these things and how to deal with them.
However, for all the complexity of this topic, one thing jumps out at me.
The Working Memory Connection
Many learning disorders, especially those like ADD/ADHD and autism spectrum disorders, feature deficits in working memory.
A limited working memory doesn’t necessarily impose absolute limits on things like abstract reasoning or problem solving, but it can greatly impact efficiency.
It makes it harder to think on your feet, harder to do mental math, and makes you slower to finish tasks, even easy ones.
It’s hard to say for sure, but I believe that hidden working memory problems might also have something to do with freezing up on tests or in interviews.
A gifted person with working memory problems can be a bit like the stereotype of the absent minded professor – able to do impressive feats of higher intellect but tripping over relatively simple things.
What isn’t necessarily obvious, but very important, is that your working memory has a lot to do with your ability to focus.
The actual relationship between the two is somewhat complicated, but I’ve found it helpful to assume that better working memory results in better focus, so we’ll go with that even though it’s an oversimplification.
A Possible Answer
Given what we know, it seems plausible that anything that strengthens your working memory might help you cope with a learning disability and indeed, there is a fair bit scientific evidence pointing in that direction.
More specifically, a stronger working memory will improve your ability to achieve sustained focus on your work. This might not sound glamorous, but it is absolutely critical to realizing your potential.
The article above describes a type of mental training called Cogmed, though I personally use a technique called dual n-back. This has a controversial history but recent research backs it up.
The study documents how a regimen of dual n-back training results in significant gains in working memory after about a month.
Anecdotally, people I’ve coached (and myself) report feeling a difference in mental agility and the ability to focus after about two weeks of training, and the difference grows as training continues, at least up to a point.
If you routinely have problems focusing, or you tend to freeze when the pressure is on, you might consider doing some working memory training.
I am not a doctor or psychologist, and this is not medical advice. Further, not all learning disabilities involve the working memory, so this probably isn’t helpful for those.
This is a subject I’m actively investigating, so expect to hear a lot more about it in the days to come.