Ellen Walker spoke dispassionately about her 8 -year -old son Teddy’s many problems. “He has learning disabilities and an inability to interact with classmates. He’s disorganized. He doesn’t listen. Every day is a string of arguments, tears, melt downs. I’m afraid he’s profoundly handicapped,” Mrs. Walker concluded. It was a somber picture that she painted. When I asked about her child’s strengths she seemed disconcerted, as if they were trifling compared to the problems he presented.
We agreed that my evaluation would begin with a visit to observe Teddy in his classroom, after which we would engage in the tests necessary to structure a program of treatment.
Now here’s the strange part of this story. When I arrived at Teddy’s school, I looked around for a profoundly handicapped little boy, unable to relate to other children, beset with learning difficulties and prone to inappropriate behaviors. I couldn’t pick out a single child who matched the description. The little boy lying on his back in the corner, playing with an airplane over his head? That was Ray. The child who gleefully knocked over a little girl’s stack of blocks? Charlie. The one coloring a dog purple and laughing wildly? Brett.
Teddy was the one sitting chin in hand, listening to another boy talking about video games. When the teacher called the class to attention, he sat quietly. When she asked him a question he answered. He didn’t have the small muscle coordination to write the alphabet, as some children did. He talked without raising his hand. He tried to go to music class in his stocking feet, and he tended to repeat things in a way other children thought was weird. “I like your Perry the Platypus shirt.” he told Ray. “I like your shirt. I like your shirt. I like your shirt.” But he was certainly not profoundly handicapped.
So why did Mrs. Walker think he was?
There’s a path parents take as they come to terms with a child’s neurobehavioral difficulties. Knowing a child has disabilities can be the loss of a dream. Parents grieve for that ideal child who could have become a lawyer, a doctor, or otherwise fulfill imagined goals. But most gradually achieve acceptance of their child’s condition and many become determined advocates. They take stock of their own intelligence and capability and think, “Wonderful that I have this child, who needs so much help, when I am exactly the sort of person who can provide it. I’ll give this child experiences that will make the most of his strengths. I don’t know how yet, but I’ll find out.”
But other parents, among them Mrs. Walker, have a sense of self that feels compromised by their child’s perceived shortcomings. Teddy was not profoundly handicapped, but he was far enough from brilliant that Mrs. Walker felt he added nothing to her worth. She was not able to form a close connection to her child. In clinical terms she was as much in need of treatment as Teddy.
Despite a lack of emotional connection, Mrs. Walker did seek the best help for her son. After a year and a half of treatment he has a great team of therapists and teachers. He performs beautifully with them because he feels secure and comfortable. With his mom it’s a different story. If she says put on your shoes, he throws the shoes. At the supermarket he runs down the aisles, cries, knocks boxes off shelves. If a visitor comes to the house unexpectedly he has a total meltdown, flailing and screaming.
Even in calm and happy moments, when Teddy looks for his mom’s reactions he can tell he’s not pleasing her, that none of the things that are big milestones for him are a thrill for her. He would not be able to formulate this verbally, but he feels, accurately, that he can work as hard as he can but it won’t ever be enough.
Part of my treatment of Teddy is necessarily therapy for his mom, who at first took it for granted that there was no other way she could feel about a child whom she saw almost entirely in terms of his limitations. Gradually she is learning to recognize that certain traits of Teddy’s character—a fierce independence, a willingness to work hard to improve-- are both admirable qualities and akin to her own nature. The gap between them has narrowed a little.
I have seen developmental miracles happen with children who have similar problems and aptitudes. A girl much like Teddy when I first knew her has moved on to attend a local college and has entered a program that prepares her to teach preschoolers. Her parents built on her strengths, and were tireless in their efforts to help her overcome her problems. They point out that she has become a wonderful, empathetic daughter whose company is a delight to them. She is not the child they hoped for, but they love the child she has become.