How Distance Running Prepared me for Parenting a Twice-Exceptional Child

Parent perspectives by Nikki C.

There was a time in my life when I couldn’t imagine anything would compare to the experience of running my first marathon.

At the starting line, I was confident and full of energy.  I was so happy that I had made it through training and that the big day had finally arrived!  My excitement did not last, though.   As the miles racked up, my energy faded.  Anxiety set in, and this turned into full-on fear and self-doubt.   I was digging for strength I wasn’t even sure I had (there might have been some tears and praying at this point).  Eventually, fierce determination kicked in, and I found my confidence.   By the time I crossed that finish line, I had come full circle, back to happiness and excitement.

Challenging, rewarding, and intense…  and what an emotional roller coaster!  I didn’t think anything could compete with those highs and lows, especially in a single morning.   Then, I became a mom – a mom of a remarkable child, who, among other things, is twice-exceptional (gifted with other special needs).   My life with him can involve all of the above emotions on any given day.  I happen to love roller coasters, and I am not complaining in any way. I am grateful, though, that before I became a parent of a 2e child, I learned some important lessons through distance running.

Lesson #1:  There is no such thing as the “best shoe”

Many new runners walk into specialty running stores, announce that they will be starting distance training, and ask for best shoe available.  These new runners soon learn that there is no such thing as the best shoe… at least not the best shoe.  Due to differences such as body mechanics, foot structure, and cushion preferences, each runner needs to find his or her own best shoe.  It might not be the one they hoped for – the one so many of their friends have, the brand they know, the price they expected, and so on – but with some work, they can find their best shoe.  More importantly, they will come to love their shoe, even if it was not what they expected.

The same is true for many aspects of raising a twice-exceptional child.  When you combine giftedness with a disability – not forgetting asynchronous development and overexcitabilities – it often takes some work to find your child’s “best shoe.”  An example: finding the best educational path for your child.  Before my son started school, I believed that public school was a given for us.  I went to public school, and it seemed to work well for most kids.  With my son, I quickly learned that this shoe did not fit well – it was like a supinator trying to do speed work in a motion control shoe (yes, only running geeks will understand that!).  In other words, the metaphorical shoe was holding my child back and was close to causing serious problems.  We found homeschool to be our “best shoe.”

Homeschooling led to another discovery: there is no best curriculum. Talking about curriculum with other homeschool parents is as much fun as talking about running shoes with other runners, but again, you have to find what’s best for your child. For a 2e child, a boxed curriculum is probably not going to work.  Finding my child’s best fit could be compared to the searches of runners who, even after finding their best shoes, still need custom orthotics, tricky customized lacing, and very specific socks to make everything function optimally.  Oh, and expect to have to buy new “shoes” more often than the recommended time frame.

Even basic parenting choices require finding our “best shoe.”  Most parents we know have some common rules: sitting with the family during mealtime, not jumping on the furniture, sleeping in your own bed… heck, sleeping, period.  When kids don’t abide by these rules, timeouts and sticker-chart rewards are common solutions.  I’ll just say that I am almost at the point (almost) where I can laugh at what a disaster those were for us.  We needed different rules and different methods to handle problems.  It makes my head spin to think of all the outside-the-box methods I have had to use, but it has been worth the effort.  Finding our “best shoes” has taken us from 5K to ultramarathon confidence (on some days, and metaphorically speaking, of course J).

Lesson #2:  Join a running group, and find your running buddies

When you’re a distance runner, you’ll log many solo miles, yet I found that joining a running group was also essential.  My ideal group includes runners with varied abilities and experience levels.  Seasoned runners, with their vast knowledge and experience, help newcomers.  Faster runners help slower runners improve performance.  New runners remind you how far you have come.   My favorite part of a running group, though, is the camaraderie.  Runners love to talk about running. They love to share stories – the good, the bad, the ugly. You learn fairly quickly that non-runners don’t necessarily want to hear all you have to say about running… and you have a lot you want to say about running! Runners can laugh and cry together about things others just don’t get.

The same has been true with parenting a 2e child.   My “running buddies” include special needs groups, gifted groups, twice-exceptional groups, and homeschool groups, local and online.  The things I’ve learned from experienced parents have been invaluable, and their guidance lowers my anxiety level.  It can also be immensely rewarding to see that not only does your work impact your child’s progress, but that you, too, can help parents new to “running.”

Parent groups also allow you to speak freely about topics you can’t discuss with those who aren’t “runners.”  Discussing issues related to your child’s disability and its perplexing parenting dilemmas can be overwhelming for some who live outside of that world.  Discussing your child’s giftedness and its challenges can be even harder.

So, find groups that are full of optimistic people.  Find your running buddies.  They can enable you and your child to run the best race you both possibly can.

Lesson #3: Remove the word “can’t” from your vocabulary

I’ll admit, I was a sucker for motivational running quotes when I first started.  For me, they provided inspiration comparable to listening to the theme from Rocky.  This one made the most difference for me:  “Running a marathon: how to single-handedly remove the word can’t from your vocabulary.”   In my first “training” run, I could barely make it ten minutes before I thought my lungs would never recover.  I didn’t say “can’t,” though.  I got over that hurdle, then got over the next one, over and over.  Soon after, I realized that I could apply this concept to many aspects of my life – and now, to parenting a 2e child.

When you are raising a twice-exceptional child, hearing the word “can’t” comes with the territory.  You might be trying to help your child through another public meltdown, or trying to persuade the school into testing your child for the gifted program even though he has a disability, or trying to assure your friend that you have not lost your mind when you pull your special needs child out of public school.  You might be trying to encourage your child to try something new despite their fear of mistakes.  You know your child better than anyone, you have more motivation than anyone, and you are making decisions based on the best interest of your child… so, guess what?   You can!  Removing the word “can’t” encourages perseverance, enhances endurance, and boosts confidence.  These things help when you need to take the road less traveled.

When your child needs you in their corner, it’s not an option to think “’I’m not strong enough” or “I can’t do this.”  After removing the word “can’t,” now you think, “how do I get strong enough?”  My son, along with giftedness, has an autism diagnosis and sensory processing disorder.  Some days are hard.  Some days being a mom to this child of mine wears me out.  At these times, I ask myself, “how do I get stronger?”  With your child as your inspiration and some help from your “running buddies,” you will find that strength.

Lesson #4:  You can’t effectively treat an injury until you know the source

There is one thing runners can be really bad at… handling injuries.  We ignore early warning signs, we slap a Band-Aid on a more serious issue, or we aren’t consistent with the recovery plan.  Since we want to get back on the road, we are often shortsighted.  Usually, running injuries that are ignored or masked do not get better on their own, and often they get much worse. After incurring several running injuries, I learned that many are preventable, and others can be remedied more easily if you figure out the source of the problem.  For example, if a runner starts experiencing a slight pain in the knee area, and if all she does is wear a knee sleeve, the problem will probably get worse and could require more drastic measures.  On the other hand, if at the first sign of knee pain, the runner learns about possible causes and gets to the root of the problem, the outcome can be much better.

Listening to my child’s signals and finding the root of challenges have been critical for us.  We have been blessed to have the assistance of several behavior therapists who reminded me that finding the root of a problem is always the best way to find a long-term solution.  Instead of feeling like I’m supposed to be a disciplinarian when my child does something that seems inappropriate, I become a detective.  For instance, through research, consultations, and evaluations, I learned that my son is a sensory seeker and he’s full of psychomotor overexcitabilities.  Occupational therapy and a better understanding of giftedness have worked miracles for us.  In a different setting, his behaviors could have been reprimanded, labeled as problematic and possibly misdiagnosed.

I want to be clear that I am not discouraging needed medication:  my concern is about viewing medication as a first step when the root of the problem has yet to be addressed.  A 2e child who is acting out in a classroom might be doing so because he’s not being appropriately challenged academically.  In this situation, investigating and working to find an academic fit appropriate for his ability could provide a constructive, long-term solution.  When a 2e child is acting out, it is also possible that he is trying to exert some control in an environment that feels out of control to him.  In my experience, sensory integration therapy could provide tools to cope with sensory overload that could benefit him for years to come.

Soon after we entered the autism world, I read this quote:  “If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.”   When we entered the gifted-identified world, I heard the same quote in reference to gifted children.  What should the quote be for our 2e kiddos? “If you have met one person who is 2e, you have met one person who is 2e… and you will continually encounter new aspects of that person. You better enjoy doing research, and you better find all your stamina, because knowing this individual will give you a complex, intense, thrilling, and awe-inducing ride that will change you in ways you never imagined.”

Sometimes all the research and possible parenting tools can get downright overwhelming. Many times, in a difficult situation with my child (especially those that happen in a crowded public area), I find myself not knowing what to say because my head is swimming with all the things I’ve learned.  What’s the right thing to do at this moment?  I don’t know!  I feel like everyone is staring at me and waiting for me to do the right thing…and I can’t think! When fear and self-doubt rear their ugly heads when I am trying to be a good parent to my 2e child, the lessons I learned during that first marathon come back to me. I need to find my strength, and when all else fails, I do this…  keep my head up and keep moving forward.

From one runner to another:  remember to enjoy the journey… and remember to breathe.

 

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Not Returning This Gift: How the Gifted Label Unexpectedly Helped My Child…and Me

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.

 

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