Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Too Tired! Energy and Wellness in 2e Children Published in 2E Newlsetter November 2009

Too Tired! Energy and Wellness in 2e Children

By Marlo Payne Thurman

November, 2009

Marlo Payne Thurman (formerly Marlo Rice) has developed a theory based on her 20 years of working with twice-exceptional children as a psychologist and educator. In a two-part article she discusses the unique relationships among intelligence, sensory stimulation, and energy; and she looks at the impact of these factors on learning, social and emotional function, and the mental and physical health of our gifted and twice-exceptional (2e) populations.


When I began my work with gifted children, the field of education had not yet adopted the term “twice-exceptional.” Characteristics associated with high intelligence were barely discussed in courses, and not a single text-book covered giftedness. That a child could be both gifted and learning disabled was something we did not consider. Little did I know then that the next 20 years of my life would be dedicated to understanding gifted, asynchronous children.

Looking back on those years, we certainly lacked a good understanding of giftedness; but what I think we lacked even more was a basic understanding of how individuals process sensory information, based on their level of intelligence. Even today, we are only beginning to understand sensory issues and their impact on social and emotional functioning and behavior.

What Sets the Gifted Apart

In 1979, Jean Ayres described intelligence as “The ability to interact with the physical environment with thoughts and ideas.” According to Dr. Ayres, “Intelligence seems to correspond to the number of neurons in the brain and the number of connections between those neurons.” She also said that children with sensory processing difficulties have “average or above average intelligence” but have developed in an “uneven way.” (Ayres, 1979) Dr. Ayres was alluding to the notion that children of high intelligence have more neurons and, therefore, the capacity to process more information, an idea that, in my opinion, is still largely undervalued.

We know that asynchronous (uneven) development is common in gifted and twice-exceptional populations. While we can speculate as to which came first, high intelligence, uneven development, or sensory processing difficulties, we can certainly agree upon the relationship. Yet, we’re only beginning to realize how asynchronous development affects our gifted and 2e children.

It seems that a considerable amount of energy goes into processing sensory information, energy that is not always available to gifted individuals with disability. It is my premise that if we lack sufficient energy to simultaneously compensate for skill deficits and filter out extraneous sensory information, our bodies access “flight or fight” mechanisms, which tap into our emergency energy reserves. The result is often a positive effect coupled with a negative effect. The positive effect is continued cognitive processing; the negative effect may be an increase in symptoms and/or behaviors that look like mental health disorders or that exacerbate developmental disabilities. To understand this logic, we must first discuss learning.


For each of us, new learning occurs best when we have the right amount of information coming in – not too much, not too little. If new concepts or experiences come at us too quickly, we feel anxious and over-stimulated. We may then shut down, tune out, or avoid; and we can feel rigid, irritable, and fatigued. If we lack information, on the other hand, we might feel bored, restless, or annoyed. We then might fidget, seek novel stimulation, or daydream.

We regulate our internal arousal levels by engaging in our world or withdrawing from it. We can respond physically, emotionally, or cognitively. When we block certain stimuli out, we can appear detached or hyper-focused. For example, our children often tune out everything but the screen and sound when watching television. Physical withdrawal takes us out of the setting or causes us to create a large physical space between ourselves and an overwhelming stimulus.

School, however, teaches us to remain in the classroom and on task. A standardized curriculum sets content, pacing standards, and developmental expectations regarding productivity. Typical schools expect all children to learn and perform within a norm, unlike the real world, where individuals are rewarded for offering up their best abilities, despite age or school training.

Ideally, children have arousal levels that keep them calm and alert in the classroom and provide just enough information for new learning to take place and to stay on task. Those children who engage or perform at a different level, either above or below the average, however, are subject to issues with arousal because the presentation of material is not well matched to the levels of input and output that are comfortable for them.

For the average gifted student (one with no areas of delay or asynchrony) who is under-challenged, we see a lack of stimulation, boredom, and inattention. It’s hard to attend when the material being covered is well below one’s ability. When I talk to individuals who don’t understand that gifted, inattentive children are often bored, I like to suggest that these adults spend a few weeks as students in a fourth- or fifth-grade classroom. It wouldn’t take long for any normal adult to look pretty fidgety, restless, and inattentive once the novelty of being in the fifth grade again wore off. In fact, as the weeks progressed, I would expect to see irritability, attention problems, and possibly even aggression as attempts to modify the adult’s fidgety or daydreaming behavior increased. When we are bored, we do what we need to do to stay awake, alert, and engaged. Our minds require that. When our attempts at engagement are met with disapproval or failure, the outcome is likely a negative one.

The Energy Problem

Twice-exceptional children face an even more complicated dilemma. Not only are they often bored and under-stimulated, but, given their intelligence, they are also over-aroused and anxious when faced with tasks of production that should be easy for them. A child may start out with the equivalent of a master’s thesis on turtles, for example; but by the time the child struggles to organize her complex ideas and get those thoughts onto paper, what comes out may sound like “I have a little turtle that lives in a box in my room.” To fully understand the frustration and difficulty of this situation, we must consider energy.

About 10 years ago, I sustained a mild traumatic brain injury. After the accident, I was still as “smart” as I had always been; but I couldn’t do things with the same consistency and efficiency as before. I could, however, do pretty much everything as long as I found a way to stay rested. My cognitive therapist explained to me the role of energy in cognitive processing, and a light came on for me in regard to both my situation and that of the twice-exceptional clients with whom I was working.

The therapist explained that, as humans, we consume energy to perform cognitive tasks, to engage in physical activity, and to experience social interactions and emotions. While these different tasks are not mutually exclusive, we do have a finite allotment of energy for each. Simply put, we can be cognitively, physically, or emotionally too tired to perform one type of task, although we could still successfully engage in other types. For example, our children often tell us they are too tired from school to complete their math homework, but we see them able to run around outside or play with friends. Given the rules of energy, my therapist explained, children are not “conning” us. They are accurately reporting on the energy state that is depleted, although other states still have fuel.

According to the rules of energy:

We cannot borrow from one energy state to fuel another.

Each energy state, once consumed, can be replenished only by sleep, food, and time.

Every day we get a fresh allotment of energy in each state.

Every individual has a differing amount of energy in each state; but when consumed, the response is the same for everyone.

To sleep well, all three of the energy states should be equally depleted.

The therapist also explained that we can certainly fall asleep without adequate cognitive processing, physical activity, or meaningful social time in our lives; but we only feel rested, refreshed, and happy when these three states are in balance. For 2e children, who consume tremendous amounts of cognitive energy in compensation for their disabilities, finding a balance to feel both calm and alert, while maintaining an even flow of energy consumption, is challenging.

Making things even more difficult is one additional variable, the body’s “fight or flight” defense mechanism. This reserve energy source, fueled through the adrenal system, allows us to press on, if necessary, when we are cognitively, physically, or emotionally tired. However, dipping into our adrenaline-fueled reserves is costly, as I learned following my injury. Despite my best attempts at compensating for my head trauma, my consistent, day-to-day functioning failed. I simply could not continue to rely on my emergency energy reserves, and over time developed adrenal fatigue.

Cognitive energy levels are not equal for all individuals. Gifted athletes can press on physically because they have more stamina, just as cognitively gifted individuals can perform complex thinking tasks longer than others can because they have a larger-than-average “slice” of cognitive energy. However, gifted individuals also expend more cognitive energy than others because they think more thoughts, take in more information, and do so over a longer period of time. In other words, typical gifted children can keep going long after their peers have lost interest. The asynchronous, twice-exceptional learner, on the other hand, cannot. Because these individuals must consume larger amounts of cognitive energy to compensate for their learning disabilities, a shortage results in their cognitive energy level. It would be nice if their giftedness simply diminished with their fatigue; but what we find is that the deep abstract reasoning portions of the mind still crave input, long after the more peripheral aspects of sequencing, organizing, multitasking, and demonstrating knowledge through written output are depleted. As a result, the 2e child is both bored and over-aroused.

The Role of the Sensory System

There is more to this theory than learning, engaging or withdrawing from stimulation, and the energy states necessary for consistent performance. The sensory system also plays a part. One of the biggest consumers of our cognitive energy is the taking in, processing, filtering, and storing of input from the outside world through our senses. We learn in school about the five senses: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling; but we also process information about motion, pressure, temperature, and the inner states of our body’s responses to breathing, digestion, circulation, and so forth.

At birth, assuming we have an adequate caretaker, we are carefully swaddled; fed when hungry; and protected from bright lights, loud noises, and uncomfortable temperature variations. For most of us, this results in a calm and alert body system that can, over time, successfully take in, filter, and process increasing amounts of new sensory information. Gifted children, however, remain out-of-sync in their sensory processing. Their high cognitive potentials allow them to take in larger-than-normal amounts of sensory information; but their sensory “filters,” even if maturing at an advanced rate, take a while to catch up. Nevertheless, gifted children have more cognitive energy, enabling them to accurately filter, despite having more information to filter. In other words, having extra cognitive energy works to their advantage, unless that energy is needed elsewhere.

For the twice-exceptional child, on the other hand, an entirely different phenomenon seems to occur. In my observation, 2e children develop, from a very young age, an ability to tap into their energy reserves as a means of staying alert and focused. Given the energy they need to filter their also-heightened amounts of sensory information, and the equally large amount of energy needed to compensate for their asynchronous skills, 2e children come up short in the cognitive energy department. However, it has been my experience that these children quickly learn to tap into their emergency energy reserves to make up for the shortfall. While the emergency energy supply is generally allocated for short-term use, it can be accessed on a day-to-day basis as well. However, because this reserve system is fueled through what we’ll call an adrenal (“fight or flight”) response, the borrowed energy does not give the child the same outcome as drawing on cognitive energy does. Relying on so-called adrenal energy has a severe impact on the overall body system.

To better understand the adrenal response, consider this scenario. Imagine yourself home alone, at night. Overly tired, you struggle to fall asleep, only to be startled awake by some foreign sound. Your mind automatically prepares your body for a reaction. Nothing more happens, but now you notice the faucet dripping, the neighbor’s dog whining, the uncomfortable position of your blanket and pillow. Your startled awakening has led to a heightened state of discomfort and over-arousal. Now, as you again try to fall asleep, you find that your thoughts are racing. Things that seemed trivial yesterday now require your immediate attention – your aunt’s forgotten birthday, the transmission service on your car – all have become problems that you feel you must deal with instantly. So despite being extremely tired, you can’t sleep. The next morning, you might find that you feel a bit sick; but if all goes well, you rest the following night and the adrenal state has passed.

Now, imagine being a 2e child who must continue to dip into his energy reserves each and every day to allow him the necessary energy for functioning. This method of “getting by” is, in my opinion, at the very heart of the mental health issues and exacerbated behavioral and social/ emotional symptoms often seen in our gifted and learning disabled population.

In Part 2 of this article, we’ll look at the obstacles to accurately diagnosing 2e children and at ways to better meet their physical, emotional, and intellectual needs.


Ayres, A. J. (1979). Sensory Integration and the Child. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.

Marlo Payne Thurman, M.S., is a school psychologist, education consultant, and member of the 2e Newsletter Editorial Advisory Board. She specializes in assessment, advocacy, cognitive training, sensory and behavior support, and socio-emotional coaching for individuals from around the country who are gifted yet asynchronous. Marlo is also the founder of the Brideun School for Exceptional Children in Colorado, which designed a play-based, therapeutic school model exclusively for twice-exceptional children. She now operates Brideun Learning Communities and, in addition to her private practice, provides consultative support to new 2e program start-ups. Marlo holds a board position with the United States Autism and Asperger’s Association and is working in that capacity towards the development of a “very high functioning” division within USAAA for individuals who are both gifted and on the spectrum of autism or Asperger Syndrome.

Marlo Payne Thurman is a private consultant specializing in identifying and meeting the needs of children who are gifted, yet asynchronous in their development. Marlo's clients circle the globe. For more information, contact Marlo directly: