My 12-year-old son looked me in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, Mom.” He told me how badly he felt for overreacting—monopolizing the office staff, smacking his Rubik’s Cube against the floor, making the school counselor call me to pick him up because of a headache. It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten upset, nor was it the first time the school counselor had called. But the eye contact, the accountability and the eloquence with which he articulated his frustration caught me off guard.
“I hate being this way,” he said, laying his head on his arm.
My son is twice exceptional or 2e. “Twice exceptional” refers to children with advanced cognitive abilities (gifted) and significant learning or social-emotional deficits, such as ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder (think: Temple Grandin, Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, to name a few famous examples).
This extremely uneven development—or asynchrony—can lead to deep frustration, stress, and emotional anguish for a child, and his parents. Imagine an 8-year-old who patiently explains the theory of relativity to a group of adults, yet storms off the soccer field in a fit because a teammate doesn’t pass the ball. Anxiety, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, sensory issues and obsessive-compulsive disorder are common challenges for twice-exceptional kids.
The National Education Association wrote in “The Twice Exceptional Dilemma,” a 30-page report issued in 2006, that “[Twice-exceptional students] represent a potential national resource whose future contributions to society are largely contingent upon offering them appropriate educational experiences. Without appropriate education and services, their discoveries, innovations, breakthroughs, leadership, and other gifts to American society go unrealized.”
The toll on the self-esteem of any child who is different can be enormous. Twice-exceptional kids are easily misunderstood. Social/emotional issues, such as feelings of failure, worthlessness, anger, depression, and isolation are not uncommon among these kids. At parent-teacher conferences at my son’s school, I repeatedly heard, “In my [blank] years of teaching, I’ve never had a kid like this.” This translated into, I have no idea how to work with your child. When I’d ask the teacher what services were available, the answer was always the same: none they were aware of.
Contrary to film portrayals of many notable twice-exceptional people, my son was well aware of his differences. But no matter how he tried, he couldn’t squeeze into “the box.” I would have ripped the cardboard edges apart with my teeth if I could have. But I couldn’t. As he got older, we discovered chess, strategy card games, and a specialized science program where his natural abilities made him feel “good” instead of “not good enough.” We were also fortunate to find a middle school where his challenges were accommodated and the focus was on his strengths.
The day he wanted me to bring him medicine for a headache (15 minutes after I’d dropped him off), he was stuck on that solution so the suggestion of water and rest tipped him over the edge. When I got to school, he already knew where things went wrong. “I get into this spiral,” he said, “and I can’t get out of it.” He laid his head on his arm. “Why can’t I be like everybody else?”
There had been many times in the past 12 years when I’d wondered that, too. But with patience and education, I’d come to understand the extraordinarily bright and challenging person that is my son. He’d had a rough morning. I’d had rough mornings, too. Not everything is a problem that needs to be fixed. He isn’t a problem that needs to be fixed. It had taken me a long time to get that. I wanted him to get that, too.
“I don’t want you to be like everyone anyone else,” I said, “You are perfectly yourself. You’re doing the best you can. That’s all any of us can do. And that is enough.”
He lifted his head off his arm, looked me in the eye, and smiled. “Thanks, Mom.”
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