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Posts tagged ‘gifted’

National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month

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This post is in support of National Minority Mental Health Month and No Shame Day, a day of awareness promoted by The Siwe Project, a non-profit that promotes mental health awareness and education among people of African descent throughout the world.

I debated with myself on whether to participate. I am woefully underqualified to offer any creditable information or guidance in this area, and my support is generic at best. Though my daughter, Mae, was diagnosed last year with Asperger’s syndrome, I have still many unanswered questions and gray areas. My focus has been on better understanding, accepting, and working to her strengths and weaknesses, and less no on the label itself and larger questions about mental health.

Is Asperger’s a mental illness?

Yes . . . no . . . maybe.

There is considerable debate about the exact classification of Asperger’s, a disorder on the autism spectrum that is evidenced by high intelligence, poor social skills, impulsiveness, and inflexibility, among other traits. The characteristics are somewhat easy to identify; however, you’ll find differing professional and personal opinions on whether or the degree to which it is a mental illness.

What I do know is that Mae had been presenting my husband and I and her school teachers and administrators a host of behaviorial challenges that seemed beyond average for a child her age. At the start of first grade, she was still having emotional meltdowns that one would expect of a toddler, though her verbal skills were phenomonal. She would lose control of her emotions, especially during play, and cry for 20-30 minutes. The thing that scared me the most was her tendency to declare that nobody wanted or loved her. It would take a lot of coaxing to bring her out of that place. I didn’t think she suffered from depression; however, I feared that she would or could one day.

She is an incredibly social creature. She would introduce herself to complete strangers, children and adults, and invite them to our house to play within minutes of meeting them (including grown men). She would run off and leave us in public places if there was something interesting within viewing distance that caught her attention. Her impulsivity and strong desire to touch soft things like skin, hair, and ears made us fearful that she was vulnerable to abuse or kidnapping or both.

When she was six, we took her to a pediatric neuropscyhologist for an evaluation. Among other interventions, he recommended cognitive behaviorial therapy to help Mae learn skills to manage her emotions, control her impulses, and be more flexible.

I don’t know if Asperger’s is a mental illness. I do know that the therapy, which I view as a mental health solution, and additional supports given by her teachers and school administrators have been helpful to me and her. Mae knows that there has been a ring of support around her and safe places for her to express herself. At eight, she is more mellow and flexible. I believe that better, more informed parenting skills on my and my husband’s part and just plain old maturity have played a role and will continue to be important factors.

Mae hasn’t seen the therapist in over two months. However, she will if I think it would be helpful again. I’d like to set her up for success in every aspect of her life, and if there are solutions within the mental health community, then that’s where I’ll be.

Does Mae even have Asperger’s syndrome?

Yes . . . no . . . maybe.

At the appointment to discuss his findings, the neuropsychologist said that Mae is “borderline” Asperger’s. He could have gone either way with the diagnosis. She could just be intellectually gifted, social and “quirky.” Other professionals had offered a similar opinion.

Here’s where I have to acknowledge an immense privilege I know many others lack in treating mental (and other) illness. Rejecting or declining a diagnosis would have meant losing the opportunity for insurance coverage for therapy and legally required accommodations if we switched from private to public school. The mere fact that we could have walked away with a “no thanks” belies the advocacy that so many individuals and organizations engage in to de-stigmatize and promote greater attention to and support for mental health issues.

The other aspect of privilege here is that we were able to pay out-of-pocket for therapy visits, $150 each, which were weekly, then bi-monthly, and then monthly. Fortunately, our insurance company reimbursed us for most of the cost. It is no surprise to me that even folks with awareness or a diagnosis are untreated.

My family has been fortunate in so many ways. I know that others struggle with more complex and pervasive mental health issues and fewer resources to address them. I do believe, though, that I can share in a common resolve to better understand and support those who have or love someone who has a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness.

Namaste.

“Take chances. Make Mistakes.”

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Mae took the School and  College Ability Test (SCAT) today.  It’s an exam that, if she scores well, will allow her to participate in summer camps and academic programs through Johns Hopkins University.  I registered her almost two months ago.  I thought I read all of the pertinent material about the test at that time.  When I went online this morning to get directions, I saw a link for a practice test.  So, there I was 40 minutes before test time asking her to answer sample questions.  She answered a few of the verbal questions, said that she got the idea, and turned to go back to cartoon-watching.  I said, “Wait, there is math too.”  She made a pouting face and came back to the computer.  She looked at the screen and asked, “What’s a whole number?”  I started explaining, inadequately, I think, because I didn’t see a “lightbulb” moment.  Cramming is probably a bad idea for a second-grader anyway.  I let her go back to the TV.  I felt bad about not noticing the practice test earlier, and, for that matter, not doing anything in particular to prepare her. 

At the testing center, she was the only kid amongst a bunch of adults taking the MCAT and whatnot.  As the proctor signed her in, I thought, “Oh, no, she’s going to be fidgety.  She’s going to whine if she doesn’t know an answer.  She’s going to distract someone who has been working long and hard for something that will determine their life’s destiny.”  The proctor gave her instructions about staying quiet, logging in, using the tutorial, paying attention to time.”  Then, I realized that she was going into the testing room on her own.  I wasn’t even sure that Mae was paying attention to the instructions.  When the proctor asked if she had any questions, Mae said no.  I thought about backing out.  I wasn’t sure she was ready for this.

Then, I thought about something Mae had said to me once.  She was trying to convince me to buy some sugary cereal and she told me to “take chances.  Make mistakes.”  She learned this from Ms. Frizzle on “The Magic Schoolbus.”  Ms. Frizzle was probably talking about something other than sugary cereal.  Nonetheless, it’s good advice.  We were there already; the $55 exam fee was spent.  If Mae scores well, it will open doors for some challenging and exciting educational opportunities.  If not, so what?  This isn’t the type of thing that would upset her.  I took a deep breath and let go.

The test should have taken 60-75 minutes.  Mae went through the verbal portion in less than ten minutes.  Umm, that seems too good to be true.  She used the full time allotted for math, and didn’t finish all the questions, which she didn’t seem bothered about at all.  It’s an above-grade level exam, and it’s meant to be difficult.  We’ll know the results in about five days.  Now,  off to home to enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Problem Solving 101 for Mr. Reading Teacher

Mae spent reading period in the office today.  Her reading teacher, Mr. J, took her there after she spoke disrespectfully to him.  I was co-facilitating a discussion on motivating and recognizing employees when Mr. J attempted to reach me by phone.  His voicemail message said that for the past couple of weeks, Mae had been “saying disrespectful things, interrupting class, and not obeying instructions.”  My first thought was “Two weeks and I’m just hearing from you on the day that you decide to take her to the office?”  He has not been Mae’s reading teacher for very long, and I have not met him yet.  In retrospect, I wish I had introduced myself to him when I first learned that he would be taking over Mae’s reading group, and I should have encouraged him to contact me if and as soon as he had any concerns.

 Anyway, when I returned Mr. J’s call today, he told me that Mae seems disinterested at times, and that she doesn’t want to do her work or she does it very slowly.  When she does finally do her work, she does a phenomenal job.  Part of the problem is that she reads faster than the other child (there are only two of them in this pull-out group), and when she finishes her silent reading first, she becomes impatient and restless while waiting for her classmate.  When they are taking turns reading aloud, she doesn’t always stop to allow her classmate to have his turn.  She doesn’t like to sit when she’s told to and follow other instructions.  Mr. J said that Mae has told him “I wish my other teacher was back.  I don’t like you.” and “You’re too strict.”

As I listened to him, I was thinking that he sounded so green, so new and uninitiated.  I am not a teacher, and I recognize what a difficult job it must be.  On top of that, I know that my daughter presents challenges that can test the most patient of the patient.  From my heavily biased, parental perspective — Mr. J needs to buck up.  Here is what I wanted to say to Mr. J.:

There are only TWO frigging kids in the reading group!  What kind of education, training and experience have you had that didn’t prepare you to handle TWO frigging students?  Just TWO.  Mae is entitled to an opinion; tell her how to keep her opinion to herself or express it respectfully and give a consequence if she doesn’t or a reward if she does.  Try to get to the bottom of why she feels that way.  If she doesn’t like you, it’s probably not for nothing.  Talk to more experienced teachers down the hall, and find out what they do.  Talk to her homeroom teacher.  Do you think you’re the first adult in the school that she has crossed paths with, and how do you think the others handled it?  By my calculation, your decision to wait and call me after the problem has grown to this point, means that you have added to the problem.  You’re telling me that she is more advanced than the other student in terms of pace of reading and comprehension and that she seems disinterested, and that yet you have to try to keep them on the same level.  Are you listening to yourself?  And, grow another layer of skin.  Your feelings are hurt because a seven-year old says “I don’t like you”, and how long are you planning on staying in this teaching business?

Instead, I told Mr. J that Hubby and I would talk to Mae and remind her that the teacher is the leader in the classroom and that she has to be a good citizen, which includes following the teacher’s instructions and speaking respectfully.  I recommended that he give her extra or more challenging work, if possible, to keep her interested and focused.

When I talked to Mae at home this evening, she told me that today’s particular issue was that she muttered to herself “I don’t like Mr. J____.  He’s last on my ‘I like’ list and first on my ‘I hate’ list.”  (Without condoning the behavior, I have to say that’s pretty clever.  Redundant maybe, but clever.  I don’t know where the phrases originated, but it’s a heck of a lot more creative and interesting than “I don’t like you.”  How could Mr. J not recognize and seize that as a teaching moment?)  I told Mae that she will sometimes disagree with a teacher, and that’s fine, and that she still has to speak respectfully or keep her thoughts to herself.  I reminded her that she can use her journal to express her thoughts if, for example, she thinks the teacher is being mean or too strict.

Yes, Mae gets saucy sometimes.  And, yes, she responds well to boundaries once they are made clear.  It seems reasonable to me to expect a teacher to set and reinforce boundaries, especially if he or she is willing to work with and use the parents as a resource.

You Can’t Win Unless You Play

And, playing doesn’t mean you’re going to win.

Mae didn’t get selected in the lottery for the county’s full-day gifted program near us.  She is number 38 on the waiting list.  We had pretty much decided to keep her in private school anyway.

I do, however, think it’s unfortunate that there are not enough full-day spaces for county students who meet the gifted criteria.  I had no idea before she was tested that gifted education is such a political and contested issue.  I’m a little relieved that we will be spared the messy side of it.

How ironic that we moved to this neighborhood for the public schools.  From now on, when I think about the taxes we pay, I’m going to focus on benefits like reliable first responders, clean streets, and speedy snow removal.  As for the fraction that goes to the school system, I wish the kids and their families a solid education and positive experience.

This Decision Is Getting Easier

Mae had her first appointment this evening with Dr. Laura, a psychologist at the center that Dr. Mike recommended to us for cognitive behavioral therapy.  I talked to Mae’s teacher earlier in the day to get a “baseline” of where she is as therapy begins.  Overall, Mae is much improved.  She had an incident a couple of weeks ago wherein she had a meltdown after two boys cut in front of her in line.  Teacher said she spent at least 30 minutes crying it out.  She has otherwise been doing ok on listening in class, playing at recess, and transitioning between activities.

This little girl is serious about her spot in line.  A lot of her worst school days have involved something about a line, someone cutting in or denying her her rightful spot.  If the school were to eliminate lines, we could really make some progress.

After giving me the update, Teacher asked if I’d decided yet about our school plans for next year.  I told her no, we’re waiting still to receive the lottery results from the public gifted program.  I was glad that she raised the topic because I had hoped for an opportunity to ask for her opinion.  I jumped through the open door, and asked if she had any thoughts on what we should do.

Teacher said yes, she had been thinking about it.  She said that she likes the current school because of its nurturing environment, and she thinks Mae should stay there at least one more year.  The second grade teacher, Teacher said, is nurturing and she thinks Mae would do well with her.  That’s a nice thing to say about a colleague, and that goes a long way with me because Teacher has a strong work ethic and high standards.  Typically, my experience has been that people with high standards are sparing with compliments.

Teacher said also that she had connected with Mae and that this has been on her mind.  I appreciate that she had given serious consideration to what is best for Mae.

That new kitchen is slipping through my fingers.  Dangit.

The Week of Mondays

I need a weekend.

Hubby and I had our follow-up, or feedback, visit with Dr. Mike, the neuropsychologist who evaluated Mae two weeks ago.  His finding is that Mae shows enough characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome to be diagnosed as such.  The strongest characteristics she exhibits are (1) difficulty in recognizing and responding appropriately to social cues, (2) lack of flexibility and (3) difficulty inhibiting herself verbally and behaviorally.  In addition, Dr. Mike told us that, during the testing, Mae had trouble with planning and organizing, which has not been a major issue in real life.  At six years old, she has not had much planning and organizing to do.

Dr. Mike asked how Hubby and I felt about the Asperger’s label.  We told him that we were not surprised, and at the same time, we had noticed that there are many occasions when Mae does so well socially that it didn’t seem the characteristics were pervasive enough to fit the Asperger’s or any other label.  Dr. Mike responded, yes, she is borderline.  He advised, however, that the label can be useful in making Mae eligible for certain interventions and support, and helping teachers and educators understand she is not simply being oppositional.  As I see it, it’s a matter of using the label with wisdom.

Dr. Mike recommended that we continue with social skills training and work with a behavioral therapist to help Mae learn to better recognize and control her feelings.  For example, a behavioral therapist can help her develop strategies for what to do when she feels herself becoming upset or frustrated.  We also discussed educational placement,  such as public vs. private school; balancing academic environment and availability of resources to assist with the Asperger’s characteristics; and summer camp with like vs. typical peers.  Dr. Mike was well-prepared.  He had researched and had ready information about therapy services and legal entitlements, and he had particularly looked for resources close to our address.  Once again, I felt confident in his knowledge and abilities and grateful that we will have him as a resource.

Dr. Mike described Mae as gifted and motivated, and said that he is confident she can improve her social skills and learn better self-regulation, perhaps to the point where none of the Asperger’s characteristics will apply to her.  The written report that we’ll receive in another two weeks will have more detailed recommendations, and we’ll give due diligence to following up.

On a brighter note (not that I consider the Asperger’s diagnosis bad, just a lot to process), when I arrived home from work, there was a letter informing us that Mae meets the eligibility requirements for the county’s Talented and Gifted (TAG) program.  This is good . . . I think.  We will not know until after March 18 whether she has been selected through the lottery system for a space in one of the county’s TAG centers.  Meanwhile, I could start researching other options for gifted programs (what’s funny is that Dr. Mike handed us a page about the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, the $34,000-per-year program that is an hour away).

Whew.  It’s been a week of Mondays and there is still one more day before the weekend.  Both Mae and Jay have been fighting colds.  Hubby just came in from an urgent care facility, and says he needs a nebulizer.  I have been getting to know our car insurance company intimately since I had a minor four-car accident yesterday morning.  Oh, and then there was the breast surgeon visit, which I actually did twice on Wednesday because I had been scheduled for the wrong doctor in the morning and had to return in the afternoon to see the correct doctor after I picked up my own films from my last mammogram because the doctor’s office forgot to request the films in advance, and scheduling the next mammogram visit for next week.  And, one of my co-workers didn’t come back to work this week because her baby decided to be born a whole month early over the weekend, and although we had agreed that I would cover some of her responsibilities, I have been afraid to go into her office because I am not quite ready to stretch my brain, and even if I were ready, I do not think I would be able to do it this week.

I am sure I will have an opportunity over the weekend to clear my head.  Maybe I will bake this weekend; baking makes everything better.

Answers on the Way

So, Mae took the local school district’s Talented and Gifted (TAG) test on Saturday, February 5, as planned.  Kudos to the public school system for running a smooth process — they were organized and on time, for which I’m grateful — and to Mae for being patient and well-behaved throughout the morning.  She even described the two-hour test as “kinda fun.”  The test results will be mailed to us in about three weeks, and then we wait another three weeks to find out if Mae has been selected in the lottery process for the public TAG school near us.  I think it will be easy to the wait for the results because I’m not looking forward to having to decide whether we should actually transfer her to a new school.  Going from an environment that we know and trust into the unknown is a scary thought.  As I chatted with two other moms who were waiting for the test to finish, one said that she is trying not to think about the money she’ll save if her child transfers from private to public school.  Realistically, I think it is scientifically impossible to prevent thoughts of a new car (in her case) or new kitchen (in my case) from entering one’s head.  Ultimately, I am confident that Hubby and I will make a decision that will best serve our family over the long-term.

Yesterday, we took Mae for the neuropsychological evaluation that I scheduled back in October 2010.  The full-day evaluation assesses attention, concentration, memory, behavior, personality, social skills and intelligence.  It can be used to identify autism spectrum disorders, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, developmental and behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, etc.  Talking to various teachers and other professionals, and reading and researching in an effort to find explanations for Mae’s occasional defiance, meltdowns, and impaired social skills has at times seemed like opening a series of boxes only to find that the label on the box doesn’t quite describe what you’re holding.  We hope that this evaluation will give us a better understanding, if not a label, for what we have.

After the appropriate introductions and rapport-building small talk, the psychologist, Dr. Mike, explained to Mae that she would take some tests that would help him understand how her “brain works.”  Then, she was carted out for two and a half hours of testing while Hubby and I stayed with Dr. Mike for the parents’ interview.  Despite having filled out no less than four questionnaires prior to the appointment, the doctor managed to think of another 100 (or at least it felt that way) questions to ask.  After a lunch break, Dr. Mike spent the last hour and a half of the evaluation interviewing Mae.  Once again, she was a real trooper and came out of the interview energetic and smiling.

Dr. Mike was personable, focused, and thorough.  He explained at the beginning of the parents’ interview that he is a postdoctoral fellow working under the supervision of another psychologist.  During a break, Hubby and I talked about how our first impression had been that he looked too young to be a doctor.  I would not place him a day over 25.  However, his questions, explanations, and manner conveyed sound knowledge, professionalism and sincerity.

Dr. Mike had actually impressed me before we arrived for the evaluation.  He’d called me a week before to ask some background questions.  And, I thought, “Wow, someone who looks inside a patient’s chart BEFORE seeing the patient!”  So, I think we’re in a good hands.  Hubby and I will meet with Dr. Mike again on February 24 to go over the test results.  And so, we wait some more.  It is at least good to know that some answers are on the way.

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