February 4, 2011

Similarities In Raising Special Needs and Gifted Children



Family Trip to Alcatraz 2011

Junior Ranger Program at Alcatraz


I don’t like the term ‘gifted’. It seems that it is without a true definition. I also am not so fond of the word precocious. Precocious means a child is early in developing some aspect of their ability. To me it doesn’t make that much sense. Both words carry with them a vision of some type of amazing child. Like the next Mozart or Doogie Howser. I’m not so sure about that.

When people ask about BabyGirl and why we homeschool, I don’t know what to really tell them. She is precocious and read early. Does she have a gift, maybe. Has she been tested, yes. (That’s a whole other story as to why). Is she off the charts, I don’t tell people. I’m not embarrassed. But I’m also not one to share something that has little meaning outside of an academic situation. If asked, I’ll tell people she is a high-ability child. That explains her better. She can do some things at an ability well beyond the norm. And that is partly why we homeschool. Here in Arizona, high-ability children are not a priority. Our state budget cuts education funding at any turn presented. Educational options for children that perform significantly above the norm are very limited. And rather than put all my energy into fighting a system that does not value educating such children, I chose to homeschool. No matter that I really had no idea what that meant when I started. But the gifted community is not often open or supportive.

About a year ago I started reading a website about a boy named Max. Max is about the same age as BabyGirl. Max’s mom is now my friend in real life. Ellen started Love That Max as a way to document her journey and share her struggles and triumphs of being a parent to a child with cerebral palsy. She’s become a high profile mom in the special needs circles. She inspires many. She angers some.

So why would I, the parent of a high-ability child, spend time reading about a kid who is probably the complete opposite of my child? What could I possibly learn? And given that I didn’t know Ellen prior, why not find someone else who writes about a child more closely related to my own?

Because I’ve learned a lot about parenting a child with special needs. BabyGirl has special needs. Sure, they’re different than what Max’s are. But, honestly, when looked at from afar, they’re actually much more similar.

Sensitivities – Like Max, BabyGirl is sensitive to sound, touch, food, clothing and other things. High ability children often have ‘quirks’ about them. It’s a well documented phenomenon. No one is really sure why. And while many parents of gifted (high ability) children don’t talk about this, parents of special needs kids do. It’s as if my counterparts in the gifted world are embarrassed by these sensitivities our children have. They’re supposed to be beyond this. Whatever ‘this’ is. So I read Ellen talk about how she deals with the social and emotional aspects of raising a child who has various sensitivities. And it offers me options and suggestions to empower my own child. They’re not the same challenges, but they’re similar.

Patience – High ability children are not always patient. They get easily frustrated by their inability to do something. They can do some things that are extraordinarily sophisticated, yet become inpatient when something else seems out of reach. And parents of these high ability children often lack the patience because our children can do things that are well beyond the average ability so we get lulled into this idea that they can do everything. Ellen, on the other hand, knows her son can not do many thing on his own and requires her intense focus. Her frustration is similar in that she asks herself why she must do everything. It’s not the same, but it’s similar. And she she talks openly about all the things she helps with, and does so with such grace. She suggests to be patient. It’s a reminder that patience is a very necessary part of parenting, regardless of your child’s ability.

Rituals and Routine – Often special needs children engage in ritualistic and routine behavior. Deviate from them and you can face a situation that top military generals would back away from. High ability children are no different. The rituals and routines may be different, but handling them is often very similar. Now I’m not talking about OCD-type behavior. I’m talking about having to have the same cup or the world will end. Or using the same toothpaste. BabyGirl has a set routine to start her day. If that is interrupted or deviated from, it can often become an obstacle. Routine is important in Max’s daily life. It helps him to process and be familiar. It puts him at ease with what’s going on now and what will come next. My BabyGirl is no different. Ellen shares openly about the challenges this poses when you want to throw caution to the wind and just go with the flow.

The Look – You know what I’m talking about. That look of pity or “glad it’s not me”. High ability children often do or say awkward things. They think everyone thinks the way they do. That everyone knows about the effects of carbon monoxide on the atmosphere and how it affects global warming. At age 7. Like many special needs children, high ability children often have mannerisms that call attention to their uniqueness. It draws looks and stares. BabyGirl is not very fond of people touching her, and she often yells at people if they do. She has perfect pitch and will tell people to stop singing because it annoys her. One minute she’s doing something well beyond her years, another she’s engaging in an age-appropriate behavior. And some people can’t grasp that she’s just a kid. She’s 8, regardless of her ability to do many things well beyond her age. I can’t tell you how often I get ‘the look’ or stares from other kids who don’t want to say hello. It hurts. Just like they hurt Ellen and the other parents of special needs kids, ‘the look’ pierces my heart and nothing I do or say can make it not hurt.

I recently spent some time talking to Ellen and told her that I enjoy her site because it helps me to find ways to better deal with parenting BabyGirl. As much as she wants Max to be accepted, I want the same for BabyGirl. On a bell curve of kids, neither of them are in the bell. They’re outliers. They’re different. Both have special needs. The specific needs are just very different. She probably thinks I’m weird, and she may be right.

I hope that someday my child will be accepted. I want my child to be with people who won’t look at her like she’s strange or different because of unique behaviors. As much as my list is full of somedays for my BabyGirl, so is Ellen’s for Max. And like Ellen, I look forward to these somedays.

Note:  I’m not speaking for anyone else. I’m not saying that being a parent of a special needs child is not fraught with challenges I will never understand. This is my view from where I sit.



Leisa Hammett February 4, 2011 at 8:28 am

Great post, Sara. Not wanting to share something that has no meaning outside of an academic situation must be why you never mentioned that you are a lawyer…? Really, Sara, I say toot your own horn. But, guess that’s just me. Curiously, I am just now reading the speaker bios for Blissdom conference that occurred last week. That’s when I learned….

In terms of federal law, at least in some states, like my own, gifted is grouped with and under the special needs umbrella…much to the chagrin of many gifted parents here. But, I agree. We do have much in common. We are a minority and it helps to advocate for and respect rather than disassociate. As a special needs parent, I appreciate your recognizing that.

ZoniDuck February 4, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Her hair looks awesome in that picture. /shallow

ZoniDuck February 4, 2011 at 3:50 pm

And on the not shallow end of things, this was a great post. I tend not to think about these things, because to me she’s just my awesome, dorky, talented, brilliant, weirdo niece, who I love beyond reason. And I’ve been on the receiving end of those awkward, inappropriate statements more than a few times. But I know her, and I know she isn’t trying to be hurtful, so it doesn’t bother me. I can see how it would be difficult when she’s talking to someone who doesn’t know her.

She’s lucky to have you as her Mom, and CycleGuy as her Dad. Between the two of you, you’re raising an amazing person.

Becca - Our Crazy Boys February 4, 2011 at 9:51 pm

I love this Sara – It’s so true, and as someone who works with many special needs students, I see these things every day.

I’ve learned one very important thing from my students: acceptance. 🙂

Ellen - Love That Max February 5, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Hi. Sara, this is so thoughtfully and beautifully said. Until I met you, I wouldn’t have ever thought gifted kids and those with special needs had similarities. When you first spoke about BabyGirl’s academic gifts, part of me thought, Wow, I wonder what that would be like. But now, I see the parallels. And all I can say is, our kids sure are lucky to have us as moms.

By Word of Mouth Musings February 5, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Love that your post was in the Twitter feed.
I have a very special just turned 13 yr old who writes a blog called
wise words by wiki
she is very wise, and super smart, and doesn’t get the social nuances somedays … and thats ok.
Because since being homeschooled, her new homeschool friends, get who she is, they know she is super smart … but they also know she is not a gossip, not dramatic .. and she loves them.
Yes, our special kids are very special … and no one knows that more than us.
Thank you for this post!

Carrie March 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Sara, we just talked on the phone today for my column and I started browsing your site … as a parent. I have a soon-to-be-7-year-old who I would also place in this category.
Ever since I started looking into gifted education and the discomfort the words seem to bring to parents in our school community, I have thought, “Why aren’t my kids learning needs important?” I’ve often thought that the Special Ed department should cover kids who fall outside the statistical “norm” on both sides of the spectrum. In fact now that our local district is looking at cutting “gifted, talented and differentiation” teachers by half, another parent told me that most would consider that a “frill.”
Thanks for this post. I think it helps people see that all of our children have their own “special” educational needs.

Stimey April 19, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Speaking as someone who has three kids who all have a mixture of special needs (autism/ADHD/general quirkiness) and giftedness, I firmly believe that there are a lot of similarities between the two. I always tell my kids that everyone’s brain works differently and that’s okay. These two ends of the spectrum kind of come around and meet in the back, if that makes sense. Kids with different brains respond to different ways of being taught, whether it be special education, gifted programs, homeschooling, or best practices that ARE actually best practices. Great post. (Also, I love Ellen too.)

Paul April 20, 2011 at 11:02 am

Great post. I’ve talked with others on how vague and, really, inappropriate the term “special needs” can be. My daughter, having a much rarer problem, has almost nothing in common with autistic kids, or kids with CP, or almost anything else out there. I don’t read other special needs blogs – if you want to call it that – because there are similarities. I read them because we’re all out there in the world, trying to figure out how to take care of our kids. And we’re all there for each other!

Kathie Walker February 8, 2013 at 2:23 pm

Thank you for your post! Our son entered 1st grade able to read and write. He failed miserably in a mainstream school and was constantly in trouble. We had him tested and the results revealed he was reading 3 grade levels ahead, math 2 grade levels ahead. IEPs did not help, as he continued to struggle with fitting in. There is a public school in San Luis Obispo called Charles. E. Teach for children 4th-6th grade. It is an accelerated learning program, open to all children in the district. The School Board has recently moved to close it, calling it elitist and that it robs the “smart kids” from their neighborhood schools. The Board will be voting on the issue in 11 days. As parents, we are sick about it.

Kathie Walker February 8, 2013 at 2:28 pm

I forgot to mention that when we entered our son at Teach Elementary, he flourished! He is passionate about school, has many friends and is on the honor roll. Many of his fellow students mirror his story. The Board cites the 1953 case of Brown v. Board of Education, stating that Teach fosters segregation. The children are diverse from different socio-economic backgrounds. Their common link is that they all have high learning potential (aka gifted, but I dislike that term.)

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