Putting Wheels on All the Race Cars - Educating and Advocating for Children with Unique Learning Issues
School shopping this year was typical: glue sticks, binders, and crayons, the only noticeable difference was our search for apps for the iPad my son will be using as part of his IEP accommodation for a recently discovered reading and writing learning disability. I say “recently discovered” only because we have finally had properly credentialed authorities put a name to the thing. The reality is we have known it was there for as long as we have known him.
Ours is a classically nerdy household of history museums and NOVA. We curl up with stacks of books in the manner of house cats: sprawling and wherever there is a comfy place. So when we realized that one of the brood wasn’t actually reading the books he stared at (massive and beautiful tomes about space, animals, tectonic plates) but was instead just absorbing what was in the pictures we were puzzled. In first grade when the assignment was to write to one hundred, ten to a line in tidy little boxes, we’d find him with his face flat on the table, eyes staring into space, hard to read and reversed letters in just a handful of the squares; this from a child who could count to 100 when he was three. When in second grade he’d asked every day how to spell the word “train” again when he could effortlessly explain the workings of a combustion engine, we knew there was a problem. There was a disconnect, deep and wide, between his ability to extrapolate and make meaningful connections between sets of data and experiences and his ability to do the most simple grade level tasks. We needed an evaluation.
The evaluation told us one thing we had always known: he was gifted. His brain is a beautiful rarity that can manipulate information in complex ways with great efficiency. It also told us something we didn’t know, at least not directly: he has a significant learning disability. As the child psychologist who performed the tests described it his brain was a “like a race car, but not just any race car. It’s like a Formula One race car that is just revving and has so much power and is just so ready to take off…but it has no wheels.” This idea that our brilliant boy’s race car brain didn’t have the wheels to make it go, that all the nuance and power that it contained was effectively hobbled, rocked our world.
All this time we’d been so frustrated about homework (Is he lazy? Is he tired? Is it us?) when we’d been asking him the equivalent of what would be for anyone else alphabetizing their spelling words in Chinese. There had been a lot of tears after school and they had increased with every grade. We have a lot of guilt about how we handled things during that time.
But now instead of guilt we have work. We have come up with several ways to alleviate a lot of his disability’s trickier bits over the last several months. His reading has been transformed by the Kindle because he can process information in a much cleaner way when he can increase the font size and decrease the number of words on a line.
After a frustrating trip to a museum this summer, the main activity of which was a scavenger hunt with paper and pencil, our goal became to find a way for him to participate without demanding that he struggle to spell the words. Our solution: an iPad photo editor to take a picture of the scavenger hunt paper (or worksheet, the applications for this in the classroom are endless). From within that app you can write on the sheet with your finger, pull up a text box and type, or pull up a text box and speak into the microphone to record your answer.
With access to Bookshare.org, a website funded by a grant from the Department of Education which is free to every student of any age with a print-language learning disability he has access to thousands of books in digital form many of which will even read out loud. Now that his problem has a name there are tools for us to reach for and he is more excited for school than ever.
As the school year progresses I feel compelled to share our story with others. It is doubtful that our child’s issues would have been picked up in a typical classroom setting and that is not the fault of his classroom teachers or building leaders. The reality is that there are certain issues that hide themselves better, particularly for bright students. “Twice-exceptional” children, those with a dual-diagnosis of gifted and learning disabled have a unique problem of their strengths hiding their weaknesses and their weaknesses hiding their strengths. Often, they fly under the radar, doing too well to seem disabled but not well enough to seem gifted. The reality is they can be both.
If I could say one thing to every parent it would be pay attention to your children. Learn how they learn. Figure out what frustrates them and why. Seek solutions to their problems. And at the end of the day, advocate for them! Teachers have our children less than a third of the day for nine months of the year. The rest of the time they are ours. You know best whether your child has a problem or not. If there is one, push to find a solution both at home and in the classroom. It is our job to make sure we are completely plugged in with how our children learn so that we can partner with their teachers to make the most of their experience.
My second challenge is to the technology world. A fun gadget for us can be life changing for someone else. All children should be able to access the materials they need for school in a way that makes sense to them. All textbooks should be available in digital format, but right now they are not. The Amazon Kindle, which has been the difference maker for my child in transforming him from a reluctant reader to a please-put-that-book-down-so-we-can-eat kid should make a dyslexic font a stock option instead of having people resort to jailbreaking it just so they can read.
My final challenge is to the rest of us, those with children with special learning issues and those without, to embrace the reality that learning is a much more dynamic and fluid experience than we usually acknowledge. That “gifted” can look like many different things just like “disabled” can look like many different things. That all children have gifts and abilities born to them and that we must always remember that as the grownups in the room it is our responsibility to make sure those gifts and abilities are fully explored. All children deserve to have wheels on their race cars and it’s us who must help make that happen.