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How Honoring my Kids’ Differences Helped Reveal their Strengths

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

By Lisa Richmond

Recently I have come across a few quotes that have really stuck with me.

Every child has a different learning style and pace. Each child is unique, not only capable of learning but also capable of succeeding.

~ Robert John Meehan.

And,


If a child can’t learn the way we teach. Maybe we should teach the way they learn.

As a former teacher, current tutor, and advocate for parents whose children have IEPs, I can tell you that no two children learn the same or at the same pace. I loathe words like “neurotypical” that try to create a standard that each child should be measured against and compare children against each other. As if children are clones, each without their own unique ideas and differences. Those who measure up will contribute greatly to society as a whole, and those who don’t must be taught to act like everyone else.

I’m a mom of three children in a not-so-typical family. My husband died in an accident the February after my son turned four, my daughter turned two, and right before my youngest turned one. The life that we were already struggling with became a disaster overnight. In fact, disaster is not even a strong enough word to describe it. It was more like a tsunami or a tornado. I was a mess, and my little boy, my four-year-old emotional spark plug, was all over the place. He cried whenever anyone looked at him cross, much less reprimanded him, and he began to run whenever he felt overwhelmed.

I was also not your “typical kid.” I was a very active child who talked A LOT. I was a whirling dervish with a sibling I viewed as perfect, beyond typical: quiet, still, an amazing student who understood every subject instantly. Teachers loved him. Me, I exasperated and exhausted most of them.

As an adult, when my career led me to volunteer at a local charter school for low-income families, I saw first-hand how attentive teachers could help students who previously struggled fall in love with learning. The teachers were engaging and met each student where they were. The kindergarten teacher taught students who had never even seen the letters of the alphabet to read and write by Christmas. Students didn’t just read about science, social studies, and language arts. They experienced them. Witnessing the pride each child felt with each success they had, I knew I wanted to be that teacher. I wanted to inspire all kids to learn, so I went back to school and began teaching.

This came in handy when my oldest was born, who was just like me. He talked early, crawled early, was intelligent, extremely curious, and loved snuggles. Unfortunately, he also never slept, cried at the drop of a hat, was highly energetic, and couldn’t keep his hands to himself. I quickly began to worry.

How would he survive and excel in a world that saw him not for his contributions and successes but for his shortcomings and differences?

To me, he was amazing, but to others, he was out-of-control, a whirling dervish.

Two years later came his baby sister, the exact opposite. People constantly commented on her good behavior. Only I could see that she had her own “quirks.” Her talking never turned into actual words. She wouldn’t try solid foods and would only let me hold her. The pediatrician recommended therapy for both of my children. We had OT/PT and Speech in our house every day. Therapists began throwing words around about her, like Autism, ADHD, Asperger’s, and Apraxia.

My husband and I felt discouraged and alone. We blamed ourselves for the life we had somehow “sentenced” them to.

A year later, our third and final child arrived. Immediately the doctors began looking for signs of “disabilities” like his siblings had. I felt like I had to prove to everyone that my kids were just as “normal” as theirs. We tried every sport to be like the other kids. At baseball, the ball coming at my oldest caused him to run screaming in the other direction, and he hated the sound of the bat hitting the ball. In soccer, my youngest was way more interested in climbing the goal than running after a ball. Flag football was, by far, the worst. Asking a kid with no personal boundaries to grab the flag and not tackle his friends was like asking the sun not to shine.

The fall after my husband’s death, my oldest started Pre-K at our local Catholic school. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it quickly became apparent it wasn’t. He couldn’t sit still and began feeling everything he did was wrong. I was called in almost daily because he would get overwhelmed, cry, and run. He couldn’t control his crying, which would become full-on meltdowns. I knew I had to do better than this for him.

I began searching for somewhere that my boy would fit in and be successful. Private schools were not equipped for his “behaviors,” and the public school did not have inclusive education. Finally, I found a school that had small class sizes, firm but loving teachers and administrators, project-based learning, and was academically rigorous. He slowly calmed down, and the meltdowns nearly stopped within weeks. The other kids were amazed by his knowledge of bugs and dinosaurs. He even spoke at his kindergarten graduation. He had found his place.

Thanks to our speech therapist, my daughter began talking up a storm. Her OT and PT taught all of us how to approach her in a way that she would feel safe socially. She was blossoming into a social, happy, talkative girl who would soon join her brother at his school and love it.

Meanwhile, my youngest was missing more and more milestones. He started at two with early intervention at the public school. He was there five days a week, all day, and then had two hours of OT, PT, and Speech outside of school, with his days structured around the constant intervention.

I decided it was time for a developmental pediatrician evaluation and possible diagnosis. To be honest, I was not thrilled about this. More labels and more measuring against the other “typical” kids. More standards they would not be able to meet.

When the evaluation was complete, I had at least a five-page report on each kid. Both boys were diagnosed with ADHD, autism, and anxiety disorder. Medications and continued therapy were recommended. My daughter, on the other hand, had no diagnosis. There were no signs of autism, ADHD, anxiety, or apraxia in any of her tests. She was suddenly “neurotypical.” How is that even possible that the child her first pediatrician said would be profoundly autistic was “normal?”

As I drove home that night, looking at my three kiddos asleep in their car seats, I began to think about all kids I have known in my years of teaching and how each one was different. All the successes I had seen in kids no one believed in. I thought about Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, Michelangelo, Charles M. Schulz, Dan Aykroyd, and Robin Williams and all the famous people with autism or who were believed to have autistic tendencies.

I realized that night that my children were only limited by what they believed they could not accomplish, and it was up to me to make sure that they had all the necessary tools in their toolbox to accomplish whatever they wanted in life.

When we got home, we continued with their therapies and added a psychologist to help them create a toolbox with strategies and resources for success. I stopped forcing them to do activities that I thought made them more “typical” and allowed them to explore things that they wanted to try. They tried hip-hop dancing, robotics, acting, improv, and golf. They started acting in small student films for SCAD and eventually found their love for musicals.

Most importantly, I found a school that works for all three of my children, a fully online public school. At South Carolina Connections Academy, they work on their own schedule, in their own time, and many of their assignments are project-based. The school is set up to teach children to be self-sufficient in a safe setting. My oldest two are in the gifted and talented program, and after years of being below grade level, my youngest is a straight-A student. All three are in after-school clubs and are members of the school's news show.

Each child is thriving in their own unique and special way.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Richmond was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Maryland, just outside of DC. She currently lives in the Southeast with her three children and their German shepherd service dog, Navi. An educator for more than 20 years, teaching kindergarten to adults, she enjoys spending her free time traveling with her kids across the U.S. in their minivan, exploring all each state has to offer and relaxing at the beach in their hometown.


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