Every Child Is (Not) Special Needs

I write this with trepidation.

See, this is not a regular topic (not that any topic is really ‘regular’).

It’s loaded.

It touches on our deep-seated aspirations as parents, our self-worth as children, our frustrations with Western medicine, our judgements of one another, desire to protect our children, and so much pain in how we are struggling to be effective in understanding and educating our youth.

Mostly, I am hesitant because I know how sensitive this is. How exhaustive. How nuanced.

And how much it touches my own life– as a daughter, sister, wife, educator — and mostly, mother.

And really, I can’t share it all. It’s too much.

How it felt for me, as a growing child, to witness people I love so much struggle with learning disabilities, low self-esteem, fleeting friendships, aggression and more. Watching my mom fight for understanding, respect and greater resources for her children. Watching other adults I love struggle with focus and drive. Watching from afar, feeling guilty that school, life, was easy for me.

That I was spared.

It’s too much to write about my experiences in volunteer positions, graduate school and therapeutic environments, learning about brain chemistry, various forms of learning and behavior challenges, and getting so riled up, I mean so riled up, about how we are overmedicating our children– the beginning seeds of imagining a different educational paradigm that could actually succeed with children who were slapped with every letter of the alphabet to somehow absolve collective responsibility for one another.

And even though it would take pages and pages, stories and stories, some of the deepest kind of pain and some of the deepest kinds of perseverance, I will not share my experiences as a mother, of my child.

Not the moment where I finally realized I couldn’t ‘fix’ it with a new school, new diet, new vitamins, new massage, new alternative technique. When it became too hard. When it felt like in trying to spare him, I was being so unkind – to him, and to the rest of the family. When he turned to me and said, “Mommy, what took you so long?”

No, those stories are mine. That pain I still process. That hope still elusive.

And it’s his journey to share. (I pray he shares it one day.)

And it’s still unfolding.

There’s this article floating around social media where a well known scientist, Dr. Jerome Kagan, posits that ADHD is “more of an invented condition rather than a serious illness” that pharmaceutical industries have made-up to drive up profit.

I get it. I really do.

As a school founder of a progressive model, as an advocate for children, as a believer in alternative medicine, as a student of behavioral science, as a skeptic of Big Pharma, as a dreamer that believes in the limitless potential of every human, I really, really, get it.

But come on.

Tell that to the countless children and their families – and adults as well – who are struggling, suffering, with the effects of this reality.

Are children overmedicated? Yes.

Do alternative models assist children who may be challenged with staying focused and engaged in learning? Yes.

Can we assume alternative models may not be enough? Yes.

Is Dr. Kagan’s article full of gross generalizations? Yes.

Is ADHD real? Yes.

Do these kinds of articles and blanket statements completely undermine children and their families that are legitimately struggling with the effects of this disorder?

YES.

There are those who say that ‘every child is special needs.’

And to some degree- that’s true. Every child is unique. Every child, golden.

Every child could – and should! – benefit from the alternative practices we tend to ‘save’ for children who are diagnosed– better diet, hands-on learning, flexible seating, empathetic listening, differentiated instruction, therapeutic touch, structure at home, and more.

Yet every child is not special needs.

When we denounce the realities of learning, behavioral and mental challenges, we do a great disservice to the world.

Big Pharma- back off. Though you want to capitalize on people’s struggles and tendency to look for quick fixes, please don’t be a Pill Pusher. Do not undermine the integrity of medications that can, and do, work – that potentially save lives. You’re a tool. Not the Messiah.

Teachers and school administrators- don’t give up. There are tools to help children with learning and attention challenges. It is so hard. You feel drained. Seek the support you need. There’s always hope.

Yet please, don’t throw around these labels, these diagnosis, as a way to explain away behavior that seems beyond your reach. Don’t look for an out. Resist the urge to scapegoat any child.

Parents (and extended family) – I feel you. I stand with you.

Whatever we do, we are damned.

Whether we medicate, or choose not to.

Whether we accept a diagnosis, or not.

No matter how firm or loving or patient we are.

No matter how guilty or empowered we feel.

No matter how deeply we engage with our children’s schools.

We are overwhelmed. Doubtful. Scared.

Feeling judged, misunderstood and alone.

We want someone to just see our child, really see our child, and love them the way we do. To tell us it’ll be OK. They’ll find their path. Find their friends. Find their place in the community. Find their lover.

I’m talking to you. And as much as I need to hear that myself, I’m sharing this with you.

You’re doing more than OK. You’re doing your best.

And that’s what counts.

And to that child, the one slapped with every label, every letter in the alphabet, every excuse, every second chance, every special gift, every bit of just trying to understand what makes you tick…

That child who’s perpetually struggling – to fit in, to succeed, to hold it together, to sit in your chair, to express yourself, to make friends, to keep your hands to yourself, to feel smart, to be engaged, to measure up, to avoid causing that look in adults’ eyes that says, “Won’t you just stop? Why can’t you get in under control? Don’t you see I’m tired?!?”

You, my child, I love.

You are enough.

You may be an enigma.

And oh, so hard.

You may bring up all kinds of feelings in me- of how I fall short, of how it’s never enough, of how I just wish I could fix this, once and for all. (Oh G-d, what will it take?!)

You teach me patience.

And perseverance.

And how to pray.

You teach others compassion.

And empathy.

And just how deep is the heart.

Indeed

You, my child, are

Special.

You are.