22 Nov We Tried Normal – 2e Family Stories: Chapter 10
Kim’s parents, Alan and Amy, fit the profile of highly educated and successful people, but Amy has never been comfortable in that role. She has always tried to avoid being competitive, getting caught up in striving for what is considered successful. Consequently, when her daughter Kim was younger, Amy made great efforts to down play her daughter’s abilities.
Alan remembers when Kim was a baby, she was always very far ahead developmentally. “Other babies would be trying to roll over and she would be crawling around. People would be comparing their babies to her and wondering what we were doing to push her into crawling so soon. It was uncomfortable, so we would respond with saying, ‘Oh no, your kid is normal, our kid is just weird,’ or something like that to make them feel better. We felt like we had to put down our baby’s abilities right from the start. It was awful.”
This continued through preschool and into kindergarten at a Waldorf school. After a few months of kindergarten, the Waldorf teachers began to put pressure on Amy and Alan to stop teaching Kim to read, as she was too far ahead of the other students. “The problem is, we didn’t teach Kim to read, she just started reading on her own. We tried our best to discourage her from reading, but there’s only so much you can do to stop it. We got these long lectures from the teacher and the other parents about how we shouldn’t push her into reading too early. When we assured them that we didn’t, they asked, ‘Well do you have a lot of books in the house? Does Kim see you reading all the time?’ There was just so much judgment. It created a feeling of shame about reading that was so terrible.”
Amy felt a painful sense of isolation from the other parents. She wanted to be part of the school moms’ social network, but didn’t feel accepted. “When you are starting your parenting journey you want some support, but you can’t get it because your kid is just being herself, but everyone is freaking out. There’s nothing like it; you’re shunned. I wanted to be proud of my kid and talk about her but I couldn’t say anything, so the isolation was brutal. I mean when Alan would come home from work, poor guy had to hear me talk about Kim all the time, because I hadn’t been able to talk to anyone else.”
As the year wound down, Amy and Alan knew Waldorf was not going to work. They realized they would have to rethink Kim’s education and find something that was more supportive of Kim’s intellectual development. “It felt like they were trying to control something that shouldn’t be reined in. We are smart parents, but even we realized that we had no authority over our daughter’s abilities. Really nobody is an authority over 2e kids’ abilities. Our kids are like superheroes. You’re going to tell a superhero what to do? Come on.”
Since Kim was now five, they decided to try a Montessori kindergarten in their area. Initially, it worked out well. Kim was excited about all the baskets of materials in the classroom. She saw that they had science projects and told her mom she felt she might finally learn something at school. Once she enrolled, she happily began to do the work, enjoyed the activities and games, and was trying hard to fit in with her classmates.
But after the first few months, Kim completed all of the classroom curricula and wanted new material to learn. The teacher was uncomfortable with bringing any different materials into the classroom for Kim to use. “Kim started to get bored at school, even though she liked her teacher, she was desperate to learn something new.” Amy and Alan tried to keep her intellectually stimulated at home but that didn’t help her get through her days at school.
Then she began to complain of not fitting in socially. The teacher told Amy and Alan that the other kids loved Kim. She was a natural leader, and if there were problems it was because Kim was rejecting the other children. Amy relayed, “She’d come home and say, ‘I’m a chameleon. I have to pretend I don’t like things. I have to change my vocabulary. I’m not supposed to like robots. I’m supposed to like princesses. I’m not supposed to already know what the teacher is telling us.’ And I saw this amazing, happy kid just start to break down.”
Eventually, the lack of learning, and not having any true peers at school, began to take a physical toll on Kim. She developed chronic headaches and bladder spasms. After several appointments with their pediatrician, and discussing various treatment protocols, they decided to have her evaluated by a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnosed her with anxiety disorder and sensory processing dysfunction. Amy and Alan decided to pull Kim out of school to give her body a chance to heal. Amy said that was when she knew there probably wasn’t any school that would work for Kim.
Yet, Amy and Alan didn’t know what avenue to pursue. They discussed and considered many alternatives, but kept coming back to homeschooling, even though neither of them wanted to do it. Alan admitted, “Yeah, about the homeschooling thing, we didn’t intend to be different, we just had to. Homeschooling was terrifying for me but I think Amy had already decided. She felt traditional schools were not going to work, so she just made up her mind. But I was like, ‘Oh my God. How can we? Do you know what homeschoolers do? They are like Christian crazy fanatics or people who live on a commune.’ I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but at the same time, it was the only thing we could do.”
So they began trying to figure out how to homeschool their daughter. Initially Amy tried to use a ready-made curriculum for various subjects. She assumed if she accelerated through the material at Kim’s own pace, that it would work. But Kim began to resent the structure Amy tried to set up, and wanted to learn about different subjects in her own way. It began a daily power struggle that both Amy and Kim dreaded. However, Alan and Amy were uncomfortable with not having any structure at all, so they decided to try to find tutors to work with Kim in her most advanced areas.
The first tutor they hired didn’t work out very well. Amy complained, “Right off the bat he told Kim, ‘Well, we should probably assess you because homeschooled kids are often a little behind the kids in school.’ She hadn’t even been homeschooled that long. He made assumptions without knowing her at all and she felt very judged. With our kids, there is this line, if you do something that makes them dislike you or distrust you, that’s it. They have this internal, intuitive radar, and it’s intense. So right away, that tutor didn’t work out.”
Amy and Alan continued to try different tutors, classes, and homeschool learning groups. They found a few that Kim was interested in, but most of those had age limits that would not allow Kim into the higher-level classes, and the lower level classes were too easy for her. They did have some success with a few of the classes and groups, but it was exhausting to be searching constantly for something that would work. Amy felt they wasted a lot of time and money on tutors and classes that were just not a good match for Kim.
They also began to realize that Kim was actually an introvert. They knew she enjoyed being with adults and older kids, because she felt like they understood her better; but even after a day with older people, Kim would want to stay home for a few days. Amy mused, “I began to realize that she had an inner wisdom about herself. She needed down time after she put herself out there. I am pretty introverted, so I should have recognized it in my own child. No wonder school made her sick!”
Eventually, by default, Amy and Alan became unschoolers, the type of homeschoolers who allow their children to determine their own course of learning. They let Kim discover her own learning path and simply facilitated her explorations through providing materials, experiences, and mentoring. Kim loved learning this way and began to rapidly advance through materials, quickly reaching a level that required books and classes designed for adults.
Amy reflected on this and admitted that she actually had known this, at a gut level, from the time Kim was little. “The reality is, even when she was little, she wanted to talk about the meaning of life and religion. At three she had read all about Hinduism and decided she wanted to become a Hindu. I thought that was fascinating. It has been so fulfilling as a parent to spend time with somebody who could go so deep. I mean it is just beautiful the things we get to talk about; she’s eight and we’re talking about Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the hero’s journey, monomyths, and archetypes.”
Alan commented that sometimes they felt hard pressed to keep up with Kim. He remarked, “It was so wonderful to have all the open online classes. There were no restrictions, they didn’t care how old she was, no one was gatekeeping her entrance, so she could just fly through whatever she liked.” As Kim became more adept at navigating her own learning, and Amy and Alan could see how much the unschooling model matched her learning style, they became less and less concerned about her schooling.
However, their families viewed the unschooling as a mistake and felt that Amy and Alan were not doing a good job of helping Kim reach her full potential. Amy confessed, “You know, I was supposed to be this Asian Tiger Mom, but they didn’t realize that never works. The more I tried to control her the less she learned; she just shut down and refused to do anything.”
Alan’s dad was particularly dismissive of their homeschooling decision. He felt that Kim was smart enough to figure out a way around the system and should stay in a traditional school. He didn’t understand their willingness to give Kim control of her learning. He was also dismissive of the idea of twice exceptionality. He did not believe Kim had any disabilities and he was frustrated that her high intellect wasn’t being properly groomed. When she had meltdowns or refused to do something, he saw her behavior as defiant. He believed Amy and Alan were making excuses for Kim’s behavior and they were lacking in parenting skills.
For example, Kim didn’t like to be touched, which their doctor had assured them was a typical behavior in children with sensory processing disorder. Despite Alan’s explanation of the diagnosis, Alan’s dad got angry when she refused to hug him. He saw her rejection as disrespectful and willful.
Alan’s dad didn’t believe that Kim had an issue with her digestion, either. He thought that Amy and Alan have caused her to become a picky eater by indulging her food preferences; though they have explained several times that her pediatrician has verified she has food allergies. Amy and Alan have resigned themselves to having a difficult relationship with their parents, but are sad that their reactions to Kim’s disabilities have caused a rift in their family.
Another issue that was troubling to Alan and Amy was the lack of true peers for Kim. She had friends she interacted with through various activities: a theater group, a book group, a dance group, and a homeschool playgroup. However, Kim didn’t have any close friends with whom she could connect at a deep level. Amy believes that other children thought Kim was weird because she reacted strangely to typical social interactions. Her sensory processing disorder caused her to shy away from loud noise, to being touched, to smells, or crowds. “I think she knew she was very bright and had issues, but she didn’t understand why that should make her an outsider, it didn’t make sense to her that no one got her. Her peers just seemed like different creatures, a different species sometimes. She was painfully aware of that. She told me she wanted close friends, but it was a challenge to try to find someone who was like her.”
Amy admits it was very frustrating trying to find social groups where Kim didn’t have to work so hard to try to fit in. “It really hurt to see her trying so hard to find a close friend; especially for me, because I had a close friend growing up. We were two peas in a pod. We had a secret language we made up; I mean a complete, sophisticated language. We wrote pages of notes to each other and we could just read them without our cipher. It was something special that we shared. So it hurt to see Kim searching so hard for a friend.”
As Kim was struggling to find a way to be social, she was experiencing a push-pull of desire and fear. “She was cautious about entering into relationships, but she also had this exuberance about wanting to connect with people, so sometimes she extended herself to try to make a connection. If it failed she would kind of retreat really far back into herself and you could see that she was very protective of her feelings.” Yet there was no way to control the reactions of others towards Kim. Amy tried so hard to help Kim learn to navigate social interactions, to ensure she was aware of social norms, but none of those efforts could prevent rejection by another child.
Alan worried about Kim’s self esteem because she never really felt like she could fit into the world. He and Amy tried hard to be honest with Kim, to share their own childhood struggles with her. Alan stressed, “I’d like to think that we helped to support a self-image for her that is accepting of who she is. We’ve never shied away from terms like gifted around her, or that kind of thing, in an effort to let her know that she was different from a lot of other people out there, and that was okay. We told her that was not how we wanted her to define herself, based on her DNA, but we just wanted her to know that it was okay. We acknowledged her differences, and wanted her to feel they’re beautiful, and she should love herself for being that way.”
Amy added, “When she had these social issues she was struggling with, I couldn’t sleep. I stayed awake and I spun them. I was going back to my high school days, because I pretended I was dumb to fit into the social realm and I didn’t want that for her. I remember how painful it was to lose my one true friend and how much I had to alter myself to try to fit in after that. It was so hard for me when she had her social conundrums. The intellectual issues or the physical issues, even the issues with our parents, I felt like we could get through those, but it was the social tragedies that kept me awake at night.”
Alan saw echoes of his own social struggles in Kim as well. He explained, “Going through school I always tried to have all sorts of friends, so I could have a group to hang out with, almost as a survival instinct. I’ve always felt like I needed to connect with a group for protection’s sake, and sort of align with the right group to ensure my best self-preservation. It was a very self-deprecating way to live, but yeah, I mean even as a little kid, I knew my safety depended on my ability to dumb myself down, hide the true parts of me, so I could fit in.”
Both Alan and Amy felt they had created a safe and loving space for Kim at home, but it was much more difficult to preserve that when she ventured out of the house. They tried to educate the parents of the other kids in Kim’s activity groups, to help them understand her behavior, but it was often met with skepticism and judgment. “Sometimes it felt like everyone else thought we were crazy; friends, family, teachers, doctors, I was so tired of having to defend our child and our parenting.”
They had to change pediatricians and dentists several times to find one that was open to the idea of twice exceptionality and willing to educate themselves on the unique needs of 2e children. Amy said it was such a relief to finally find a dentist, who was able to accommodate Kim’s sensory processing disorder and her giftedness. Alan thought the key to the good fit was that this dentist discussed everything with Kim, as if she were an adult, never in a condescending adult-to-child manner. The dentist was also respectful of her sensitivity and asked Kim to let her know how she wanted to proceed, what worked for her, and if she needed to stop a certain procedure.
They also found a pediatrician who was supportive. He equated Kim with the boy in the movie, Little Man Tate and talked about Kim all the time. “He said she was his favorite patient, because there was no one else like her. He was just fascinated with her development and abilities. It was like she was a specimen he wanted to study, but he was also respectful to her and Kim liked that.”
But they were never successful in finding educators who could work with Kim. They felt the entire burden of Kim’s education was on them and they were insecure about their own abilities to meet all of her learning needs. It seemed like they had to reinvent the wheel at every stage of Kim’s development. “We have just not ever been able to go by the rules. It was like everything had to be reconstructed for our kid. It was a hyper-specialized experience every step of the way. I know that every kid is different in their own way, too, but I think more typical kids can easily be grouped with others and kind of go on a common path. Their little differences work okay together or they all kind of even out after a while. But with 2e kids, that kind of stuff never happens, so you’re just totally on a different journey.”
Both Alan and Amy believe the efforts they had to make on Kim’s behalf took a toll on their own personal development and on their relationship. They felt that her needs always forced them to put their own lives on the back burner. “I know that being a parent means you put your kid first, but other parents I know get moments of respite. You know, the kid spends the weekend with Grandma, or they can get a baby sitter for the evening. But that never works with 2e kids, the whole situation is always so volatile that you are always on. Parenting a 2e kid is a relentless job.”
The demands on their time and energy took its toll. Amy acknowledged, “It was hard on our marriage. We have a deep love, we’re solid, but my God, we needed more time to just be together. At times, I felt very distant from Alan because we didn’t have any time, and that was the hardest part.”
They also felt unable to have full work and social lives. Amy quit her job to be a full time, stay-at-home mom, so the burden of earning their living was on Alan. He keenly missed having time to relax or have fun, but was consumed by demanding work and dealing with the constant fallout around Kim’s issues. Alan said he gave up on being able to do much of anything for himself, but hoped, as Kim got older, they could eventually have a more normal life.
When they did try to socialize with their friends and family, they rarely felt able to relax. Kim’s reactions to people and situations were abnormal and unpredictable, so they always had to be vigilant. Friends and family often remarked on her behavior, or gave advice about what they thought might help. Amy wished people realized that she and Alan have been trying their very best, for many years, to help Kim socialize appropriately.
They want her to be a functional adult, to be able to work, to fall in love, and have a productive life. But they feel others don’t see their efforts, “People didn’t understand what a tightrope we walked every day. We tried normal! Most of the things people said we should do, we had already tried. We made choices based on our experiences and we were working so hard. If we did something that seemed odd, it was because there could be huge fallout if we did it the typical way. I wish people could have understood that, behind the scenes, there might be a rhyme and a reason for why we were responding the way we did.”
Alan believes he and Amy have normal parental hopes for Kim’s life. “It’s hard to think of her as an adult navigating life by herself. I hope that she goes into the world with open eyes and an open heart and tries to get out of life what she wants. I don’t want her spirit to be crushed too much by what society imposes. She knows what she wants and she is brilliant, but she is also extremely sensitive and so easily wounded by the world around her. She could get disillusioned and cut herself off. I worry that we will not be able to help her succeed.”