Thursday, December 01, 2005

Fitting In

My wife and I have known for several years that my 8-year-old son, we'll call him Tiger (no, nothing to do with golf) suffers from a moderate learning disability. It was evident from toddlerhood that he was not developing quite the same as other children his age.

On the one hand he was brilliant. By 18 months old he could count to 100, or up to 20 and back down. He could recognize all his letters by age 2 and was able to read words by age 3 and toddler books by age 4. But ask him to tell you what the book was about and you'd be met with a blank stare. Despite his precocious reading and pattern recognition ability, he suffered from an inability to comprehend what he read or apply such things to his own experience. His speech contained a lot of echolalia and somewhat innapropriate responses. If you asked him a question, you might get a sensible answer, but you might also get an answer that didn't make much sense from the question. He would hear the question, but if he didn't immediately understand what you were asking for, he would choose a memorized verbal response that sounded right and regurgitate that. He had, and still has, a terrible time inferring, and also a tough time answering Why and How questions.

There were other oddities during these past eight years that we never associated with his condition, but thought them just the simple things a kid goes through. He had some very intense and irrational fears, especially about walking on certain types of surfaces. Until he was six years old, he would not walk on any sand, sandy surface, or gravelly surface. He would throw a complete fit and become inconsolable if you tried to force him to do so.

So now he is in the second grade (we waited a year to start him to give him time to catch up socially, which he has somewhat.) He is still in the mainstream and maintaining good grades. He takes speech therapy twice a week (since kindergarten) and now takes occupational therapy twice a week as well. We have been blessed with a wonderful set of teachers for all three of Tiger's school years so far, and with a sweet, patient, and knowledgable speech therapist too.

Yet all this time we were unable to put a name to his condition. We checked into all sorts of autism related conditions, types of dyslexia, which we sort of discounted due to their nature (more on that), and other disorders. Nothing fit.

Finally, and quite by accident, my wife ran across a condition that we had never heard of before. It was a stunning revelation, not because it is anything so terrible, but because it is an almost indescribable feeling to be dealing with something that doesn't seem to make sense to anyone else, then suddenly find the answer and realize that we're really not alone, that somebody knows what we're going through, and that people with the condition live successful lives.

Now we're going through the process of having the school system reevaluate him to see if he's eligible for additional resources for help, but we know that they won't diagnose him, because they just won't, for fear of liability. So when the school is done checking him out, we'll take him down to Linda Mood Bell to a licensed psychologist to have him officially diagnosed.

It seems our son suffers from Hyperlexia.

It is actually kind of the "opposite" of dyslexia, and likely related to it.

Usually these symptom lists are just full of bugaboos for people. Yet when we looked into it further and saw that it wasn't a matter of Tiger exhibiting a few of the symptoms, but that reading about the disorder was like reading our child's biography, we realized we had found our answer.

Now that we know what we are dealing with, it's comforting to realize that most of what we had been doing for him when we couldn't put a name to his struggle was right on the mark. It also gives us a lot of hope. It moves the focus off of the is he going to be able to function as an individual? question. That's a good thing.

There's another aspect that has since become my concern, however. Now that he's in second grade, his peers are getting a little older, a little wiser, a little more savvy. Kids at that age start developing more self-consciousness and social identity. They're starting to figure out that Tiger's a little different. Right now they are mostly very nice to him, and he has healthy playground friendships with several children. When he runs into some of his peers outside of school, they often go out of their way to wave and say hi.

On the other hand, his social difficulties lead him to sometimes speak inappropriately, or at inappropriate times. This sometimes comes out in class. It's actually sweet, for his class for the most part is used to his minor foibles. The teacher might be in the middle of explaining something to the entire class and right in the middle of it, Tiger will exclaim, "Oh! I get that!" The class smiles, and a couple of the kids near him roll their eyes as if to say, "Oh, there's Tiger again."

But I wonder how long it will remain innocent like that? I remember school. I remember it was really closer to the third and fourth grade that the differences really started to tell, and that the popular and the unpopular kids began to diverge. I didn't struggle with any particular learning disability, but I was a geek (still am.) I was somewhat outcast and ostracized and made the butt of jokes. I was picked on and browbeat and sometimes just beat up.

I find myself lying awake at night wondering, "What will happen to my son?"

Will they tease him and torment him like they do to so many kids who are a little different, who don't fit the mold? Will they ignore and ostracize him? Will they be openly hostile?

Will they beat him up someday?

I am not so naive to think I can find a way for him to avoid many of those things. It's just part of being a kid in a fucked up world. But I want to protect him, and already I see myself grabbing those imaginary kids who in my mind are already doing these things, and tying them up in a Hefty bag, tying an anchor to them, and tossing them in the bay with a picture of my son forever taped over their eyes so his face will be the last thing they see.

Oh, don't look so shocked. What parent doesn't at least think awful things in the dead of night when only the breathing of your mate is there to comfort you?

In reality, I'm going to do my best to prepare him, to teach him how to behave socially, to help him minimize the difficulties that his condition creates. Then when it finally happens, when someone really works him over, I need to be prepared to just be his dad, and help him learn how to forgive, how to move on, how to feel sad for someone who has to put down another person to feed their sense of self-worth.

After all, that's what we're about as parents, teaching our kids to survive in a hard, harsh world.


It's about me, dummy!!!


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