By Nikki C.
You know how some first-time parents like to read parenting books and BabyCenter e-mails, to get an idea of what to expect? Yeah – I’m not one of those people. When it came to my son, those sources were usually wrong. Was it me, I wondered? Was it them? I didn’t know – but I knew something about our situation was different.
I knew that we weren’t having the typical early childhood experience, but at first, I was opposed to testing that might label my son. I didn’t feel comfortable imposing predictions on a life that had only just begun. Before my son turned three, however, I did a complete 180. I needed to know what was going on – and if that meant a label, I was ready to give in. We ended up with an autism diagnosis. There were a lot of emotions tied to that diagnosis, but the important thing was that I now knew what we were dealing with so I could make informed decisions.
I jumped in feet first. I read the books, joined the groups, signed up for the therapies, and even bought the t-shirts… so excited that we would finally fit in somewhere… but we didn’t. I found myself feeling guilty at parent meetings. We certainly had our own share of difficulties, but they weren’t really the same. While my son did make some friends, we weren’t finding true peers. Then, there was school. Our local Special Education program was receiving rave reviews from other parents, but in our case, it wasn’t the right fit for my son. He needed something different.
I always knew my son had unusual abilities for his age, but he is my only child, and I wasn’t completely aware just how unusual they were. I did know that people generally do not love to hear someone talk about how bright they think their child is, so it didn’t come up very often. I did mention it when advocating at his school, however. Maybe he’s bored – he knows all the material – please challenge him – etc. I was told that his advanced skills were just one of the quirks of autism, that he didn’t really understand what he was saying, or that it was just rote memory – that his abilities were what we call “parlor tricks.”
I finally realized that the time and energy I was investing in trying to make our school be a good fit for my son could be better spent elsewhere. It was one of the scariest decisions I ever had to make, but we did it. We left the special needs program, and we left public school. My son was eager to learn, so we started homeschooling right away. His skills were all over the place. I had no idea what I was doing! One fateful day at a special and gifted education resource fair, several people made very specific comments regarding my son’s intelligence, and they recommended that I investigate resources for gifted children. I decided it was time for private testing.
That is how my son received an additional label: gifted.
Giftedness, as defined by psychologists, refers to an IQ at the 98th percentile or above, and it comes along with a number of unique characteristics and different learning needs. Here is the definition of giftedness that best helped me to understand its impact on my son’s life:
“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching, and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.” (emphasis added)
Silverman, L. (2007). Asynchrony: A New Definition of Giftedness. Digest of Gifted Research, Duke TIP. https://tip.duke.edu/node/839
I knew we had found another piece of our puzzle! While test scores are part of it, now I understood that giftedness is so much more than just that. As it turned out, my son’s scores indicated significant high ability learning needs, and qualified him for help from the Davidson Young Scholars program. I already knew that my son’s strengths enriched our lives with added awe and excitement, but I had no idea how much the label and knowledge that followed would change our lives for the better.
The gifted label validated what I already knew, and it gave me peace of mind. After so many professionals had treated me like one of “those moms,” I no longer had to question whether I had done the right thing by pulling my son out of our school. He needed an educational program which would build on his strengths while scaffolding in other areas. In our case, the school could not recognize and support his strengths, so our departure was no longer a decision I needed to second guess.
The gifted label provided a new perspective. I feel lucky that early on, my son taught me that for every challenge involved with autism, if I kept my heart and mind open, I would find a joy to help balance our world. Autism is part of who he is, and besides being the coolest and bravest person I know, he is more open to the joy in the world than anyone I have ever met. I wasn’t looking for a cure; I was looking for ways to help my child be the best version of himself and provide him tools to cope with living in a world that wasn’t always kind to him. I’m not going to lie: there have been some tough parenting moments. I had spent a lot of time trying to determine when challenging behaviors were due to autism and when they were simply due to my son’s age, since the best parenting approach is often not the same. Several behaviors weren’t explained by either, and I was at a loss of how to help my son with some of his challenges until I started learning about gifted children. The gifted label didn’t remove the autism diagnosis, but I now had a more complete understanding of my son’s behavior and needs, and I had additional techniques to explore. It turns out that many of my son’s characteristics were fairly common among gifted children: asynchrony, perfectionism, and overexcitabilities, to name a few. My son was born with two diagnoses; knowing both of them has enabled me to meet more of his needs.
The gifted label opened doors to resources, information, and peers. We gained access to in-person and online support groups and homeschool groups. In these communities, I no longer had to edit what I wanted to say or ask about my child… and these parents had answers! My son finally had peers with shared interests! He still has trouble with social interactions, but these people understand him. We now have a tribe, a home, a place we fit in. While having unconditional love and support from our extended family has been our lifeblood, as a single mom to an only child, I can’t say enough about how vital these new communities are to our happiness.
Most unexpectedly, the gifted label resulted in my own personal growth. While researching gifted traits to better understand my son, I first read about overexcitabilities, and I had one of the biggest “a-ha” moments of my life. Having a better understanding of yourself and of things you questioned for decades can be a huge confidence booster… and you need confidence when you’re raising an outlier among outliers, and you frequently have to make outside-the-box decisions!
Both parenting a gifted child and being a gifted child can be challenging. Some parents say that giftedness is not a gift at all. I do not wish to downplay the struggles of any child or adult, and I recognize that gifted children face significant struggles in our schools and world. For my son and for me, however, the gifted label has been a gift. Maybe I am being naïve about what is yet to come, and maybe it is because my son is still so young. Maybe it is because we homeschool, so we have sidestepped a lot of the common school problems. Maybe after living with my son’s autism diagnosis, my perspective is different.
Whatever the case, when my son received the gifted label, once again, I read the books, joined the groups, and continued the therapies (though no t-shirts this time :-)) …and it worked! This doesn’t mean that I use the gifted label in casual conversation, and it doesn’t mean that I use it yet with my son. The validation of my son’s giftedness, however, has filled in a huge chunk of our puzzle… and it has helped to set us on a path I am excited about every day. No matter what a child’s diagnosis, and no matter what a child’s areas of ability, every child deserves and needs to have support for their special needs and be allowed to soar in their areas of strength. Finding the best environment and tools to accomplish this takes research, advocacy and courage. Parents, trust yourselves to recognize your child’s strengths and make the big decisions. You have the power to view each new day as an immensely rewarding challenge, and to bring more joy and hope into your lives.
We are proud to include this post in the Gifted Homeschoolers Forum blog hop!