In this poignant post, guest blogger Rochelle Campbell sheds some light on the challenging journey that it can be for parents of babies and young children as they unravel a puzzling mixture of gifts and sensitivities, often with little information to hand.
From birth we noticed that our daughter was very sensitive to sensory stimuli. On the Maternity Ward she was the baby seemingly constantly wailing, never wanting to sleep, while others slumbered contentedly. She was hyper-alert from the moment of birth, looking around and making eye contact (even the anaesthesiologist commented on it within her first minute of being born).
As a baby she made it very clear that she didn’t like too much noise or visual distraction. She was extremely sensitive to bright light. She often had a strong emotional reaction when anyone other than my husband or I held her. Getting her, and keeping her asleep became an Olympic sport in our home – the only way we could get her to sleep was lying on one of our chests, our arms encircling her. Even then, she had a very strong startle reflex which could shock her awake from the deepest sleep. Seeing other babies of a similar age, we felt she was ‘different’ but, after seeking answers in one parenting book after another, we were none the wiser.
As a toddler, we tried to do various age-appropriate classes – Storytime at the library, toddler music classes and play dates. One of her earliest phrases was ‘go home’ (as in ‘let’s go home’). It was evident she found busy and noisy environments overwhelming to her senses. She also had a high need for personal space which most children her age didn’t share. What was apparently fun for other children her age, was clearly not for her! We accepted and supported her as she was but were still bewildered, confused and alone.
Her auditory sensitivity was especially apparent. She would burst into tears with any loud or unexpected noise (a truck driving past, hair dryer, hand dryer, vacuum cleaner etc). She seemed to require a quieter environment than most other children her age.
Just before her third birthday, I vividly remember stumbling upon a list of ‘Characteristics of Giftedness’ by Dr Linda Silverman in a NZ Ministry of Education book, ‘Nurturing Gifted and Talented Children’. I suppose, by merit of the fact I was even reading the book, I must have had some sort of suspicion. Reading through the list, she displayed 24 of the 25 characteristics. Finally, I thought, we have our answer!
We had her tested by an Educational Psychologist just after her third birthday which confirmed what I already knew – her Giftedness. We still don’t know how highly she could have tested because she didn’t bond with the tester, had a cold and reached a point where she simply refused to answer any more questions despite knowing the answers. She was tired, bored and wanted to go home. She was tested to the point where her Giftedness was apparent though which was all we wanted as confirmation.
I started to research Giftedness and it became clear we would need to be knowledgeable and strong advocates for her. I read and read all that I could so I could better understand her Giftedness (and what I now realised was also my, and her Dad’s, Giftedness too). I read about Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilities and could intuitively appreciate the effects they had on her behaviour, especially her sensory responses.
From my research, we understood the importance of her being able to socialise with other Gifted children at times. We briefly tried a weekly Gifted preschool class but, perhaps predictably, she said she found it too noisy. The teacher, well respected and with many years’ experience of teaching Gifted children, told her it wasn’t noisy. Their sensory experiences were simply different.
Our aim was for her to attend school so we tried her at a Montessori preschool and a State preschool. Both environments were too noisy for her and she’d often burst into tears leaving others bewildered as to the cause. She often seemed to be in a fight, flight or fright mode – not conducive to learning. Playing outside was fine (where the acoustics were different) but inside every noise reverberated off the walls and was amplified to the point of being uncomfortable for her. We reached the conclusion that though we thought she would survive in a standard school environment, she was unlikely to thrive there. Just as different species of plants require different soil types to grow and develop optimally, I believe so too do children.
As I share her sensitivity to noise, I could appreciate her challenges. Having spent years in mainstream schooling myself, I emerged somewhat mentally bruised and defeated with below average academic achievements. I suppose to answer the question of why I seemed so bright verbally but achieved so poorly academically, teachers often described me as bright but lazy or highly distractible. I’ve recently started to research Auditory Processing Disorder which may lie at the root of things for both her and I, though there don’t seem to be many effective treatments or remediation.
I’m mindful that some Gifted children can be pathologized or misdiagnosed with a plethora of learning difficulties due to their sensitivities. Some of what’s deemed a ‘disorder’ is simply an expression of how they uniquely perceive the world. Other times the diagnosis is absolutely correct resulting in ‘twice exceptional’ (2e) Gifted children. It can be hard to tease apart what is an expression of the Giftedness versus what’s a learning difficulty.
What has become increasingly clear to us though is that, due to her auditory sensitivities, we’ll need to homeschool her. She flourishes and thrives in our home environment. Her creativity, imaginational and linguistics skills continue to amaze us. She turns 4 this week and she’s already reading and doing maths at, what I guess to be, the level of a 6 or 7 year old. I suspect if she were trying to cope with the noise of a standard school environment her Giftedness would be hidden, because she’s just so overwhelmed, and her potential would be lost. At home, she thrives and blossoms. Different soils for different plants.
Photo, by Flickr member Mouldfish, has attribution and non-commercial licenses.