We have come a long way in terms of how we view and treat individuals with learning disabilities. We no longer force our dyslexic students to stand up in class and read aloud from the textbook, and we certainly don’t berate them if they are unable to sound out certain words. Teachers, for the most part, are aware of the discrepancy model. They know that, for students with disabilities, there is a significant gap between their performance and ability levels; therefore, if a student cannot read at grade level, most teachers are aware that this doesn’t mean that the student lacks intelligence. Unfortunately, “ability” is commonly measured by a battery of tests, some of which are heavily laden in the verbal realm, so if you have a perfectly intelligent individual who was not exposed to rich language then the scores he or she earn will be likely underestimations of their true abilities. Most teachers, however, are aware of the imperfections of our means of measuring intelligence and will at least give students with reading difficulties the benefit of the doubt. If only we would do the same for our other “special needs” students, those with ADD, ADHD, PDD, OCD, ODD, SPD, ASD… Unfortunately, we all too often underestimate individuals who struggle with these issues. Unlike many LD students who are able to conform with the pack, the issues that individuals with attention, spectrum and sensory disorders grapple with are often manifested through quirky, atypical and often “bothersome” behaviors. We often become so focused on these behaviors that we don’t see the whole person and the talents that lie beneath the surface.
Just the other day I was in the company of a couple of women, one of whom was a teacher, talking about a child who used to live in their neighborhood. When I heard the child’s name, I nearly fell over. After asking a few questions, we determined the child they were talking about had grown to become the same individual that I taught in one of my college classes the previous year. I recognized her name because she was one of my favorite students. Yes, she was a bit quirky, but she was also very, very bright. As a matter of fact, I remember this student helping her classmates interpret one of the novels we were reading in class. What shocked me was that the teacher participating in this conversation was incredulous when she heard that her former neighbor, clearly a quirky and “atypical” kid, was a star in my classroom. You know, “being special needs and all.”
What stuck me as most disturbing about the aforementioned conversation was this idea that “special needs” was somehow synonymous with incapable. The very idea that the woman I know from my classroom had been pegged as someone who was “not college material” when she was only ten or eleven years old was deeply unsettling. The fact that some teachers today still have these mindsets about “those special needs kids” makes me question the quality of education “those special needs kids” are given. It makes me wonder how these children can possibly be invited into the pack with the rest of their “typical” peers if their teachers perceive them as ‘other’ and “less than.” This is not a sweeping statement about all teachers. I am a teacher myself, many of my family members are teachers and most of my friends are teachers. When my son, who has some “special needs,” was in school, his teachers were some of the kindest and sensitive individuals I have met, and they were deeply disturbed not by his behaviors, but because he struggled despite the fact that he is so bright.
The conversation about my former student got me thinking about not only how some teachers perceive our special needs kids, but also how we as a society view those who are a little different, quirky and differently-abled. It also got me thinking how we as parents must protect our children from the misconceptions derived from the “special needs” label.
When it becomes clear that our children are struggling not only academically but socially as well, we seek a diagnosis. We are encouraged to get testing. We want so much to put a halt to whatever it is that makes our children’s lives so much more difficult than the other kids. We have our children tested. We seek the help of therapists and specialists. We read and read and read what the experts have to say. Initially we are uncomfortable with whatever label is placed upon our children. We may keep it to ourselves to protect our bright and capable kids from being misunderstood and stigmatized. Then we realize that we are doing our children a disservice by keeping this information to ourselves, so, first, we tell our family and friends. Then we tell the school and teacher; then we find ourselves telling people standing in front of us at the grocery store because they are obviously annoyed that our children are speaking too loudly. We find ourselves throwing this label around at the park in an effort to explain to parents that our children are not screaming and crying because they are misbehaved but because the park is too crowded and chaotic that day and that makes our children uneasy or because, despite their appearance, some of our children have weak muscle tone and keeping up with the other children at the park is frustrating, and some days it’s just too damn difficult. We use these labels to explain why our children melt down at birthday parties. Parties are too loud, too scary for our children who have sensory integration issues. Then we start to use our child’s label to not only explain behaviors but also to make ourselves feel better. My child behaves that way, not because I am a bad parent, but because she has x, y or z. Sometimes people get it, but sometimes the people you most expect to understand, the ones you count on, don’t. Personally, I was shocked to find that some of the relationships I had cultivated began to wane once I put the label out there. Even more disconcerting, many hear the label, whatever it may be, and decide that this must mean that our children are not only different, they are also less capable.
What’s most frustrating is once you muster up the courage to voice that label you have been avoiding; once you put it out there; you hear comments like “those special needs kids” or “Oh yeah. Everyone has a label now a days,” as if we just make this stuff up as a means of explaining our kids’ quirkiness. Sometimes we listen to these comments, and we panic. We think, “What if they are right? What if we are making excuses?” Sometimes we react by experimenting. We decide to “ignore” our children’s diagnosis. We treat them like every other typical kid. We get frustrated when they get distracted and forget to do what we ask. We panic when they cannot concentrate on their school assignments and begin to make mistake after mistake after mistake. And you know what? Our kids read our panic and frustration. They understand, and they begin to question themselves, their abilities, their value, their talents. So, yes, having and understanding our children’s diagnosis is good, but we must be aware of how we use it. All too easily, something intended to help our children turns into something that, when misinterpreted, becomes damaging.
I guess the broader question is how do we change society’s misconception of individual’s with those particular “special needs” that set them apart behaviorally? Clearly the answer lies in the example we adults set for our children and the education we provide them at home. I have witnessed other adults mock the IT guy in the office I once worked at because he was “strange.” I have seen neighbors shun another neighbor because she is “weird.” Perhaps we could lead this change by performing positive actions for our children to witness. There has been a lot of lip service given to being kind, but being kind is more than just not bullying. Kindness is an act. You are not kind just because you don’t do something– although it does make us feel good about ourselves when we decide to refrain from making the snarky comment about the “weird” dude at work. We cannot expect our children to be kind enough and brave enough to invite the loner, the social misfit to join their friends at the table in the cafeteria, unless we set the example. We need to invite our off beat neighbors to the neighborhood picnic. We need to chat with the quirky girl at the grocery school. We need to befriend the odd man out in he workplace because we all know that the office is just a grown up version of the high school cafeteria, with all of its politics, cruelty and misery. We need to befriend that outlier of the family, the one that everyone likes to gossip about and criticize. By forging friendships with those different from ourselves, with those who perhaps are a bit socially awkward, with those who really need friends, our children will have the courage to do the same. And I am not talking about forging fake, act of mercy, “gee now I feel good about myself” friendships. I’m talking about true, “damn I really dig this person” friendships. I’m talking about hanging out with someone and truly appreciating who they are and enjoying their company. Maybe if we do that, then our kids will be less likely to exclude the “special kids,” less likely to roll their eyes when their quirky classmates do or say something a bit out of the box, less likely to conveniently forget to invite them to the party and learn to truly and sincerely appreciate differences in thought and communication and interests. Through our example, our children can learn not to patronize and take on quirky kids as pet projects but to embrace them as equals-equally intelligent, equally gifted, equally special.
The most important thing we as parents of those with attention, sensory, spectrum and other disorders can do is to make sure that our children never feel less than capable, less intelligent. Never let your children feel less intelligent. Never allow anyone to believe that they are less intelligent. Intelligence is the gift our “special needs” kids (and adults) have been given. Theirs is a beautifully creative intelligence. They view the world differently than the rest. Their lens is shaped by great sensitivity, intense emotions and, unfortunately, sufferance. Our children are the creators, the ones who march to the beat of their hearts, not the collective drumming of a society and education system that does not fully understand. Of course they can go to college and succeed. Of course they can excel. Of course they can be fulfilled and happy…if if if and only if, we, their parents, foster their talents, help them to build confidence and develop self-esteem because, yes, they are special, no more special needs than anyone else, but special. They have been gifted to us their parents and the world, for they see this world differently. They navigate it in ways which others wouldn’t dream. They see and perceive in ways that others would not find possible. They are brilliant and no one should ever, ever think otherwise.