Intelligence, Talent and Ability. How Does Our Society Truly Perceive Those with Special Needs?

photo.JPG Intelligence
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.

Oh. You Are Also a Specialist? Of What, If You Don’t Mind My Asking?

    A few years back, we were invited to vacation at my husband’s boss’s beach house. One evening we were dining out on the patio, which happened to abutt the path down to the shore, when two ladies from the neighborhood attempted to pass us while taking their nightly stroll to the beach. As the ladies passed, and before Giorgio and I knew what was happening, our then four year old son hopped up and said, “Ladies, would you like to join us for a bottle of wine?” Being the persistent little fellow he is, when the ladies giggled and declined, my dear Jack then continued, “Well then, how about a brandy?” This is the same little boy, who very recently at the age of seven, alarmed us by asking, “What if we don’t really exist? What if this is all a dream?” He has been described as an old soul and free spirit, and, yes, he is in fact both. He is charming and precocious and very intelligent, and he HATES school. He has learning differences and sensory issues which have made his experiences with school quite unpleasant and continue to make finding an appropriate educational setting a challenge. As an educator, it drives me mad to think that learning has become such an unpleasant, onerous task for my bright and curious little boy, and I have made it my mission to find a way to make learning and life, as joyful and wonderous as is realistically possible.

    In fulfilling this mission, Giorgio and I have learned is that there are an awful lot of experts and specialists out there. I mean there are specialists that super specialize in the specialists’ specialities. There are soooo many people who want to help out there. What I also figured out is that “helping” our children has become and industry and a lucrative one at that. I mean one family with one child with learning differences can spend thousands, upon thousands of dollars. We pay the college tuitions of our specialist’s children while we ourselves become increasingly stressed because after we dole out all our money to special schools and experts and specialists, we can’t even afford to register our kids for dance class much less pay for their education, which was our main concern to begin.

    I don’t mean to sound cynical, and I certainly don’t want anyone to think that I believe there is no place for specialists and experts. When our children are struggling it is our obligation as parents to seek help. It’s just that we need to be cautious. We need to be savvy consumers. WE need to determine when our work with a specialist has run its course. We also need to discern when we really need the services of another party and when we as parents can, with time and research, provide appropriate services ourselves.

    When we began our quest to help our son, we dove in a rabbit hole and into a surreal world where everyone is an “expert” and where the only thing “experts” can do for you is refer you to other “experts” (with whom they share an office) whereupon they hand you a bill and where only one thing is certain…all experts charge fees that are staggering.

    Just this past week, Giorgio and I had an appointment with one of the many specialists we have consulted over the past few years. Prior to our appointment, I spent two hours filling out a twelve page questionnaire, which was to be reviewed by said specialist prior to our meeting. Two hours! Twelve Pages! Prior to meeting! Giorgio was immediately suspicious and repeatedly asked me why we were writing answers to questions about topics we should be discussing in person. I reassured him, certain that this was just preliminary “stuff” and that we would elaborate on our answers during our $300 per one hour not covered by insurance appointment, an appointment which required Giorgio to rearrange his work schedule and me to make childcare arrangements.

    Well, Mr. Specialist’s office is an hour plus away from our home, so we frantically raced out of our house, dropped the kids with my parents and arrived ten minutes early. So you can imagine my disappointment when ten minutes after appointment time, our specialist hadn’t come into the waiting room to greet us. I have to say, I’ve got a real “thing” about waiting…it pisses me off. I just believe that we are called upon to wait much too often. For the majority of us, if we are late for an appointment, we are deeply disturbed and apologetic towards whoever we have kept waiting. Yet, doctors, specialists and so many others seem to feel as if our time is less valuable than their time. Anyway, the receptionist must have heard me bitching to Giorgio because she quickly disappeared and promptly returned to tell us that Mr. Specialist was in a meeting and would be with us soon. Five minutes later, he emerged, alone, so I wonder who the hell he was meeting. One thing was for sure, I was going to make damned sure he gave us the full hour, the $300 hour, the hour of gold.

    Since I now have a significant amount of experience, I have changed my approach. While I am always nice and respectful, it is no longer important that the specialist likes me. I make my needs clear up front. This time I informed him that we are not wealthy people and that we are frustrated because everyone we consult refers us to someone else. Well do you know how the meeting turned out? At some point during our visit it became painfully clear that Mr. Specialist never read our two hours worth of paperwork. He perseverated on one topic, of only minor interest to my husband and I, and, in the end, he referred us to an educational consultant who works in his office. With a bit of research we learned that this consultant would charge us a minimum of $750 for her services. Oh yeah, after only forty minutes he started to look at his watch. When he attempted to end the appointment at the scheduled time, despite the fact that he was fifteen minutes late,I kept him talking until the full hour was up. Go girl.

    After our appointment, Giorgio headed off to work, and I returned home, frazzled and anxious. And I got to thinking. All that time lost. I could and should have been home with my kids, teaching, playing, mothering! Instead, I wasted time. And I have wasted soooo much time visiting specialists and special schools.

    I once visited a school, a thirty thousand plus a year school, which is located in a very affluent community in Connecticut. It seemed great. Prior to my visit, I read their website which explained that they incorporate original play into their curriculum. Play! Great! We love to play (I either didn’t notice or completely ignored the word original)! Jack will love a school that allows a little bit of fun! During my visit everything looked great:students appeared happy, teachers seemed nice. There was nothing strange about the place at all…until the discussion turned to original play. Never heard of it? Neither had I. Silly me for thinking it was normal human play because, as it was explained to me, it actually mirrors animal play. The kids roll around on a mat; a teacher facilitates. And guess what? In eighth grade, if they’re really good at this original play thing, the kids get to travel to Florida to swim with the manatees. Are you kidding, you ask? No, sadly I am not. Strange right? Of course when I got home I researched original play and let me tell you, it is very hard to find out anything other than a clip on YouTube where a big bearded burly man demonstrates how it’s done. Perhaps I am a sceptic, but I prefer to think of myself as reasonably intelligent and educated. Evaluating research was a big part of my graduate studies. You know; instruction should be researched based and good research studies require thousands of subjects and a control group and blah, blah, blah. Why is it then that educators are engaging in practices when there clearly is not enough research to support those practices.

    A larger question is how do specialists and educators get parents to subscribe to their practices? The answer, I believe, is that desperate parents are easy to exploit. I don’t mean to suggest that these professionals are intentionally exploiting parents; most are well meaning. Regardless, parents are being exploited. When we as parents see that our children are struggling and are told that we need to do something about it, we desperately seek out those who can help. I am beginning to realize, however, that there may be something fundamentally wrong with our process. Sometimes because our children are different we are made to feel that they are broken and that they need to be fixed and changed and altered by experts and specialists. What would have happened if teams of professionals “fixed” the young Albert Einstein or Winston Churchill, both of whom were quirky kids and bad students?

    Professional educators, therapists and specialists do have an important role to play. They can help. They have helped me. I have met some great specialists. We shouldn’t feel that in order to be good parents or viewed as good parents we need to constantly seek the help of “experts.” We as parents are the only TRUE experts of our children. Sometimes, rather than shuttling our kids from one appointment to another to be evaluated, analyzed and over analyzed and spending hours on the computer and telephone searching for professional help, our children would be better served if we just spent those extra hours with them , learning their patterns, understanding what works for them and what doesn’t. In a world full of experts, we have lost our confidence as parents, and we need to reclaim that. No one will ever know or love our children as we do. Our instincts and opinions count. We know when our children are just different, when they just need another approach or another way to learn and when we need the help of knowledgable professionals. We know. We know when it’s a matter of doing something different or better as parents and when we need to seek outside help because we just don’t know what to do. We know when to say “help” and we know when to say “enough!” We must trust ourselves and know.

Hold Up. Did I Just Call the Dog My Daughter’s Name???

Yes Heather. Yes you did. And lately, you have been calling the dog Allegra way too often. You have also been forgetting what you’re saying midsentence, walking upstairs to do things and then forgetting what those things are and calling Allegra, Ginger and Ginger, Allegra and Jack, Giorgio and Giorgio, Jack. You, my friend, have been doing all of that…a lot. You, Heather Nanni, are overwhelmed and need to do something about it.

Okay, I never claimed that this was a self-help blog. There are times, many, many, many times, that I am an absolute mess. I like to share these as a way of connecting with those of you out there who more often than not feel the same way I do. And I hope it’s helpful because I myself read blogs for either inspiration or company. I like to hear the ideas of those who have once upon a time felt like myself and have some insight or from those who are currently feeling the way I do now. This blogging thing becomes a way of commiserating.

So, back to the wacky Heather behavior. You may ask, what is it that has you feeling so overwhelmed? What is it that has you forgetting what you’re doing and saying and where you’re going and why you’re going there? The answer–nothing much, life. This past week I felt like life knocked me on my ass. As I have mentioned on one of my pages, I have a child with some special needs, and while these needs are nothing dramatic, they do make parenting a bit of a crapshoot. There are times, this week being the perfect example, when I am plagued by indecision, self-doubt and anxiety over whether or not I have made or am about to make a poor decision regarding my child. Also, after taking last year off, I have returned to teaching two college courses this semester. Last count I have approximately fifty papers and fifty quizzes to grade before my next class. While I truly love what I do, I don’t know how I will manage to do it at this point in my life. Also, my parents are not well, my husband has his own separate cache of worries which he shares with me and then of course, the universal worry–finances. Basically, life. Oh yeah, did I mention that I am disorganized? Nothing can tie my stomach in a knot like a couple of piles of papers on my kitchen counter. Whereas some people see a pile of stuff and know exactly what to do with it, I do not. Now to add to the usual clutter of junk mail and crap, I have a couple of new piles of student papers. I sense impending disaster, like my dog before a storm hits.

Here’s the irony. Last night I lectured my students on the ways to avoid becoming overwhelmed by college life and coursework, and (ready for this?) how to deal with the stress of life in general. I called upon all of my students to address something in their lives that they have been avoiding or something that causes them angst and to take a small step to improve their situation.

Acknowledging the absurdity of previous night’s lecture given my present state of mind, this evening I called upon myself to take a small step to improve my situation. As old Prufrock waxes, there will be, “…time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions.”* There will be, in fact there is, a lifetime for hundreds, upon hundreds of decisions and indecisions and revisions, so tonight I chose to have candlelight dinner with my kids. I lit the tapers, turned down the lights, turned on Miles and had dinner….in our messy kitchen, just the kids, Ginger and I. I didn’t think about problems or bad decisions or anything other than us, in that moment, and I, we, felt much better. * Eliot, T.S. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. 1920