There’s a wave of giftedness sweeping across Seattle and my son’s not part of it.
Every parent I talk to these days has a child who is part of the “highly-capable cohort” (HCC for short) – the latest term for kids who score in the top percentiles on standardized tests. In the disability world, these kids are called “twice exceptional” or 2e – meaning the student has special needs but also extraordinary cognitive gifts.
My son Ted is just once exceptional, being on the Autism Spectrum. That’s not to put him down. Ted has tremendous talents (just see what he can do with a couple of bungee cords, unlimited dental floss, and a stack of traffic cones), but by academic measures, he’s behind.
Part of me thinks, So what? He’s only in kindergarten!
Another part worries that if we let him fall too far behind, his self-esteem will suffer; he’ll be excluded from the mainstream classroom and further alienated from his peers.
Yet a third part – a painful voice inside that I don’t often acknowledge – wonders if Ted just wasn’t meant to keep up. Is it fair to place the same expectations on him as typical kids? Perhaps I should accept the limitations of his disability – if only I knew what those were.
It wasn’t that long ago that Ted couldn’t engage in any kind of learning. If asked to draw, he’d hurl the marker, hide under a table, or turn into an obnoxious, nonstop meowing cat – or all three. When I attempted to have him count aloud, he’d withdraw and suck his thumb. He refused to even glance at the pages of the alphabet classic Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.
Now, after hours of therapy – occupational, behavioral and psychological – he can write his own name and count to ten. These seem like huge accomplishments until I witness his classmates writing whole sentences and counting to one hundred.
I struggle to find the balance between affirming Ted right where he’s at and challenging him to the next level. Other parents (usually those whose kid is reading above grade level) tell me to relax. He’ll learn when he’s ready, they say. But Ted is not the kind of kid you can just wait around on and see what naturally emerges. He requires gentle but persistent prodding, untold patience, and ingenuity.
Once, exasperated in my efforts to teach him the alphabet, I wrote the letters in aerosol cake frosting and let him lick up those he could correctly identify. His letter recognition skyrocketed. Last fall, faced with a long list of “sight words” Ted was to memorize by year end, I began writing one word per week on his thigh in permanent marker. Now every bowel movement is a learning opportunity.
Admittedly, there are times I overdo it, like this past Valentine’s Day.
I decided that this year Ted would make his own cards. I came up with the idea of cutting sight words out of the newspaper. My plan was to help Ted rearrange the words into simple yet heartfelt Valentine sentiments – Be mine, You’re special or I like you – and glue them onto cardstock.
I bought reams of Valentine-themed stickers, along with some more boy-friendly monsters and robots. I loaded up on DOT markers, gluesticks and heart-shaped doilies. I even broke my household ban on glitter glue. Then I asked Ted to join me for this fun and educational activity.
In actual fact, Ted had already memorized a dozen or so sight words. That should have been cause enough to pause and celebrate. I have a bad habit of raising the bar the moment he reaches it. He can handle ten words? Great! Let’s give him fifty.
I probably don’t need to tell you how all this ended – with me up late the night before Valentine’s Day, slapping sight words and hearts stickers onto 23 pieces of cardstock and cursing myself mightily. The following morning, in exchange for a handful of M& M’s, I was able to get Ted to write the names of three classmates. I wrote the rest in exceptionally neat handwriting – just to keep those “HCC” parents guessing.
Truthfully, we don’t know what Ted’s academic future holds. In that regard, I don’t think we’re all that different from the parents of any five-year-old. Our job remains the same: to encourage our kids to express their full potential while still allowing them a certain amount of freedom to learn on their own terms – even if it means store-bought Valentine’s.
Our school science fair is coming up. Participation is optional. On his own, Ted decided to do a project on volcanos. We hopped on the computer and googled “How to make a volcano.” Soon the two of us were up to our elbows in paper-mache as we molded the mountain Ted has christened Old Smoky. He talked about shifting tectonic plates, volcanic islands, and lava flow. There was no counting or reading involved, but it was learning at its best.
It reminded me what every parent knows in their heart:
My child is gifted.
My child is capable.
My child is exceptional in more ways than I can count.