Word garden: growing up gifted and learning disabled

I’m often asked what it felt like growing up as an unidentified gifted girl with special needs. With the start of a new school year, I decided it was a good time to consider the question and I was shocked how my mind immediately jumped to my disabilities, my downsides, my unfortunates; you know, those things which are the smallest part of you and yet successfully mask that which is ability, upside, and fortunate as a school-age child. Rather than answering the question, I found myself stumbling on the words and the phrasing used to explain and define my rocky road to success and my social/emotional missteps as I fought my way up and out. I couldn’t help but associate this with the struggles I’ve had with my son’s education and realized that while some things have come very far, the world of the gifted and learning disabled child has changed very little. Thus, today’s blog was born.

You see, here’s the trouble explaining what it is to be both gifted and learning disabled: although the term twice-exceptional, meaning gifted and learning disabled, says it well, it seems that when we advocate, when we discuss, and when we live with giftedness and learning disabilities, we can’t wholly be both at the same time.

It seems as though we talk about one or we talk about the other. It has to be the disability or the gift at the forefront of the conversation. They are disconnected. When we are trying desperately to work out the perfect educational fit for our child, it seems as though one negates the other.

Negate. Such a bothersome word -negate- from the Latin Negatus, to say no to, to deny the truth of, and to cause to be invalid. My child is gifted with a learning disability. Does this mean that he is either gifted or denied that truth, his gifts caused to be invalid, depending on which part of him we are discussing?

There is nothing which hurts us more as parents of twice-exceptional children than to place the word negate in their path. It’s as if the gifted just isn’t so because the disability negates it.

So we try on twice-exceptional for our child, but words do not lead to complete understanding and you find yourself in the position of defense. You have to constantly reaffirm and prove again your child’s cognitive ability to childcare workers, teachers, administration, and even friends and family. You didn’t set out to put in-spite-of in your child’s path, but now your day becomes small battles of proving the gifts were present while apologizing for the absence of something else needed that day. You never wanted to say, “My child is gifted in spite of…”

The path should not be paved with negates and in-spite-ofs and nevers.

There is a positive you must know! It is my opinion that you can’t construct a gifted garden with intense soil and overexcitable seeds, with passion for sun and requirement of incessant water source, and not yield gifted growth. Gifted is going to grow. It has to. There is no good side, bad side, light side, dark side, disabled side, gifted side; there is only growth, there is only gift, and there is only you.

While a learning disability may be a substantial feature in your garden, it is that which makes it interesting, that which makes it whole and that which makes it asymmetrical enough to cause a little bit of worry and woe to be sure, but a whole lot of unique and beautiful. It is a contradiction in terms and it is that very feature, that one singular focus, which identifies the gestalt in each gifted child. It is the whole which is fed by the same fountain.

Gifts are indelibly mixed with disabilities and complete separation to the point where one is not cared for properly only makes us question the gifts in our child and in ourselves.

Rather than separating the gifts from the special needs, let’s advocate for understanding, for change, and for an education that is not one-size-fits-all or pull-out-push-through. Let’s advocate for gifted, all forms of gifted, while pushing hard for appropriate and skilled identification of special needs in the gifted child and the subsequent education provided by a skilled and specialized team of teachers and administrators.

Whether your child is gifted or gifted with a learning disability, your child’s garden is gifted first and foremost. Their gestalt is gifted. Their garden is cultivated with every bit and parcel that is the amazing child you have in front of you. It doesn’t matter what people see first, the disability or the giftedness, because there is not one or the other, first or second, good or bad, able or disabled. The gifts and disabilities are one in the same and they become part of who they are and who they will be. What matters is what they see next. And what they see next will be growth. They will see gift. They will see your child.

So let’s start a new path with because ofs, in addition tos, and blessed withs. Perhaps we can just say gifted and let the rest of the words grow without our limitations. Then and only then will our children define themselves by the life they grow so beautifully rather than the words upon which they’ve walked.

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