by Michael Postma
It was a miserable day in the fall of 2001 when we got our first glimpse of what our lives would be like for the next 20-odd years. We were a young family: a mom, a dad, one young daughter in elementary school, a newborn, and a young lad, Ben.
Ben had always been a very alert boy, one who needed little sleep and had eyes that betrayed a deep longing for information. To say he was curious would be an understatement. As a boy, Ben was constantly getting into everything – taking things apart, exploring, sneaking, finding trouble even where trouble could not possibly be found. On this particular fall day, while mom was occupied with the baby, Ben covered his upper torso with marker before dressing himself, shirt on backwards; head through the arm hole; and, of course, no pants. Armed with a small army of rubber snakes, he decided to find the local park. Dog in tow, he jimmied the lock on the back door and made his way to the park about a quarter of a mile away. One frantic hour later, Ben arrived home via the back seat of a police cruiser, thanks in part to the intervention of a Good Samaritan neighbor who had sensed that something was amiss.
We learned, the hard way sometimes (and with much consternation on my part), that dealing with Ben was going to take a little extra. You see, I work in the field of gifted and talented education and, by 2001, already had some experience working with what we have since labeled the twice- or multi-exceptional child. Ben, it turned out, had Asperger’s Syndrome, something that I, the so-called expert, didn’t see in my own child. Nor did I see it in myself. Yet, as we grew up together, I saw and relived my own childhood as a multi-exceptional student through living with, chasing, laughing, lecturing, supporting, admonishing, dragging, and, yes, advocating for Ben.
First Experiences With School
As a student in pre-school, Ben refused to play with the other students or engage in whole-class learning, preferring to spend his time exploring and investigating his interest areas.
Flashback: Why doesn’t everyone love Geography?…Why won’t my fourth grade buddies talk to me about the historical implications of Alexander’s conquest of Persia?…I just spent my entire night with a flash light reading about the man…Uh-oh, the teacher is saying something to me…I need to slump down a little farther, perhaps she will see over me…kids are looking at me…shame, panic, anxiety.
Eventually, we pulled him out of pre-school to accommodate his strong desire to remain at home. We discovered that home was his comfort zone and saw that he would struggle (and does so even today) with the transition from that comfort zone to any other place – any place, that is, where he was expected to interact with strangers.
When it was time for kindergarten, I felt that something was amiss as I witnessed a school administrator give Ben a timed, kindergarten readiness exam. Hood pulled over his head, Ben answered some of the educator’s questions in a whisper and simply refused to respond to others. “He knows these answers,” I screamed in my head. “Why won’t he say anything?” Every now and then he peaked out at me with a look of pure fear.
Flashback: Something is knocking at the back of my brain…a memory perhaps…testing, testing, testing…anxiety, blankness…failing.
Ben was formally admitted to this private school, but with some apprehension. All seemed well until later that fall. Much of the work coming home either had large ”incomplete” or ”unsatisfactory” labels stamped on them or what appeared to be oceans of red ink, while most of his classmates’ papers were covered with smiley face stickers and pluses. We waited in trepidation for the first parent/teacher conference. His teacher was concerned. Ben didn’t seem to be paying attention; and, while not a behavior problem, he wasn’t ”up-to-speed.” He also refused to speak. Perhaps, I thought to myself at that time, there isn’t much interesting within the classroom to speak about; but, having learned some social mannerisms through the years, I refrained. Was there something we were missing? Surely the teacher would let us in on the secret. No, she wanted him to apply himself – no suggestions, no solutions, no accommodations, no changes.
Life in kindergarten did not improve for Ben. His absences were up, learning was down, and intervention was nowhere to be found. As the year came to a close, the school announced its intentions to retain Ben. He just wasn’t ready for kindergarten, they said. But he’s six, loves art, and is great with numbers, we countered. He’s just not ready, they stated. But Ben will be seven and still in kindergarten, we started but slowly trailed off. See you next year, they beamed. Good bye, we muttered. Good riddance, whispered Ben. Bad genes, they thought.
How could this have happened? Kindergarten is supposed to be a fun, positive learning experience for children, the launching pad that jump-starts the rest of your life. Now what? “It’s okay, Dad,” Benny ventured. “I really don’t have to go back to school. I think I already know everything I need to know to survive.” I agreed.
What’s In A Name?
Our first breakthrough occurred that following summer. In desperation, we spoke with a local public school principal. As we nervously began to tell our tale, expecting the same results, the principal held up her hand. “Have you had Ben tested for Asperger’s?” You’ve got to be kidding me. I have worked with twice-exceptional children before, but my son? Slowly, the plot was unraveling in my mind. How embarrassing it was to have all that education, all that learning, all that practical experience, and not see those traits within my own son.
Flashback: Asperger’s…Asperger’s…his social anxiety, his clumsiness, his apparent reading disability, his intensity, his sensitivity, his mathematical wizardry, his hood….my social mishaps, my intensity, my fanaticism with social sciences, my apparent Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (ask my wife), my lack of empathy…Ben was me and I was Ben, and yet we we’re so different. Asperger’s.
It was starting to come together. Eventually, Ben was given an IEP (Individualized Education Program) based on his reading and speech delays. His anxiety was so high that the autism spectrum disorder testing could never be completed. The IEP, however, did mention the high probability of its existence, based on the numerous symptoms he displayed.
Ben began to improve due to the immense and intense efforts and indescribable caring of his teachers. He made a few friends, generally went to school without a lot of resistance, and even learned to love baseball…well, at least the hitting part. While transitions were still difficult, and the Asperger’s was still prevalent, at the very least Ben was making progress and had formed a close bond with his teacher (who, incidentally, looped the following year into second grade, much to our delight). It takes a special teacher to enjoy, even welcome, the challenges that Ben brought to the classroom.
They say (whoever they are) that all good things must come to an end, and so they did. By mid-March of second grade, Ben’s teacher left on maternity leave; and I think Ben decided to go on leave as well. Despite the heroic efforts of the new teacher, the principal, and numerous others, Ben spent the majority of his days with the social worker or at home. A week into the new teacher’s tenure, Ben began to sob uncontrollably. The intensity of change combined with his penchant for over-excitability completely overwhelmed him. Then we moved.
Flashback: I am sitting at my desk in third grade in anticipation….Phys Ed. was next. I loved sports. It was one thing I excelled at and the kids wanted me on their team. How was I supposed to know that strange kids weren’t supposed to be athletic? “Boys and girls, because you were late coming in from recess and talking in the halls, we will not be going outside for Phys Ed. We are going to write about what we learned from this experience.” My body is beginning to quiver… I can’t think, function…tears, more tears…why am I crying…I’m almost nine.
New house, new city, new school. The first day of school Ben would not get out of bed. Realizing the transition was going to be rough, I allowed him an extra 15 minutes to sleep. The first day of school is always rough especially after a summer filled with catching snakes, building elaborate habitats, and other stimulating activities. This time there was a new school involved as well.
I went back to check on Ben’s progress. Do I pull him out of bed, dress him, carry him to the car, and drag him into school? Or do I use more gentle persuasive tactics? I would recommend the latter, but on this occasion, a little flustered, I chose the former. Within minutes I was chasing Ben through the woods – me in my office clothes, Ben in his underwear and socks.
There were many other days like this before that daily morning ritual began to improve. The remedy? Negotiation and compromise. We worked with Ben’s array of teachers and incorporated into his IEP a ”break day” every few weeks, a day in which he could stay home, explore, relax, and generally release any pent-up anxiety. These break days also worked as a motivational tactic for getting him to school regularly and on time. He also got little breaks on a daily basis within the school day to have some quiet time or release some anxiety through physical activity in the gymnasium or the motor room, another effective intervention to get him through the daily grind.
The Future Is Unwritten
Ben is now ten years old and attending a school that not only understands but also goes to extreme measures to make accommodations for the twice-exceptional child, truly rare in the era of modern schooling. Although he struggles with the concept of school, he is making progress, as is his Dad. However, I worry – about puberty, middle school, high school, girls, teachers, drugs, alcohol, relationships, and more. Ben is just beginning the journey. I am about half-way through, and all those obstacles plague my outlook and expectations for Ben. Why? I have experienced them all: the embarrassment of puberty; the inability to socialize with the opposite sex in a normal manner or develop deep relationships with people; the dark memory that is middle school; the compensation of alcohol dependency to mask my social dysfunction; the lack of a true, empathetic, and understanding social support network; a spiritual quest for God that emphasizes relationship (one I had to pursue from an intellectual stand-point that continues to this day); and the deep depressions of not fitting in which lasted for years before I sought medical assistance.
Ben doesn’t know that I struggled through life just as he is struggling. I struggled despite my constant parachute (one that carried me through even the most difficult of times) – athletics. Unfortunately, Ben has yet to find his own personal parachute. So, I wait and I worry and I protect. I also hope – hope that Ben will find a companion, a friend who understands when my wife and I are no longer around. Ben does know that I haven’t always been the greatest father. However, he does understand that I love him dearly and will continue to marvel at his unique thoughts, ideas, and creations, even during moments of challenge and frustration.
Life doesn’t ask us what kinds of kids we want. Neither does it send us an advanced checklist of qualities we would like to see in our children. We must deal with the circumstances that we are given, whether we believe it is fair or not. Would I have changed my makeup, or Benny’s, given the opportunity? Perhaps, I don’t know. However, living with it has forced me to adapt, to persevere, and to develop resiliency skills that continue to assist me to this very day. The field knows much more about students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) now, than we ever have. I expect that these advances will make life for Benny a little easier to navigate; however, there are no guarantees. So we continue this journey, he and I, and we hope. We hope that tomorrow will bring a kinder, more understanding world – a world that values our abilities and appreciates our shortcomings; a world that accommodates our differences and respects our right to learn at our own pace; a world that laughs with us and not at us; and, perhaps most importantly, a world that allows us to breathe.
Michael Postma is the District Coordinator of High Potential Services for Minnetonka Public Schools located in suburban Minneapolis. His education includes degrees in history and education, a Master’s degree in gifted and talented education, and is currently completing an Ed. D in Critical Pedagogy (ABD) from the University of St. Thomas. Two of Michael’s four children have symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome. Only one has been officially diagnosed.
|For additional information on the Overexcitabilities that can accompany Asperger’s Syndrome, see the following:
Dawbrowski, K. (1964). Positive Disintegration. Boston: Little Brown & Co.
Mendaglio, S. (2008). Dawbrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Daniels, S., & Piechowski, M. M. (Eds.). (2009). Living with intensity: Understanding the sensitivity, excitability, and emotional development of gifted children, adolescents, and adults. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.
Piechowski, M. M. (2006).“Mellow out” they say. If I only could: Intensities and sensitivities of the young and bright.Madison, WI: Yunasa Books.