Thursday, July 19, 2007

Update Illinois and Thoughts on Gifted/Twice-exceptional Children

Supposedly, N. has been taking a lot of pictures while he is in Illinois, but he has not downloaded very many to send to me so that I can vicariously enjoy his trip.

In fact, he doesn't seem to think about me much at all! Hummmmp!

I have been getting updates about once or twice a week from my sister, however. And he has called a few times, too. On Friday 6 July, I called him. He had not called before that, so I got the ball rolling and wished him Shabbat Shalom via message machine. On Sunday 8 July, I got this e-mail from my younger sister:

Hey Big Sis,
I could tell you were a wee bit worried about your boy when you called this afternoon. Some "mother's intuition" must have been working it's mojo on you because we got your message at the exact moment that N. most needed to hear your comforting voice. If you had seen the way he hovered over the answering machine listening to your message you'd never doubt for the rest of your life that your baby boy loves his mama!
You know that anyway, of course, but sometimes the teenaged versions of our beloved sons go ten miles beyond sunset out of their way to avoid letting us know they still need us.
They say things like, "YEAH, whatever!" and "Mom, I KNOW, okay?!"
They roll their eyes and shrug helplessly at each other, as if having a MOTHER is a unique scourge visited upon their generation as a sort of unavoidable social disease.

Well. They do become an alien species on the way to manhood.

And my sister has some interesting observations about "da boyz" as she calls them. She wrote:

N. and D. were approaching a potential fight about a stupid BB gun they'd basically stuffed up with spit-wads when you called. D. didn't care about it at all anymore, but N. was obsessed and would not let go of the thing, the project, whatever it had become in his mind. N. was all about getting back the glorious joy of shooting NOTHING BUT AIR out of that pump-action toy gun. D. was sick of the whole thing, and probably jealous of N.'s devotion to what he (D) saw as a stupid broken air gun that he'd discarded as no longer useful years ago. It was sort of interesting watching them work this thing out between themselves, these two mildly autistic boys.

D was far less obsessive than N about the BB gun, but he seemed to intuitively understand N's compulsion. D was WAY more patient about it than my 14 year old self would have been in a million years. D sat watching and offering assistance for HOURS while N worked on the useless BB gun. N was obviously aware of D's irritation and he felt guilty about it but couldn't help himself. At one point I heard N say to D, "Hey, you don't have to sit here forever." D replied, "No, that's okay, I gotcha."

My sister caught a difference between the two boys right away. They are both on the Autism Spectrum. And she is right that N.'s obsessiveness can be partly explained by that. But there is another valid explanation as well. N. is twice-exceptional. His intellectual potential is very high, which also can explain his hyper-focus. Despite what some well-meaning people say, this kind of giftedness is not "as common as dirt." And it is a mixed-bag. N. does not have the kind of intellectual giftedness combined with proclivities and talents that would make him the "A" student in school. In fact, D. is probably the better student in the classroom, even with his mild autism. He is more patient and more willing to "go with the flow." N. is not. He thinks visually, and gets from A to Z so fast that the rest of us are often only at B,C, or D. But to translate his process into words is so difficult for him that he generally just gives up. Like Moses, he is "slow of speech." He makes profound associations but gets frustrated to the point of melt-down or shut-down when he tries to communicate them. He has an astonishing visual memory coupled with extreme sensitivites to sensory input. Imagine the difficulties for him and his teachers in a classroom!

A truth about profound intellectual giftedness is this: The majority of profoundly gifted people are not the world's most successful people. They are unlikely to become presidents or prime ministers, or even famous research scientists. They are outliers. And the world of schools, universities and corporations was not set up with them in mind. They are more likely to have learning disabilities*, social difficulties, extreme sensitivities and psychological illnesses. To put it plainly, their nervous systems function differently. The field of the neurosciences is just beginning to investigate these differences and we do not really understand them. But we know they are there. These kids are truly the square peg in the round hole.

*A word on learning disabilities in the gifted: The higher someone scores on the IQ curve, the more likely they will have what we call "learning disabilites." And yet, these kids learn very well-- in the right environment. But that environment is not the public school general education classroom for most of them. Are these kids really learning disabled? Well that depends, I suspect, on how you define your terms. Maybe they are. And maybe our increasingly cookie-cutter standards and curriculum make them appear so. And maybe its a little bit of both. I don't know.

And for N., Asperger's Syndrome complicates matters further. Or maybe it's part and parcel of his profound giftedness. We don't know that, either. What we do know is that N. has an unusual cognitive phenotype. He is an outlier. He has a million-dollar brain. And yet, if most of us could go to the brain shop and if we had a million dollars to spend, we would not choose to buy a brain like his. It is too different. Too difficult. So maybe "gifted" is not the right word. But we have to call it something. The phenomenon of giftedness is real. Intelligence is a continuous trait in human beings. Like height. And weight. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. Some of us fall below average. And some of us above. Some are far below. And some are far above.

For those whose intelligence falls either far below or far above the average, there will be different educational needs. We recognize and provide for this for children with low cognitive abilities. But for many reasons, we often balk at the thought for children who are outliers at the other end of the curve. For a profoundly twice-exceptional child like N., the need for a qualitatively different education is even more pressing. And if the majority of children, those whose intelligence is somewhere near average, are having difficulties with our current educational practice, then gifted and twice-exceptional children certainly will.

Despite all of the talk about "diversity," the public schools have by-and-large abandoned the concept of individualizing educational practices to meet the needs of all of their students. No Child Left Behind has, in practice, been developed as a system of lock-step standards and goals that demand that all children demonstrate the exact same skills at the exact same age in the exact same way. There are many political and ideological "reasons" for this; but reason itself plays almost no role at all in this educational debacle.

So we opted out. By bringing N. home we can deliver to him an education that is truly individual. We can change strategies as we go, keeping what works, getting rid of what doesn't, and developing innovative techniques to meet his needs. We do not have to wait for somebody somewhere to notice that N.'s needs are not being met. We do not have to lose opportunities because "programs don't exist" for a child like N. At home, we can give him what he needs as the needs become apparent.

At home, N. does not cease to be profoundly gifted. He does not cease to have AS. He is still a twice-exceptional child. But he also gets to be something at least as important. Just a Kid. He gets to ponder and look for shapes in the clouds. He gets to tie knots and he gets to go from A to Z without words. At least sometimes. He gets to do what needs doing at his own pace and in his own time. He doesn't have to worry too much about how he differs from the other kids. We don't need to make comparisons on achievement and growth. We are not in competition with anyone. We are simply meeting the unique needs of of one kid. We didn't start out planning to do it this way. We started homeschooling in order to solve a problem. In N.'s case, we couldn't fix the public education system in order to make it work for us. So we had to solve the problem by doing something different. And we discovered that it is also lots of fun!

When we bring twice-exceptional kids home for school, this does not mean that "giftedness" and all that it entails disappears from the earth. The "label" is still useful and the differences are still real. Homeschooling is simply an unconventional way to meet the needs of the gifted or twice-exceptional child. And for us, it has been highly effective.

And what happened with the problem of the useless B.B. gun? "Da boyz," with a little help from my phone call and Aunt Madge, figured it out.

They had just about had it with the whole BB gun thing when we got your message. Luckily I found a bow and arrow set in the garage that caught their fancy and got them focused on something different. After talking to you N was in a much better humor and they both seemed to relax into their evening. They ran around the neighborhood making fools of themselves pretending to be savages and they loved it. They tried to "stalk" me and would have succeeded easily except that I happened to walk past them on my way from the patio...

Sometimes solving a problem takes you in a completely different direction than you planned. The solution sneaks up on you. And you end up having lots of fun.

(The pictures in this post are the few I have received from Illinois. One is from Allerton Park and Mansion. One is from the Prarieland Aviation Museum. The maps and the New Salem picture are from the Illinois Department of Tourism).


Miranda said...

Great quotes and descriptions from your sister. What a vivid picture she paints. I smiled a lot reading that.

I think that everyone approaches the word 'giftedness' with their own baggage, me included. For whatever reason, I keep feeling misunderstood in what I've written recently on the topic. I would never say that "this kind of giftedness is common as dirt". What I've come to appreciate through my deep, long-term contact with a number of unschooled kids who haven't had their jaggedy square-peg angles whittled off by school's expectations, is that there are so many kinds of brilliance. There's the kind N. has, that kind that can be easily or not-so-easily measured using standardized IQ testing, the kind that is commonly called big-G Giftedness and refers to intellectual reasoning ability. But there are so many other kinds of genius too. And those are what I see more and more, the more I look.

Megan Bayliss said...

E I am going to print this out and reread it every time I doubt myself.
Your eloquence of explaining twice gifted juxtaposed with ASD was just brilliant. Your description of educational programs that leave no kids behind (except ours) resonated strongly with me.
Is the house next door to you for sale? I'm moving to be your neighbour (I'm not a bad speller - we just put "u" where you guys don't) - or perhaps you'd like to move here to a lovely. lovely lifestyle in the tropics.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Wow-two responses already!

Miranda: I think you are right about what school can do to children--regardless of IQ. For many children the expectations you mention destroy their curiosity, wonder and creativity.

But in the US educational system there is another problem entirely about programs for the intellectually gifted. There are many people who deny that these children need gifted programs at all. The programs are often called elitist and there is an attitude that equality means sameness. Many US educators get "equality of opportunity" and "equality of outcome" mixed up. The No Child Left Behind laws have made this far worse, because teachers are now teaching to the lower third of their classes rather than the middle.

I taught gifted children for a number of years and I watched as they were given fewer and fewer challenges. When asked how things were going in her general education class, one said to me: "So much time, so little to do." What a tragic waste!

At the same time, if you have a 2X child like N., other parents and teachers often start a little competition of "look what X can do that yours can't." So there is some validity to the Hothouse Child phenomenon that happens when parents start to live for their children's achievements.

Honestly, from reading your blog, I don't think you are like that. And I can't imagine many unschoolers who would be.

Anyway, I think I missed your post. I am going to go back and see what I missed.... Ah, I was quoting Gatto because his words have fequently been used to justify not serving gifted kids in the classroom. I suspect he meant more of what you meant.

But a kid like N. has even more difficulty because he is not the teacher-pleasing, highly verbal gifted kid. And that is why homeschooling is such a good option for us.

Megan: We are buying the lot next door when it comes on the market. You can come stay in the guesthouse we plan to build there someday. Then I can visit your tropical climes for a good long while in exchange! It will be fun.

steph said...

I'm still working on my tendency to be competitive with other parents. One of the guys at work had (he's since moved) a kid a month older than Gigi and he always wanted to know what milestone she was at to compare to his son. It drove me nuts and then I started falling into the trap, too, especially since I had friends in their circle of friends and everybody made a big deal about Gigi walking and talking early. I am usually able to catch myself before I get obnoxious, but I know I do it and I'm working on it.

On the flip side, I find myself going out of my way to "apologize" in the sense that I'm always saying the caveats--"Oh, all kids have their thing...see, your kid does X,Y,Z and Gigi's no good at that", for example. It's embarrassing and I usually have no idea what to say as sometimes it's mentioned as if my kid was a circus side show freak--as if my friends were saying "I wish my kid could do that" and "I'm so glad my kid's not like that" at the same time.

I worry about Gigi in an institutional setting. She is a very strong personality and although she is a watcher when in uncertain circumstances, she's a go-getter otherwise. She's driven. But she's also earnest and naive (above and beyond her age, if that makes sense). She decides on a goal and will fight with every fiber of her being to achieve it, even when her abilities don't meet her expectations (or especially then.) I'm not sure how I can do better than public schools other than I understand her, have the time to devote to working on it and letting her pursue her interests, and I love her. Well, okay, I can see how that's an advantage to her, but she's a handful and that intimidates me sometimes. It's not that I feel she'll use me as a doormat or outstrip me intellectually (maybe in her own special area, but I'm gifted as well, as is my husband), I'm just afraid we'll clash so much we'll make each other miserable. But that's another thing I'm working on, and as I'm pretty driven myself and I love her desperately, I think I'll figure it out somewhere along the way (especially if I don't take myself or her or learning too seriously!)

Er, I probably out to just post at my place and link back here, eh? Thanks for the wise words! I think I'd like to print this one out, too.

Megan! We might be moving soon and our house will be available... :)

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Steph,

I suspect that your Gigi is gifted just from your descriptions of her. And there is a genetic element, although we get lots of gifted parents who are in denial!

As for Gigi's education: Only you can determine what is best for your child. You know her, love her and understand her. However, before you put her in a public school here in NM, make sure you check it out carefully. APS has good gifted programs, but the general education teachers are, in general, not on board. The demands of NCLB on their time make it harder and harder for them to be sympathetic to the plight of the gifted child. Many elementary teachers do not like having a gifted child removed from their classroom for gifted pull-outs and will punish the child by making them do every single worksheet they missed whether they need it or not! I had a gifted kid in my program who did high school level algebra with me and then had 3rd grade worksheets for homework because he "missed his work." This was a constant problem even though his IEP said that he should not be given extra homework because he attended the gifted class!

Another problem at the elementary level is that some teachers believe a) all gifted kids are "A" students with neat handwriting and teacher-pleasing behavior or b)gifted programs are a reward for option a. If Gigi is strong-minded and has her own agenda, you will need to be a strong advocate for her (think Mama Tiger) in order to get her tested for gifted programs and make sure that the IEP is being followed. I did this for my daughter, who was not particularly motivated by schoolwork. The little--well, the little GK-- did just enough to get by in high school, especially in math, and now she's getting A's in her college math classes because "I'm learning something real."
You can imagine how some of her teachers reacted when she disdained their carefully planned lessons and read Sense and Sensibility instead because the lesson wasn't "teaching me something real."
These are not easy kids. And school was not designed for them.

Good luck. And, whatever you decide, try to have fun with the kid! All kids can be delightful if their parents focus on the fun part, too. And get some rest now and then. Among the parents of gifted kids in my program, mental exhaustion from endless questions and projects and enthusiasms was the number one source of stress. These kids may be more emotionally sensitive than the norm, but they are still kids. They do not understand the drastic drop in energy that hits parents around the age of 35. And even if you tell them about it, they really don't believe you.