Interview with M. Layne Kalbfleisch, 2e Researcher

January, 2013

M. Layne KalbfleischM. Layne Kalbfleisch, M.Ed., Ph.D., is an associate professor of educational psychology and a cognitive neuroscientist at George Mason University’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study in Fairfax, Virginia. She directs KIDLAB, a research facility she founded in 2003. There Kalbfleisch draws on her training in the fields of education, psychology, and neuroscience as she strives to meet one of her research goals, finding the empirical basis of twice exceptionality.

In their work at KIDLAB, Kalbfleisch and her research team use imaging technology along with traditional neuropsychological assessments to identify ways in which the brains of twice-exceptional individuals differ from other brains, both in their structure and function. Following is an edited interview conducted with Layne Kalbfleisch.

Q: What has been the main purpose of your research with regard to twice-exceptional children?

A: We focus on the relationship between talent and disability. Our initial discoveries are beginning to show us clues about how the brain compensates and responds when a disability is present along with high levels of intelligence — in other words, when an individual is twice exceptional.

In general, we’re documenting patterns of neural plasticity in children. [Ed. note: Neural plasticity, in simple terms, is how the brain can change in response to experiences.] Our purpose is to better understand what it means to be ”gifted” and how that giftedness influences or interacts with disability to create performance and behavior that we observe as twice exceptional.

Understanding Research Results

The study of 2e crosses many disciplines, all of which struggle with the problem of defining terms like giftedness, disability, and executive function — constructs that all contain multiple definitions. The important thing to keep your eye on in the research is to watch for the specific definitions that are used in a study and to try to understand how that definition fits with the larger and more general understanding of 2e and the population being studied. — MLK


Q: Who do you study and how do you conduct your research?

A: Our studies involve adults and children. Our eventual goal is understand these three things:

  1. How cognitive processes change over the lifespan
  2. How disabilities in childhood relate to the pathologies of aging
  3. How having talents influences a person’s health and quality of life.

We employ three methods in our research. First, we involve our participants in a one-on-one psychometric assessment that allows us to measure qualities such as intelligence, executive function, and temperament. Second, our participants play a series of computer games that allow us to assess their speed and accuracy during tasks that require reasoning and attention skill. Finally, once we’ve identified participants who qualify and who want to participate, we use brain scanning technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). During brain scans, we measure different aspects of cognition as the brain is engaged in performing tasks. This technology helps us to explore cognitive functions related to giftedness and to the patterns of strength and weakness that we see in twice exceptionality.

Q: Do you find that participants are nervous about undergoing brain scanning?

A: Before we do the actual scanning, we prepare participants by doing a pretend or “mock” MRI. This allows us to introduce them to the computer games they’ll play during the real brain scanning.

Q: What differences have you been able to identify in the structure or function of the gifted brain and the twice-exceptional brain?

A: So far, my neuroimaging experiments have focused on typically functioning high-ability children and on twice-exceptional children on the autism spectrum (2e ASD). From this work, we’ve gained three insights:

  1. 2e ASDs are as fast and as accurate as their typical gifted peers on certain tests of attention control, but the brain functions that support this “same” performance are quite different. In typical children, attention control is largely the work of the frontal lobes of the brain; but in 2e ASDs, attention control is handled more by the rear regions of the brain, areas that process sensory and motor information. This finding gives us some clues about these children. For instance, it shows why they are at risk for sensory overload. One of the reasons they may struggle with social interactions is that social information may not be the most relevant to their brain as it processes other information in the environment.
  2. The resting state of children with ASD is very different from what we typically see. The resting state is what brain function looks like when we’re daydreaming, off task, or bored. When most people are in this state, a brain scan would show activity in both the front and rear portions of the brain. The level of activity would look balanced between the two regions and in both hemispheres. In individuals with ASD, on the other hand, it essentially looks like the brain is talking to itself, and we don’t see that same degree of balance between the levels of activity in the front portion of the brain and the rear.

Right now, we don’t have a full understanding of the consequences of this difference. It may help explain why the cognitive skills of the frontal lobes, such as pattern recognition and intuition for rule-based systems, are so well developed in individuals with ASD, and in those who are 2e with ASD in particular. For example, these individuals tend to be skilled at computer science, programming, engineering, design, mathematics, editing, or identifying flaws or errors in patterns or designs.

  1. High verbal intelligence appears to influence reasoning systems in the brains of 2e individuals with ASD. Among children on different parts of the autism spectrum, we see differences in the gray matter. We’re beginning to learn that these differences may be showing us areas of cognitive strength, not necessarily where function has gone wrong.

Understanding this type of neural plasticity is fundamental to how we define giftedness and 2e from a functional perspective. Neuroimaging studies from my lab and from others are showing us that one of the key aspects of a ”gifted” brain involves great use of the parietal cortex in both hemispheres. There appears to be some aspect of high-ability that is marked by this kind of support from the brain.

Q: How specific is the information that brain imaging provides? For example, can you see differences in brain activity in someone who has slow processing speed?

A: It’s important to understand that right now researchers don’t use MRI to diagnose or observe individuals in these ways. What we use it for is to observe performance differences among our participants so that we can see what they all share in common. That’s what leads us to the final result. The conclusions we draw from neuroimaging studies are based on group averages across the people who participated in the study.

Q: How about differences between the brain of someone with inattentive attention deficit and attention deficit with hyperactivity — could you see a difference?

A: Yes, but again we’re not looking at differences between individuals per se. Instead, because we need to have adequate statistical power, we’d be looking at differences between groups of people with these subtypes of AD/HD

Q: Have you compared the brains of 2e children with 2e adults? If so, what did this tell you?

A: Not yet. It takes a long time to find the right people to study. Here are some examples of the criteria that participants have to meet:

  • No history of neurological or psychiatric illness outside of the condition being tested
  • No premature birth or specific types of developmental delays
  • Identification or diagnosis completed with specific types of tests.

So even though we have many people with ASD calling us to volunteer, we can’t accept them if, let’s say, they have other disorders such as a reading disability, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia. Various disorders have specific impacts on the brain; so for us to gain a better understanding of autism and 2e ASD, we have to control for these other factors.

Q: How do you see your research findings being used? Can they help medical professionals better understand and meet the needs of 2e kids, or can they be used directly in the classroom?

A: Yes on both counts. Medical and psychology professionals aren’t necessarily trained to understand or incorporate the details of giftedness or twice exceptionality into their practice. Our research results can help them gain better insight into these individuals and, by extension, offer them more effective services. We also hope to be able to design better methods of instruction and interventions for gifted and 2e learners.

The immediate impact of our findings leads to greater empathy. Knowing that 2e kids are different on a neural level can lead people directly to insights about why they are as they are. For instance, if one of the key features of the autistic brain is that the sensory and motor cortices are doing most of the cognitive work, it becomes easier to understand why these children experience sensory overload and problems with emotional control. This brain essentially tops-out on its resources early because it lacks connections that help distribute the load. People who understand this have a much more neutral and pragmatic understanding of autism — one that any teacher or parent could immediately work to support.

Q: What does your research tell us about giftedness? For example, does it lead us to a better definition giftedness, or does it reinforce the need to provide programs for GT children?

A: These new findings help us understand what we’ve already observed in gifted children: their capacities to think faster, to absorb greater amounts of information, and to perform at high levels of expertise. They highlight that these children do differ on a physiological level. Empirical evidence of these differences must eventually have an impact on how we define giftedness and lend credence to the idea that specific programs and supports play an important part in the ability of gifted children to be healthy and successful. The findings also make the call for equity for gifted kids that much stronger.

Q: When you say that gifted children do differ on a physiological level, what exactly does that mean?

A: The collective work of neuroscientists who study giftedness shows that it’s represented, in part, in the brain by greater activity in the parietal cortex of both the brain’s left and right hemispheres. This difference has been shown in studies of spatial reasoning and imagery, and in mathematics.

In studies of gifted musicians, researchers have seen that expertise correlates with more brain activity, not less. This is contrary to other models of expertise that show that less effort is needed as the brain becomes more efficient and automatic.

These findings tell us that we are still in the very early stages of understanding the neural plasticity of giftedness. I wrote a chapter with that title in 2009, where I made the case that giftedness is a special type of plasticity similar to other types that we know more about. These include:

  • Phantom limb syndrome, in which you can lose your limb and still feel it
  • Hemispherectomy, in which children with seizures have their brain’s left hemisphere removed but experience no change in their intelligence
  • Synesthesia, in which individuals perceive numbers and letters in terms of sensations of color, feeling, shape, and even sound.

Q: What do you feel are the most significant findings that you’ve come up with so far with regard to twice-exceptional individuals?

A: Aside from the three preliminary neuroimaging results I mentioned earlier, we’re also learning more about the relationship between talent and disability. In studying 2e children with ASD, we found that although they may struggle with regulating themselves, certain children in this population still display executive function skills for planning, organizing materials, and monitoring their work. These are children whose verbal intelligence is more than 15 points higher than their performance intelligence, which is equal to one standard deviation on a Wechsler measure of intelligence. This study is the first to elaborate the relationship between what has been compromised (i.e., emotional control, ability to initiate, working memory, processing speed) and what skills may be supported or protected by high levels of intelligence.

Now, there’s some question as to the strength of this finding. For one thing, some aspects of executive function are known to correlate with intelligence. For another, our sample size is small. You need about 25 kids in a group, and our total numbers were at that level; but our subgroups were smaller. Nevertheless, continuing research is leading us to an operational definition of twice exceptionality that can be rooted in the tools and metrics already in use. Our findings are preliminary and positive.

Q: What are your future research plans with regard to twice exceptionality?

A: We’re now in the early stages of studying 2e AD/HD. We’re applying our model of intelligence and executive function to identify the skills that correlate with the strengths we see in this population for creative and divergent thinking. We’re also planning to extend our studies of 2e ASD into the adult population.

For coverage of a session at the NAGC Convention in November by Layne Kalbfleisch, see the November, 2012, issue of 2e: Twice-Exceptional Newsletter.

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Where to Find out More about M. Layne Kalbfleisch's Work


Brar, J., Kalbfleisch, M.L., Chandrasekher, L., Warburton, S.M., Girton, L.E., Hailyu, A., Wolfe, A., Mease, E., Mbwana, J.S., Gaillaird, W.D., & VanMeter, J.W. (2009). Differences in Response Conflict in Autism Spectrum Disorders. Organization of Human Brain Mapping, San Francisco, CA.

Chabernaud, C., Mennes, M., Kardel, P.G., Gaillard, W.D., Kalbfleisch, M.L., Van Meter, J.W., Packer, R., Milham, M.P., Castellanos, F.X., & Acosta, M.T. (2012). Lovastatin regulates brain spontaneous low-frequency brain activity in Neurofibromatosis type 1. Neuroscience Letters, 515 (1), 28-33.

Kalbfleisch, M.L. (2004). The functional neural anatomy of talent. The Anatomical Record, 277B   (1), 21-36. doi:10.1002/ar.b.20010.

Kalbfleisch, M.L. (2008). Getting to the heart of the brain: Using cognitive neuroscience to explore the nature of human ability and performance. In L. Kalbfleisch (ed.) Special Issue on the Cognitive Neuroscience of Giftedness. Roeper Review, 30 (3), 162-170. doi:10.1080/02783190802199321 Kalbfleisch, M.L., & Gillmarten, C. (2013). Left brain vs. right brain: Findings on visual spatial capacities and the functional neurology of giftedness. Roeper Review.

Kalbfleisch, M.L., Loughan, A.R., & Roberts, J. (submitted). Potential impact of autism diagnosis on neural systems of nonverbal fluid reasoning in adolescent male monozygotic twins – gray matter, functional plasticity, and the definition of twice exceptionality in autism spectrum disorders. Gifted Child Quarterly.

Kalbfleisch, M.L., & Loughan, A.R. (online 2011, in-print 2012). Impact of IQ discrepancy on executive function in high-functioning autism: Insight into twice exceptionality. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 42, 390-400. doi 10.1007/s10803-011-1257-2.

Kaufmann, F., Kalbfleisch, M.L., & Castellanos, F.X. (2000). Attention Deficit Disorders and Gifted Students: What Do We Really Know? Monograph: National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT.

Tomlinson, C. A., & Kalbfleisch, M.L. (1998). Teach me, teach my brain: A call for differentiated classrooms. Educational Leadership, 56 (3), 52-55.

Washington, S.D., Gordon, E.M., Brar, J., Warburton, S., Sawyer, A.T., Wolfe, A., Mease-Ference, E.R., Girton, L., Hailu, A., Mbwana, J., Gaillard, W.D., Kalbfleisch, M.L., & Van Meter, J.W. (2013). Dysmaturation of the default mode network in autism. Human Brain Mapping.

Book Chapters

Kalbfleisch, M.L. Twice Exceptional Learners. (2013). In Plucker, J. A., Callahan, C.M. (eds.), Critical Issues and Practices in Gifted Education, Second Edition. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Kalbfleisch, M.L. (2012). Twice Exceptional Students. In C.A. Callahan & H. Hertberg-Davis (eds.) Fundamentals of Gifted Education: Considering Multiple Perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge. (pp. 358-368).

Kalbfleisch, M.L., & Gillmarten, C. (2011). Neuroscience and Giftedness. In J. Cross Reidl & T.    Cross (eds.) Handbook for School Counselors Serving Gifted Students. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press. (pp. 89-104). Kalbfleisch, M.L. (2009). The Neural Plasticity of Giftedness. In L. Shavanina (ed.), International Handbook on Giftedness. Springer Science (pp. 275-293).

Kalbfleisch, M.L., Iguchi, C. (2008). Twice Exceptional Learners. In Plucker, J. A., Callahan, C.M. (eds.), Critical Issues and Practices in Gifted Education. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press (pp. 685-696).

Kalbfleisch, M.L., Banasiak, M. (2008). ADHD. In Plucker, J. A., Callahan, C.M. (eds.), Critical Issues and Practices in Gifted Education. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press (pp. 15-30).

Understanding the Brain – The Birth of a Learning Science, Second Edition. (2007). Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (OECD-CERI). Paris, France: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Publication Office.

Recent Press

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