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Working Memory and Possibly Twice Exceptional

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D


Q: My adopted son was struggling in Kindergarten to point that they wanted to hold him back. When he was placed with me there was testing to indicate (Standford Binet I think) that he was highly gifted. This was done at age 4.5, just prior to being adopted. After he was placed with me, who has no experience with 'gifted', he really didn't strike me as anything other than average with occasional bursts of amazing things.

Then he went to Kindergarten and it was nightmare. Complete behavioral change and lots of critiques about academic performance. He particularly was having trouble reciting in sequence: like he could spell his name on paper and name the letters in his name if asked to, he couldn't answer the question 'how do you spell your name?' He knew all his letter when shown,in or out of order, but still in first grade can't sing the ABC song correctly (in order).

So, I removed him from the private school Kindergarten due to not academic (they were great) but his behavioral (very anxious and avoidant of social situations where previously he was upbeat and positive and was often described as mature and having the greatest strength of 'social skills, work ethnic, and rule following'. But, I had the testing done: WISC IV.

Just got results back and he was found to be highly gifted: in 3 fields he was 143 145 and 148 but the big discrepancy was in working memory where he got a score of 88. This was what they focused on. They did another test (sorry don't have them with me): a long term memory test where he was presented a list of words 5 times and had to recall them over 20 minutes and this test he got a score of 88 (too, the first time heard list), but was 183 at end of list....this was scored similar to the IQ but I think on first time he got like 4/15 and last 14/15.

Any idea what the repercussions of the low score is. They had some ideas but not much. Everything I read of working memory 'deficits', although they said this was in lower side but still normal range, is very scary stuff about long term academic performance.

Currently he is in Public school where they say he is fine in all subjects except reading where he cannot even read a simple sentence such as 'a cat ran down the street and bit a boy'. Thanks!

A: The first thing that comes in mind is the possibility of a learning problem. It is very clear that your son is in the highly gifted range based on the results alone. The behavioural concerns may point out to another issue altogether. In this case, I would suspect that he may be gifted with a learning problem and I tend to feel that he may be dyslexic. It is very possible for a child with dyslexia be highly gifted as well - a term we call twice exceptional. Dyslexia can be diagnosed in anyone regardless of intelligence level.

Briefly, this condition is due to the way an individual's brain is wired. Dyslexics have difficulty establishing association between printed symbols, spoken words and spoken sounds. Try to see if some of these characteristics are apparent to enable you to better decide if your son may be dyslexic:

  • Difficulty reading satisfactorily in spite of adequate intelligence and educational opportunity

  • Unusual difficulty in handwriting and spelling

  • Unable to recite and/or write alphabets in sequence

  • Reversals, rotations, transpositions in reading and writing

  • Directional confusion: left-right, before-after, over-under

  • Difficulty following directions

  • Poor recall ability, especially for names and words

  • Poor auditory discrimination or confusion with similar speech sounds

  • Unable to copy accurately from the near point, far point, or both

  • Work does not reflect intellectual ability

  • No definite preference for right or left hand

  • Often forgets assignments/tasks and/or loses work

  • Lacking in organisational skills

  • Short attention span

  • Overly active and disturbing in classroom

  • Unusually passive and withdrawn

  • Inconsistent: knows the material some days and unable to remember it on other days

  • A downward trend in achievement scores is seen

Furthermore, research have suggested that inefficient working memory has been implicated as an underlying factor in dyslexia. Working memory is the type of memory that is used to hold new information before it is transferred (or discarded) into the long-term memory. Researcher Mortimore (2003) suggests that dyslexic learners may have difficulties in another area of memory function: automatisation. Dyslexic people may have difficulty maintaining material in temporary memory storage while carrying out another skill, so a person may need to focus on decoding or working out letter-sound links, thus reducing the attention available for the process of understanding what has been read.

Your concerns on his long term academic performance is legitimate and you may need to look for ways to help improve his working memory. Check this link to help with strategies for managing weak working memory.

The first thing you need to do now is to determine if he has dyslexia. Seek help from a professional and get him diagnosed. If he is diagnosed, there are many programmes (e.g., Orton Gillingham program) that can help him overcome his problems, which would also improve his behavioural concerns. Work from there on. All the best.


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