What Anxiety Looks Like

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 9.22.23 PMDespite a fantastic first day of his afternoon Montessori class, my older son, age four, grew quieter the morning of the second day of class. He dawdled through lunch and, tears appeared each day as the time to leave approached. I’d reassured him, reminding of him how happy he came out each day, a day he’d walked in with confidence, eyes dry. I asked what was wrong.

Eyes full, face tight with emotion, he confessed: “I’m worried.”

“What are you worried about?” I probed.

“I’m worried that I’m going to get worried while I’m there,” came his reply.

If metacognition is thinking about thinking, this must be meta-anxiety. We talked and continued our daily treks to school, where his teacher reassured me that his anxious expression faded within the first half hour each day, at which point he fell into the rhythm of the prepared environment and stimulation of the Montessori classroom.  That was vaguely reassuring, although I couldn’t shake the sting I felt when looking on his anxious face every day for three weeks, at which point, it seems, worrying about worrying wasn’t necessary.

Twelve years later, that expression is still all too familiar in our house. As an intermittently anxious mom who parents two anxious kids, I’ve watched anxiety in all forms. Too often anxious feelings go unspoken. They can get lost in the frustration feeling tied by one’s emotion.  It can come out upside down, inside out, and sideways, presentations that require a mental contortionist with a sharp eye to recognize.  It can cry and scream and hide and even vomit. It never fails to break my heart.

Anxiety looks like physical illness. It can be the recurring stomach ache or headache that drives a child to bed due to severity. It can look like an approaching cold or flu or case of food poisoning, and separating out what is what can press a mom’s skills of detection. This is not feigned illness. The headache of anxiety is as painful as one from sinus pressure or severe muscle tension. The stomach distress can keep one tied to a bathroom much like the aftereffects of an aged burrito from a street vendor. The chest pain and palpitations drive many an adult, certain death is imminent, to the emergency room. Anxiety and its sibling, panic attacks are as debilitating as the organic diseases they mimic. Classes are missed. Play dates are cancelled. Sleep is lost. More confusing yet, the symptoms can begin after the bout of anxiety ends. Adrenaline may help us outrun the saber tooth tiger, but we pay a price for its untimely release that so often occurs with anxiety.

Anxiety looks like resistance and noncompliance. Anxious children can be avoidant children. Avoiding what is causing anxiety — a difficult piano piece or a math assignment that just might be challenging — doesn’t help, of course. The dreaded assignment reaches gargantuan proportions with avoidance, and delay generally means the work, when finally done, is done under pressure of time, thus producing more anxiety. The piano piece never practiced because it might be too hard causes anxiety at each practice, anxiety that builds as the next lesson approaches. Quiet avoiders may fly under the radar until the next lesson or the day of a test, when anxiety then flairs. More overt avoiders may find themselves in constant (anxiety-provoking) conflict with a parent or instructor.

Anxiety looks like anger. Anxious children can tantrum — screaming, crying, arguing, and even physically lashing out when faced with the powerless feeling that anxiety can bring. Being loud and mad can bring a semblance of control that is, of course, not control at all but often complete lack of it. With the focus moved from the source of anxiety to the misdeeds of all those around the child : mom, who said I had to do it, my brother, who just happens to be in the way, him or self, because being angry seems better than being scared. The wake of the anger can become the focus for all involved, with consequences meted out to children without control of their flood of emotions.

Anxiety looks like sadness. Anxiety can walk with depression. It’s hard to be anxious all the time. Anxiety is exhausting. Anxiety can take a child away from new experiences, because anxious children will avoid what might be fun if the risk appears too great. When anxiety about a new experience – joining a club, attending a sleepover, riding the roller coaster – pride and confidence may develop. But for some anxious children, brave attempts to try something new are met with anxiety that makes enjoyment impossible. It’s easy to feel like a failure, and that can lead to sadness.

And sometimes, anxiety look like anxiety. The keyed-up child who keeps asking if he is safe during each thunderstorm, checking forecasts and windows. The child who, before vaccinations, asks for weeks what day the dreaded shot is, losing sleep the nights before and breaking down in hysterical tears before the actual event. The preschooler who cries each morning before preschool starts, because he saw someone else cry on the first day, so there must be something to worry about.  And sometimes, kids can give it voice.

“I’m feeling anxious, Mom.”

Those words bring me hope and relief. Not for the anxiety itself. I’m sorry my kids worry about what worrying won’t help, and I’m sorry anxiety keeps them from doing all they’d like to do. But that they can express it — identify it and share it — makes me hopeful that they’re learning to cope with what for each of them has been at times a debilitating condition.  And that makes me just a bit less anxious about them.

For more posts about life with twice exceptional (2e) kids, visit this month’s Gifted Homeschooler’s Forum Blog Hop list. 

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Twice Exceptional: When Exceptions are the Norm

DSCN0301I realize that after three years of blogging about my twice exceptional boys, I’ve never written about what twice exceptional means. The conventional definition of twice exceptional, or 2e, is gifted with learning differences. Parents would tell you that it’s a life of contradictions and contrasts, often pulling against each other resulting in a child who looks, well, average, whatever that is. They’d also tell you stories of advocacy twice failed, kids who work twice as hard with half the results, and twice the concerns about where a child will fit in the world. And the kids? Some might tell about wondering who they were, wondering at why life seems so hard, and perhaps about just feeling not so smart.

Until my older son struggled in school with handwriting tasks, I didn’t know a child could be learning disabled and gifted. Since he was my first child, I took much of his way of being in the world as normal kid stuff. Well, I knew he was ahead in areas, largely in the academic realm, but I also knew he lagged in fine motor skills, from writing to tying shoes to buttering bread. The diagnoses of his level of giftedness and dysgraphia, a disorder of written expression, arrived in tandem, making sense out of what we’d noticed while making the job of finding an appropriate educational setting that much harder. The poor fit of school was made no easier with those pieces of information.

So eventually we came home from school. Three years later, the ADHD diagnosis came along for the ride, with a trail of question marks still following, challenges undefined and unexplained. And three years after that, my younger was formally diagnosed with Aspergers, changing everything and nothing in a few sentences that were too long in coming.

That’s what those second exceptionalities do. They change everything. And nothing.

Ideally, they how we frame our children’s challenges. What was once seemed stubborn is now likely anxiety about what just doesn’t come with effort alone. What looked lazy is avoidance of what just feels bad or is simply beyond one’s skill set. What appeared to be neglect is a brain that struggles to make sense out of time and space. When I knew that my older son’s refusal to write more than the briefest phrase was because holding the pencil hurt and that making each letter took intense concentration that made it impossible to focus on content, I stopped thinking of his resistance as stubborn or lazy. It was a reasonable reaction to facing a Herculean task. When I found out that his trouble following a list of tasks, never mind create his own, came from a frontal lobe that was taking its time maturing, I stopped seeing his day as strewn with neglect.

Or at least I mostly did. Truthfully, it’s hard to look at a kid who started to add at three and explore the details of earth science at four and understand why the trajectory of learning that came so easily when no product was demanded comes screeching to a halt when it seems to be time to write a simple sentence about the moon. It’s not much easier at 15, when detailed monologues about computer guts dominate conversations but writing a list of tasks and following it still requires Mom.

Parenting a gifted kid often means parenting a child who was somewhat like you. Even if time and thousands of questions without answers seem to have beaten the giftedness out of us, apples don’t fall far from trees, as my father would say. For many of us, there is something familiar about the intensity of our gifted children, if only in shadowy images as we remember our childhoods.

But if you are not also learning disabled — and my children’s father and I are not — the dichotomy of the 2e kid is frankly mysterious. I don’t know what it’s like to be unable to write  with ease, to be unable take notes during a lecture, to look for my homework that I’m sure I did only to find that I never did it, or be stymied by the social norms of conversation. I just don’t know. It’s an unfamiliar way of being in the world.

Now, that’s expected to some degree. I don’t expect my kids to like what I like or see the world the way I see it. They are individuals. But when their operating systems seems so foreign, it’s sometimes hard to parent effectively and respectfully. In a fit of frustration, I once asked my older if the world in his head was as chaotic as it appeared from the outside. “It’s much worse,” he replied, without hesitation or, thankfully, frustration with his stymied, frantic mother.

Having a child who is twice exceptional means school will never be a sure fit. Or at least not a simple and comfortable fit. Mid-second grade, when my older came home, I was exhausted by meetings where I tried to explain what seemed like impossible partners, my son’s disparate needs for more information and challenge with less written output (although a keyboard would have been welcome). Having mercy on my son, myself, and even the school, I took the challenge home. That doesn’t make any exceptions vanish, but it does return your child to being your child, free of as many comparison points and evaluations. The dissonance with the world persists when field trips are missed (too loud, too many people, too many places to go in a day, or just too something else) and when reading through boards for parents of gifted kids, but being at home is a respite from the expectations of the world, where “gifted” and “learning disabled” mean different classrooms, methodologies, and outcomes. And as I’ve returned one to school (dual high school and college enrollment), I’ve been reminded that the differences persist, causing different challenges than eight years back, but still making fit difficult.

And for the kids? It’s even harder. For my older, having learning disabilities has caused him to question his intelligence. How can being smart and a quick learner coincide with forgetting to do assignments and struggling still to write a legible sentence? It seemed a more likely explanation that he wasn’t very smart at all, I suppose, and at an age where being “normal” is valued above being oneself, it seems reasonable to want to wish both away. Having both his giftedness and other challenges negated by school didn’t help, either, although by now I thought time would erase those feelings fo poor fit. Thankfully, college experiences in schools with strong disability resource offices have somewhat ameliorated of those feelings. (See Accommodating Disability, College Style for more on that adventure.)

My younger, at least on the surface, has an easier time. At home and in online classes, his difference doesn’t often interfere. After all, a preference for no eye contact, fewer bodies in the house, and a tight routine all mesh well with homeschooling. He’s also comfortable in his own skin, embracing his difference. (Don’t you dare call it a disability, Mom!) But I worry. The accommodations for him are largely invisible to him — careful scheduling, plenty of time for transitions, and adequate downtime happen without him realizing it. And while he’d likely be eaten alive in a live middle school classroom, he’s just one of the pack in his online classes. I’d not say it’s been easier to parent him over the years (oh, it’s not been), but out of school, the social issues just don’t cause as much difficulty day-to-day. He sees himself as smart and capable and enjoys the friendship of some wonderful children and adults who accept him as is. I’m grateful for his comfort within his own skin.

There is no ending. Twice exceptional kids become twice exceptional adults, and with guidance, support, and a bit of luck, they enter adulthood confident in their talents and equipped to seek and use supports for their disabilities.  I keep my fingers crossed, admittedly, but mostly I just keep guiding and supporting. And loving.

If you want to know more about supporting 2e learners, follow the links below. 

Perfect! Or not.

Cat at pianoMy older son complained about it when his last piano teacher used the word. “Perfect!” she’d exclaim. No, never in reference to an entire piece or even a page, but it was the standard by which she measured his accomplishments. Success was gauged with the elusive “perfect” pegged as 100%. Thus a stopping point might be 80% or 90% or, for some, just 60%. Perhaps a phrase would be perfect, or even a few lines, but a whole piece would never be perfect, and he knew it. It might be played a dozen different ways, all delightful to the ear, but perfect? Nope. Never.

Nothing is perfect except Earth’s spot in the solar system, declares my younger son, reading over my shoulder.  The word ‘perfect’ simply isn’t in our home lexicon. Aside from using it to describe a dessert or a day with nothing scheduled, we avoid it. We’re in agreement: no one is perfect.

Except we all long to some sort of perfection. Not the fuzzy sort, being the perfect me and all that. Thinking of ourselves as perfect us’s might be desirable on some level, but it’s just not in our temperaments. We are three perfectionists, all manifesting that trait in different ways, and the last word any of us want to hear is “perfect.”  I’m a continuous-improvement kinda gal, logical, practical, and highly internally critical. Okay, I can be fairly critical to others as well, but I like to think I’m learning to do it in a supportive, constructive way.  I encourage my kids to look deeply at their work and efforts, honestly assessing what’s working and what’s not. Let’s not ask how that’s working for us.

So we each long for perfection in some domain or another, knowing it’s not at word that applies to human efforts and products. It’s a perfectionism common to gifted folks, paired with the same painful realization that we fail, continually, painfully short of our expectations.  Ouch.

Perfectionism doesn’t always look like perfectionism. It’s easy to recognized in the young child who starts a drawing or essay, ripping it up over and over, simply because it fails to match his or her impossibly high expectations.  But reaches beyond the child who doesn’t know how to stop working on a project, tweaking it repeatedly, trashing parts and starting again, all in pursuit of something better. Those are the obvious manifestations of the unhealthy end perfectionism, but not the only ones.

Perfectionism is also behind the child (or adult) who won’t start a project because of uncertainty that its realization will meet his or her expectations. In a child, this can look like work avoidance — the essay never begun, the empty paper abandoned at the table, the page of math problems anxiously avoided, or the new piano piece left unattempted, because of course it won’t sound like it should today, tomorrow, or maybe never. I’ve watched all these manifestations of perfectionism gone awry in my boys.

In an adult, unproductive perfectionism looks similar. I’ve sat before many an empty page, trying to write but sure whatever I say won’t be said the right way. I’ve avoided larger projects (read: writing an actual book) for the same reason — what I say just won’t be good enough, not for me, not for others. Heck, it’s hard to even make lesson plans for my kids or my students at points, certain that there is a better way to say what needs to be said. It’s paralyzing.

To the outside observer, say a teacher, boss, or parent, perfectionism can look like lazy avoidance.  It’s not. It’s filled with anxiety, self-doubt, and sky-high expectations, colored with a desire to produce the best possible product in the best possible way. And while I know the perfectionist anthems by heart, I can fail to appreciate how much perfectionism plays a roll in my children’s work. It’s easy to see the hole in production and forget its cause. I guess I’m not perfect.

My parenting skills is the arena my self-criticism screams the loudest. Avoidance doesn’t really work when parenting, kids being rather visible and hard to turn one’s back upon. But this arena is where my perfectionism kicks in strongly. No, I’m not out to raise perfect kids. What I want for my children is simple: I’d like them to be productive members of society, giving more than they take. I want them to be reasonably happy and for people to at least tolerate their presence. (Read What I Want for My Children for more on those expectations.)

These arguably minimal desires can bring me to tears as I wonder how to help them find their way to those goals. I worry academically, as I want them to have choices in their higher education. Not choices so they can attend some prestigious university (unless they want to) and then win the next Nobel Prize in whatever.  Choices so the they can attend a school with academic peers and be challenged by other curious minds. Choices so they can find a course of study that will lead them to job choices that make them happy and feel full of purpose. I worry socially, wondering how the world will see them and accept them, my brutally honest younger and my sensitive older. I’d not change them a bit, but I worry still. On more practical ends, I worry about creating the just-right transcript and about missing a crucial educational element. After all, the perfectionist in me wants them to have the perfect education.

Yes, I know that’s not possible, just as much as they know that playing the perfect piano piece or writing the perfect novel are not possible goals. Playing the piece excellently and writing a fine book are possibilities  however.  There is nothing wrong with a drive to do well paired with the effort required to make great things happen. But sometimes, we need to settle with working hard and knowing when to stop and call it good, or maybe even great, but being wise enough to know that sometimes just good enough is all that is necessary or possible. We can only continually look at our efforts at our living and loving and honestly assess how we are doing, not to continually feel we fall short but rather to realize that we’ve done generally quite well but can always still learn more and grow.

Perfectionism doesn’t have to be the bane of the gifted child or adult. It can be the drive to work harder and learn more. It can be what keeps the scientist at her task, looking for what eludes her. It can be what brings the lawyer back to the library, searching for the case that adds to his quest for justice. It can be what keeps the parent looking for ever more creative ways to approach her child with love, compassion, and dignity. Perfectionism channelled properly fuels amazing product, and approaching one’s life and work with the drive behind perfectionism can be deeply satisfying. Healthy perfectionism, in academic, creative, leadership, and social domains, drives the changes we need in the world. It’s not to be squelched but rather directed. Reach far, work hard, and dream big, perfectionists. And be gentle with yourself and those around you. After all, nobody’s perfect.

Further reading on perfectionism in gifted individuals:

Behavior is Communication

Behavior is communication.  That’s a maxim more recently held among many parents of autistic spectrum kids. It’s certainly true with my Aspie son.  His behavior is my best indicator of internal milieu.  While my younger son is verbally precocious and his output, um, prolific, it’s his behavior that tells me what’s really going on.  When I see him chewing his shirt or blanket, I know he’s needing to soothe himself.  That behavior isn’t random, and it isn’t there to drive me nuts.  It may appear to be both of those things, but it’s not.  It’s communication and coping mechanism wrapped into one.  Holes and soggy clothing aside, it’s not a terribly problematic behavior, and he’s glad to substitute a piece of gum when asked.

Some behaviors are less clear.  Breakdowns during lessons require more detective work and rarely related to the assigned work.  When he becomes teary during a page of math problems, fatigue and anxiety are often to blame.  The anxiety may be about an upcoming flu shot, global warming, or his birthday.  Even fun stuff causes anxiety, since it also entails change. But his behavior for all is pretty much the same — teariness for assignments he generally manages well and resistance to all demands.  In the last year, thanks to growth, good therapy, and low-dose medication, with prompting he’s often able to identify the problem and work through.   We didn’t have this a year ago, but not just because he was struggling to express himself.

I wasn’t listening as well then.  I was listening for words, words in response to, “What’s wrong?”  I was watching for body language that matched his words, and the match wasn’t there.  I wasn’t considering the behaviors themselves to be communication.  Oh, I knew that certain behaviors meant he was distressed.  But the tantrums and all tended to overwhelm me, making it hard for me to really listen to what his behavior was saying.  I saw the meltdown, the chewing, the foot tapping, and I just felt frustrated.  Frustrated that I didn’t know what was wrong.  Frustrated at the behavior, which was often loud and large. Frustrated at the interruption in our lives, which occurred nearly every day.

When I can remember that behavior is communication, I can respond initially to what is being communicated, not to the behavior.  No, I don’t tolerate violent acts to people or property.  And yes, behavior does have consequences.  But we do the best around here when I listen to what he’s really communicating.  When I recognize the anxiety, fear, anger, or sorrow behind the behavior, I can respond to that. When he identifies the emotions behind his behavior (which often takes help), he’s more likely to shift away from more problematic behaviors.    Also, there are some behaviors best let be.  I’m delighted my son has found ways to calm himself, even if one of those ways is chewing his shirts to pieces.  He spent more than half of his life without any of those independent mechanisms, requiring me to soothe him.  I still do help him out, cuddling or just being near when needed, but finding ways to manage that oneself is a task of growing up.

Behavior is communication.  This holds true for my older son.  At fourteen, he has plenty of ability to express his feelings, but, whether due to gender, age, or temperament, he often doesn’t say much.  He speaks volumes when he retreats to his room to read –again.  Even missed assignments and failed tests give me information as to his state of mind and mood.  It’s harder for me to see his behavior as communication, perhaps because, in general, he communicates his feelings in words more readily than his brother.  But his behavior towards his academic work or music studies are a window into his heart and mind, one that as a mom to a teen, I’m glad to have available.  As with my younger, I try to verify my understanding of a behavior.  Did he not finish work because it was too hard, because he was bored, or because he has bigger matters on his mind?  This isn’t an out to assignments he doesn’t want to do — life requires us to do plenty that we’d rather avoid.  (My examples to my boys include cleaning toilets, cooking meals each day, and showing up for work on time.)

It’s far too easy to jump on the behavior — the tantrum, the late or sloppy work, the retreat to a room — rather than to examine the communication behind the behavior.  It takes a fair amount of self-restraint to block the initial (often negative) reaction to the behavior and think for a moment and ask aloud what’s going on. It takes some patience to help a child sort through their hearts and minds, but it’s worth it.

The more I try to see behavior as communication, the less conflict we have around here.  It decreases my yelling and their whining.  And, to my delight, it increases their ability to identify and share their feelings before they wash over into their behavior.  That makes for a more peaceful home, which we all appreciate.

Secret:  This works with adults, too, but adults tend to be more guarded about their emotions and have stronger ego-defenses.  Strong reactions and grownup tantrums are rarely about anyone but the one having the snit. At least remembering that can help you de-escalate and keep your own behavior in check.

Ready or Not!

In Michigan, public schools start the day after Labor Day.  It’s a tourism issue, encouraging folks to travel the state for the last weekend of summer, and many private schools start weeks earlier, allowing longer breaks mid year and an earlier end date.  Since a later start and an early finish sound good to me (heck, who learns anything in school in June?), we start after Labor Day and end around Memorial Day, with a few loose ends that we promise to each other to finish in the summer but generally don’t.  So, according to my calendar, we’re less than two weeks from Day 1, and I’ve been planning their work and our end-of-summer activities with that timeline in mind.  Aside from an online class starting this week and three more starting next week, all which I only realized yesterday (What?  The online homeschooling teacher in California doesn’t follow the Michigan public school schedule?) , all is on target.

Kind of.  I have severe pre-homeschooling school year jitters.  Severely severe.  Insomnia producing, anxious cuticle picking, crabby-when-spoken-to jitters.

I don’t usually feel this way.  Generally, I’m excited about our start.  Returning to routine generally soothes me.  This year, the thought of fall just gives me the heebie jeebies.  This summer, while packed with fun stuff like Stunt Camp, SUUSI, good times with friends, and trips to see grandparents, was just too busy.  My younger son with Asperger’s does not transition well, and busy trips away followed by quiet time at home really throws him off.  Heck, I don’t transition well.  Every week has been different this summer, with no semblance of routine at all.  Somehow this summer, we forgot to relax, or perhaps we did that in the first half, and the effects have worn off already.

It’s more than that.  Last year was far from stellar.  Both boys were plagued with executive function challenges, with my older revealing how much he really needs assistance with planning and scheduling and my younger struggling with compliance and anxiety (he’s poor at the compliance and good at the anxiety).  All around, I was glad to see that year behind us.  But the question of how to make this year better all around continues to plague me.  I’ve involved them when planning solutions to those problems, although I’m not sure this will actually change our outcome, as their insight to the problems of last year is a bit foggy given their difficulties with (here’s the refrain) executive function.

My younger wants a schedule that gives the times he’s to do things.  His main concern with a simple to-do list is that he won’t get it all done and be able to do what he wants to do.  Never mind that Mom is pretty good at knowing how long assignments should take for her kids.  Never mind that the day is long and his homeschooling day, if he stayed on task, would be fairly short.  I’ve agreed to give this a try, but I can smell the anxiety in the air when his schedule says math at 9 am and he’s still finishing spelling at 9:05.  This is not a flexible child.  As I said, I’ll try his way, but I have my reservations.

My older wants a daily task list.  As I posted last school year, he and I have tried a variety of planners on paper and the computer with no success for more than a day or two.  Last year, we ended up using the low-tech white board.  I don’t object to the whiteboard, but he took to erasing items that were only partially done, which hampered his ability to remember to finish them later.  Also, I did all the list making, and I think, at 14 and technically 9th grade, he should be learning to keep track of his life just a bit more than that system allowed.  I’m again playing with planners for the iTouch, but I’m still not impressed.  I’ve started using Opus Domini on the Mac, which is the simplest interface for scheduling I’ve yet to find, but that’s yet to be released for the iTouch or iPad, and I have no idea if it will work for him.  Since little of what works for me works for him, I’m keeping my enthusiasm in check.  Whether we schedule on paper, white board, or computer, I’ll be looking for ways to gradually turn the reins over to him.

My planning is another bugaboo this fall.  I’m designing a course for my older son on Earth Science and Meteorology (the latter to a greater depth than a general college level Earth Science class would go, since he’s been studying the subject independently since he was six).  In addition to science, I’ll incorporate history, literature, and composition into the course with and underlying focus on note taking and study skills.  Whew.  He’s quite interested in how weather and geologic events have affected history, so we’ll focus on the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the Little Ice Age, famine and drought across the ages, and more, while learning how to write an academic paper.  I’m enthused but cautious.  Last year, we dropped so much, somewhat due to my giving him more responsibility than he was ready to take and somewhat due to Life Circumstances Beyond Our Control.  Life has settled, and I’m returning him to my side for more of his learning until he has the skills to be more successful on his own.  Still, I’m worried.  Have I put in enough material?  Have I put in too much?  How do I teach study skills when I never remember learning them?  When am I going to find the time to read all these books at the same time he does?  I could go on,  but I’m sure you get the idea.

I have less planning concerns about my younger’s studies, since his three online classes this fall limit my planning to science, composition, math, spelling, and handwriting.  After we tie up a few loose ends for Chemistry, he’ll start Earth Science, too.  I’ve done little to plan for that yet, but the course is clearer there, given we’re using a standard text with labs and all.  I’ll flesh it out with videos, current events, and other readings, but the big work is done by the textbook folks.  Somehow, I continue to feel anxious, but most of that focuses around his compliance issues.

Ready or not, our school year is fast approaching.  While we don’t have the rush to find new clothes and hunt down a long list of school supplies all while filling out the mounds of paperwork that go with sending a child to an actual school, we have our own angst as the school year starts.  And despite my worries, each time a store clerk or stranger says, “Hey, at least they go back to school soon,” I smile, grateful that we’re doing that at home.

Happy new homeschool school year, for all those who see September as a beginning.  I’d love to hear from you about your concerns or joys about your new starts, whether they are in fall or some other time.

We Have a Diagnosis

Hans Asperger interviewing a child in Vienna in the 1940s. He's unavailable for consultation.

We have a diagnosis.  After OT and PT at age 5, vision therapy at age 6,  developmental pediatrics evaluation at 5, formal IQ testing at 6, and six or seven visits to our favorite psychologist, and we have a name.  It’s not colic (hey, that worked for the first few months).  It’s not simply anxiety.  It’s not just hypotonia with sensory integration disorder and convergence disorder.  It’s not oppositional defiant disorder or ADHD.  And it’s not PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified), a useless category that says nothing but, “Yup, your kid is quirky but not in a definable way that leads you to any specific interventions.” 

It’s Asperger’s Syndrome, part of the autistic spectrum.  

And I’ve known that for years.  Since our nine months of twice-weekly visits to occupational and physical therapy at age 5, I’ve known there was a piece to the puzzle missing.  The older he became, the more I was certain that AS was the unifying answer, but professionals reassured me that it really didn’t fit.   Okay, but the books on parenting kids with AS helped (a bit), and the parenting books for those with  neurotypical kids didn’t.  And nothing I learned from parenting my first helped with my second. 

I’m not blaming any of the fine professionals we’ve seen over the past four or five years.  My younger is profoundly gifted and highly verbal.  He’s developed a keen if odd sense of humor and can deflect questions he doesn’t understand.  These traits have helped him  for his inability to take the perspective of another or understand the nonverbals (vocal cues, facial expression, body language) that makes up of 90% of  spoken, live communication.  It’s just not working so well anymore.  Folks expect more reciprocity and understanding of subtlety as you get older, and he is just unable to keep up.  He’s exhausted, anxious, and angry. 

I’ve spent nine years as his buffer from and interpreter of the world.  His brother’s been his social lubricant in addition to back-up buffer and interpreter.  We’re exhausted, anxious, and, sometimes, angry.  But at least we can recognize those feelings in each other and offer support and a hug. 

And now we have a diagnosis.  Nothing’s different today.  He’s the same child I’ve parented for nine years.  He’ll require much more of the same approach I’ve given to parenting him, with plenty of interpreting of the world by family and friends for years to come.  So what does it matter?  He’s not in school, so a slew of services to negotiate aren’t forthcoming.  He’s, for now, unaware of his diagnosis, although we’ve had plenty of conversations about his challenges with transitions, jokes, and facial expression challenges.  There’s no definitive treatment to start.  So what does it matter?

It matters.  Now I know why it’s been so difficult to parent him effectively.  Now I know it’s not that I’m a bad mom, a label I’ve given myself two hours into an intractable tantrum, wondering where in the process I went so terribly wrong. I’ve felt I was a “bad mom” during the times I’ve wanted to vanish from a social scene where a meltdown was beginning, feeling the eyes of other parents on me, feeling their disapproval of me and my child.  While my head’s known that label wasn’t true, in the dark moments, that’s where my heart sinks.   With the diagnosis, I can let that concern go.  I didn’t do this to him.

It matters.  Since it’s not my fault, I can’t fix it.  I can support and love him.  I can find assistance teaching him the skills that most of us never give a second thought:  the ability to see through the eyes of another, to feel what they feel, and to read a face and body when words don’t tell the whole story.  But I can’t fix him, and a firm diagnosis is a chilling reminder that no parenting approach will change the biology of his brain. 

Today, and for all days to come, we have a diagnosis.  It’s not a label to stick on him or a box to stick him in, but it’s an acceptance of certain facts of life.  An official diagnosis will open some doors for both of us, take some (self-imposed) guilt off of me, and offer us a frame for the struggles to come.  For that, I’m grateful and hopeful.

Productive, Successful Homeschooling Days (Watch the Baby, Not the Clock)

Last night, I met to knit and chat with a friend and fellow homeschooler.  In between discussions of how to turn the heel of a sock without losing one’s mind, double-sided knitting with patterns to each side, and the like, we discussed our homeschooling adventures as of late.   We seem to both ask ourselves the same questions:  Did we have a productive, successful day? 

I ask myself this in some form each day, generally while looking at the boys’ planners and noting what is completed, what’s yet to be started, and what’s being utterly neglected.  And, many days, I judge the day’s productivity by how much is checked off.  Spelling, math, grammar, reading, science, typing, handwriting, piano, karate…  Yup.  We had a productive day.  Or, at least, a productive day on paper.  But those aren’t necessarily the days where I reach the magic bedtime hour of my younger thinking, “What a great day homeschooling my kids.  We were successful!”   Sure, sometimes a list fully checked off occurs on the same day I feel deeply satisfied with my choice to homeschool and the results of that choice, but not always.  Here are some highlights of successful days in our house:

  • A day my younger doesn’t throw a tantrum about work load, when he can play DS, the fit of his pants, or the crispness of his bagel.  He’s struggling with anxiety and perfectionism complicated by changes in his parent’s lives.  A day of relative peace that doesn’t include screaming and hiding under couch cushions (the child, not me)  is a major success lately.
  • A day my older plans his time well enough to feel satisfied with himself, completing assignments and finding blocks of time to pursue his own interests.  There aren’t many of these days now, but he’s on the road to better planning skills. 
  • A day a child follows his own interests and delights in the learning that occurs.  My younger, 9,  experiences this almost every day.  The world is still amazing to him, and following his current passions brings him joy.  His brother, 13, has spurts of this, most recently in chemistry and woodworking.
  • A day creativity blossoms, taking a child to new worlds.  Again, my younger experiences this more often.  Many a history lesson has led to a duct tape, fleece, and cardboard frenzy, followed by reenactments and revisions of history.  (“Mom, if I’d planned the crusades, I’d have done it this way.”  Better have an hour after hearing that line.) 
  • A day connections are made.  When the lesson on percentage carries over into a discussion about why lending interest rates are higher than saving rate, then to an understanding the risks of living beyond one’s means occurs, you can almost see the neurons firing.
  • A day my boys lose themselves in imaginative play for hours.  Together.  In relative peace.  My boys generally get along quite well together, but it’s in these times when they’ve created their own world and the characters in it, expounding on each other’s ideas, that I see that brotherly bond strengthening while they imagine away the hours.
  • A day a child tries something new, something hard, something he was sure he couldn’t do, and succeeds.  Whether that’s independent long division, making a bookcase from his own plans, or talking himself down during an anxiety-driven tantrum, these challenges met and conquered carry rewards for the child and for me.
  • A day kids pitched in, taking rather than shirking household responsibility.  My older excels in this area, although sometimes I know his acquiescence is driven by his desire to avoid other work.  I’ll take it.
  • A day a child delights in the company of a true friend.  My younger came late to successful social relationships, and watching him navigate friendship successfully just makes me smile.
  • A day a boy works to build more peace into his relationships, letting compassion rule.  The older they become, the more times I see this happen.  Concern and care for those younger than them continues to blossom, and my older is quite adept with small children.  My younger’s gaining ability to do the same, again making social gains that have been so challenging for him.
  • A day a child turns it around.  Many a morning, a boy grumbles and whines about going to karate/piano/the grocery store.  When that child can turn it around upon arrival or soon after, even noting that the lesson was not bad (and even fun!) I know success has been had.
  • Even those really rough days, the ones where everyone yelled, cried, despaired, and nearly threw in the towel, but no one quits and we’re better on the backside of the day than we were at the start.  Even those days are a success, although please don’t ask me about that during the yelling, crying, despairing, and the like.  We’re still learning together and hanging in, repairing relationships and learning resilience.

 By those measures, just about every day (okay, probably every one) is a successful homeschooling day.  While some may not be productive in the check-the-item-off-the-list way, they all have the capacity to be productive in more human-centered definitions.  As a La Leche League leader, I’ve told many moms to watch the baby not the clock when determining when to nurse.  In a time-centered, tangible accomplishment based society, clocks and lists threaten to be the rulers to which all is measured.  I’m guilty of falling into that trap, often many times a day.  When I turn my attention to the boys and away from the schedules and clocks, I’m far more likely to see the successes stacking up in ways no list could enumerate.  I’m also able to note their struggles before they turn to full-fledged battles and support their efforts in the items on the list above.

I still value productivity in the get-the-assignments kinda way.  After all, adult life is full of deadlines, regardless of the work one chooses.  Since both children have a fair amount of say in the subjects they study each year, I do expect them to follow through, even when it isn’t all fun.  As I say quite often to my older, it’s not all about fun.  Life can be deeply satisfying when you’ve worked hard at something, from jobs to chores to relationships.  These reminders are generally met with sighs that only the parent of a teen can truly appreciate, but often with another attempt at the task at hand.  Hey.  Persistance at an unpleasant, not immediately rewarding task.  That’s another mark of a successful day.

 What are your markers of a successful or productive homeschooling day?  Share away, and we’ll all have more ways to say hurrah come bedtime.

Feeling Quite Venn

Venn DiagramMy younger and I continue exploring Challenge Math (Zaccaro), despite the arrival of the Singapore 5 materials over the weekend.  After looking over the new arrivals and deciding he’d start with percents, which is halfway through the second book.  (My younger prefers to jump around in math books and his other reading:  he simply refuses to let the table of contents order him around.  That’s another post.)   But come Monday, he chose Zaccaro’s book.

Fine by me.  Yesterday we continued exploring problem solving techniques, jumping to the Venn diagrams at his request.  He started with his usual negativity — this will be hard, when can we stop, let’s just do the first few, can I have a snack,  etc.  Once underway, he was actually smiling as he tackled progressively harder problems, noting how easy they really were.  By this point, I’m smiling, too. 

It’s a rare day that my younger relaxes enough to work to his ability in math, being willing to struggle with difficult concepts without becoming discouraged.  He’s a perfectionist and of the ilk that prefers not to try at all if he senses and risk of imperfection.  This concern washes into writing assignments:  why start if you certainly will fail to produce a flawless product?  So he balks, argues, avoids, and, on occasion, finds the words to express this concern. 

When I’m really tuned into him, I can see the anxiety building and recognize his fear of failing to meet his own high standards.  Sometimes I’m less attuned, either distracted by my older or by my own concerns and thoughts, I miss the warnings.  My repeated reminders to return to work meet silence or tip him into a fury.  Adrenaline hits me either way.  Usually, I can find my way past that rush and its accompanying anger, but sometimes my fury matches his, and I start yelling.  Eventually, we find our way back to some semblance of calm, me breathing deeply, touching him gently, and searching for cues as to his distress.  It’s almost always worry about missing perfection, although he rarely verbalizes (or even realizes it), and modifying the assignment almost always helps.  I often scribe for him, for math and for writing, allowing him to think with so much committment to paper (mistakes from his mouth to my hand don’t bother him).

For the Zaccaro math, I’m by his side, scribing when needed and curiously observing  his thinking process.    A few problems in, I turn over the marker to him and walk away to check the laundry.  Upon my return, the marker remains capped and he’s starting to wiggle.  “Did you already finish it?” I ask, thinking he’s erased the problem and moved on.

His anxiety level visibly rises with his pitch and volume, “I can’t do it!  I can’t draw the circles right!  They keep coming out as ovals!”    I finally, realizing I’ve been holding it while waiting for the explosion. 

“No big deal,” I respond.  “They don’t have to be perfect.”  He passed the pen to me.  I drew three lopsided intersecting circles (one quite ovoid, in fact), passed the pen back.  He smiled and completed the problem.  He’s feeling quite Venn, and so am I.

The Road Home

Summing up five years of homeschooling in a reasonable-lengthed blog post challenges my desire for completeness, but I’ll try.

My older son, now 12, attended three schools by time we left at age 7:  one Montessori for age 4 and 5 (great experience), another Montessori for first grade (where we discovered not all school experiences would be great experiences), and a public academically talented program (and left mid-year).  His mood improved, his interest in learning rebounded, and my unproductive meetings with teachers/principals/school support people ended.  I wouldn’t say it was all smooth sailing from there, but at least I knew he was being challenged appropriately and his various learning differences were being addressed.

My younger son, now 8, enjoyed the same two years of fantastic Montessori experience at ages 4 and 5.  For first grade, we gave him the choice of school or home.  No shock to me that my introverted, information-hungry little one chose to stay home.  A different child needed different methods and curriculum, and his quirks and challenges were quite different than his brother’s, so I found myself starting over.  Being home allowed him to explore his passions (history and geography, at that time) while allowing time for him to develop some motor and visual skills.

So here we are.  Home to learn.  What started as rescue effort for discouraged, stressed older son became a lifestyle I embrace.  I’m honored to guide my children through these years and delighted to watch them learn.  It’s time-consuming, life-changing, and sometimes frustrating.  I wouldn’t change it for the world.