‘Unusual’ in both their potential and in their obstacles? Here is a simple guide to Dual or Multiple Exceptionality (DME).

Is your child (or student) clearly able to score really high marks, however something gets in the way of this happening? Do they struggle socially and find it difficult to make friends or join in with learning activities? Perhaps a professional diagnosis confirms these challenges – yet there is still a ‘bright spark’ who shines through?

‘Dual and Multiple Exceptionality’ is a rather intimidating phrase, but don’t be put off. It simply describes the idea that, due to the challenges they face, an individual might really struggle to show their full potential.

What Does ‘DME’ Mean?

DME describes certain people who are very able or talented and have ‘high learning potential’.  Breaking down the phrase:

  • Dual – two (including high learning potential)
  • Multiple – more than two (including high learning potential)
  • Exceptionality – ways of being exceptional or unusual

we can see that ‘Dual or Multiple Exceptional’ simply means having two or more ways of being unusual. The term is usually used in the context of having an ‘unusually’ high potential for learning and a special educational need or disability (SEND). The term often used in the USA and some other countries for DME is ‘2E’, or ‘Twice Exceptional’.

What is High Learning Potential?

The term ‘High Learning Potential’, is a way of describing children or young people who are ‘gifted’, ‘talented’, ‘more able’ or ‘most able’. Within families, such children might be known as the ‘bright sparks’.

Why such a long name for it? Well, imagine your ‘bright spark’ has a disability and is therefore DME. Without the right support, it would be impossible for them to show what they are capable of. Therefore, unsupported, they only have the (untapped) potential to achieve their highest levels of learning.

This is why the charity Potential Plus UK is so passionate that “high learning potential children need opportunities, challenge, resources and encouragement to fulfil their unique potential.”i This is ‘doubly’ true for a DME child.

What Counts As ‘The Other Exceptionality’?

There are many disorders and hurdles that fall under the DME umbrella. A key point, though, is that this is not a short-term problem, like having a bad couple of weeks. No; it involves a long-term ‘exceptional’ set of circumstances.

For example, your child’s DME might include a disorder like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) or SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder). Perhaps a disability such as Dyslexia or Dyspraxia. Or a physical problem with vision or being unable to move as they would wish, due to motor skills challenges or any number of physical disabilities.

On an emotional level, does your child face an underlying, ongoing daily struggle that is much bigger than the usual, temporary upsets of social difficulties and peer group stresses? Anxiety, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and depression are all too often seen in children with high learning potential. These kinds of long-term hurdles count as an ‘exceptionality’ when considering DME.

For detailed guidance, see Potential Plus UK’s  free Fact Sheet, F01 Dual or Multiple Exceptionality

At Home, School or Home Education

It can be tricky to spot a child with DME because, despite the obstacles, their high learning potential means that they are still likely to be scoring fairly well in schoolwork. Scoring well “despite” these hurdles can be exhausting, though, and is likely to leave them tired, emotional – and possibly disruptive. It is important to spot such children and support their physical, educational and emotional needs.

nasen, the National Association for Special Educational Needs, points out that “It is increasingly recognised that the early identification of SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) has an important role to play in ensuring that children optimise their developmental and academic progress and that they feel included alongside their peers. However, there are some children whose needs are more difficult to identify. [Dual or Multiple Exceptionality.] This is a sub-section of the SEND community that does not always receive the attention it deserves and that can be easily misunderstood.ii

As a teacher or home educator nurturing a young person with DME, Department of Education advice is also useful here: “It is not possible to meet all the needs of pupils with DME without addressing their academic strengths and creating opportunities for them to express their abilities.iii So, build up the child’s areas of weakness, yet also stretch their strengths to keep them interested, challenged and actively building critical resilience, self-esteem and positive mental well-being.

Super Success Stories!

DME children can grow to be some of our most insightful, successful and inspiring adults.

nasen put it well when they talked about the late Professor Stephen Hawking, who was keen to develop resources for DME individuals. They described him as “somebody who was known as much for his ability as his disability, he was arguably one of the most high-profile people with DME.” DME can break barriers and inspire whole generations.

There are many shining examples of DME successes, such as Stephen Wiltshire. Now a world-famous artist with an MBE, Stephen was born in London to West Indian parents and diagnosed with autism at the age of three. Later that year, he lost his father in an accident. Mute, Stephen did not learn to speak fully until he was nine – yet nowadays he ensures he talks to young people to attempt to motivate them beyond their apparent limitations. Stephen’s motto is: “Do the best you can and never stop”. Surely this mindset can help other young people with DME as they see his incredible path to world-wide record breaker? (See https://www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk/biography and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phkNgC8Vxj4.)

Two other DME success stories – British Paralympian swimmer Ellie Simmonds and Kim Peek (‘the original Rain Man’ portrayed by Dustin Hoffman) – are told alongside Stephen Wiltshire’s in the blog Inspirational Figures: For Dual or Multiple Exceptional Learners.

This blog is part of a series  on inspirational figures which includes Remarkable Women in STEM; stories with elements of physical disability or society’s hurdles that may particularly motivate a DME reader. The series can be found at Inspirational Figures.

More Information

As a charity, Potential Plus UK supports the high attainment and positive wellbeing of high potential learners – including those with dual or multiple exceptionality. A variety of support is available, including many blogs and a huge range of advice sheets, most of which are free to download for both members and non-members. Some suggested high learning potential and DME resources include:

Parent Advice Sheets

General Fact Sheets

Advice Sheets for Schools (or Home Educators)

Skills Builder logos aiming high, staying positive


[i] https://potentialplusuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/PA101-High-Learning-Potential-170131a.pdf

[ii] https://nasen.org.uk/uploads/assets/17f00916-62a9-4cc5-bdd3fc1ea09f76ec/DME-Stateof-play.pdf

[iii] Helping to find and support children with dual or multiple exceptionalities; Department for Education, 2008

About the author: Gillie Ithell is a writer and editor for Potential Plus UK with a B.A. in Modern Languages & Communication and further qualifications in mental health. Having worked internationally as content manager of classic board games and ‘edutainment’ software, Gillie now writes to inspire others like herself; on a daily journey with High Learning Potential.