A Boy And His Comics

Here is my boy doing one of the things he loves to do, working on his comics. In fact, while I took this photo, he said, “Mom, drawing my comics makes me feel spiritually happy and warm inside.”

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Indulge me and read that again, “Mom, drawing my comics makes me feel spiritually happy and warm inside.”

I hear you, buddy. Do you guys hear him?

He’s super motivated to put pencil to paper in this way – which is a HUGE deal for a kid who hates to write – because he’s creating and sharing in a way that’s meaningful to him. He’s using comics to express himself, to communicate, to have fun. Its become one of his passions. Lately, he carries a sketch book and pencil with him everywhere he goes. And how about that pencil grip? Sigh.

Boy recently started a comic book and trading “business” at school and in so doing, he brought together and inspired many of his classmates. He created the community he needed which is giving him an anchor as he continues to adjust to the rest of it. Way to work those social strengths, kid, even if it isn’t terribly smooth sailing right now because there’s A LOT to adjust to. A new school that’s definitely a better fit, which has been a relief in many ways, but EVERYTHING is different. And different is not so easy. I’m just not sure about it all yet and truthfully, the kid has been pretty pissed and I don’t blame him.

Anyway, this comic book thing is fascinating to me, so much so that I’ve been researching the use of comics and graphic novels in education. Google it and you will find that there are tons of articles and even entire websites dedicated to the subject. It’s totally LEGIT. Who knew?

I’ve asked his teacher to add comics and storyboards whenever possible to his list of approved alternate methods of communicating what he knows, in addition to oral presentation and to using accommodations like scribe and especially keyboarding. These aren’t unfair advantages, they level the playing field. His current GT/LD (gifted and talented AND learning disabled) program is set up to have him write by hand only about 1/3 of the time. We’re still working on figuring out just the right formula for him and I’m the first to admit that it IS a puzzle. At his best, the kid can talk circles around most adults, he grasps and analyzes complex themes and concepts, he’s an inexplicably high reader with comprehension intact, and he has an incredible imagination, fantastical ideas and his fund of knowledge is huge, BUT he can barely write in complete sentences because of his dysgraphia. His written expression isn’t anywhere near as complex and deep as his verbal expression and thats a recipe for serious struggles in school. Organization is non existent. He DESPISES repetition. His significant attention challenges and lack of motivation to do anything in the classroom that he considers boring further complicate things.

In the meantime, tell him he needs to write a paragraph of at least 5 complete sentences by hand and you’ve lost him. Total overwhelm. Maybe a trip to the nurse’s office with a VERY BAD SICK HEADACHE. Let him present information in comic/speech bubble form, for example, and he’s good. He’s highly motivated by graphic novels, he has a developing skill for capturing characters and stories or events in comics and I want him to be able to use that motivation and skill to access more of the curriculum, communicate what he’s learning and enjoy school at least a little until he grows other skills.

The trials of a recently diagnosed gifted, attention-challenged, dysgraphic kid. I had no freaking idea. But I feel like I should have given the way we had to bombard him with early intervention as a toddler/preschooler. Turns out, not many people have a clue, including those you’d think would, like educators.

My head constantly hurts lately from researching this GT/LD situation, which on its own is enough to drive a saner person than I am to drink, I’m not even kidding. I’m reading about all sorts of other details like verbal giftedness (which turns out to be a curse for many kids until they get older, but that’s a whole other post) and writing fluency and explicit writing instruction and working memory and processing speed and I’m wondering all sorts of stuff. For example, is some of the behavior (which had been completely nonexistent since preK) suddenly coming out in the classroom and at home part of his HELLISH adjustment to being a rookie IEP kid in a completely new educational setting or is he just breathing, finally letting his GT/LD freak flag fly? Or some of both? I don’t know. Or is the processing thing a straight forward speed issue related to the attention deficit or is it a more complicated processing issue related to the enormous volume of information that crashes into these kids’ brains when they observe life unfolding all around them and are they taking in waaaaaaay more information than their more “typical” peers about everything ALLTHEFREAKINGTIME and is it happening so fast and so instantly and so deeply that they’re overwhelmed, which slows everything else down? Or is it both? I have no idea and does it even matter blahblahblah…

And I’ve been losing sleep worrying about ALL THE KIDS who don’t have parents who advocate for them because resources of one type or another aren’t there or there’s a language barrier or something and wondering what I should do about THAT as if I don’t have my own hands full right now because my kid hates school and he’s 9 and he can’t freaking write and we’re looking at a minimum of 9 more years of this and I’m old blahblahblah…

And you know when you shine a light on a problem or challenge with the intention of improving the situation but instead the whole mess gets worse? And you know how it’s ALWAYS that way in the beginning before anything actually starts to get better? And you know how you ALWAYS forget that part? And you know how that part totally SUCKS blahblahblah…

Yeah, me too.

But anyway, what was I saying? Oh yeah. Dysgraphia. Who knew writing is such a complex process? Not me.

Dysgraphia t isn’t simply a handwriting problem. It often – but not always – impacts handwriting, but it’s much more involved than that and it isn’t something that usually gets fully remediated. It’s a language-based learning disability, a neurological PROCESSING disorder that makes writing extremely challenging. In the simplest terms, its a big fat glitch in communication from brain to written expression. There’s a disconnect somewhere in the encoding process, or in translating detailed thoughts into written words. Taking those thoughts and holding the them in working memory long enough to plan and execute the very specific and complex actions needed to get those thoughts down on paper, all things that come naturally to most kids after initial skill attainment, is extremely difficult for most dysgraphic kids. Even with things like letter formation, there’s an automaticity missing in many dysgraphic kids that turns the most basic skill into a cognitive task. Something about muscle memory too blahblahblah. Writing is a slow and literally painful exercise for these kids and interferes with their ability to stay present during instruction and fully access the curriculum. Demonstrating learning in traditional ways can feel like torture. Fine motor skill, pencil grip, hand fatigue/pain, spelling, letter formation and sequencing, grammar, punctuation, sentence and paragraph organization and structure, writing in a consistent size, staying in the lines and margins, copying text, taking notes, even doing math calculations in writing, and visually tracking too many words or numbers on a page, etc are all associated challenges.

Dysgraphic kids are often misunderstood, mislabeled and grossly underserved because many of them can skillfully present complex information and understanding orally. Their skills can be so asynchronous that they can appear “lazy”, for lack of a better term, and are often late blooming underachievers who are at risk for suffering from low self-esteem, anxiety and depression. This is especially true for twice exceptional or 2e kids (who also tend to be highly sensitive, generally speaking), also known as kids who are gifted AND have a learning disability and/or ADHD. They know what they’re capable of and they know they’re missing the mark everyday and their social interactions suffer on top of it and it makes them feel like crap.

This whole thing makes school unpleasant for them and even if their intellect allows them to mask the problem for awhile, at some point they hit a wall. At the end of his 2nd grade year, Boy’s teacher started to suspect something was wrong, she started scribing for him as an experiment because she knew he was capable of so much more than he was producing in writing. And hence, our testing and IEP odyssey began. Apparently we’re lucky because many kids don’t get diagnosed until later and we’re very thankful for his wonderful teacher who cared, who worked outside the box with him. Still, I feel so badly for him because I thought his rough patch was over. But it’s not. He had a break and now he’s on the road again. Back to work. Climbing that damn ladder.

Someday I will write about the identity crisis he’s suffered this year, but I still can’t talk about it without crying. I can only imagine how hard its been for HIM.

Anyway, I don’t know what its going to take for things to get better or easier, but he will be ok. I know that because I won’t let it be otherwise.

While he has a big list of challenges to tackle again, he also has a gigantic list of strengths that will help get him through. He asks amazing and articulate questions and he loves to dig deep and he can share and discuss a vast amount of information in sophisticated oral language wrapped up in his 9 year old creative goofiness. The kid is a talker, you know that, which is ironic given we were worried he’d never speak. At his best, he’s engaged and warm and very social and yes, kind of wild and strong-willed, and he still loves to play pretend, which personally I think is a dying art. Boy’s big sister played pretend for an extended time as well, which reassures me even as some of his friends “outgrow” it. He has his comics now too, which he LOVES. And he’s in a highly regarded GT/LD program at a local public elementary school – one of only a few programs of its kind in the country – designed for kids with academic profiles just like his. We’re lucky to live where we do and that he got placed there. But he’s still pretty negative about it, so I just don’t know. His teacher keeps telling me that 3rd grade can be rough in general because of the increased academic demands, and its really REALLY rough for GT/LD kids, but often by 4th grade, with interventions and accommodations and enrichment in place, confidence grows and things calm down. I hope he’ll adjust to his new gig – things have improved a very little bit in the last couple of weeks – but I do worry about what we’ll do if he doesn’t. I still have this crazy dream about him actually liking school someday. Sometimes I think he needs a MUCH more progressive setting. Or an unschooling setting which would likely unhinge me but whatever. I don’t know.

And so anyway, I will make it my business to keep advocating for Boy. Right now, among other things, I’ll advocate for his comic passion to be included as much as possible in his classroom while he adjusts and receives the challenge and the instruction he needs. His teacher is working really hard with him, trying to find the right balance of nurturing and flexibility and high expectations for his work production. I truly appreciate her effort and I KNOW its not easy for her, but she cares a lot and she does seem to like him, thankfully. He continues to learn to keyboard too, which apparently is carried out in a different part of the brain than handwriting, much like drawing seems to be. Don’t ask me how or why because I don’t know. Yet. And I’ll keep digging into this comics in the classroom thing, which is pretty cool and just the kind of extra boost my kid needs right now.

Like I said, FASCINATING, and also way more than I EVER wanted to know, but I’m learning.

To be continued….sometime….after I recover from writing this one….

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Late January

This little deer joined me in my little library corner at dusk and I swear we stood there staring at each other for a full minute, but it actually felt like forever and it didn’t feel like the window glass or anything at all was between us either. And then I reached slowly for my phone, took the first photo and she was all, “Oh, we’re done? Ok, whatever, I’m just gonna go ahead and eat now.”

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Kid President

The kid is on a roll this morning. On the way to school we were talking about everything in the whole wide world, you know, the usual. And then he goes, “Mom, you know how you told me that the world needs people with hearts and minds like mine? Well I think I might need to be President of the United States and write my graphic novels on the side because something’s gotta change. I can’t stand that there are so many people who are poor and it makes me sad and worried that so many people are walking around with grumbling bellies because they don’t have enough to eat. Even kids, Mom. It’s so wrong.” And obviously, the only correct response to that was, “PREACH, kid.”

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Super Power

I spent a recent morning telling one of my kids that his high sensitivity is a gift, one that thankfully includes a lot of creativity and fun and joy, but also, I know, a lot of pain. And of course my kid cried harder as he told me how much he hates it, he didn’t ask for it, he doesn’t want it, and he feels like his insides are being torn apart when he feels things so deeply this way. He wailed as he told me how angry it makes him. I told him it’s ok to be angry and to hate it, that I still hate it sometimes too. He sat up and looked at me, absorbing the possibility that I might understand because in some ways, I share his experience. And then he asked me to pray for him and I did, while in the privacy of my mind, I also shook my fist at God a little. Because navigating this high sensitivity with my son – which, yes, translates into GIGANTIC PAIN IN THE ASS sometimes – and addressing his associated special needs has been a lot. And I had the audacity to believe we were past the a lot part after years of Early Intervention. But we’re not.

The Early Intervention we bombarded him with was highly successful. By all accounts my son is a miracle, once teetering on the edge of an autism spectrum diagnosis, and now most certainly not. His first few years of school were relatively uneventful as he exceeded all expectations, both socially and academically. We thought we were out of the woods. And then he hit a wall. And the wall hit back. We’re still in the process of peeling back more of his layers, but most recently we learned that he has ADHD, and that he’s highly gifted with a learning disability, all of which necessitated a change of school program for him this year. New school, new kids, new everything, rough times for such a highly sensitive little boy.

Mothering my highly sensitive child has been a full-time gig for me. I’m relentless in my efforts to shore this kid – and myself – up because regardless of any other baggage you might be carrying, this world is a pretty tough place to be if you’re highly sensitive. My son’s high sensitivity is off the charts, and it’s especially tricky because he’s also an extreme extrovert. Maybe you can imagine a scenario in which every stimuli, every single piece of input that is encountered by your brain, body and heart, no matter how subtle, impacts you on the very deepest level. And instead of finding ways to shield yourself for respite, you seek more. That’s how life is for my son, nothing gets by him. EVER. He takes in and processes everything. He engages people and his surroundings in ways that are profound, extraordinary. It’s utterly amazing, and it can also be exhausting, overwhelming for all involved, especially him. Our days are filled with tasks and situations that could be simple, but for him are often complex…the trivial can become all-encompassing…the routine, remarkable. It’s not a choice, it’s how he’s wired.

And while it’s the honor and joy of my life to guide this child on his journey, truthfully, sometimes, it also drives me to drink and cuss like a sailor and fantasize about running for the hills or the beach or anywhere but here.

What was I saying? Oh yeah, I prayed. Dear God, how I prayed, because I want this kid to be able to embrace who he is and I want him to believe that there is room for him and his differences in this world, that he won’t be wrecked by them.

And after I prayed, I told him that this gift, this talent, this high sensitivity, is actually more like a SUPER POWER, one he has to practice how to manage and how to use for good because with great power comes great responsibility. Yep, thats it, just like Spider-Man. Responsibility to himself, and to others. I told him that God wouldn’t have given it to him if He didn’t think he could learn to manage the hard parts and enjoy the good parts, and how to share it, and when not to, and maybe even to be grateful for it all someday. He cracked a cautious smile. He said he’d rather be a normal kid who is appreciated for being a good athlete or something instead of lying awake at night wondering about the meaning of life, and that he’s disappointed in our society for not appreciating gifts like his. Somebody help me. My heart. The kid just turned 9 years old.

Anyway, I told him that some of his most amazing moments, both happy and sad, will only be experienced way deep down in his soul because of the condition of his tender, beautiful heart and the way he processes those feelings in his incredible mind. I told him that those deep feelings and thoughts will continue to mold him into the brave, creative, sweet, funny, empathic and intuitive boy he already is. Athletic talent alone wouldn’t do that, neither would “normal”, I told him. He laughed. I went on to tell him that as he grows, he’ll understand that the world needs people with hearts and minds and wiring like his. “For what?”, he asked. “To create, for one thing, and to pay attention to stuff that really matters, to see things that others might not see, to share it, to put it into words”, I said. “Or comic books, or graphic novels?”, he asked. “Exactly”, I said. I could see his spark returning, flickering, ideas turning round and round in his head.

I told him that his SUPER POWER isn’t something he needs to fix, not at all, its more like a long, exciting, mysterious journey to collect and fit together pieces of a puzzle. He asked how long this journey will last…”HOW LONG, MOM?”

I didn’t want to tell him that it will likely be a large portion of his life’s work for as long as he’s here on this earth, work that will sometimes wear him out, discourage and overwhelm him. I didn’t want to tell him that he will need to be vigilant in that work and the resulting fatigue so as not to shut off parts of his heart like I sometimes do. No, instead I told him that while it took me well into my adulthood before I even began to identify and understand my own high sensitivity, his older sister has become a pro at managing hers and using it for good too. She’s proud of it, even though it’s still really hard sometimes. And finally, I told him that because we know so much more about this now, I’m certain that with our support and the many tools available to him, he will put the puzzle pieces of his life together much faster and he’ll get to a comfortable, confident place much sooner. I told him that he’ll continue to learn to unleash and manage his increasingly deep and complicated energy – or “funky flow” as he calls it – in a beautiful way, energy he feels is sometimes frustratingly locked up inside him or misunderstood by people who don’t have the eyes to really see him, and who, even worse, don’t seem to care enough to try.

My story of mothering my son doesn’t have a neat and tidy beginning, middle or end. Its a continuously flowing river of little moments that fill our days, and as we do this life together – often joyfully, sometimes painfully – I realize more and more deeply who my son is in the world, beautifully different, but worthy, nonetheless.  I’ll never stop lifting him up or affirming him and I’ll never stop praying that he will learn to enjoy and celebrate his gift and to use his SUPER POWER well, not try to escape it or hide it or interpret it as defective. Amen.

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Thursday Randomness

So glad it’s bedtime. So SO glad. I hope that Diet Coke I inexplicably guzzled at 8:30 pm doesn’t screw me over, but it probably will. Serves me right.

My hands smell like bleach from cleaning bathrooms and strangely, I’m enjoying it.

On the way to school this morning, out of nowhere, my boy goes, “you know what, Mom? I think it must be pretty hard to teach a class full of very smart boys with learning differences” and I thought, NO SHIT, kid. But seriously, is it just me falling all over my kid because mothers are biologically wired to do that blahblahblah or is that some pretty amazing insight right there, especially for a kid who still isn’t completely buying into the whole school thing?

A few days before my girl went back to school we were having a relatively mild debate, the mother-daughter kind, you know what I mean, and under her breath but DEFINITELY AND INTENTIONALLY LOUD ENOUGH FOR ME TO HEAR, she goes, “yeah, I gotta get out of here and right back up to school.” I pretended I didn’t hear her and I thought, HELL YES! my work is done, she’s right where she should be, starting HER LIFE. Who would’ve thunk it of my once homebody girl? And tonight as I lay here in bed, she’s texting me about her first days back at school, how pumped she is about her classes, quoting portions of one of her reading assignments to me.

And I’m out. That’s all I’ve got.