School Improvement & Development Conference 2023: Book your early-bird place

Betsy Maytham

Company Secretary

  • Experienced Teacher and Trainer
  • Specialises in writing outstanding model texts and poetry, and designing resources to support Teachers in their classrooms

See more articles by Betsy Maytham
See all news and articles

The Challenges of Teaching Children with Dual Exceptionalities

First question: are you wondering what ‘dual exceptionalities’ actually means? If so, fear not! This is a fairly new term, which is used to describe children who are ‘exceptional’ for two reasons – both academically and in light of their special educational needs. We have all heard about the stereotypical ‘Rain Man’ autistic savant with a gift for mathematics – but that is a fairly extreme example. More commonly, dual exceptionalities manifest themselves as the children who struggle at school, sometimes in a specific area, but often across the curriculum, but then go on to achieve huge success in their field. Examples include Richard Branson (Virgin creator - dyslexic), Tim Burton (Hollywood director - autistic), Will Smith (Hollywood actor – ADHD) and, probably the most famous of all, Albert Einstein, whose teachers described him as ‘mentally slow’, because he couldn’t talk till he was 4, couldn’t read till he was 9, and failed his college entrance exams! These are not low ability pupils, by any stretch of the imagination, but somewhere along the line, one exceptionality has cancelled out the other, until they are dismissed as low ability, despite the absolute opposite being the case.

Times have changed. These days, one would hope, children with specific difficulties such as ADHD, dyslexia or autism stand a much better chance of being diagnosed and given the appropriate support. However, the dual exceptionality child is the one most likely to be missed and that is what we need to work on.

Imagine the scene: it’s September. A class of six-year-olds sits on the carpet for some teacher input. The teacher clearly and concisely explains the task, takes questions and dismisses the children back to their tables to complete it. One boy (he’s taller than most, despite only turning six four weeks ago) takes his seat. He sits at the extreme edge of his chair, with one leg tucked under him and nervously chews on the collar of his shirt. His right hand is clutching the table and his left fiddles with his pen. From under his blond fringe, he shoots worried glances at the children to each side of him. The teacher passes. He avoids eye-contact, desperate to conceal the fact that he has no idea what to do. Five minutes pass and the other children are onto the second part of the multi-stage task. Our friend is halfway through stage one, having gleaned – from snatches of conversation and stolen glimpses of his peers’ books – what he must do. Handwriting large and messy, he anxiously scrawls his answers as quickly as he can, trying to keep up with the others. The work is almost exclusively correct in every respect, but his nervousness and the speed at which he’s working has taken a toll – he has made some basic errors. Later, the teacher comes to mark his book. He’s done well; 80% of his work is accurate. The presentation is appalling and he hasn’t completed the task, but he has clearly understood the vast majority of the content. He is coming out on the high side of average. But this is not an average child. This is a child with dual exceptionalities. This is a child with a hidden disability. Perhaps he has ADD and hasn’t managed to force his exhausted brain (did I mention it’s Friday?) to focus enough to take in the instructions. Maybe he has Auditory Processing Disorder – his brain cannot process or remember audiological information accurately, so he has misheard and struggled to remember the teacher input at the beginning and has been playing catch up ever since. Possibly, he is on the autistic spectrum – he is clearly high functioning, but the distractions of other children fidgeting and breathing so close to his personal space have stressed him so much that he was unable to take in the teacher’s instructions.

Auditory Processing Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, Austistic Spectrum Disorder – these are some of the special educational needs that can so easily be missed, or dismissed as ‘daydreaming’, ‘lacking focus’, ‘forgetful’ and ‘messy’. So the bright, capable, APD, ASD or ADD child, because he or she is intelligent enough to compensate for his or her difficulties, to some extent, appears to be progressing. But that progress does not match their true abilities and is often associated with huge anxiety, as they struggle to conceal their difficulties (often for fear of being thought ‘stupid’, for fear of failure, for fear of the attention they both crave and recoil from); to shut out the sensory stimuli that surround them in the classroom and are always in danger of overwhelming them completely; and to ‘keep up’ with the other children.

The questions remain then, how do we a) identify and b) support these children? I do not intend to provide a comprehensive answer here – this is not a prescription, merely an observation. However, here are some pointers to help identify a child with dual exceptionalities in your classroom:


  • watch out for the child whose written work does not live up to their verbal ability;
  • consider how quickly a child begins a task – are they messing about? It could be a genuine issue with either understanding the task or being able to focus, having just undergone a transition – something that many high-functioning autistic children struggle with;
  • notice which children do not work well in groups. Are they lacking in social skills or is it that they can’t handle the sensory overload?
  • how is the child sitting in his/her chair? If they automatically go for the ‘w’ position (i.e. kneeling, rather than sitting), that can be an indicator of sensory issues or motor control problems;
  • look at your own perception of the children you teach – are there any about whom you keep saying to yourself ‘I wish he or she could just live up to their potential’ or ‘he or she really needs to focus more’. Could there be something more going on?


If this sounds familiar, there are things you can do to support these children. Dealing with and trying to remove their anxiety, as far as possible, can be the main key. Remember, these are intelligent children. It’s just a case of freeing up their brains to be able to work effectively. A child who is achieving average academic results is not always progressing as they could.

I could write forever about all the different things that you and/or the SENCo could put in place for these children, but a lot of the provision will necessarily be specific to the children you are dealing with. So let me just say this – there is help out there. The following links are just a few of those that provide information for parents and teachers of children with dual exceptionalities:


So do not despair. It’s a difficult task to help children with dual exceptionalities, not least because the additional attention we automatically want to provide can sometimes be quite stressful and overwhelming for them. But awareness of the issue is the first, really important step to understanding and achievement for these children. So well done! You’ve already started.