Giftedness and Learning Disabilities: Frustration, Creativity, and Coping Strategies

by Dona Matthews

giftedness and learning disabilitiesQuestion:  My 12 year old son, Justin, has had trouble reading, writing, spelling, and doing math on paper, since he was 5 years old. He’s terribly frustrated and unhappy at school, and has been bullied since second grade. The only modifications at school have been a laptop, and putting him a class for kids with learning disabilities and behaviour problems, which is only making things worse. Recently, Justin was assessed and found to be gifted (99.6th percentile for Verbal Comprehension) as well as having learning disabilities (<1st percentile in Processing Speed). I’m so worried. What can I do to make sure he doesn’t fall through the cracks?


That combination of giftedness and learning disabilities is an enormously frustrating challenge, both for a parent, and for the child who experiences it. Justin fits the classic Gifted/LD profile, with exceptionally advanced abilities in some areas (verbal reasoning), and exceptionally severe challenges in other areas (processing speed). Sadly, your school board is not unusual in being slow in addressing this combination of giftedness and learning disabilities,

Justin definitely needs your advocacy work and support if he’s going to get the kind of adaptations he needs, and you’re right to want this to happen sooner rather than later.

Here are my recommendations for you in your work to support Justin feeling happier, and supporting his school in helping him be more successful and fulfilled, as a student experiencing giftedness and learning disabilities:

  1. Put the emphasis on Justin’s strengths. Your advocacy objective should be to help Justin’s teachers provide opportunities to develop his exceptional verbal reasoning abilities, as well as support for his areas of challenge. The priority emphasis at this point in time (given his frustration and unhappiness) should be on his strengths, and not on his weaknesses. He’ll work on the areas of weakness once he’s feeling confident and motivated to develop his strengths, and it will only demoralize him further if he has to spend too much time working on his areas of challenge. If there is no provision for kids with the twice exceptional (giftedness and learning disabilities) profile, I’d request is that he be moved into a class for regular learners, rather than a class for kids with learning problems.
  2. Look for technological aids. Justin’s been given a laptop for his written school work, which is great. Does he know how to use it to maximum effect? Is there someone who can help him with other technological aids? Having such very slow processing speed is excruciatingly painful for someone whose reasoning abilities are working so quickly.
  3. Find activities he can shine in. He might enjoy participating in a debating club, or a toastmasters group, or other activities which emphasize his verbal strengths without having a big emphasis on writing. This kind of activity will also give him a natural forum and motivation for socializing, and learning about getting along in the social domain.
  4. Support Justin’s imagination, creativity, and higher-order thinking skills. Kids with giftedness and learning disabilities are often highly creative. Make sure Justin has opportunities to explore and develop his creativity, both at home and at school. Look for ways he can use and develop his higher order thinking skills—application, analysis, and synthesis of ideas.
  5. Find activities he enjoys. Justin is much likelier to develop his areas of challenge if he’s motivated to learn more. If he enjoys movies, for example, get him books and other materials on movies and film-making, and give him opportunities to develop these areas further. Look for ways he can participate in pleasurable activities with others that focus on these areas of interest.
  6. Look for mentors. If Justin has areas of interest he wants to learn more about, look for someone who can guide him the learning process, and support his interest.
  7. Ensure that instruction is broken down into simple steps. Large tasks should be broken down into smaller, more manageable ones.
  8. Ask the school for adaptations to assessments. Request that Justin be allowed to do at least some of his school assignments in oral format rather than written. Perhaps he could be allowed to give a speech to the class or do an oral exam for at least some of his school assignments.
  9. Help Justin develop good coping skills. He needs to develop self-awareness and good strategies for handling stress. You’ll see more about that in the resources listed below.
  10. Monitor Justin’s progress closely and give frequent feedback. Look for how he’s succeeding, and make sure he doesn’t get too far off track before being redirected.
  11. Encourage him to value his uniqueness. Tell Justin that many of the world’s most successful and creative people—Albert Einstein, Robin Williams, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, to name just a few—have had ability profiles similar to his.
  12. Seek further help. If these approaches don’t work for Justin’s giftedness and learning disabilities, and if you continue to be concerned, you should probably seek further help. You can start with his school—have you spoken to the principal about your concerns? Another place to look for support is the Association for Bright Children: