By the time my son was six, other boys his age had outgrown tantrums but Jacob still had meltdowns apparently out of the blue. He couldn't tolerate play dates for longer than 20 minutes. And surely it wasn't normal to take 15 minutes to put on socks?
To help our son my husband and I sought professional advice. Several experts later we received an answer: Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Our son's meltdowns were the result of his brain struggling to receive and respond to the messages his senses were sending. Armed with our diagnosis, we enrolled Jacob for occupational therapy.
After a year of therapy, during which we saw little change in our son's behaviour, we signed him up for a football course run by the practice. Although Jacob was happy to join the other children, he never lasted more than 20 minutes before storming off in angry tears. I asked the head therapist why the other kids with SPD could cope, but not Jacob? She suggested that he might have ADHD and advised us to consider medication. After all, we didn't "want to miss the narrow window in which he can learn socialisation skills."
I felt desperate to help my child but without a clue how to start. We were faced with numerous possible diagnoses - SPD, ADHD, ASD - none which really fit. Was I creating the problem by protecting my son from overwhelming situations? Should we instil more discipline? I knew my child, how desperately unhappy he often felt. I knew that if Jacob were capable of behaving like other children, he would behave like other children.
It would take another two years to discover the truth. Why so long? Jacob isn't 'gifted' within the UK definition of the highest-achieving ten per cent of school children; he is twice-exceptional (2e). Children who are 2e combine a neurological diagnosis of giftedness with an additional special need, such as dyslexia, ADHD or other learning challenge. Jacob has a set of innate personality traits often found in the gifted known as Dabrowski's Overexcitabilities (OEs). People with OEs are intense. They may have excessive energy or love to touch things, or the buzzing of overhead lights may drive them nuts. As children struggle to manage their strong reactions and emotions, they often display socially unacceptable behaviours.
I first learned about OEs at PowerWood, a UK community which supports 2e children and their families. Founder Simone de Hoogh, a qualified ECHA Specialist in Gifted Education, explains that "the further you get from the middle of the population bell curve, the less reliable the criteria for diagnosis become, because the sample size is so small."
So how do we go about understanding what 2e children need? How do we teach them to meet their needs so they can develop into emotionally resilient adults? Human behaviour is strongly influenced by our environment, so one of the fastest ways to effect change is to change the environment. Most children have a family member as their primary caregiver, so if we want to help 2e children learn to manage and channel their intense natures, we need to empower their families by:
For 2e children, 'anti-social' behaviour may be a normal response to a challenging situation. If we focus less on diagnosis and more on understanding the behaviour, we can help parents see challenges as opportunities for growth.
Informing parents and teachers
We can empower caregivers by providing them with information and tools to support 2e children, but first we need to relieve parents of the burden of self-doubt. Only then are parents ready for the strategies and knowledge that will help their kids.
Creating supportive communities
If we want 2e children to accept and appreciate themselves, we need to foster supportive communities for their families, where parents feel safe and respected rather than judged and blamed.
Our 2e son still has meltdowns, struggles in groups and has to move his body to focus on maths. But now we realise that Jacob's intensity and sensitivity are the reasons for his behaviour, we've stopped worrying about what's wrong with him and can instead focus on the child in front of us, educating him about the positive side of his twice-exceptionality and teaching him ways to manage his OEs.
We've found tremendous support from PowerWood, the UK's leading not-for-profit organisation committed to raising awareness and supporting intense and sensitive 2e children, and from GHF, an abundant source of information and encouragement. With these communities at my side I'm optimistic I can help my son find his place in the world.
Lucinda Leo (special thanks to Simone de Hoogh)