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They’re gifted and now they have a school that really gets them

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Eleven-year-old Chris Reiser is into movies; not just watching them, but editing them on Premiere Pro.

Chris – who has autism spectrum disorder – thinks more in images than in words. Sometimes the images in his head are so vivid he feels as though he is living inside a movie, which makes him "freak out".

Chris Reiser, 11, with Tombolo Academy co-founder and principal Anne Jackson, has enrolled in Australia’s first school for twice-exceptional children. Credit:Simon Schluter

"Sometimes I get so caught up in life I feel like my life’s a movie because all these things are going on and it’s just … crazy," he says.

Chris is also advanced for his age in mathematics and a gifted storyteller, according to the principal of his new school where he will start next year.

But his anxiety about school is so all-consuming that he often cannot bear to go.

"I just freak out sometimes before I go to school, because I have this feeling inside of me," he says.

You have to understand that you can have a child genius who can’t read.

The long time he spent learning remotely at home this year only intensified that feeling, to the point that Chris simply couldn’t go back. For a second time, his parents have pulled him out.

His father Ian insists both schools gave Chris incredible support but were just not sufficiently resourced to give him the kind of help he needs.

"I don’t think he’s suited for the mainstream environment … it’s just overwhelming," Mr Reiser says.

Next year, Chris will start year 7 at his third school, Tombolo Academy in bayside Hampton.

It will be Australia’s first school solely for "twice-exceptional children"; those who are simultaneously gifted and have a disability.

He will be one of a small initial intake of 23 students in years 7 and 8 at the independent school, which will open in February after gaining approval from the Victorian Regulations and Qualifications Authority in September.

It will accept students who can function at a year 7 level in their ability and at no lower than a year 3 level in their disability, founder Catherine Kirby says.

"Identification [of a twice-exceptional child] is very difficult and complex and it takes specialists to do it," Ms Kirby says. "And then you have to understand that you can have a child genius who can’t read."

For Ms Kirby and co-founder and principal Anne Jackson, Tombolo Academy is the culmination of eight years working with twice-exceptional students who struggle at mainstream schools.

The school will teach the Victorian curriculum with a focus on what each student’s ability enables them to do best, Ms Jackson says.

"I’ve got students that are amazing intellects, I’ve also got students that are amazing artists, craftspeople or social and emotional people, but the disability clashes with that in order to stop them learning in schools," Ms Jackson says. "So an awful lot have developed phenomenal anxiety. They sit in a classroom just struggling."

Associate Professor Jae Yup Jung, of the School of Education at UNSW, said teachers in Australia are generally untrained in how to teach twice-exceptional students.

"If they’re not trained they won’t know who twice-exceptional students are, so what ends up happening is these teachers don’t know what to do, students are not appropriately catered for and are not realising their potential," Professor Jung said.

According to special and inclusive education researcher Michelle Ronksley-Pavia, there have been few efforts to identify twice-exceptional students in Australia.

"There is little place for identifying these students, and consequently they are seldom catered for, leading to potential for under-achievement and disengagement," Dr Ronksley-Pavia, of Griffith University’s School of Education and Professional Studies, wrote in an academic paper due to be published next month.

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