I attended the welcoming reception at the education conference I am at this week – an opportunity for vendors to entice people to their booths with free food. Obviously this works on me because I was there. I enjoy looking for new tools or strategies for our students, so the exhibit hall is a favorite part for me. However, as I went from one booth to another, there was one I hesitated approaching. It was huge, dominating a large portion of the room, but I passed by it several times. I was struggling with first bullet point on their sign: deficiency diagnostics.
Now, I understand the concept of deficiency diagnostics, and the importance of knowing where the gaps are – especially in a mastery-based program like ours. So I forced myself to finally read the rest of the booth’s signs to see if there was anything to redeem the negative feeling.
What’s my hang-up? After years of detoxing kids from negative framing, I find that instead of becoming jaded, I have only become more sensitive. We often get students who see themselves as “deficient” and who need to be “fixed” because of all the things “wrong” about them. It takes time to help them reframe their approach: use their strengths to tackle the challenge areas to the best of their abilities, and focus on their gifts and personal goals to define themselves as the wonderfully unique beings they are.
Maybe there isn’t a better way of saying “deficiency diagnostics” that would fit on a display sign. However, is there a way we can help students recognize and work on areas for growth without them feeling “broken” as a result? Can we – the teachers, parents, and other potential mentors – model this, or are we struggling with this for ourselves?
I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Also, if you know of any tools, strategies, or other resources that focus on a positive growth mindset, please share them with me.
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“Wow, arrogant much?” another woman responded.
Curious, I asked for the context. It was a mingling activity at a school event the first woman was attending for her grandson. She felt put-off that her grandson’s classmate would include his giftedness as part of his introduction.
“Oh,” I nodded. “But… what if he had said he was a star football player?” Well, he has to earn that, the women collectively explained to me. “Okay, so what if he was part of a tribe?” That’s different, they explained, because then it’s about the tribe instead of the individual.
Trybe. This is a term I often hear among my circles, and yes – even spelled in that funny way. “Find your freaks” is also a common phrase – the need to be among others who encourage you to reach for who you are as an individual while also giving you a sense of belonging.
Claiming accomplishments or being part of a group is an accepted desire for most, but not for those identified as gifted. That is considered a display of arrogance to be squashed. Parents have even been advised by schools to not tell their children that they are gifted. Instead, a student gets to wonder why he or she is so different, and even to feel shamed by it. And since many believe that gifted students don’t need help, we get report card comments of not meeting potential with assumptions that laziness or disdain for authority is the reason.
So what about that disdain for authority? That arrogance or elitism that gifted individuals are stereotyped as having? Is there any truth to that?
Maybe. Consider this: elitism is a common self-defense response against years of being “other.” Imagine fighting against naysayers for everything important to you, or a childhood full of not just kids, but also adults in positions of authority, who feel the need to take you down a notch. Down as low as one can be held. Depression. Loneliness. Apathy. The intensities of being gifted amplify this.
However, what happens when a gifted student’s needs are met? When we encourage a sense of belonging among others, perhaps with their own freak flags flying? What happens when we provide compassion and guidance instead being yet another source of adversity?
Carl Jung taught, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” This applies to all of us.
I want to hear from you. What do we need to do differently to better serve gifted students? How about gifted adults; what are the struggles in life and the workplace that need to be addressed? Send me a message and let me know your thoughts.
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A common trait that people associate with Asperger’s is the lack of empathy. This misconception could be due to “normal people” lacking the ability to empathize with Aspies. Chew on that irony for a moment.
First let me give you two sources who can explain this idea better than I, and then I will give you a glimpse into my own brain.
- Seventh Voice: Theory finds that individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome don’t lack empathy – in fact if anything they empathize too much.
- Luna Lindsey: The Irony of Empathy and Autism
This has been an emotional topic for me. I am neurodivergent, and my world is rich with sensory perception sensitivity, compounded by forms of synesthesia and living as an empath. Sometimes I feel so much that I have to brace myself. It’s not just my own emotional and physical feelings, but those of others. If I care about the person, it’s intensified, but even a stranger’s emotions can touch me. And I mean touch me — where I am feeling the joy or anger or – sometimes – physical sensations that are supposed to stay put inside of that other individual. Add in synesthesia, and my eyes can strain from the changing lights that surround each person.
If I ground myself against the emotions, or motion with my hands as if to push away the feelings, I can come across as uncaring. Sometimes I have to the leave the room, regroup, and come back prepared for what I am walking into. And sometimes I even feel anger and hurt at being assaulted by that other person pushing his or her emotions onto me, worse when there’s a demand that I only listen and “take it” instead of letting me try to fix it, to eliminate the source or to heal the person so we can both stop hurting. However, sometimes it is important that the person go through that whole process, and it also isn’t always my place to “fix” anything. Luckily there is a way I can meet this need without such harm to myself.
When allowed to be who I am and to use the strategies available to me, I can be my most powerful self – the self who is loving, nurturing, mentoring, healing, and creating. It just needs to be on my terms, and – with the help of others able to empathize with me – I am learning what those are. For example, I have honored some requests by parents to advocate for their student in a public school, and this usually involves sitting in a room with emotions running high from the teachers, parents, and especially the student, making sure everyone’s feelings and needs have been heard and understood. I can calmly direct that conversation with a balance of using empathy to guide me but, as far as people in the room can see, a gentle but solid power. They don’t know I’m trembling inside as I take each blow. If I weren’t allowed to put on my armor beforehand, I wouldn’t be successful.
A former boyfriend once described it this way. He sat across a table from me as he expressed anger, and then apologized when he realized he had been mistaken – a fact I knew the whole exasperating time as I tried to “just listen” to him, as he insisted, instead of eliminating the source of his hurt, which I finally did by saying a single sentence. He described my demeanor during it all as calmly keeping multiple swords sheathed at my belt – a power kept in check. What he didn’t realize was that those were swords I kept collecting from him, sheathing them one by one in an effort to keep us both from being hurt. Either he was going to let me get a word in edge-wise or I was going to (figuratively) whack him over the head with the next one that came my way. Which pretty much describes our breakup.
I’m a messy empath, but I have learned much. The relationship noted above about killed me but served as the catalyst for me to become stronger and a better partner for my current relationships – all of which are a source of loving support and inspire me to be a better person. They are self-aware individuals who value the same traits that befuddle neurotypicals. It finally occurred to me that I had to be picky when it came to dating (and shouldn’t everybody do this for themselves?). For me, I realized that I can only be that intimate with somebody who is highly capable of empathy, and I was more likely to find that among other neurodivergents. Including Aspies.
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“And how might this event impact the hero on his journey? Tammy?” I immediately stopped writing so I could answer the question, and with ease that surprised my middle school language arts teacher who thought she was catching me not paying attention. We were a week into a novel that I finished the first day, and I was more than paying attention; I was writing my own story, applying stylistic concepts I learned, combining it with the other dozen novels I had read that month. As for the hero’s journey, that is a favorite topic I like to apply to real life. We are all on our own journey, each on a unique path that should be respected.
Just as in the stories I read, my journey included both special powers and monsters. I often felt like an anthropologist in my own culture, marveling at the natives who, in turn, found themselves marveling at me and my lack of assimilation. I perceive the world in a unique way, both philosophically and literally, and life experiences – including a violent childhood – only heightened these traits.
I never subscribed to social hierarchies and other conventions requiring blind conformity, including that of the public school I attended. From my earliest memories, I saw everyone as being equally human – both fallible and worthy of love – and applied this to both students and educators. Friends with anyone friendly, I ignored cliques and pedestals – including the ones people tried to put me on. I also have always required a clear purpose for any task or expected behavior. Not motivated by gold star foil stickers or their equivalent, I needed something more meaningful. “What’s the goal?” is a question people learn to expect from me. “Because I said so” or “that’s just how it’s supposed to be” are never acceptable answers. And even if the goal is agreed upon, the path to that goal is a separate conversation.
I also have a “super power.” Neurodivergent, I perceive and process information in a sometimes intense way that can be advantageous for learning and creating. I’m a synesthete, crossing perceptual modalities and even abstract concepts. For example, each number, letter, month, and day of the week has a color, gender, and personality. Sounds, especially music, have colors and textures. So will your personality once I get to know you. Perceptions are sometimes amplified – with sounds, textures and scents proving overwhelming. When preparing to write this post, ideas formed in the air, some moving through me to hover behind me, others clustering together as I saw their connections. Suddenly tired, I closed my eyes to more easily sink into the ideas without the distractions of the physical world. Yes, I literally work in my sleep!
When allowed to learn and work in a way that meets my needs, I can absorb information and produce work at a greater level. Other than those moments of sleep-working, I am usually moving; a standing desk and pathways for pacing are ideal, along with a large table or floor space to spread out. I will take the ideas in the air and map them on graph paper so others can work with me. The challenge for me is to clearly communicate the many connections I am making in my head, sometimes including concepts for which spoken language is limited.
I learned early that not everybody understands this way of perceiving. I remember asking my grandmother what gender the ring finger was since it wasn’t clear to me like the other ones were. “What? You’re a girl. They’re all girl fingers.” I continued staring at my fingers, wondering why I felt she was wrong, and I decided to not ask certain types of questions. By the way, years later I would learn the word “androgynous.” In public school, I remember feeling intellectually stifled by being forced to sit in a hard desk for hours each day, and I most enjoyed classes that allowed for movement and active engagement with the task at hand. Meanwhile, if I wanted to sit quietly with a book, why not outside on the lawn, or better yet, up in a tree?
The monsters are not something I want to spend too much time on here, but they played an important role. Being a survivor of child abuse and other forms of assault, and having to engage in physical battles to protect myself and family members, are definitely things that impacted my ability to learn and engage in school-related activities. My biological father was traveling the country from one job to another and was unaware of what was happening. I remained quiet because I didn’t want to be separated from my half-brother, and I was warned of the far-reaching consequences of breaking that silence.
I really should have slipped through the cracks.
One of the reasons I didn’t is because a school principal refused to let me. Robin Emmingham became principal at the elementary I attended, and the same year I moved to the combination middle/high school, so did he. I just couldn’t get rid of the guy. He knew my dad’s side of the family and seemed to take it upon himself to keep an eye on me. I would appreciate this later in life. Thanks to him, I was enrolled in classes that challenged me and enriched my education beyond the typical choices, turning learning challenges into special skills. I found myself attending musicals, enrolled in clubs such as drama and problem-solvers, and participating in off-campus learning conventions. During my senior year, I only had to take two classes on site, and the rest of my learning was on a job site earning work-based credit.
Where the principal noticed me, the counselor didn’t until near the end of my time there. When Pre-SAT, ASVAB, and IQ/capability test scores came in, she called me into her office to inform me that I earned the highest scores in my class, and was only ever outscored in some areas by one other person in the school. While her voice and face expression seemed negative, her words sounded positive, so I smiled at the news. My smile quickly faded when she began scolding me for not having a 4.0 GPA, and proceeded to lecture me about priorities. My legs started to give out as I began to shake, biting out the words, “You. Have. No. Idea.” And she didn’t, so I proceeded to tell her about those monsters. Outside of the school walls, I had little time for homework; I was too busy just surviving. The silence was broken, but it would take a few more years to free myself, and decades to heal.
I am thankful for both the principal and the counselor, and the many other educators who were part of my journey. The result of even the negative experiences is a well-rounded perspective that gave me what I needed in order to go into education as a change agent. After earning my teacher certification, I jumped immediately into working with at-risk youth and developing personalized education programs in various forms. I especially connected with neurodivergent students and found myself becoming an advocate for student-centered education, using technology to facilitate that process. I experienced growing success, but that didn’t prevent my own daughter from facing adversity. What happened to her was an important turning point in my own life. I was motivated before, but now my passion and drive was all the more fierce. And that is its own story.
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