My child has always been considered “exceptional” and I proudly smile whenever anyone compliments him (as if I can take credit for his precociousness). Any adult who has ever had a conversation with my son has made a point of announcing to me, “He’s very smart.” My usual response is a simple, “thank you,” though I am always thinking, “he is, isn’t he?” all the while I know my smile reveals my overwhelming pride.
Over the course of the past 4 years I have learned that James’ exceptional intelligence may also go hand-in-hand with anxiety. Why should this be so? I still don’t understand the reason these two characteristics go hand-in-hand. Like most parents these days, as soon as I notice anything unusual in my son’s behavior, I race to the computer to “research” the condition. This is a very dangerous practice, as I am not a psychologist. I am not an expert in children’s behavior.
When James was 2, I found myself sifting through clinical trials, blog posts and medical journal articles on the web. I quickly discovered that a little research simply makes me more confused and concerned. At one point, I was ready to diagnose my son as bi-polar and wondered if my medical insurance would cover the cost of neurological testing to find out what was “wrong” with him. As I said, I am not an expert or a physician. I am however, an expert on my son. Who knows him better than his own mother?
Since he was very young, I would worry about James whenever he was behaving in a way I believed that was unusual or unique, anything that I thought set him apart from the other children at our play groups or gym classes. I went so far as to take notes in a journal, hastily jotting down the behavior I found odd so I would be able to describe James’ troubling issues to the pediatrician.
Before James could even speak, I had taken note of several ‘odd’ behaviors. One of his most notable quirks appeared while building with blocks. James loved to build from the moment he discovered that he was capable of clicking together two chunky plastic blocks. His face lit up when he realized he could build a tower taller than himself. James also loved to sort and loved symmetry. None of this is odd for a toddler. However, whenever James built something with his blocks, he insisted on perfect symmetry. If he placed two yellow blocks on the left, he must place two yellow blocks on the right. If he did not have the correct number of yellow blocks, he would dismantle the building and begin again. “He’s artistic!” I would exclaim, though I was thinking, “he’s so anal retentive!” Journal entry: Stubbornly insists on color order and symmetry. Even numbers are a must. If an odd number of blocks exist, James must put the odd block back into the basket.
Once a building was complete James would stand up and get his face as close to the building as possible with his nose mere millimeters away from the structure and then he would circle the blocks. He would walk around and around the blocks so closely I thought he would bump into the tower and knock it down. Somehow, he never did knock it down. He would circle for up to 5 minutes at at time. He never seemed to get dizzy and he would often reverse direction. I never counted how many rotations per side, though now that I think about it, he may very well have had a set number of times he would circle in each direction. After a while he would stop and stare at the building. Sometimes he would lay down and scoot himself as closely as he could without touching it and look up at it, the way one would recline in the grass and gaze up at the clouds. Journal entry: Gets his eyes as close as he can to objects and circles them by walking around and around. If the object is large or he can not navigate around it, he paces back and forth.
When I brought this up to the pediatrician I used the term “autistic.” Dr. G. simply said, “Mrs. Seegert, your son is merely observing spatial relations. I know you are concerned, but does James look at you when you speak to him?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Does James respond when you ask him to do a simple task such as retrieving a book?”
“Does James laugh and giggle when you tickle him or play hide and seek?”
“Mrs. Seegert, I understand your concerns and if you wish I will give you a referral to a neurologist, but I believe you are overreacting. James seems to be quite “normal” (air quotes here from Dr. G.) and very intelligent. If this was 30 years ago, you wouldn’t even question his behavior. The problem is us. The problem is that anytime a child is acting in a way that is even slightly different from the documented “norm” (more air quotes) we start to panic that something is wrong. We are all so concerned with making comparisons to others we worry at the slightest hint that our child may not be like everyone else. I am guilty of it myself. Let us not punish our children for our need to be normal.”
That particular visit was a sort of wake up call for me. Whenever I got anxious about James’ behavior I would remind myself to relax and enjoy the quirks and his unique personality. Granted, I still kept hastily scribbling notes in my journal. And I was often frustrated by his need to be perfect.
When a simple bead-stringing exercise at “Mommy and Me” class turned into a project every single time we attended class, I would feel my blood pressure rising. James needed to string the beads in a certain order – red, yellow, green, blue – I would later recognize this as rainbow color order, so smart even at 2 years old (proud moments even in the midst of utter frustration). If one yellow bead was overlooked, James needed to remove each bead on the string until the yellow beads were all in order and then re-string all the other beads one by one, color group by color group.
Bead stringing was a painstaking task, but if I tried to divert his attention or take the beads away James would defiantly grab them back. He would tuck them under his tush so I couldn’t reach them. I soon recognized that making things orderly was a NEED. He simply could not move on until he was ready. He would stubbornly refuse to participate in any other activity until the beads were to his liking. He was also fiercely independent. If I tried to help by sorting the beads for him, he would mix them up and glare at me as if to say, “I am doing this!” If I tried to hide beads to quicken the pace, he would seek them out. Journal entry: James may exhibit tendencies of OCD!
Ultimately, I would learn to let James do his thing without hurrying him along. Slowly I cultivated the ability to observe and enjoy James and his painstakingly slow, deliberate exercises. I began to understand James better and I discovered that he was learning. Why was I rushing him? Why was I so eager to move onto the next task? Why couldn’t I savor each moment? Journal entry: I am a terrible mom. Wish Mom was here to help guide me through this one.
And so, James began to teach me patience. I wasn’t the best student, but James would persevere. Thankfully he was a thoughtful teacher and gave me many lessons and many opportunities to apply what I had learned in real world applications. Thank you, James for the careful instruction.