His Different Mind

This post is part of the National Parenting Gifted Children Week Blog Tour, hosted by SENG (http://www.sengifted.org/)—Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted. Here’s a list of all the participants: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=125046060917217.

I’ve had this book, Different Minds: Gifted Children with AD/HD, Asperger Syndome and Other Learning Defecits (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/210358.Different_Minds) on the bookshelf by my bed for almost a year now, but I’ve never read it. We got it from an educational psychologist who evaluated Noah for Asperger syndrome last summer after a particularly difficult third-grade year. I keep meaning to read it but with a preschooler at home and a big to-read list, I never seemed to have enough time, especially since it no longer feels urgent. Noah is much happier now than he was a year ago and has been for most of that time.

I would read it differently now than I would have a year ago, too, because Noah was evaluated the psychologist said he did not have Asperger’s, even though she saw some “Asperger’s characteristics” in his behavior. This is how it goes with him.

Last August I wrote:

“Noah is a quirky kid, no doubt about it. Over the years we’ve considered or various teachers, his pediatrician, and therapists we’ve consulted have suggested the following diagnoses: OCD, Tourette’s, Sensory Processing Disorder, Asperger’s and ADHD. But with the exception of Sensory Processing Disorder, he’s always fit some of the criteria but not enough for a diagnosis. (And even SPD diagnosis he received at the age of six was a borderline one.)”

It’s a pattern. We think we might have figured out what makes him so different, aside from or in conjunction with his giftedness, then read a bit or consult a professional and discard the diagnosis, or in the case of SPD, learn he has a mild case that requires only minimal intervention. When he got the SPD diagnosis, we bought him a bouncy castle (like the ones you see at carnivals) and a hopping ball to provide him with the deep muscle stimulation that often calms him. The bouncy castle is gone, now, having been broken beyond repair by years of hard use and being out in all weather. We replaced it with a mini-trampoline we keep in the basement. (He also has a pogo stick he refuses to try because he’s afraid of falling off. His daredevil little sister is eager to inherit it when she’s big enough, though, so I’m confident it will get some use.)

Shortly after the SPD diagnosis, we were intending to get Noah set up with an occupational therapist, but during the summer between kindergarten and first grade, all his disturbing misbehavior disappeared, even as the clumsiness and difficulty reading his body’s signals persisted, albeit at a milder level. We suspect that his symptoms had been magnified by an unsympathetic teacher and that once he was out of her class, they receded to a more manageable level. So, we never took him to the therapist.

Flash forward three years. During the spring of his third-grade year Noah was drifting away from his best friend of several years; he was being teased and ostracized at school, and saying, “no-one likes me” with disturbing frequency. Around his ninth birthday I wrote:

“Noah is such a puzzle to many people. He seems simultaneously older and younger than his years. He reads at least two years above grade level, but he still sucks his thumb and he calls me Mommy, while many of his peers have switched over to calling their mothers Mom. He charms many adults with his cheerful demeanor and intelligent conversation, but in the past couple of years he’s had trouble making and keeping friends. He often plays alone at recess (or does yoga). And a lot of adults are just baffled by him. He’s so smart, that his absent-mindedness, his social awkwardness and even his physical clumsiness seem like things he should be able to overcome if he just put his mind to it. But Beth and I suspect there might be more to it than that, possibly even more than his sensory issues can explain. We’ve been considering having him tested for Asperger’s syndrome (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asperger_syndrome). When I read the descriptions I go back and forth between thinking, that sounds like Noah all right and, wait, he’s not nearly that impaired. So it might be good to find out, so we can have more guidance on how to be better parents to him for the next nine years.”

At the same time, he was not being sufficiently challenged academically and he was bored with school. This was new, as his first and second grade teachers were very skilled at working with kids at different levels and keeping him engaged. That fall we applied to a gifted magnet school for fourth and fifth grade. He got in, off the waiting list, the last week of third grade.

The new school was a very good fit for Noah, both socially and academically. He’s still the same quirky kid he always was, but he’s never been teased or excluded from lunch tables or playground games. He invited eight kids to his tenth birthday. When he turned nine, he could barely think of three he wanted to invite and one was a boy who had been unkind to him on occasion. We never sent him to the social skills group in which we had considering enrolling him because things looked up for him almost as soon as he started fourth grade at the new school.

Over the course of the year our concern shifted from his social skills, which seemed adequate to his new environment, to his mental processing speed. One piece of information that came out of Noah’s evaluation last summer was that he’s a slow processor. Here’s how I put it back then:

“What he has and as far as I know there’s no official name for it, is a big gap between his intelligence and his executive function. Or to put it simply, he’s really, really smart and he’s also a really, really slow worker. He excelled on a verbal IQ test (in the 99.6th percentile) but on a writing speed test he scored in the 20th percentile. This wasn’t news to us. Noah’s teachers have been telling us he takes a long time to complete his work ever since kindergarten. Whether they interpret this as laziness or an intrinsic part of the way his mind works often determines what kind of relationship they have with him and how effectively they can teach him. We’re scheduling a meeting with Mrs. B, his fourth-grade teacher, to discuss the report and the psychologist’s recommendations in hopes that she can make some accommodations for him, though the lack of any official type of diagnosis at this point means we don’t have any legally binding action plan. I’m okay with that for now. I’d rather just talk to the teacher and say this is what we think he needs and see how it goes.”

After a year of accelerated work, which has been fun and enriching and challenging and also quite exhausting for Noah, we’re ready to see if we can find that official diagnosis that would entitle him to extra time, and possibly other accommodations when he needs them. His teachers were understanding for the most part this year, but Noah was often behind. He was forever bringing home class work that he had to do on top of his already sizable homework load. One of the standardized tests he took this year was untimed. When he was tested at the fourth grade level he completed it in the amount of time expected, but when he was tested at the level of math he was actually taking this year (sixth grade) he got a decent score, but it took him two and half times as long as the rest of the class to complete it. On the timed MSA (Maryland’s version of the high-stakes tests mandated by No Child Left Behind) he scored in the advanced range for reading and math, but not by much and we know based on his placement and his teachers’ impressions of him that he ought to be close to the very top.

His math teacher told us at an end of year meeting we requested, that his inability to finish his work was why he got a C in math in the fourth quarter. Math has always been one of Noah’s best subjects and we are considering applying to a math and science magnet for middle school, so we were concerned. If we decide that the accelerated path is just too much for him, or if we apply to middle school magnets and he doesn’t get in, he’ll be back in regular classes, and possibly, bored and alienated again. Although, maybe not. We live in an excellent school district and good teachers abound at all schools. As with so many things in life, a lot depends on the luck of the draw. But we want to give him the best chance at being fulfilled and happy at school we can.

So Noah will undergo another battery of tests in early August in hopes of getting a 504 plan in place for him for fifth grade. An ADHD diagnosis is one possible outcome, which I why when I finally read Different Minds (and I think I will when the kids start school) I imagine I will pay more attention to the ADHD sections and less to the Asperger section than I would have a year ago. I would not be surprised, though, to find out that he doesn’t have ADHD, or that he does but just barely. No diagnosis ever seems to fit him quite right.

Noah’s home this week for the first time after three weeks of day camps and a week at YaYa’s. At first he was a little unsure how to occupy himself because it’s been a long time since he’s had so much downtime at once, but he’s reading 39 Clues books and The Washington Post and listening to NPR and music and playing on the computer and watching television and practicing his drums. He and June helped me make a blueberry kuchen on Monday afternoon and he had a drum lesson this afternoon. The late afternoon lesson was scheduled at the very last minute so I had to abandon my somewhat involved dinner plans. We ended up eating out at Roscoe’s (http://www.roscoespizzeria.com/). On the walk from the restaurant back to the car, the kids played with the kinetic musical bicycle sculpture on the sidewalk nearby. It the kind of wonderful loony thing one’s always seeing in Takoma Park.

Noah and I have had the past three mornings alone together as this is the only week this summer when June has camp and he doesn’t. It’s been pleasant, so pleasant that my plans for splitting the time between hanging out with him and working have pretty much gone out the window. (It helps that last week I turned down a brochure-writing job for unrelated reasons). We’ve been taking walks together, going to coffee shops– Starbucks on Monday, Mayorga (http://www.mayorgacoffee.com/) yesterday, browsing at Radio Shack and Ace Hardware, which is something that I would never, ever do on my own, but it seems to make him happy. I read two or three chapters of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban aloud to him every day because he still likes me to read to him and I will keep doing it until he doesn’t want me to anymore. We talk about global warming and whether a planet orbiting two suns at once would have an orbit in the shape of a figure eight, and what his favorite vacuum cleaner attachments are. He doesn’t mind if I sing along to the radio in public. (And really, who could resist “Love Potion #9”?) He reaches out to hold my hand as we walk down the sidewalk.

I was watching him eat his banana bread at Mayorga yesterday morning and maybe the light was just right or something, but I was struck by one of those moments of mother-love: I was momentarily stunned by how beautiful his hazel eyes are, how the green and gold seem to be shining out from under the brown. I want to help the green and gold in him shine out always. I want a school environment for him that will keep doing that. I don’t know if I’d be happy with an ADHD diagnosis because it might give us a peg on which to hang the help he needs or if it will make me worry about the difficulties he faces, but Robert Frost notwithstanding, I want the gold to stay.