Have you ever read Emily Perl Kingsley’s essay “Welcome to Holland”? It’s a beautifully written piece, one that describes life with an exceptional child as though you have thoughtfully planned an Italian vacation, only to discover you’ve been flown to Holland instead.
I’ve read it many times. And I hate it.
I don’t mean to besmirch the author of the essay, nor do I wish to downplay its ability to reassure thousands of parents with special needs children. But Kingsley’s words of acceptance and adaptation have tightened my chest and broken my heart from the moment a well meaning administrator handed me a copy during a child study meeting for my daughter.
My third grader is twice exceptional, and she is the reason I homeschool. Through a series of events involving post-partum depression and abnormal lead levels in her blood (check your miniblinds, people!), we discovered ourselves floundering through kindergarten.
We had always known there was something different about her. Her first word, ashes, came at nine months. She taught herself to read in preschool. Her artwork was far beyond that of her peers. At two and three, she grasped abstract concepts that were difficult for adults. Preschool was successful, in part because of a nurturing environment and flexible schedule. But there were problems, there, too. She had difficulty with transitions. Excessive anxiety over the calendar (what happens when the month ends? The year?). Fixation with time and lateness. A preference for parallel play. And most of all, the ability to focus for hours on a current task, ignoring interactions with others and her own physical needs for food, drink and bathroom breaks. We sent her to kindergarten with reserved hopefulness, having chosen a school we believed would nurture and develop her talents. That is not, however, what occurred. On the third day of school at the end of the day, she received the wrong sticker from the teacher.
A massive tantrum ensued.
The kindergarten and school resource teachers met me at the pick up line. Embarrassed and upset by my daughter’s outburst, I admitted fears of an Autism Spectrum Disorder. While my daughter’s presenting behaviors could have tipped the scales on their own, my own shame over having a child so different from what I wanted didn’t do us any favors. The resource teacher held on to my revelation, and I believe she labeled my daughter Autistic on the spot. We spent the next nine months wading through a morass of meltdowns, outbursts and elopements. There were incident reports, emails, conferences and phone calls. Then came the testing, the findings, the recommendations, and the IEP. Finally, in the spring, when all of the flowers were blooming under the melting chill of winter, the school system labeled our daughter under the Autism umbrella.
Aspgerger’s, they said.
No, thank you, we said.
It was during one of the interminable meetings that someone handed me a copy of that essay. I suppose what bothers me is not the essay itself so much as the attitude and of the institution who supplied it. It’s the, “you’ve landed in Holland there you must stay” mentality. The evaluation committee, the teachers, the administrators all patted us on the arm with plaintive smiles, encouraging us to enjoy our new life in Holland. But we knew our daughter, and we knew the root of her behaviors. We also knew we had booked a trip to Italy and that’s where we belonged.
Cue an additional round of testing and meetings, after which our suspicions were confirmed. It was not Asperger’s, but a highly gifted, asynchronous child navigating her way through anxiety (a product of my PPD) and sensory processing disorders (most likely a product of her lead contamination). I couldn’t fathom sentencing her to another year of boredom and sensory overload when I could bring her home and educate her there. I chose not to be like Kinglsey, who writes of watching everyone you know “coming and going from Italy,” and listening to them “bragging about the wonderful time they had there.” I would not spend the rest of my life mourning the loss of that dream, opining, as Kingsley does, “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.”
I have lost no dream. She is here with me, everyday, sharing the joy of discovery and creativity with her siblings. It is true that had we remained in Holland as expected, there would have been lessons on tulips and Rembrandts. But the beauty of homeschooling is that we can visit Holland any time we like, and she can flourish in the opportunities beyond those of wooden shoes and windmills.
We will not settle for the expectations of those who do not wish to understand. We set our own itinerary.