Wild child

Maybe it’s because it’s September and “back to school” time, but there seems to be a lot of news items lately about education and in particular, autism. There’s also the fact that one of my friend’s wives has a newly minted Masters degree in education and works with children with special needs.

What I find most interesting is the rate of growth in the number of kids diagnosed with various forms of the condition—about 150 times the number of cases when I was in grade school.

Either there’s something out there that’s causing this situation—or the criteria has become so broad, just about any kid who isn’t doing or being whatever someone—parents, school, coaches—expects them to do or be now has a condition—ADD, ADHD, autism or whatever syndrome is up and coming.

Full disclosure…I don’t have children. But I can relate to this situation from the child’s point of view. And I am certain I would have never got through grade school if I were a student today—not without an entire alphabet of diagnoses.

Quite honestly, I did well in school, but I never really enjoyed it. I didn’t “like” school, I saw it as a necessary evil to get on the business of my life. As early as grade one—they didn’t have a kindergarten at my grade school—I could see there were going to be issues. Within my first three months, I was sent to the school shrink because I could already read at a grade five level—but I hadn’t learned to read the right way. Phonics were all the rage in 1966, and here my restless and bored mother had taught me to read the old fashion way, by memorizing words, starting when I was three using her issues of Women’s Day and Good Housekeeping.

After a battery of tests, my teacher and principal discovered that my IQ was registering somewhere between 167 and 180—and they didn’t seem too happy about it.

So began a less than savory grade school career. I got bored, horribly bored and would stand up in the middle of a lesson, walk to the back room and start playing in the sink. I talked back. I asked too many questions. I called names and defied authority—all the while winning awards for high marks. I wasn’t like any of the other “smart” kids. And there was no special ed, no gifted classes, just random concessions to my abilities that made me feel like I had done something wrong. So I did things to get even. My grade eight teacher told me that I’d be lucky to make it through high school—to my face.

At about the same time puberty set in, I was diagnosed as hyperactive. Which I think they call ADHD now. I was on Ritalin a whole two weeks before my parents decided they didn’t care much for silent, staring into space Zombie Joy and preferred to deal with what they simply considered to be a rebellious personality. That went over big with my teachers.

High school was where I tried on different personas as if they were costumes; preppy intellectual (too conformist), tough girl (I looked like a raccoon in the prerequisite black eyeliner), sporty, dykey type (cut short by the fact that the only sport I was ever any good at was figure skating and wearing my jacket open all the time to look cool gave me the sniffles) and finally, the stage I call “innocently promiscuous,” because I realize now, eavesdropping on the conversations of 12-year-olds on the bus, I was the Mother Teresa of teenage sex. I was lucky—whatever urges in me to follow my own inner music also made me impervious to the opinions of others—so even if there had been bullying or peer pressure, as there likely would be now (and there wasn’t), I would have been impervious to it.

Thing is, I made it through high school, won scholarships, did an honors degree in Fine Arts at a fairly prestigious university, then did more than half a graduate degree before I tired of being student-poor, realized I didn’t have the political chops to make it in academia and quit. I wanted to write. I had been getting bits and pieces of my writing published since I was 15. I eventually figured out how to make a living doing it. I’ve never had a moment’s regret. I found my way. Took awhile, but I got there.

If was in school today, I would be diagnosed, tested, analyzed, special classed and no doubt eventually expelled for being incorrigible. I needed none of that, just parents who were smart enough to be strict on some things to keep me safe, but give me a long leash and a blind eye at times, a few outside interests, personal projects or personality changes to keep me from being bored, along with a handful of supportive friends who loved me without condition, not in spite of, but for my rebelliousness and individuality, my difference.

For interest’s sake, I took an adult autism test the other day—and scored as high as 80% of those diagnosed in the adult autism spectrum. Several of the questions made me laugh; many of them were about how I live in my head, creating imaginary scenarios and characters. That’s not a symptom of illness. It’s imagination, creativity. It’s how I make a living. Same things with ability to “zone out” when I’m working, my preference for quiet and solitude (I call it hearing my mind speak the words) and why I need a fairly strict adherence to routine–it grounds me physically and emotionally, so intellectually and creativity, I can soar. As for the social aspects of the test–I’ve never understood the one-way loyalty of giving oneself over wholly to a job or an organization, why confident people would put any stock in the opinions of others and of course I prefer old friends to new strangers. According to the test, these qualities are a warning sign. I guess I should be worried–but then not caring about how others perceive you is part and parcel of the deal.

Let me be clear on this point– I’m not saying there aren’t children out there with real problems and severe learning and development challenges; kids so locked inside themselves there’s a chance they’ll never get out. For them, I’m grateful there are people like my friend’s wife, with the patience and sense of a calling to try to reach them.

But by the same token, just because a kid isn’t just like everyone else, or acts out or comes across as a little odd, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have problems. Some of us just resist the mold. Fight the power. Go our own way.

We don’t need to be labeled. We don’t have a condition or a syndrome. And we sure as hell don’t need to be fixed.

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