I’m currently taking a class in the psychology of the exceptional child, and my favorite discovery, during the first few weeks of class, was a subject barely mentioned in the textbook: twice exceptional children. These are gifted kids who also have a disability, like ADHD, a mood or anxiety disorder, a learning disability, or an autism spectrum disorder. When I started to read the research I felt like the clouds had parted and rainbows and light were filling my eyes.
This was me.
I was gifted. I wasn’t a prodigy in the 160+ range, but I was gifted enough to not fit in with my classmates. My teachers were so impressed with me that no one noticed how much I was struggling – socially, emotionally, and with certain academic tasks. I couldn’t judge distance. I couldn’t read maps. I could not make sense of a fast food menu up on the wall at McDonald’s. God forbid I tried anything like interior decorating and my intelligence level dropped like a rock.
But none of those things were noted, or even tested, when I was in elementary school. And when there was a spatial relations section on an achievement test in ninth grade, no one but me seemed to notice the results. I scored in high 90’s for math and verbal and at the 50th percentile for spatial relations. I was so excited! I’d been telling my parents and teachers that I had a learning disability for years, and they would all look at my grades and laugh hysterically.
My hope was that this almost 50% gap between my strengths and my weaknesses would be a neon sign to get people to look at me more closely, but no one cared. To be fair, they didn’t notice that I was suicidal either.
I think Cricket is twice exceptional too. She is very bright, but she has such anxiety that she struggles to learn. Cricket can read even the smallest body language cues: she knows the difference between Grandma getting dressed to go outside alone, or to go outside with dogs; she can hear every whisper and know when it is about her and when it’s not; she not only knows specific words, but what the tone of voice they are said in implies.
But, she is a terrible student. She will never do something just to please her people. She can’t focus when she’s emotionally agitated, which is a lot of the time. And if she doesn’t want to do what she’s being asked to do, she won’t do it, no matter how many chicken treats I offer her.
When she’s calm and focused she can learn new skills in minutes. She can sit and stay and even twirl. Her name recognition and ability to come when called were perfect, at home, but once she got to her obedience class she was a mess. If she were a shedding dog she would have been sitting in a puddle of hair by the end of each class.
If she were a human she might be diagnosed with ADHD, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or Social Anxiety, or all three. If she were a human, she’d be in talk therapy, and taking a drug cocktail, and she’d probably be in special education, despite her high intelligence. She is a classic twice exceptional dog.
For my paper, I spoke to a professor who runs a program for twice exceptional students at a local college, secretly hoping she’d give me some ideas for Cricket and me. She talked about creating a scaffolding for these kids, including: faculty trained to adapt to their needs; a social skills counselor; study skills classes; peer mentors; academic advisors who can give them emotional support. She said that the fundamental thing these kids need in order to succeed is love.
It’s such a simple idea. We all need help. We all need praise for our strengths and support for our weaknesses. The idea that each and every one of us should be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and reach our full potential alone, is bullpucky.
But I’m not sure how to apply this scaffolding to my life, or Cricket’s. I haven’t been able to find the doggy equivalent of special education, let alone twice-exceptional education, for her. The classes I can afford are mostly one size fits all and Cricket has to sit in the back and watch the Golden Retrievers heel, and roll over, and shake their beautiful tails in her face.
Just once, I wish I could help Cricket get a gold star on a test, and give her a chance to stand tall and let everyone see her extraordinary potential, the way I do.