Introduction and Reflections on Becoming a Mom
It may sound rote to say this, but it’s true—nothing prepares you for motherhood. Everyone who has been there tells you this the first time you are expecting, but somehow you believe that you have it all under control. Fast forward to a few months after birth, and there you are: repeating to other expectant mothers that they have no idea what they are in for.
Don’t mistake my meaning—nothing ever surpasses that incredible feeling when you hear your baby cry for the first time. How I wish I could reach out to the 24-year-old version of me and whisper some of the wisdom that I now have, 18 years later. Let her know that the sleepless nights will pass. Tell her that the days are long, but the years are short, and before she knows it, she will have an incredible young man at her side.
What follows from here is my journey as the mother of a twice-exceptional (2e) child. The National Center for Gifted Children defines 2e as children who “have the characteristics of gifted students with the potential for high achievement and give evidence of one or more disabilities as defined by federal or state eligibility criteria.” These children—my son included—are indeed exceptional, and in many more ways than is apparent at first.
Breaking the Mold
I remember seeing James’ face for the first time. I’d just had a cesarean but was fully conscious. Seeing his little face emerge from my body was surreal and strangely peaceful. My short-lived moment of tranquility was shattered by the deafening wail of a newborn ripped from his cozy, protected slumber. A strong, healthy, and beautiful boy was making his presence felt in a way universally understood by new parents across history.
I’d wanted to be a mom since I could walk. I’d lived my whole life for that moment, so I found it ironic to be plagued with severe postpartum depression for the first year of James’ life. When he was six months old, I was hospitalized for two weeks. I had so much guilt, feeling that I was not emotionally present during those precious early days. But James was happy, healthy, and thriving, and I have learned to forgive myself.
As I healed, I had to grapple with feelings of incompetence and self-loathing. How could I be such a disastrous failure at the one job I was biologically designed to do? When I looked at other moms, they seemed to have it all under control, yet I was like a duck, gliding on the surface while my legs were treading water at 100mph.
In retrospect, it makes more sense. James had problems sleeping. Of course, this left me perpetually exhausted trying to deal with his needs all on my own (his father was physically present but left all the child rearing to me). As a newborn, James would catnap for only twenty minutes at a time, all day and night. At a few months old, he would take hours to settle at night, and then woke up every hour, feeding for up to forty minutes, until the morning. From eighteen months, he didn’t sleep at all during the day. I now know it was because that incredible mind of his was already working overtime. He was a very happy, beautiful baby, but he never slowed down—and I felt isolated in my own world of perpetual exhaustion.
After nine months, James went to daycare and I returned to teaching. Reestablishing myself in the real world gave my mental health a much-needed boost, but fresh challenges were ahead. As James met his certain developmental milestones, I was becoming more and more concerned that his speech wasn’t appropriately developing. He was incredibly vocal, but it was as if he was talking in his own language.
Everyone I spoke to had their advice and justification for Jame’s speech issues. I would hear, “Some kids are just slower than others,” or “He is an only child and has no sibling to mimic,” and so I left it alone for a while. While he did make small improvements and was a little more coherent overall, he remained significantly behind. As he was nearing his fourth birthday, things became more ugent. He was frustrated and was beginning to act out. I was quickly learning how traumatic and isolating it is when your child goes into full meltdown mode. I knew that he was different, and I needed to figure out why.
I contacted a speech therapist, who conducted an assessment with James. She was professional and kind, and was intrigued by him, but told me that he was almost impossible to assess due to his dramatic speech delay. She couldn’t complete her tasks because he was unfocussed on the assessment and was instead singularly obsessed with a single thing—dragons. Regardless of how she tried to prompt or stimulate him, he would always return to the dragons. She agreed to take him on as a patient, but also recommended that he see a specialist to uncover the cause of his delay.
The First of Many Diagnoses
The first developmental pediatrician I took James to was dumbfounded. He was a whirling dervish—jumping over all the furniture and all but climbing the walls and swinging from the light fixtures. I remember her words, voiced with a mix of compassion, empathy, and pity, “This is tough parenting.” I just hung my head in my hands and sobbed. It was the first time someone had verbalized that what I was experiencing was not the norm.
The reason I was struggling was because my situation with James was hard, not because I was a bad mom. It seemed so much easier for so many other moms because it was—and why they went about planning their second or third baby happily, knowing it would be challenging, but manageable. Meanwhile, James was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Risperidone to calm him, aid his focus, and help him sleep. Thankfully, it did the trick where his sleep was concerned; for the first time since his birth, we both got more than two hours of sleep in a stretch.
The Emerging Genius
As a mom, I recognized that James was exceptionally bright despite his hurdles. And his preschool teachers saw this too. They embraced his quirks and allowed him some space to be himself. His imagination was off the charts. He would remove himself from his peers, choosing to get lost in his fantasy world. But his pre-reading skills and early numeracy were not developing, and this added to my sleepless nights. While he enjoyed school and was happy, he struggled to communicate. Despite his basic vocabulary remaining limited, his vocabulary for advanced words grew immensely. While his foundational struggles were obvious, it was also beginning to become clear that he had a uniquely talented brain.
At the age of six, James started school formally, and our life descended into chaos. He was like a fish out of water and his anxiety levels shot through the roof. I had to literally drag him to school kicking and screaming, and in the afternoons he would physically attack me on the drive home, biting me and ripping out my hair. Trips to the grocery store often involved a lot of awkward gawking from strangers, who were keen to share advice on how I should discipline my child. Parents would whisper on the school grounds and birthday invitations would be handed out discreetly to avoid having to deal with this unruly creature and his incapable mother.
James would disappear from class, sending teachers on a frantic search. Ironically, he was usually found in the school library, as books had a calming effect for him. Finally, his teacher referred us to an educational psychologist, who advised that we place him in a remedial school.
Not long after, I was called in again to a panel of serious faces that told me that my child was unteachable. He could not sit still and did not want to conform. He kept slipping into his fantasy realm, where he could be anything. This realm had no judgment, and he was king. If he wanted, he could be a bee in a tree. Or he would become a T-Rex, with short arms, because, “You can’t write with short arms.” This was the perfect avoidance tactic for him. The other kids just thought he was weird.
His teachers acknowledged his exceptional intelligence, though. To them, it appeared that he was learning to read. But I quickly realized that he had just memorized the pages from what he heard in class and faked it to avoid appearing stupid.
James’ anxiety was reaching critical levels. I had to retrieve him from school because he was throwing desks and chairs around his classroom, caught in the grips of an earth-shattering meltdown. His school behavior was mirrored at home, and our own family even started to avoid us. He was uninvited from my sister’s wedding, in case he “destroyed” their day. He wasn’t allowed to attend his cousin’s birthday celebrations.
Unsurprisingly, I was spiraling too. I felt so helpless. I loved this little boy with all my heart and seeing him rejected by the world over and over was breaking my heart. And then came the day I sat across from his educators and principal and heard what I had feared: they no longer felt that they could cater to his needs. I needed to consider alternate schooling.
Diagnosis After Diagnosis
This entire time, I was tenaciously searching for answers. Eventually I learned more about what was then known as Asperger Syndrome and high functioning autism. I was able to get the school to refer us to a child psychiatrist who confirmed my suspicions and gave James an official diagnosis. I felt empowered; not because he had been assigned a label and not because I had an excuse for the challenges that he had, but because I now knew what I was dealing with. I could educate myself to support and understand him, and I could educate others so they were not so quick to make assumptions and write James off as a badly behaved child.
As the search began for our next academic option, I moved James to a special school for kids with autism. Here he had a phenomenal young male teacher who recognized his intellect and incredible mind. James adored him and his emotional healing began through their bond. But reading progress was still stuck, and at eight years old, he could only recognize his name.
Ultimately, yet another new label was added—Dyslexia! I felt so defeated and overwhelmed. How would I ever find the right school for James? Our education system struggles to find a place for a child who reads below first grade but needs the intellectual stimulation offered by college-level courses. I was so grateful for technology because I could at least feed Jame’s intellectual needs with audiobooks and documentaries. He was a sponge who rattled off details about the Russian Revolution and dictated constitutions for me to write down, inventing countries that could run off the best parts of capitalism, socialism, and communism. He was eight!
Discovering My Son’s Gifts
Around this time, I accepted a teaching position at Radford House School. Radford House is the only official school for gifted children in my country, and I was simultaneously excited and terrified. What on Earth could I possibly teach these children? I shared more on my experiences teaching gifted children at Radford House in a prior blog entry.
I very quickly learned that my instincts about James were spot on. So many of the children in my care shared his quirks and way of thinking. It was also the first time I learned what 2e was; not all geniuses can read at age three and write like Neil Gaiman. I ended up thriving in my new role. The empathy I brought to the table, fostered by my personal experience, helped me form deep bonds with my students and their families.
The parents gained immense comfort knowing that the teacher saw things from a parent’s perspective and that I didn’t sweat the small stuff. I understood that trouble with spelling, lousy handwriting, and difficulty understanding new math concepts did not take anything away from their exceptional talents. I knew that If you wanted to see their giftedness in action, have a debate with them, extract their opinions, or have them tell stories. That is how you could get these kids to shine.
Due to circumstances with Jame’s education , Radford House wasn’t the place for him just yet. But it certainly changed our trajectory. I became close to a mom who ran a reading center and I asked her if she could help me get to the bottom of James’ reading struggles. She could tell that his issues were beyond the scope of her programs, but she had been researching The Davis Dyslexia Correction Program. As luck would have it, a four-day training workshop was coming up in Cape Town, and suggested that we go together.
This turned out to be a life-changing event because I was able to get James ten days of one-on-one training with the country’s lead dyslexia facilitator. It was not cheap, and it took every resource we had available to make it happen. There were a lot of skeptics who thought I was foolish to spend that much money, but I felt that it was the right thing to do—and sometimes, you have to trust the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t another oncoming train.
By this time, James was almost 11. He had come a long way and his challenges weren’t always immediately obvious to people meeting him. This ability to partially blend in is why 2e kids are so often misunderstood. James seemed like a regular kid who talked way too much, was prone to overreacting, and needed his mother to teach him some damn manners. He was also curiously obsessed with DNA, said the most embarrassing things at most inappropriate times, and seemed to have a factual answer for everything.
The facilitator had his work cut out for him. He admitted that James was one of his most challenging students—essentially completely illiterate and autistic, albeit high functioning. Fortunately, the Davis Program catered for autistic learners as much as it did for dyslexic ones. The marriage of the two approaches completely changed James’ life. It took two draining days and endless negotiations to get James to actively participate. On day three, the facilitator won James over and they began working through the program in earnest.
The Impact of an Educational Shift
In no time at all, James could recognize and name the letters of the alphabet. And he was excited about making attempts to read words in his environment. But the most significant shift came with how he managed his autism traits. He became more aware of the consequences of his actions and could self-regulate more effectively. Autism doesn’t go away, and I wouldn’t want it to. It is a part of what makes my child unique and goes hand in hand with his gifted mind. But the life skills he’s gained and is working towards developing further have knocked down massive obstacles to his future.
I had no unrealistic expectations. James has one of the most severe cases of dyslexia there is. So, I didn’t expect him to suddenly start reading novels and acting like other kids around him. But we had made enough progress that he could finally enter the school system shortly before turning 12.
James was accepted to a small support school. They placed him in what they called “the skills class,” which was designed for children who couldn’t manage academic work but would still be educated on the broader aspects of life. It was a start, and I continued to meet with them to see how we could make the most of James’ potential.
Another stroke of good luck came when one of the teachers at his new school was a former Radford House teacher, and she recognized that James was 2e. Her own class was designed to be transitional —for kids who were capable of more than those in the skills class, but not the academic level of the general population. She helped me approach the school with a plan. She agreed to take James on for 18 months and bridge him between the skills class and the general studies classes. This would have him ready just in time for high school. He would also receive formal accommodations, like allowing a scribe to help him with written tests.
Thanks to his teacher’s continuous encouragement and commitment to challenge him, and James’ own determination, guess what happened? My boy did it! He most recovered six years of school in the space of only 18 months. He was able to cope in a classroom with other kids, and was no longer running away screaming. The frequency of his meltdowns diminished considerably and primarily occurred at home after a particularly taxing day. I never thought it would be possible, but my boy was going to high school.
I owe so much to that school and his incredible teacher. James thrived and grew so rapidly that I was soon attending swimming galas and public speaking competitions where he was not just competing, he was winning. We celebrated every success, no matter how big or small, because we knew the road we had traveled to get there. I heard parents complaining that their child got a B-, but James and I had celebratory milkshakes for his C. He fought damn hard for that C.
A Different Kind of Principal Visit
Last year, just after he turned 17, I was called in again. PTSD led me to expect the worst. But no: this was a meeting unlike any other. Because of his late start, James is a few years older than his peers. He is in the 10th grade. The nature of his school meant that they limited the subjects that they offered up to 12th grade, focusing on fewer academic areas that still met the minimum requirements.
This meeting was called to tell me they could no longer accommodate his needs, but for a reason unlike I had ever heard as the mom on the other side of the principal’s desk. They could no longer accommodate him because he had surpassed anything they could offer him. They would be doing him a disservice, limiting his potential and future options, and felt he needed to move to an environment that could challenge him more and offer him subjects like science, engineering, and business studies through to graduation.
The new school James was referred to was designed for children like my incredible son: bright, capable, often gifted kids who face challenges such as learning disabilities, or who just don’t fit into the neat box that the world seems to have decided they must. He still has the support of a reader and a scribe, but eight months in, he has embraced his new environment and is achieving top honors.
On top of this, my son is an exceptional human being. He has principles; he is justice driven; he still hugs his mom many times a day. My son has a kind, compassionate heart and makes an impact wherever he goes. It is a privilege to be his mother, and I will walk this road a thousand times over if it means I get to hold his hand while doing it. My son will change the world for the better, and in some ways he has done so already.
About the Author
Nicola is mom to James, a 2E 18-year-old, and she lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. Nicola is a writer who is focused on supporting parents and teachers of children who are “different” according to commonly-held views. Before starting her career as a writer, she specialized in gifted education and taught at Radford House School, a school for gifted children.