What My Twice-Exceptional Client Taught Me

I totally missed it. In my enthusiastic desire to avoid at all costs the all-too-often misdiagnoses of gifted kids and adults, I did not see what was right in front of me. 

(photo courtesy of David Clode, Unsplash)

I had worked with Jenny off and on, every other week, for about two years. She came to me after a difficult first year in college away from home, returning to a university in her hometown. She openly shared her struggles with anxiety, depression, and relationships. Her need for structure and routines, and trouble with transitions. Her extroversion and difficulty with friendships. The early years of bullying; her love of learning and desire to achieve in school. 

I had written about her on my blog. This one on anxiety and perfectionism. And I quoted her in this one. I saw it all as the typical challenges gifted young people face. And it was.

Until it wasn’t. 

Jenny had a boyfriend, Glen, who lived with her. He had been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and, with him, it was easy to see the signs. He had severe executive functioning problems and anxiety. He was not doing well in school or keeping up with chores at home; he had strong opinions that could not be changed. Jenny would remind him about homework and his responsibilities, but he would often procrastinate or say he would get to it but not follow through. He was particularly socially awkward. Compared to Glen, Jenny appeared to be a regular gifted kid with the typical rainforest-y struggles. She was conscientious about her schoolwork, kept her house clean, and was quite personable. She was insightful, sensitive, and kind. Yes, Jenny talked nonstop in our sessions but so did many of my clients. 

But, in our session last week, Jenny told me she had recently realized she was an “aspie girl.” She said she had been masking her ASD traits like many girls do, and that she was exhausted. The isolation and stress of the pandemic had finally overwhelmed her so she had gone on a search for answers and had come up with her own ASD diagnosis. Jenny explained she had severe anxiety with transitions and a strong need for plans and routines. When she was living with her parents, they provided the structure she needed. On her own, it was extremely challenging. She identified this as the executive functioning issues that can come with ASD.  She said she was quite anxious in new situations until she knew the rules and that she had learned over the years to imitate others so she would look appropriate. She described sensory issues and some self-stimulation that helped calm her; also physical clumsiness and fine motor difficulties. She told me about “obsessions” she had as a young child with Wizard of Oz, Dr. Who, and Lord of the Rings

The tricky thing is, I know many regular gifted kids in love with Dr. Who and J.R.R. Tolkien. Many who are sensually sensitive to textures, smells, tastes, and sounds. Who suffer from anxiety and depression. Who deal with loneliness, bullying, and communication issues.

But this was different. And Jenny’s research confirmed it. She was an aspie girl. She was twice exceptional (2e). She disclosed that as a young child, she developed scripts or rules for interactions with others and would get very upset if they did not follow them. Which they usually didn’t. Jenny said she learned by observation and from her mother to let other people talk and to ask them questions, to talk less about her own interests, and to manage her emotions when plans suddenly changed. Jenny was educating me, and herself, about ASD. It became clear she needed to find a different practitioner. And, in true form, she already had. She had already met with a psychologist for an initial assessment. 

Jenny told me she had benefitted from our time together. I had shared techniques she continued to use to calm her anxiety and manage her depression. My descriptions of rainforest minds reassured her that some of her difficulties in school and with other kids were based in her fast, divergent, and deep thinking, her sensitivities, and her greater capacity for learning. Her rainforest mind.

But I was quite aware of the irony. Many clients over the years have told me their practitioners had misdiagnosed them because there are similarities between the gifted traits and ADHD, OCD, ASD, and even bipolar disorder. Or they told me stories of how their doctors were mystified by their symptoms and they had to diagnose themselves without the help of the so-called experts.

Ouch. Eek. It was humbling to experience being one of those practitioners.

And so, yes, you can be rainforest-minded and ASD or ADHD or anything else, really. You can be twice exceptional. Maybe even 3e? 4e?

And, thus, just when you thought having a rainforest mind was complicated enough, well, there are even more tangled vines, insects, and monkeys than you can imagine.

And to Jenny: Thank you for your patience with me and your determination to make sense of your world. And for helping me make more sense of mine.


To my bloggEEs: Have you been misdiagnosed? Do you identify with being twice-exceptional? Have you had experiences like Jenny? Let us know in the comments. Your thoughts, feelings, resources, and questions, add so much. Thank you, as always, for being here.

Resources for twice-exceptionality include: http://www.brightandquirky.com; http://www.withunderstandingcomescalm.com; http://www.summitcenter.us; These are mostly for parents of gifted 2e children but the information is still helpful for adults.

Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

42 responses to “What My Twice-Exceptional Client Taught Me”

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  1. The Curious Contradictions and Conundrums in the Lives of the Gifted – YOUR RAINFOREST MIND

    […] You are 2e or twice exceptional so you are gifted with additional complications such as autism, ADHD, or […]

  2. EV Williams Avatar
    EV Williams

    I feel like this post was written just for me. When I first read it – on my birthday (March 10) of last year, it started me on a quest to find out if I may also be an “aspie”.

    If it weren’t for this article, I’m not sure I would’ve stumbled across this world, the one that makes my entire life make sense.

    Just yesterday, almost a year after reading this article, I finally got an official diagnosis of ASD and ADHD. I agree with other commenters, that it’s not the label that counts, but for me, it’s such a relief to have an answer. This just helps my own self knowledge (and you know our rainforest minds need that self knowledge) and gives me tools to help me thrive.

    I will never be able to thank you enough!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, EV, I’m so glad you found this out and my article helped. There are times when a specific diagnosis matters very much. It means a lot to me that you told me. So thank YOU.

  3. Resources for Inspiration, Information, and Introspection for Your Curious, Compassionate, and Overwhelmed Mind and Heart | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] you want to learn more about twice exceptionality, contact Julie Skolnick (kids and adults) or Debbie Steinberg-Kuntz (kids) or Summit […]

  4. Are You Ready To Admit You Are Gifted? Yes? What, Then, Are The Benefits? | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] ~ You will realize that your random, divergent, nonlinear thinking style is not ADHD. Your visually sensitive desire for clean surfaces and color-coded sweaters and alphabetized books is not OCD. Your emotionally intense moods are not bipolar disorder. Your sensitivity to clothing textures, food tastes, loud sounds, and violent images, and your desire to tell everyone about your obsession with brain specimen coasters is not autism spectrum disorder. (OK. This is not to say that you can’t be gifted and any one of these other things, too. You certainly can be. That would make you twice-exceptional or 2e. And that is fine, too. But a topic for another post.) […]

  5. Alia Avatar

    Since you asked: My dyslexia was not diagnosed until late middle school, despite my having attended a School for the Gifted in grade school and extensive testing; I’m very good at taking standardized tests. I was back in normal school when someone finally noticed. The official answer to this discovery was to tell me I couldn’t be both Gifted and Learning Disabled simultaneously, “pick one,” i.e. pick a school program in which to participate. Not being an idiot, I chose the one that was potentially interesting over the one that held profound social stigma. I was never offered help with the dyslexia, but I continued to be berated for my “carelessness” in math and my “laziness” in spelling.

    While it is interesting that there’s a label now which contends, “yeah, you can be both,” this isn’t news to me. And, having sported multiple capitalized labels, you’ll forgive me if I’m doubtful as to the utility of yet another one.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      You are welcome to be doubtful, Alia. No forgiveness necessary!

  6. Sayn Avatar

    I’m not officially 2E if that’s only learning disabilities and developmental disorders. But I do have DID, which isn’t officially a developmental disorder, but definitely impacts the development of your entire being from the very start… I guess it makes me 20-something-E 😉

    As a child and young adult, nobody noticed I was more than “just regularly smart”. (Or that anything else might be wrong, but that’s another story) My whole life I tried to act normally anyways to hide everything inside me, and my giftedness just got lost with the rest of it.
    Last year, my (gifted) traumatherapist made me aware of the rainforestlike complexity beneath the DID-complexity. The fact that she recognised that, shows HER giftedness as well, and I’m happy to work with her!

    Untill recently, I’ve lived a small, unchallenging life due to exhaustion and overwhelm. I haven’t been able to study or work, so I feel quite underdeveloped. Now I’m figuring out what my brain is capable of when I give it the proper intellectual challenges, and how much energy I have to spare for that. It’s quite the puzzle.

    The dissociation can make me feel dumb, tired, empty, slow and very forgetful, which makes it weird to think I might have a fast, deep mind. But sometimes I catch glimpses of a lovely clear speediness and then I have to admit there’s something very alive in there! Also, different parts of me experience my brain capacity in different ways, which makes it hard to define my true abilities.

    I really miss books/information about giftedness and developmental/complex trauma, let alone DID. They influence each other in so many ways and I would like to gather knowledge about that, apart from what my therapist and I discover. If you know any documentation about this combination, would you please share it?
    I really appreciate what you have written about trauma already, it made me feel less alone in how hard this process can be.

    Thank you for your beautiful blog and books!

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I don’t know of anything written about the combination of giftedness and DID. (formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder…some readers may not know that) I have read that folks with DID are often highly intelligent and creative but I don’t have training in working with DID clients. I’m so glad you have a therapist who is gifted! Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!

      1. Sayn Avatar

        Well, it was a long shot!
        Maybe something on childhood trauma/CPTSD and giftedness? Information about that combination is also very rare, I think, but maybe you know of resources I don’t? For what I’m aware of, you are the only one writing about chainsaw families in relation to giftedness.

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          I think there may be some information about trauma and giftedness on the http://www.intergifted.com site. I think they also did a series of recordings on it, too. I’m not sure of the quality/depth of it but you might go to their site and see what you think.

          1. Sayn Avatar

            Thanks, I will look into it!

        2. Carina Avatar

          Oh, wow, I cannot help with resources but I know quite a bit about CPTSD from my personal experience. 🙁
          My childhood was extremely traumatic, and the pain and the fear was sometimes too unbearable. When I couldn’t face the emotions that physical and verbal abuse caused in me, I would retreat to my own fantasy world. I created lots of characters in my mind, and spent hours imagining their stories. Could that be considered a form of dissociation, Paula? I’m talking about a daily habit that could take up hours and make me lose interest in basically everything else. As if I was binge-watching Netflix but the series was playing in my head.

          I might have been a fantastic writer except at one point in my life, the “Shut up”s, “Your voice doesn’t matter”s, “You can’t”s became too much ingrained in me. As a 43-year-old, there are still lots of characters reclaiming a voice, this sort of addictive habit of retreating to fantasy land when the going gets tough still gets the best of me. But I can’t write. It’s extremely frustrating to have an overactive imagination but nothing to show for it. I definitely would need therapy but my mind is too complex, no one has been able to crack the code hahaha.

          1. Paula Prober Avatar
            Paula Prober

            Carina. We could say that it is a form of dissociation and also the coping strategy of a creative person. Don’t give up on the possibility of writing or of finding a good therapist. You are still young!!!

  7. Malandra Avatar

    Sometimes I wonder if many gifted people end up 2e anyway, if 2e also includes anxiety, OCD, depression, PTSD, not just developmental disorders and learning disabilities you’re born with(opinions divided on that, but if I remember correctly, I think you considered them so as well?). Some grow up with high expectations and heavy pressure, others are simply ignored and neglected.

    Being considered “special education” for the rest of my schooling, but also being able to do work geared towards older students in several subjects, is a quite isolating experience. I didn’t find peers in special education, and don’t think I’ll necessarily fit in with people who are just gifted and have had a “normal” life either.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      In the gifted education field, 2e refers to just learning disabilities and developmental disorders. Not PTSD, depression, or anxiety. But here and there I have heard people these days expand the definition and actually say 3e, 4e, etc. And I think some people include anxiety and OCD. So it may be changing. I think many schools still don’t have appropriate services for gifted kids who are 2e. Special ed is typically the wrong place, like you experienced, Malandra. There still doesn’t seem to be a priority on education here in the US so funding is inadequate for innovation, smaller classes, and attention to each child’s individual needs. Thank you for sharing, Malandra.

  8. Malandra Avatar

    Sometimes I wish “giftedness awareness” was a thing. Not that it should be spent as much time and money on as ADHD or ASD, of course, but just that more therapists were taught how clients can show suble signs that can be related to giftedness. Like many people, I also wish that more therapists were truly knowledgable about neglect, emotional abuse and how trauma might mirror other symptoms.

    Growing up hidden behind a label was lonely and painful, and it has both created new problems and increased existing ones. It’s such an unusual, almost taboo experience that’s hardly ever talked about. It’s hard enough to leave a therapist or therapy setting that’s not helpful as an adult, children might not have a choice at all.

    I really appreciate how you don’t jump to conclusions about a diagnosis, and how you are so open to letting your client move on, when you agree that she also has areas you’re not as familiar with. To me, that’s a sign of maturity and generosity.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I am hoping that my writing is making “gifted awareness” more of a thing. 🙂 And, yes, I do think practitioners need to know their limits and help clients find others who are more qualified when needed. Thank you, Malandra.

  9. Gail Post, Ph.D. Avatar
    Gail Post, Ph.D.

    Paula, This is a wonderful, revealing post about the dilemma therapists face, and how ASD, in particular, is often harder to identify in young women. Just like girls with ADHD are underdiagnosed. However, I am sorry she left treatment with you… it sounds like you were doing all the right things with her, and her decision to leave may be due to hopes that she could find out more about herself with someone else, rather than continuing to work on it with you. Sometimes a diagnosis is clarifying; other times, it can be a refuge and an “excuse” to some extent. You were not oblivious to her symptoms; you were still treating them, but just not labeling her. Not trying to be overly tough about this, but the subtle ASD traits this young woman experienced could still have been addressed in her work with you. Just my two cents about this.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, Gail, you are so sweet. I do think, though, that my client will benefit more from working with a specialist in ASD. It is really something that I have not studied so have limited knowledge. The work we did was helpful but she really needed someone who could be more specific with tools and techniques for executive functioning, time management, anxiety, routines, relationships, and more! But I appreciate your two cents!!

  10. Someti Avatar

    Well, I do not fit into this description of the 2e. But this makes me better appreciate other individuals and personalities, their difficulties, their complexities, their lives… to also see their beauty from a different perspective. Thank you Paula for sheding light into this too 😊

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thanks, Someti!

  11. Adrienne Avatar

    Thank you for posting this and recognizing the twice exceptional. The urge to keep away from misdiagnosing cost us years of struggle of this exact scenario. And for my child we finally have a proper diagnosis. I myself have all of the same challenges and had actual misdiagnosis however I truly think it is exactly this. Years of masking have me exhausted.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I’m glad you have found this useful, Adrienne. Hoping it brings you some relief.

  12. Malandra Avatar

    I feel like I’m in the opposite situation of many people. It feels like you often hear about how giftedness and talents might mask a childs disabilities or emotional struggles, perhaps so much that their struggles are not even discovered until adulthood.

    I received a diagnosis growing up, and it has only been a source of distress and trouble for me, not relief. The idea that I might possibly be somewhat gifted only came to me (and others around me) when I was nearing adult age, as those “symptoms” were more consistent in my life. Giftedness was not a topic that was ever spoken about when I was younger, even though looking back, I see that some of my school results were off the charts. (But I also feel vain or like an impostor when I consider myself gifted.)

    In both cases, I think that it might be a case of how “you’ll find what looking for”. If a teacher or therapist insist that a child who doesn’t completely fit in with others their age must be disabled or mentally ill, disability or mental illness will be what they see. If they are too focused on “hothousing”, they might not pick up cues that a child needs help in other areas.

    It’s so important to see both sides of the issue. A gifted child with a disability or health issue would still need stimulation, a child with disabilities and talents would still need accommodation.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Yes, Malandra, as usual, none of this is simple. I so appreciate people who are able to acknowledge the complexity within each of us so we don’t make quick assumptions that miss important pieces of the puzzle. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Autism Candles Avatar
    Autism Candles

    Reblogged this on Autism Candles.

  14. Dana Longpre Avatar
    Dana Longpre

    This is me. Thanks for posting! I wrote about my experience in my book, “In a Van Down by the River and other adventures of a born again aspie” After releasing it in 2012 a group from Salem Oregon saw it and asked me to speak on my experience as an adult aspie at their Asperger’s Support Group! Since I’m not clinically diagnosed this was very confirming to me! I was definitely among like minded individuals there, and enjoyed my time with them very much! They bought several batches of my books as a support resource for newly diagnosed people too.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Sounds like a fascinating book, Dana!

  15. cathytea Avatar

    Yes, I’m like Jenny. I was scheduled for a diagnostic meeting with a neuropsychologist, and then the pandemic came. I’m OK now with being self-diagnosed, especially since I retired from my full-time job. I’ve come to recognize how difficult the past decade has been, especially, due to the exhaustion of masking at work and the lack of support and continual change. It’s tough to let go of all that stress, and I still have a few anxious periods each day. I’ve seen two therapists in my life, and neither recognized my autistic traits, and as a result, most of their advice was to mask more or to completely remove the mask during times it was disadvantageous to so. Currently, one of my special interests is to watch videos by autistic individuals and read works by them. This helps me feel like I’m not alone.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      You are certainly not alone, cathytea! If you ever try therapy again, you can take a copy of this post with you! You could try the resources at the end of the post to see if they recommend people for adults. I think the Summit Center works with adults. Good to have you here!

  16. Ian Avatar

    I am almost certainly “2e” due to having congenital visual impairment as well as pretty much all of the standard “rainforest mind” traits. However, I was also given a somewhat questionable diagnosis of Asperger’s in my teens, and in adulthood others have sporadically tried to get me diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. One factor behind this is that my visual impairment results in not making the socially appropriate eye contact and sometimes missing visual cues, which mimics common autism symptoms, raising the issue that even if one is 2e, the second condition can be incorrectly diagnosed. Another common reason that others give for suggesting a diagnosis of autism is my maladjustment to certain masculine norms that other British men above a certain age overwhelmingly conform to, such as not looking after your friendships and relying on a partner for all human intimacy, but for various reasons that’s again a rather questionable argument.

    When I read this article, the one piece of evidence that stuck out for me was Jenny’s need for structure and routines, which is a very common ASD trait. I can understand why you overlooked it though, as when you’ve had a lot of experience with misdiagnosis it can be easy to push against it by erring too far in the other direction. I was sometimes guilty of this with autism until a few years ago, and can recall at least a couple of people who were autistic that I thought were towards the “rainforest mind” area of humanity. What’s helped me there has been researching into autism, partly out of curiosity and partly to help give me a clearer picture as to whether or not I have autism. But there are probably many other conditions (ADHD for instance) that I might still be inclined to mistake for HSP or having a rainforest mind.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you for these details, Ian. It is complicated for sure. Interesting to hear a British perspective.

      1. Ian Avatar

        I forgot to mention, I’m also well aware that having a rainforest mind and having autism or ADHD aren’t mutually exclusive. But a recurring issue of mine has been that at times others have not only tried to diagnose me with autism, but have tried to hold autism entirely responsible for a lot of my difficulties (rather than giving a dual/2e type diagnosis) which has been particularly unhelpful.

        I’d say that of the people that I’ve encountered that claim to have autism (often Asperger’s), a large majority were probably correctly diagnosed. However, I do recall encountering one man who claimed to have Asperger’s, on the basis that he has social difficulties in the UK, and said that he was surprised when he went on holiday to the expressive Mediterranean cultures, and his social interactions were considered unimpaired and even perfectly normal. This made me suspect that he probably has my problem, i.e. not fitting in well with the British masculine stiff upper lip reserve, rather than having a general impairment in social interactions, and promptly being misdiagnosed. On the other side of the coin, finding out that people have autism has sometimes been helpful, e.g. when I have felt threatened by someone’s cold, aloof appearance and wondering if I’ve done something wrong, and then when I have learnt that it is tied in with their autism, social interactions with the person have come a lot easier.

        1. Paula Prober Avatar
          Paula Prober

          These are important points, Ian. Very interesting to consider cultural differences. And the benefits of having an accurate diagnosis and understanding. Thank you!

          1. James Avatar

            I feel like I am an alien in this world and i even feel different from normal people and i want to learn chemistry ,physics,astronomy,high math,biology and language at the age of 16 . Why do I feel different.

            1. Paula Prober Avatar
              Paula Prober

              Could be you feel different, James, because you have a rainforest mind. You are interested in so many things that others your age are not. Keep reading this blog and see if the description fits. Then you can know that you are different but it’s in a good way!

  17. M. J. Cuthbertson Avatar
    M. J. Cuthbertson

    In the decades before I knew I was 2E I would tell people I was complicated. I didn’t really know what I meant by that and I know those I told didn’t understand. Reading about your recent experience today, it’s just delightful and gives me great insight as to why it took me until I was 55 to figure out I am 2E. From now on I’m going to say the parts of me that are visible are hidden and the parts of me that are hidden are visible. No one will know what that means either, but I like it better than saying complicated.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I thought of you M.J. when I was writing this. I remember you asked me to write about 2e issues. Right? Finally I have!

      1. M. J. Cuthbertson Avatar
        M. J. Cuthbertson

        Thank you!

  18. Carina Avatar

    I have considered I might be an aspie girl. I haven’t reached any conclusions yet, and frankly, my life is so hectic right now that I have very little time for soul-searching. But I can relate. I hardly understand myself at times. It would be great to find a therapist who could really get me. I haven’t had good experiences with that either. But there are things about myself I have understood through self-analysis much better than with anyone pointing them out.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      There are many articles and resources now online that describe aspie girls, Carina. So when you are ready to do more soul searching, the information is there. I believe that the therapists at Summit Center work with adults. They are in California. If you decide you have the ASD traits, they might be a place to start.