“Always remember you’re unique…just like everyone else.”
One of the biggest challenges being a kid with a learning difficulty is feeling different. I’ve watched both my sons as they tried to acclimate themselves to their differences at school and, by far, the biggest stress they faced was worrying about what the other kids would think of them. Joe, for about a year, did not tell anyone about his ADHD. He simply was not comfortable. He worked hard to try to fit in and that was how he wanted to deal with it. Eventually, he told a few friends who handled it just as I expected they would. They did not care. They attend a small school, and this group of 13 children have been together for 5 years. To his classmates, Joe is just Joe and knowing about his ADHD didn’t make him any different. When Luke was diagnosed with dyslexia in November, he also was adamant that he did not want anyone to know. I didn’t push him into telling anyone because I respected his apprehension, but I did mention to him (with permission) that his friend Annie Oakley (not her real name) also had struggles. I suggested that it might be good if both of them could talk to each other about their difficulties. He looked at me dubiously and took my counsel under advisement.
Early this past week, out of nowhere, Luke announced to most of his classmates that he had dyslexia. Like Joe’s classmates, they looked at him with a quizzical so-what attitude and moved on. No one understood or cared or asked questions. It was no big deal…with one exception. His partner in crime and fellow horse-lover friend, Annie, immediately glommed onto him, happy to have someone with whom to share her differences. Right after Luke’s confession, he got into the car and declared that he and Annie needed to have a play date (I love that he still uses that term) soon so they could “talk.” I thought that was about the cutest thing ever, so I set up a time for Annie to come to our house on Friday and stay for play time and dinner. The two of them were so excited they could barely focus at all at school before the play date. As proof, I offer up Luke’s spelling test grade, which has never been great but this week hit an all time low of 52% on a list that was not the toughest one he’s ever faced. Their palpable excitement would have been amusing if it weren’t exhausting me.
We had scarcely gotten everyone settled in the car Friday afternoon and weren’t even out of the school parking lot when Luke piped up.
“Okay. So, let’s talk about this ADHD and dyslexia thing.”
Instantly, Annie opened up. She told our boys about how she found out about her ADD and how her life has changed since her parents told her. She and Joe talked about attention-deficit with each other, and she and Luke talked about how hard it was needing special accommodations at school. They all talked about how demanding school was and how much they grappled with reading and timed tests. They talked about it non-stop for 20 minutes on the ride home, sharing stories, successes, and tips. They all felt comfortable about their differences because for those 20 minutes they weren’t different at all. It was, by far, the best 20 minutes I have ever spent in a car with children who weren’t sleeping. I was a fly on the wall for the most genuinely sincere conversation my boys have shared about their trials. Listening to them open up and, above all, be at peace with themselves was the greatest gift I’ve received since learning about their amazing brains.
The rest of the play date was a rousing success. The three of them had a blast being the funny and ingenious kids they are. They took turns making videos with Luke’s iPad as they pretended to be news reporters, fashion icons, and pop stars. Luke hammed it up for the camera with long, improvisational monologues that kept the others in stitches. At one point, Joe was wearing one of my dresses over his jeans and t-shirt and was topped off with a tangled mullet wig as he sang into a magic marker. My sons may not be A students, but their creativity knows no bounds. And Annie, who I have always regarded as very bright and sweet, met them as an equal the entire time. Hubby made his famous chicken nuggets and handcrafted milkshakes for them and that was the only time they were still and semi-quiet all afternoon.
When they were young and I had no experience with children, I had a hard time recognizing that our boys didn’t fit in with their peers, mostly likely because I didn’t want to admit it. Even when their teachers made reference to slower progress, I reasoned it away as late-bloomer syndrome. I subjected them repeatedly to age-appropriate activities that the books said they should be able to do but at which they continued to flounder. I could not understand why school was so difficult for them when they were creative problem solvers who made connections between disparate topics with ease. I grew increasingly frustrated when by age 8 they could not yet ride a bicycle or tie their shoes despite constant instruction. When it was spelled out to me by professionals that my children had actual, brain-related differences from other children, I was heartbroken. This was not what I expected when I signed up for parenthood. I thought we would have children who sailed through school like hubby and I did. No one wants their child to be “different” because “different” kids get beaten up. Eventually, though, to help them come to terms with their differences I had to make my peace with them. I stopped looking at my sons through the eyes of the struggles I knew they would have and instead allowed myself to see the benefits their unique brains would provide them. Sometimes thinking differently can make you highly successful. You need look no further than Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, or Ted Turner to recognize that. The other day, though, I have to admit that it felt pretty good to see them play in a group and feel for a while just like everyone else.