He tried to hide it, ducking his head quickly as I walked into the room, but I had already seen his face. He was crying, again, and didn’t want me to see. So I pretended for a moment that I hadn’t, moving through the room and tidying things here and there as I debated whether or not to say something. What could I say that hadn’t already been said many times before? What can a mother do when her child is struggling, and she doesn’t know how to make it better?
This boy, my youngest son, is very much like me. Of my two boys, he resembles me the most in terms of looks, and especially in terms of personality — strong-willed, independent, and often driven by an internal engine that doesn’t seem to have an “off” switch. The latter trait can be particularly frustrating for both of us, especially when we face obstacles outside of our immediate control that prevent us from moving forward — we’re not good at sitting still or waiting. So we have both become very good at work arounds, at figuring out how to get things done in spite of challenges or setbacks, to the point that sometimes other people (even the people closest to us) don’t have any idea how much we’re struggling because we seem to be doing fine. This trait also makes it hard for us to ask for help, because we don’t want to slow down long enough to explain the situation and ask for it, and because we feel like we should be able to figure it out on our own.
Except sometimes we can’t, and by the time we realize that, we’re already overwhelmed and exhausted.
This is the point my son had reached when I walked in on him that day as he was working on a written report. I knew reading and writing were challenging for him, and since they never have been for me, it was hard to know exactly what to do, but I did my best to help him figure out a variety of work arounds, like listening to audio books instead of reading physical books, and typing instead of writing by hand. But sometimes audio versions aren’t available for the book you want to read (which was the case for this project), and sometimes you just need or want to be able to write things by hand. Both of these are very hard for my son, and he has explained to me multiple times that “the words move around on the page” whenever he tried to read, and that he has to focus so hard on spelling words correctly when he was writing, that he lost his train of thought on the bigger ideas he wanted to communicate. I could certainly see evidence of these difficulties in his school work — the simple words and sentences in his papers didn’t come close to matching the depth and complexity of the ideas and questions he could express verbally. This is a kid who barely broke a sweat developing and delivering an hour-long presentation on Hannibal and the Punic Wars when he was in fifth grade, but who cried in frustration as he attempted to hand-write a simple timeline for his presentation board. In short, the gulf between his written abilities and his verbal abilities was wide, and getting wider.
So, as I tidied his room that day, realizing that we were both feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by these issues, I decided it was time to find some help. None of the solutions we had tried seemed to be helping all that much, and it was time to find out why. At first he resisted the idea of visiting a learning specialist and having some testing done, but over the course of a few days and a few more frustrating sessions with his report, he finally relented. In retrospect, I’m really glad that I gave him this time to think it over and to let the decision be his — forcing him to go through an evaluation process would likely have been counterproductive, damaging his self-esteem and undermining his growing sense of independence. Finding the right kind of professional support was an important part of the process, too. Unfortunately, all experts are not created equal, and I had to invest a lot of time in finding someone who could affirm my son’s creative and intellectual strengths, and who could gain his trust by treating him with respect and without condescension.
During my search for professional help, I was excited to find an online tool that gave me a chance to “walk a mile” in my son’s shoes, or, as their web site says, to “experience firsthand how frustrating it is when your hand won’t write what your brain is telling it to.” I asked my son to watch as I tried a few of the exercises, typing, fixing, re-typing, fixing again… the timer ran out every time before I could finish. I couldn’t believe it. How could anyone ever get anything done this way? When my son confirmed that the simulation was almost exactly what it’s like for him, my heart overflowed with compassion and admiration. And then we cried together, but this time out of relief instead of frustration.
So, as we begin this next part of the learning journey together and I reflect on our experiences thus far, I’m grateful that I allowed the extra time for my son to come to his own decision, and for me to find the best learning specialist for our needs. Now that we have a better understanding of how his brain is wired, and why particular activities are harder for him, his whole demeanor has changed. He’s feeling empowered and optimistic, even though we’re still too early in the process to have seen much in the way of results yet. Sometimes just knowing that there’s a path forward, and having someone who is willing to walk it with you, makes traveling even the most challenging of terrain much more bearable.
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