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).