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Twice Exceptional or Double Trouble? A Journey of Self Discovery
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Part 1: Chaos to Catalyst

A high IQ is considered a “gift,” while ADHD has “disorder” in its very name.  But over time, I’ve found the two share a lot of common ground.  As a child, I knew I was smart, and so did everyone around me.  What they didn’t understand was why I was such a poor student and caused so much trouble in school.  Today, I would be classified as Twice Exceptional, but in the 1960s there were only “good students” and “bad students.”  The term, Twice Exceptional, refers to intellectually-gifted children who have some form of disability.  It might be dyslexia, Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder or any of a number of disabilities.  In my case it was ADHD, undiagnosed at that time and for decades to follow.  The word, exceptional, in this usage, does not mean superior, but rather denotes “deviating widely from the norm.”  For a child, deviating from the norm in one way is hard enough.  Being an outlier in two different ways only compounds the challenge for the child, their parents and their teachers. 

Having a high IQ or ADHD can make it difficult for a child to fit in with his peers; having both made it almost impossible for me.  I thought differently than my classmates and found them difficult to comprehend.  My intellectual capabilities led me to think about things in unique ways most others couldn’t relate to; it was very isolating.  At the same time, the ADHD-delayed development of my prefrontal cortex also meant my social maturity, emotional development and judgment lagged significantly behind those of my classmates.  That was a tough combination growing up.  As does any child, I wanted to belong, but to do so usually meant hiding the real me.  Being myself often got me labeled as “weird.”  Fortunately, I learned there were two ways that term was used.  The most common was, “You’re different and I don’t understand you,” but every once in a while it meant “You’re different and I like that.”  So I was lucky in that I always had a few friends who valued me for who I was.

One trait widely appreciated in school was my sense of humor.  That isn’t surprising since humor is often a strength for both those who are gifted and those who have ADHD.  I enjoyed making the kids around me laugh, especially when class was getting boring.  I also remember the teachers didn’t share my enthusiasm.  Not surprisingly, my attempts to make things more interesting routinely landed me in trouble.  My sisters love to tell how often they’d walk past principal’s office on their way to gym or lunch and would see me sitting in there.  It ceased to be remarkable.  I was always daydreaming, reading ahead of the class, or clowning around with the kids near me.  In sixth-grade, I was such a distraction, the teacher put me in the corner behind a screen made from a cut open refrigerator box.  At first, it was a bonanza as the classroom’s encyclopedia was also in that corner, but that was quickly discovered and removed.  I resorted to poking holes in the box with my pencil so I could see what was happening in the class.  I remember a girl being given a roll of masking tape and assigned the task of covering the holes as I made them.  Looking back, this all seems very bizarre, but at the time, it was just life as I knew it.

I don’t know if the behavioral problems stemmed from my ADHD or my high IQ.  The two can appear very similar.  Behaviors associated with giftedness include poor attention, boredom, daydreaming, high activity levels, difficulty with rules and struggles with authority figures.  Children with a high IQ typically have many interests and bounce from one activity to the next as the novelty and challenge wear off each in turn.  These are also classic ADHD behaviors so it’s not surprising that many worry about misdiagnosis and missed diagnosis.  Twice Exceptional children are smart enough to get by in school on their wits alone.  That these children fail to flourish and reach their potential is easily overlooked when other kids are struggling just to learn in the classroom.  But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t regularly reminded of my great potential and how I was failing to live up to it.  The gulf between what was expected of me and what I was achieving was wide indeed.

For someone as smart as me to do so poorly in school could only be explained by others as willful misbehavior on my part.  And I fell short of more than just external expectations.  Gifted children are notoriously self-critical and I was no exception.  I loved learning but I was frustrated with a school system that was a horrible fit for me.  I was the proverbial square peg in a round hole and felt terribly guilty for the problems I caused my parents.  As I continued through school, I gradually began to achieve the grades expected of me.  It may have been due to my brain development catching up with my mind.  I was able to focus better and make a game of getting good grades.  I enjoyed finally meeting people’s expectations and learned that you got along with a lot fewer problems if you did not to rock the boat.  Following my own instincts had consistently landed me in trouble, so I stopped trusting them.  For the next twenty years, I largely buried my true nature and made decisions based on what I thought I should do.  Not surprisingly, that resulted in many stops and starts as I bounced from one project to the next as I found each a bad fit in turn.

When I was finally diagnosed with ADHD fifteen years ago, my life began to make a lot more sense.  I could see the traces of ADHD all over my struggles.  Many people feel there’s a stigma to being labelled ADHD, but for me it was a great relief to have something to replace the labels of underachiever, quitter and loser.  The ADHD label was the first I could wear proudly. I’d never embraced the “smart” label for fear of sounding as if I felt superior or like a braggart.  I often came across differently than I intended so I resisted expressing myself freely.  In any case, I often felt the “smart” label was undeserved.  People with high IQ’s were well read and great chess players.  Attention problems made it difficult to read anything that wasn’t riveting, and even the most interesting material demanded many re-readings.  And I was a terrible chess player since I couldn’t track very many moves ahead and frequently lost valuable pieces due to my impulsivity.

My initial reaction to ADHD was largely cerebral.  I read a lot of books and spent time in both group and individual therapy with Sari Solden.  These activities helped me begin to reframe who I was in light of my ADHD.  I had a lot of history to reprocess and my progress was slow.  But that wasn’t the case for long.  In 1999, I attended my first ADDA Conference.  It was in Chicago, and I didn’t know anyone there other than Sari.  That certainly wasn’t true for long.  Waiting in line to register, I met someone and we immediately connected and, like a snowball rolling downhill, we quickly connected with yet more people.  By the second day, we had formed a group of a dozen or more people who were all amazing, smart, fun and open!  I had never experienced anything like this meeting of minds and hearts.  We all felt safe letting our guard down and reveled in being our true ADHD selves.  We were still a bunch of square pegs, but here all the holes were square as well.  It was an amazing revelation for me to find my “tribe.”  We went downtown together Saturday night and I’d never had more fun with any group of people — let alone people I had just met.  I discovered the ADHD connection is an extremely powerful one.  As most people report of an ADDA Conference, “I learned a lot in the sessions, but it’s connecting with my ‘tribe’ that I remember most.”

The following year, I attended the ADDA Conference in Atlanta.  My understanding of ADHD was advancing but it was still “in my head.”  The traditional description of ADHD as a problem of distractibility, hyperactivity and impulsivity didn’t resonate with me.  These vague concepts didn’t seem to explain why I was the way I was.  My view — and my life — changed when I chose to go to a session about Executive Functions, a model I’d never seen before.  As I saw the model explained, I was increasingly astonished at how well it described my childhood challenges.  I remember leaving the presentation in a bit of a haze as I struggled to process everything I’d just heard. 

Outside, I sat by myself on the lawn, overcome with emotion, as I truly realized in my heart, for the first time… it wasn’t my fault I am the way I am.  The younger me had been doing the best he could, facing challenges no one else could see.  Despite my tears, that’s when I realized I was then, and still am, an amazing square peg.  My entire life, I’d thought of myself as a smart person; specifically, a smart person who had accomplished little with his gifts, a smart person who’d been a disappointment, to others and to himself.  That Conference was the catalyst for me reframing my identity; that’s when I transformed.  I was no longer a smart person handicapped by ADHD.  I was a whole person, defined by my ADHD, and with intelligence as just one of my many strengths.

Douglas Harris is an ADHD Coach in Saline, Michigan. He works with intellectually gifted people struggling with ADHD. With coaching, clients discover how to tap into the full potential of their extraordinary minds and put in place the ADHD-friendly strategies to make those dreams a reality. Reach him at douglas@add.org.



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