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Hey Benny? What’s New?

by Mike Postma, Coordinator, High Potential Services
Minnetonka Public Schools

It’s been a few years since the life and times of Benny were disclosed in print and some may be wondering, “What’s become of that boy?” or “Where is he now?”  Perhaps more importantly, they may be speculating on the health and well being of his father, formerly known as ‘that guy who wrote such and such about the boy with the what’s it called’.  Well, I’ve been thinking about doing a follow-up piece for a while and that time has now arrived. Benny has hit a new milestone: the dreaded teenage years. Quite honestly, given his passion for the unexplored or the unusual, his mother and I weren’t sure he would make it this far (did I tell you about the time he received his first driving lesson at age three? No? If you see me, be sure to ask). I suppose our many supplications were ultimately answered. But, then again, many of the old challenges are still present with the addition of some brand new ones.

For those of you unfamiliar with Benny, his early life and times are chronicled in the shocking exposé entitled “Benny and Me: A Father Sees Himself Through his Aspergers Son”, a story of a family wrestling with Aspergers, or high functioning autism, as it manifested itself through father and son. It was, and still is, a story of recognition, realization, and reaction, and ultimately, a story of restoration and hope. Benny was a puzzle to us for many years. A non-sleeper (he still is a night owl), he thrilled, startled, and occasionally shocked us with his antics as a young child. You may want to review these adventures, including his first joy ride in a police car at age four, in the article.

As we lived these stories we were to find that Benny was different. He didn’t assimilate to normal social environments like his chronological peers. He had trouble adapting to surroundings outside of our home, and school…school was a complete disaster. He flunked out of pre-school, was recommended for retention in Kindergarten, and really struggled to settle in to elementary school. It was only after his Kindergarten crash that we began to realize that Benny didn’t march to the beat of a typical drummer. He had his own cadence, rhythm, and sheet music. He had Aspergers. At that point we realize that we were not in for a typical school journey. His intensities; his sensitivities accompanied by an affinity for numbers and nature would dictate an unusual journey through elementary and middle school. A journey characterized by hits and misses, ups and downs, understanding teachers and not so understanding teachers, successes and challenges, and perhaps most importantly an increased understanding/empathy from those who cared for him most, his family.

Well, now Benny is thirteen. We have a new ‘R’ now and no, it is not rebellion, role model, room service, or even retainer (I am sure that one is coming). It could be refrigerator, but that could be the theme of a different story. It is reticent. What we have witnessed, especially with the onset of adolescence and all the joys that accompany it (can you say middle school, anyone?) is a pattern of increased public withdrawing that may belie an inner turmoil of self doubt convoluted by an increasing difficulty to relate to others on a social level outside of the sanctity of the home. Benny has been and continues to be engaging in a process of societal removal as he continues to struggle to make sense of himself and the ever-changing world around him. For those closest to him, this slow process is painful one to witness.

Life has always been a struggle for Benny. As I stated above, his early childhood was unusual; a whirlwind of overexcitability wrapped in diminutive bundle of flesh and bones with a penchant for exploration and danger. His early school experiences were challenging; his diagnosis at age six an ‘aha moment’ of revelation and realization that only partially explained the curious behavioral patterns that Benny had exhibited even as an infant, and, his rapid growth from a youth to young man (he is now 5’9”) can be encapsulated into two short words: ‘difficult transitions’. His complex character was always hard to gauge. An amazingly sweet person with a passion for animals, weather, and baseball, Benny always struggled to maintain any semblance of social dexterity, an issue that deprived him of multiple friendships or any situation involving many people. An amazing mathematical mind, he struggled to comprehend and apply the many meanings of verbal and written language. In essence, Benny was, and still is, a dichotomy; a puzzle to most; a friend to few. But then again, so was I. And therein lies the hope; I survived, albeit with scars, and so will he. We will survive together despite the lumps, bruises, and unforeseen challenges. We will survive because we have family, community, and a growing understanding of Aspergers. We will survive but not without difficulty.

Adolescence is, and always will be, a complicated time. Add a little Aspergers and that complex period becomes an even thornier. As an adolescent with Aspergers in the early 1980’s, I designed a number of different coping mechanisms to deal with the odd blend of social anxiety with teenage discomfiture. At that point in time Aspergers was an unknown term, an unfamiliar entity, misunderstood and left untreated. “What’s your problem?” or “Just buck up, there’s no reason you can’t… (fill in the blank)” where common expressions used to diagnose and solve whatever it was that ailed me. I didn’t know either. I couldn’t understand why I was math dyslexic. I couldn’t understand why I had trouble looking someone in the eye or why I froze up in unfamiliar social situations. I didn’t comprehend why my inability to relate to the world around sent me spiraling into a deep depression that made life that much more difficult to endure without understanding or proper support. Naturally, I began to develop an expertise in diversions; some positive, some not so positive. I was very athletic so I played sports…and more sports. Sports made me acceptable to others, it gave me a self confidence that I could not find anywhere else, and it taught me a semblance of how to interact with others. I also loved to read. I can still remember whole summers that consisted of daily bike rides to the library followed by late night adventures with Louis L’Amour, Len Deighton, Leon Uris, and even Fydor Dostoevsky. Unfortunately, there were also some harmful diversions. As a teen I was introduced to alcohol and found it had some rather unique properties that enhanced my ability to speak to others, even those of the opposite sex. It was years before I realized its true nature and the added weight it placed on my ongoing struggle with depression. Nevertheless, it was those three adaptations, good and bad, that carried me through my adolescence somewhat intact. Now Benny is on that threshold.

I know he is different from me, and yet I worry. We worry, his mother and I, about how he will fit into a world that values high brow social behavior. We worry about good friendships and bad friendships. We worry about how he will adapt; what mechanisms he might use to self medicate (we aren’t so naïve as to think that at some point he won’t try one thing or another). We worry about relationships and hormones. How does a young man with Aspergers find the gumption, or even the skills, to be able to talk to a girl he may be interested in? Does he understand the rules of dating? Will he know what ‘No’ means when the hormones are actively telling him otherwise? We worry about school. Will he make it through? How much support will he need and when will he acquire the necessary skills to become independent? We worry about life in general. Will those crazy sleep patterns ever normalize? Will he be able to live independently? Will his passions become a reality? At the moment his only sources of motivation are centered on Halo Reach (I believe he has a PhD.) and finding Bigfoot (he wants to move to Northern California). There are a lot of questions. Yet, we know that he must face his future somehow, some way. In the meantime, we will have to rely on the resources we have at hand and the community around us.

We know Benny isn’t the only one. In current position I am responsible for High Potential Services for a suburban District located near Minneapolis, MN. Included in the District is a magnet school for highly gifted students whose population includes about 20% twice exceptional students, or students with varying diagnosed disabilities combined with high innate intellect. In working with these students day in and day out and listening to the narratives provided by their teachers, patterns begin to emerge. For one, each 2e (twice exceptional) child is unique, requiring distinctive approaches and resources; some social/emotional, some academic. Another commonality is the strong need for intellectual engagement. Despite the perceived disability, the 2e brain requires a pace and depth of instruction in order to learn. Indeed, this strategy is an essential component to any remedial plan designed to alleviate the disability. Early detection and comprehensive assessment are also crucial to avoid long term damages at both intellectually and emotionally. If we can’t find them we can’t advocate for them. As Linda Silverman once stated,

“Twice exceptional children are often hidden from our view. Their giftedness masks their learning disabilities and their learning disabilities depress their IQ scores so that they appear less gifted than they really are. These children often fall through the cracks of the system, failing to qualify for gifted programs or for special education services.” (Silverman) 1

Indeed, the collision between the parameters of daily school requirements and the nature of overexcitabilites, or intensities, in gifted and 2e students may place the child on a downward spiral toward emotional impoverishment, or given the proper understanding and accommodation, on the fast track to personal, academic, and social triumph. Unfortunately, we learned this the hard way, spending a fruitless Kindergarten year attempting to make sense of the way Benny’s brain functioned, before seeking outside professional help. Benny’s brain certainly wasn’t created for the traditional classroom. And, neither are thousands of others. Each day we learn of the daily struggles of students, their parents, and schools alike, trying to deconstruct the complexities that surround the 2e child; a child smart enough to get by and even camouflage his limitations, but failing in his inimitable potential; a child in need of assistance.

Our collective knowledge about Aspergers has come a long way. The research is light years ahead of where it was, even a decade ago and thus, so are the support mechanisms. Even, just eight years ago when we were struggling to find the right place for Benny, little was known about Aspergers in particular, and much less on how to educate and/or support them. We now understand the neurological makeup of the Asperger brain and its apparent lack of ‘mirror’ neurons; a necessary tool that enables a child to read emotion or expression or even communicate on a bilateral plane. We know that the gifted brain develops sooner and continues to grow well past adolescence with one fatal flaw; the depressed, or delayed, development of the limbic system used to monitor meta-cognition, in other words impulse control and executive functioning. We also know enough to develop educational strategies to support this type of learner. Extra time, social/emotional support, an agreed upon structure, complexity of tasks, transitional awareness and support, mentoring, the building of coping capacity, alternative means of assessing, and environmental adjustments are all important to remember in the daily routine of kids like Benny. Are we willing? We certainly are able capable.

Benny’s faces a tough road; a journey that only he can define for himself. With the assistance and support of those that make up his community, he can and will succeed. With empathy, knowledge, and understanding we can all come together to support the Benny’s of the world and ensure their adolescence be one characterized by happiness even while experiencing moments of doubt, fear, failure, and temptation. The Benny’s of this world have much to offer this world but it is and will be our job to give them the opportunity to make that difference. A keen ear, a perceptive brain, a welcoming heart are the key ingredients listed on that job application. In the meantime, I still maintain the right to worry….because after all, Benny is still Benny. Did I ever tell you about the BB Gun incident? Well, it was a bright, atypically warm fall day in November…..

 

1 From: Silverman, L. (2003) Gifted Children with Learning Disabilities: Lost Treasures. Gifted Development Center, Denver, CO.

References:

Piechowski, Michael M. & Daniels, Susan (2009). Living With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults. Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press.

Piechowski, Michael M. (2006)."Mellow out" They Say. If I Only Could: Intensities and Sensitivities of the Young and Bright. Madison, WI: Yunasa Books.

©Copyright 2011 Michael Postma
 

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