This is Part 3 of "Early Life," where I give detailed background information to explain how we ended up on our life-changing healing journey. Click here to read Part 2.
On the Spectrum?
In my heart, I knew something was not quite right with Boy Wonder. But what? He certainly had sensory issues, so sensory processing disorder was on our radar screen. He had some of the characteristics of Asperger's, especially the advanced verbal skills. But he was socially advanced and had a sophisticated sense of humor. He was highly sensitive, perceptive, empathic and gentle. He didn't speak in monotone. He was very expressive, interactive and funny. He had great eye contact and he loved to show people things and share experiences with them. He never lined up toys or stacked objects or participated in any unusual repetitive behavior. These were not characteristics of a child on the spectrum. Aspies do tend to have obsessive interests and often become very knowledgeable about specific subjects. Boy Wonder was obsessed with all things mechanical, but we just figured he might grow up to be an engineer someday.
Clearly, he was very advanced, perhaps even gifted. As I began researching giftedness, I learned about Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities, a set of five types of extreme sensitivities which cause gifted individuals to experience the world with more intensity. As theorized by Polish psychiatrist and psychologist Kazmierz Dabrowski, gifted people experience over-excitability in these five categories: Psychomotor, Sensual, Imaginational, Intellectual and Emotional.
Well, if this didn't describe my little Boy Wonder to a T! Here's how:
His little body was always in motion, always exploring, experimenting and doing. Even as a small baby, he wiggled his little arms and legs so much that I wondered whether he was going to be hyperactive.
He was sensitive to loud noises and bright lights. He was especially fond of soft textures. He enjoyed rubbing soft materials between his fingers, which he often did while sucking on his two favorite fingers. He craved sensory experiences such as playing with rice, beans, sand and especially water. He absolutely loved water.
His play consisted mostly of using objects in a manner which they were not intended to be used. He imagined the possibilities of ordinary objects and very often his "toys" were not even toys. As a two-year-old, he coined the term "pretencils" (pretend + utensils) to describe his playthings. These could be anything from kitchen gadgets to tools or ordinary objects that he found interesting. Other favorites were rope, string and tape, which he would usually use to build "machines." The tape versions were "Daddy traps," made with the intention of trapping Daddy so he wouldn't be able to leave for work. My kitchen was frequently taken over by these machines.
This boy was absolutely hungry for knowledge. Frequently, we would teach him something once and it would sink in the first time. He had a strong need to get to the bottom of things, to figure things out like a little scientist. He was fascinated by the moon. As if by magic, it would appear in the night sky and mysteriously change shape from day to day. When he was about 24 months old, he asked me, "Where does the moon go in the daytime?" I did my best to explain it in simple terms, but this did not satisfy him. He asked again. And again. And again. Pretty soon, I found myself with a globe, a flashlight and a ball, explaining the Earth's rotation to a barely two-year-old. Only then was he (sort of) satisfied.
Whether happy, sad or angry, Boy Wonder feels his feelings in a big way. This meant roaring fits of laughter and silliness, very easily hurt feelings and extreme tantrums. He was sensitive and especially in tune with my emotions. My moods would often dictate his moods.
Bingo. He had all five of these overexcitabilities. So he was gifted, I thought. Well, good. At least it wasn't anything hard, right?
Not. So. Fast. It turns out that being gifted is hard. For many gifted people, life is not easy. In addition to having the above mentioned over-excitabilities, gifted people often have a whole host of other struggles. They are prone to anxiety and perfectionism. It is not uncommon for them to also have learning disabilities or become underachievers. As children, they tend to develop asynchronously, meaning that they may excel in certain areas and lag behind in others. As such, these children have special educational needs. If they are not appropriately challenged in school, they become bored and tend to have behavioral problems. Parents of these children must constantly be their advocates, in a school system that is designed to meet the needs of the average student. They also struggle socially. It can be extremely hard for a gifted child to find cognitively similar friends because they often don't have much in common with their same-age peers. They may become lonely and some even fall into existential depression.
Realizing that the road ahead was not going to be easy for Boy Wonder or our family, I began to feel overwhelmingly that this was not what I signed up for. Sure, I wanted a smart kid. I guess I had always figured that if he could be smart, life would be easier for him. Maybe he wouldn't struggle in some of the ways that I did. Perhaps he could be more successful. What parent doesn't want that for their child?
Of course, I didn't think I did this to him, aside from passing down an exceptional set of genes. I once took an online IQ test that said I was a "visionary philosopher" and likened me to Plato. Mr. Wonderful likes to remind me that I'm supposed to be some sort of genius whenever I screw up or can't figure something out. All joking aside, my husband and I are no dum-dums, but we certainly aren't geniuses either.
Gifted or not, we love and accept him just the way he is. We're committed to doing the best we can for him.
Boy Wonder started getting a lot of attention for his precociousness. Everywhere we went, people would marvel at the "talking baby" who spoke so clearly and with such ease. Most people were impressed, but sometimes other moms would compare their own child to mine and feel inadequate. One mom even scolded her two-year-old for his poor pronunciation after hearing my son talk. Little did she know, she was actually discouraging his language development. Sometimes I just wanted to scream, "Smart is so overrated!"
So many parents want their kid to be the next Einstein. Everyone seems to forget that Einstein didn't speak until he was four years old and was initially thought to be retarded. He went on to be a poor student who challenged authority. I'd bet money that his mother didn't have an easy time with him!
Our culture puts such an emphasis on smarts. We have smart phones, smart watches, smart lightbulbs and even smart water. Nowhere is this smart obsession more apparent than in the marketing of toys, especially those for babies and toddlers. Parents are told that if they would just buy this electronic toy with flashing lights and obnoxious sounds, it will make their baby smarter. There are baby learning programs, apps, videos and even this obnoxious infant seat that holds an iPad in front of baby's face.
And let's not forget about the Baby Einstein videos that were recalled by Disney for not being educational and potentially harming babies. It's a multi-billion dollar industry based on a lie. Nurturing a child's intellectual growth is low-tech and costly only in the time and attention given to the child. After all, we had geniuses before we had all these "smart" baby toys. And certainly, Einstein Never Used Flashcards.
Another Lesson Learned
Nevertheless, we moms are feeling the pressure. Society is telling us that smart kids are better. Yet, I found myself in an odd conundrum; on the one hand feeling excited about Boy Wonder's potential, but sometimes wishing he wasn't quite so smart. I realized that more than being smart, I just wanted him to be happy. Another lesson learned from a boy who continues to teach me every day: smart is good, but it doesn't necessarily make things easier and it certainly doesn't guarantee happiness.