Gifted Individuals with Learning Disabilities (Twice Exceptionality): A Psychodynamic Approach

A psychodynamic approach is an alternative method for the assessment and treatment of learning disabilities and gifted/learning disability syndromes when educational and neuropsychological methods fall short.
It is a comprehensive method that fills the gap left by these two, yet allows for an integrated interpretation of their findings.

  • Psychoeducational assessments identify specific areas of educational strength and weakness
  • Neuropsychological assessments identify and measure how certain cognitive processes and executive functions deviate from the statistical norm
  • Environmental and emotional factors are acknowledged to be important influences on cognitive and executive function but, because psychoeducational and neuropsychological assessments and recommendations operate from the assumption that learning disabilities and gifted learning disability syndromes originate in innate, inherent neuro-biological deficits, environmental and emotional factors are considered secondary.
  • Psychoeducational and neuropsychological assessments may often mention environmental and emotional factors in the “history” and” background” sections of their reports but rarely is an effort made to analyze if, why and how these factors impact cognitive function

A psychodynamic assessment considers the possibility that environmental and emotional factors may be primary causes of learning disabilities and gifted learning disability syndromes.

  • Taking a careful and complete developmental, personal, and family history as well as a history of giftedness ( when it was discovered and the parents, social and educational responses to it ) can identify important influences on cognitive processes and executive function.
  • Without this information, it is difficult to distinguish a true neuro-biologically based learning disability or gifted learning disability syndrome from disabilities that are emotionally based.
  • Environmental factors and giftedness themselves do not alter cognitive processes but emotional responses to them may.
  • When emotional responses to family circumstances, family dynamics, early school experiences, peer interactions and to the personal, social and educational experience of being gifted become too painful to be handled with normal conscious coping methods (reframing, positive thinking, getting information and advice), they can become unconscious emotional conflicts that remain unresolved.
  • Knowledge of how unconscious psychological mechanisms of defense operate, helps a clinician formulate how unresolved emotional conflicts become detached and displaced from the original sources and transformed into the cognitive and executive dysfunctions characteristic of learning disabilities and gifted learning disability syndromes.
  • This process of formulation is how a psychodynamic assessment can discover and assess the “deeper psychology” of learning disabilities.
  • The psychodynamic formulation can also explain the deeper psychological dynamics of gifted learning disability syndromes : In particular, why and how giftedness can mask a learning disability, a learning disability can mask giftedness and why and how the two can neutralize each other.

Psychoeducational and neuropsychological assessments of learning disabilities and gifted learning disability syndromes are based on controversial assumptions that are ultimately pessimistic.

  • Learning Disabilities are caused by intrinsic basic neurobiological defects or deficits in brain structure or brain organization.
  • These intrinsic defects are permanent and last a lifetime.
  • Quirky (intuitive) cognitive styles that allow gifted individuals to process information in immediate effortless ways are often misunderstood and identified as cognitive dysfunctions because they are difficult to use in standard classroom settings.
    • Once identified, this “extra-cognitive style” is assumed to come from the same neurologically damaged source as more familiar cognitive processing problems. Their management is assumed to require the same organizational methods used for standard problems in cognitive processing.
  • Cognitive and executive dysfunctions cannot be corrected but can only be improved using
    • Compensation techniques.
    • Personal strategies that advocate for special treatment.
  • The assessment of the gifted component is frequently limited to:
    • Curriculum enhancement and/or acceleration.
    • Management and organization of extra-cognitive ( intuitive) styles of thinking and learning so they can be used more productively in the classroom
  • Environmental and contextual factors are acknowledged to effect cognitive and executive function but are assumed to be only secondary factors.
  • Emotional factors are also assumed to be secondary factors: reactions to the limitations caused by cognitive dysfunctions and/or the problems of being gifted.

A Psychodynamic approach is based on assumptions that are optimistic

  • Quirky, intuitive, immediate and effortless ways of processing information are considered strengths not disabilities
  • Emotional factors – especially unresolved emotional conflicts about extra-cognitive ( intuitive) ways of processing information and other aspects of the experience of being gifted – are often primary causes of gifted learning disability syndromes.
  • These unresolved emotional conflicts are not caused by intrinsic neurobiological deficits
  • Once specific unresolved emotional conflicts are identified ,they can be formulated and removed as emotional blocks to normal, exceptional and extra-cognitive functioning
  • Psychodynamic Psychotherapy
    • The psychodynamic formulation helps focus psychodynamic psychotherapy so that specific emotional conflicts can be resolved.
    • Resolution of emotional conflicts can unblock cognitive and extra-cognitive processing of information and executive functioning.
    • Resolution of emotional conflicts can restore full gifted potential.
    • Compensation techniques, special treatment and avoidance of interesting intellectual challenges are no longer necessary.