In The Beginning…
…there was a small boy called Archie who was our first and we learnt along with him, just like any other new parents. We had nothing and no-one to compare him to, and he was who he was. We knew he was bright and interesting and quirky and sensitive and that was just fine. He was sort of demanding, needing someone to play with him all the time and this did suck me dry of all energy. But at night he slept beautifully which goes a long way (I know that now with the beauty of hindsight; I’ve since been blessed with one who doesn’t!).
He walked on his tip toes, from when he took his first steps at 11 months, and still does at the age of 7. An early referral to the Physio ruled out any physical causes.
He was an early talker; full and clear conversations at 18 months despite being a boy who loved his dummy.
He was always somewhat sensitive to noise. He didn’t like sudden or loud noises as a baby. I was never able to use the hoover when he was about, and we still can’t use hand-dryers in public toilets (*update although Boy1 still doesn’t use hand dryers himself, he does now let me use them. He just does a crazy little dance on the spot while I get on with it…progress!)
At 20 months he started to eliminate all but a few things from what had previously been a great diet. His food fussiness took on monumental proportions. I can see now we probably handled this clumsily and are still dealing with the issue now.
He showed some pretty extreme separation anxiety when we first tried to leave him for short periods of time with a childminder, and starting playschool was hard for him though he formed a strong bond with his special member of staff which made it possible for him to be left.
Like many young children, he had a special attachment to one particular soft toy from a very early age and this shows no signs of being given up anytime soon. I assume one day zebra will play second fiddle to someone more special!
By 2.5yrs he was displaying some obsessional tendancies in his behaviour which were considered noteworthy at his developmental review conducted by the health visiting team.
Before he turned 3, despite potty training beautifully 6 months previously, he started to ‘stool withhold’ (gotta love that terminology!) and now, 4 years later he is still on a daily laxative prescribed by the GP to prevent this behaviour spiralling out of control.
Most of Archie’s play prior to turning 5 involved dressing up and pretending to be someone else. His imagination has always been vivid and he only felt truly comfortable turning up to nursery when in costume. I can see now that this gave him some sort of confidence in himself that he otherwise lacked.
These things prompted an additional developmental review by two senior health visitors prior to Archie starting school; I think they were looking for Autistic Spectrum Disorder. They didn’t think there was too much to worry about. He was a sociable little man with lots of friends who made good eye contact, though he tended to dominate most play with other children and gave any adult who was willing to engage in a game a full script. The HV team referred him to the Paediatrician ahead of starting school.
So, at 4yrs old the Paediatrician met with Archie and decided that he was probably not Autistic but that he should be seen again after settling into his reception year.
We chose a small village school (rather than the larger one on our doorstep) so that Archie could be in what we hoped would be a cosy environment with children he already knew from pre-school. His first term at school was fantastic and all my fears about his anxieties seemed to be unfounded. So when we returned for our follow-up appointment with the Paediatrician she felt confident enough to discharge us. Though thankfully she also felt it was necessary to re-refer Archie on to the Psychologist because of his anxieties which looked like they could spiral into OCD if left unchecked. We were told to expect a long wait.
In the meantime, and despite his great start, school became a problem. Archie started to have issues with one particular child and did not want to go. He developed a whole new routine of asking certain questions at bedtime as a reassurance tool. He started coming into our bed at nighttime. We were told at his parent’s evening that he’d lost all confidence and was starting to struggle and would need to get back to where he’d been in order to cope with the transition into Yr1. In contrast, during his first term they’d described him as having ‘hit the ground running’ and being ‘the brightest boy in the class’. By May he was so upset over going to school that I asked to have a meeting with his teacher. Rather than recieving some reassurance I was told that he’d become quite naughty and disruptive, that his work and progress had not only plateaued but had regressed and that he would probably need an IEP in order to cope with Yr1. I was shocked. After all, I was the one who arranged this meeting and I was not expecting to be told I had a naughty, disruptive child. By the end of his year R though, the teacher came to the conclusion that Archie was perhaps affected by the noise in the classroom following a quiet assessment where he out of the blue wrote 2 sides of A4 unassisted; this noise sensitivity had been documented on the paediatricians report, a copy of which the school had. For one lesson he was separated out and made to work alone outside the classroom. Sigh. I felt like pulling him out and homeschooling.
Yr1 started with him screaming at the school gate and having to be pulled from me by his new class teacher and teaching assistant. Every morning there were tears. The Psychologist’s appointment was scheduled for this first week back and it couldn’t have come sooner. She met with just me initially to discuss everything and agreed that she needed to meet with him.
Sometime in the September just ahead of his 6th birthday, Archie was assessed by the Psychologist and he showed some interesting and unusal results. His Non-Verbal reasoning score was a cracking 98th percentile putting him the the Superior Advanced/Gifted bracket. The Verbal reasoning, however, was dramatically lower on the 18th percentile – just scraping low average. Furthermore his Processing speed (attention to the task) was 16th percentile. The Psychologist explained the he is wired differently. That this huge gap will cause social and emotional difficulties and would account for his history of anxiety. She scheduled a visit to the school to observe Archie in his setting in December.
The Psychologist and her PhD student saw nothing of any real note when they observed him for the day at school. They witnessed a few things which suggested that Archie was perhaps lagging behind in how he handled certain social situations but other than that, he was engaged with the lessons, was listening and doing what he was asked to do, and played well with his peers. She also said that despite the results of his tests, though he shares some of the social and emotional issues that those kids with Aspergers do, he does not meet the level of difficulty to be labeled with ASD or PDD. At this stage she was unable to offer the school any advice. His teachers felt Archie was progressing and was where they would expect a boy of his age should be. Pretty average.
Only the assessment carried out suggested that Archie is anything but average.
These results, coupled with all his little idiosyncrasies suggest that Archie is possibly Twice Exceptional (2e or DME). A child with dual or multiple exceptionality (DME) has both gifted learning potential but also a hidden learning difficulty/disability, most usually Aspergers, ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia or Auditory Processing Disorder. And so our battle to get what our child needs in order to be happy and to reach his potential, began…
…not what most people think it is. Most people hear or see the word and muddle it up with ‘high achiever’. The Psychologist explained that Archie is wired a little differently to most kids. I think she was referring to his spread of abilities and the discrepancies between his verbal and non-verbal reasoning skill more generally. However, giftedness in itself is all about wiring; it is not what a person accomplishes. To quote the expert on giftedness (and dual exceptionality):
Giftedness is not what you do, or how hard you work, It is who you are. You think differently. You experience life intensely. You care about injustice. You seek meaning. You appreciate and strive for the exquisite. You are painfully sensitive. You are extremely complex. You cherish integrity. Your truth-telling has gotten you into trouble. Should 98% of the population find you odd, seek the company of those who love you just the way you are. You are not broken. You do not need to be fixed. You are utterly fascinating. Trust yourself!
Dr Linda Silverman, Gifted Development Center
Giftedness is developmental advancement that can be observed in early childhood, but the child doesn’t advance in all areas equally; as the child asks what happens after you die, and, how do we know we’re not part of someone else’s dream, he still can’t tie his shoelaces! The higher a child’s IQ, the more difficulty he or she has finding playmates or conforming to the lock-step school curriculum. And the greater the discrepancy between a child’s strengths and weaknesses, the harder it is for him to fit in anywhere.
Gifted children, and adults, see the world differently because of the complexity of their thought processes and their emotional intensity. People often say to them, “Why do you make everything so complicated?” “Why do you take everything so seriously?” “Why is everything so important to you?”. The gifted are “too” everything; too sensitive, too intense, too driven, too honest, too idealistic, too moral, too perfectionist, too much for other people! Even if they try their entire lives to fit in, they still feel like misfits. The damage we do to gifted children by ignoring this phenomenan is far greater than the damage we do by labeling it. Without the label for their differences, the gifted come up with their own label: “I must be crazy. No one else is upset by this injustice but me.”
Dr Linda Silverman, Gifted Development Center in ‘What is Giftedness?’
Unfortunately, rather than being seen as the way a person is wired, giftedness in our society (and certainly within schools) is equated with achievement. And to this end, the gifted child is expected to keep up the hard work – performing, producing, achieving. So ‘gifted’ has become the label bestowed by schools on hardworking, task committed children who achieve good grades.
Oh dear. Wrong! These children are especially vulnerable and what starts out as a developmental issue can very quickly become a mental health issue, as well.
The Visual-Spatial Learner…
…thinks in pictures rather than in words. They have a different brain organization than auditory-sequential learners. They learn better visually than auditorally. They learn all-at-once, and when the light bulb goes on, the learning is permanent. They do not learn from repetition and drill. They are whole-part learners who need to see the big picture first before they learn the details. They are non-sequential, which means that they do not learn in the step-by-step manner in which most teachers teach. They arrive at correct solutions without taking steps, so “show your work” may be impossible for them. They may have difficulty with easy tasks, but show amazing ability with difficult, complex tasks. They are systems thinkers who can orchestrate large amounts of information from different domains, but they often miss the details. They tend to be organizationally impaired and unconscious about time. They are often gifted creatively, technologically, mathematically or emotionally. You can tell you have one of these children by the endless amount of time they spend doing advanced puzzles, constructing with Legos, etc., completing mazes, counting everything, playing Tetris on the computer, playing chess, building with any materials at hand, designing scientific experiments, programming your computer, or taking everything in the house apart to see how it operates. They also are very creative, dramatic, artistic and musical.
The Visual Spatial Learner, Gifted Development Center
When we discovered Archie’s ability to complete Non-Verbal tasks was so strong, I initially misunderstood what this meant. I mistook it for thinking he was really logical, not so great at conversation, and perhaps the typical maths ‘geek’ as opposed to a creative. This was so far from what I knew of my little boy that I felt very confused. I knew he wasn’t typical, and I knew there was something a little different with how he viewed the world but I didn’t have him down as a child destined to be a Scientist, for example. So once I started doing my own research onto exactly what his scores meant, I was relieved to discover I do know my child after all! Those who score more strongly on non-verbal reasoning have a right hemisphere dominant brain. Someone who has Archie’s cognitive profile is a Visual-Spatial learner. He falls, at the moment, into the dramatic, musical and emotional bracket of the description above. He thinks deeply about things but his thoughts nearly always have an emotional element, rather than technical. He is excellent with Lego, able to complete sets well in advance of his age but he doesn’t have the attention span to sit for hours on things, unless you include watching movies or playing Lego Star Wars on the PS3.
If you’re interesting in learning more fascinating stuff about Visual-Spatial Learners, go to Visual Spatial Resource.
I love that Archie thinks and learns in this way. I personally find it more interesting, fascinating even, than its opposite style – sequential. But here’s the rub. Schools, certainly beyond Yr2, simply do not teach to Visual-Spatial learners. Everything about the school day, from his regiment, timing, organisation, sitting and listening, building up knowledge, writing and reading – is all at odds with how the visual-spatial learner ticks. So Archie (and possibly up to 30% of his classmates) are at a distinct disadvantage if they naturally favour the right side of their brain for learning.
And the problem for some is two-fold: Dual or Twice Exceptionality (DME)
And this is where I started to really worry; there is no doubt that Archie is a Visual-Spatial learner. Couple this with relatively weak auditory-sequential reasoning skills, and seemingly poor attention, and he has far less resource than most to fall back on if he’s not being taught in way that suits him. I began to find it impossble to see how he could ever thrive in a typical classroom beyond the cosy(ish) early years. I’m sure many people might think that I was being too fearful too soon? That’s entirely possible. But you see, this has never been about us thinking – “ohhh we have a gifted child. Excellent, I wonder if he’ll be a rocket scientist some day?”. Not at all, particularly as he has sensitivites, issues, delays – call them what you will – that may compromise his overall learning anyway. We don’t mind what he becomes later in life, what he ultimately chooses to be, or ends up being. But we do care whether he is happy and fulfilled. Self confidence and esteem are so dependent upon experiences. Our concern was that if he went through school frustrated or thinking he’s not as good as he should be then he will, ultimately, find life tough. Couple this with his already sensitive disposition and we could be in trouble. The flip side; he might end up getting bored, becoming oppositional and being politely asked to leave school, just like his Dad was!
I think it must be hard enough being a gifted child, but surely its harder still to be a child with dual exceptionalities? The biggest issue facing these children, as I see it, is the high probability of slipping through the nets. Their gifted learning potential goes unrecognised as they are held back by their learning difficulty. Their learning difficulty may go undetected because their high IQ on the other end of the scale compensates for any weakness. They can appear quite average to their teachers, just like Archie. And when someone is average they’re considered just fine, and certainly not in need of any special assistance.
And getting at what exactly their learning weakness might be is incredibly hard when many of the characteristics of giftedness can just as easily be attributed to one of several different disorders:
Their excitement is viewed as excessive, their high energy as hyperactivity, their persistence as nagging, their questioning as undermining authority, their imagination as not paying attention, their passion as being disruptive, their strong emotions and sensitivity as immaturity, their creativity and self-directedness as oppositional. They stand out from the norm. But then again, what is normal?
‘Living with Intensity’ by Susan Daniels, and Dr Michael Piechowski
As a parent its all a bit daunting, to be honest.
I decided to try very hard to concentrate on Archie’s strengths, rather than his weaknesses. And yet the school system insists you look for problems and pitfalls. This was so demoralising. In order to try and advocate as best I could on his behalf I armed myself with the facts. The best sources of information I found on DME (that aren’t American – where the condition is far more widely recognised) are Gifted Kids Ireland and Potential Plus (formerly the Association for Gifted Children).
So what happened next?
ThePotential Plus advice line suggested we work with the school on getting some early intervention measures in place that could help prevent Archie slipping through any nets further on in his education, while trying to also teach him in his preferred learning style. The National Curriculum states that schools need to honor differentiation in children’s needs. I can see how this is reasonably straight forward for kids with a statement of SEN, but Archie didn’t, and will never have, a statement and therefore the school received no extra funding. No extra funding meant no extra time.
I scheduled a meeting with his two class teachers. It was like wasting my time, even though I genuinely believe they had his best interests at heart and were good people. And then the school failed its OfSted inspection. Monumentally. For a moment, my growing desire to home educate wavered as the school started a shake-up, shape-up process and a new a Special Needs coordinator was drafted in. She was great. She listened. She understood. She was honest. And more importantly she managed to organise an assessment with an Educational Psychologist swiftly.
But the results of this second assessment were markedly and unexpectedly different to those gathered by the Clinical Psychologist 10 months earlier. I felt like I was floundering. I didn’t know who or what to believe anymore. Now we were being told we had a very bright boy, particularly great at reading, definitely not dyslexic or dyspraxic and with no obvious anxiety issues. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? And yet I’m his mum, I know whether he’s anxious or not better than anybody. And he was showing all his classic signs of heightened stress.
While I was floundering with this new assessment and what it meant, the school was floundering full stop. Archie had come to love and trust his yr1 teacher and he was supposed to have her for yr2 as well. But as part of the shake up he was due to have a new teacher instead. He was really not coping so well with the impending transition, and had already made the decision that he didn’t like the replacement, based on one afternoon with her. Meanwhile, I didn’t really like the tone of the new Academy team who stepped in to save the ‘failing’ school. And whilst the new test results sounded more positive and preferable to the last, they left queries in my mind and uncertainty. At least the earlier assessment gave good reason for Archie’s sensory differences. [The first assessment was carried out by the lead Paediatric Clinical Psychologist for Kent, the second assessment was conducted by a Educational Psychologist who I’ve since found out is not that well respected. Unfortunately schools only seem to work to guidance given by educational, not clinical psychologists. The only additional help Archie would be offered was a handwriting programme to improve fine motor skills]
So during the summer holidays we finally made the decision to home educate. I firmly believe that when a gut feeling is that strong it cannot be ignored. The greatest thing so far, for me at least, is that Archie is just Archie now he’s not at school. It no longer matters that he’s whether he’s able to concentrate in a noisy room, has pretty awful handwriting, or can read like a child two years older. He is just him. No targets, no tests, no assessments, no comparisons. Right now, we’re taking it day by day with this year-long experiment. I hope a year turns into a another, and another, and another…
For those who are interested, we’re very much taking an unschooling approach to learning, and are still in the deschooling phase. And I am not missing the school run. Not one little bit.
*this page was updated December 2013*