When we still lived in the City, I spent several months touring private schools for kids with special needs. Martin was going to be entering kindergarten. Our zoned elementary school had no special education other than an integrated co-taught class, in which a general-education teacher and a special-education teacher worked together to handle more than 25 kids. No way was Martin ready for that. Indeed, New York City’s Department of Education determined that Martin didn’t have sufficient attention-span even to enter its public ASD Nest program, which has integrated co-taught classes of just 12 students. The DOE also has an ASD Horizon program, self-contained (i.e., all-special-education) classes for kids who are deemed ineligible for Nest, but (1) none was taking place anywhere near us, and (2) Horizon utilizes Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA. When Martin underwent ABA therapy in Early Intervention, he became frustrated and resistant, and also seemed to think perseveration and repetition are positive habits.
So the public Nest and Horizon programs were ruled out, and the DOE school psychologist overseeing Martin’s case said he didn’t have another appropriate placement to offer. By then we had started looking at the private schools. New York City has dozens of special-education private schools to fill the gaps in what the DOE is able to offer. Most of them won’t accept a child’s application without a parental tour, a neuropsychological assessment of educational needs, a written submission including developmental history, and one or more visits by the child. Looking for the best fit for Martin, I toured 14 schools, with each tour taking between one and three hours. From that, I came up with a list of four schools I thought would be appropriate for Martin, and then I started the applications.
Is there another American city where even special education is hyper-competitive?
During this time, while touring private special-education schools, I was plagued by a married couple whom I (privately) called “the Twice-Exceptionals.” I suppose I actually saw the Twice-Exceptionals only four or five times. Yet it felt like they were everywhere. You’re about to find out more about me than I should probably reveal. Here goes: The Twice-Exceptionals annoyed me.
The first time we shared a tour, I introduced myself and said I’d seen them around the special-ed preschool that both our sons attended. What did they think of this kindergarten we were visiting?
“It seems nice,” the mother responded, “but we’re pretty sure it isn’t right for [their wonder kid].”
“Is Wonder Kid’s diagnosis not on their ‘accept’ list?” I asked. A lot of the private special-ed schools, especially those that are “state-approved,” have a list of diagnoses that they are authorized to accept. “Speech-language delay” and “learning disability” might be in, for example, while “cognitive impairment” and “emotional disturbance” are out.
Aside: I’ll admit to feeling down on the kindergarten-admissions process when school after school claimed they didn’t accept kids with “autism or other global delay.”
“His diagnosis isn’t the problem. It’s that Wonder Kid is twice-exceptional. We feel like this school wouldn’t be able to handle his academic potential.”
“What does it mean that mean, twice-exceptional?”
“Wonder Kid is on the autism spectrum and also gifted.”
“Oh. Wow! How can you tell something like that already? I feel like our boys are so young.”
“We knew very early,” replied Mrs. Twice-Exceptional. “Wonder Kid started reading before he turned three. He already does math in his head. This morning when he woke up, he said, ‘It’s only 6:34, and I don’t have to get up until 6:40. I’m going to stay in bed for six minutes’.”
Mr. Twice-Exceptional spoke up: “We’re most interested in the Quirky Genius School that opened last year. It serves twice-exceptional students.” (Obviously, or not so obviously, “Quirky Genius School” is a pseudonym.)
I marveled at the world in which we live. “They have a whole school just for kids who are gifted and also have autism?”
Back to Mrs. Twice-Exceptional: “Yes! We can’t wait to tour the Quirky Genius School next month. We are almost certain that’s going to be the right fit for Wonder Kid. Haven’t you considered the Quirky Genius School for Martin?”
“No. I mean, I’m pretty sure Martin is only once exceptional.” At the time, late 2012—I read back in this blog to confirm—Martin had just started using the command form, and I marveled when he once managed an “I don’t know.” He could read, some. He lacked the language facility to tell me much more about what he knew, and his hand wasn’t steady or strong enough for writing or drawing.
“You never know. He might surprise you,” Mrs. Twice-Exceptional assured me. “You should at least take a look at the Quirky Genius School.”
I’ve always hoped that Adrian and I would make a bright kid. It seems perfectly plausible. I finished first in my college and graduated from an Ivy League law school. Adrian was among the top five students in the best law school in his country of origin. Smart genes! But during the kindergarten tour process, we were still working on getting Martin to sleep through the night and ask questions. “Gifted” felt far off. (Don’t beat me up, readers. Don’t beat me up, Martin, if you read this sometime in the future. I think my kid has a better-than-average chance to be, ahem, “gifted.” It’s just that he’s a work-in-progress, and it’s too early to tell.) “Thanks,” I said to Mrs. Twice-Exceptional. “I will. I’ll look into the Quirky Genius School.”
“Let’s stay in touch!” she exclaimed. She rummaged in her handbag and extracted a business card.
“Oh! I’m sorry,” I said as she handed me the card. “I don’t have a card to give you. I’m not working right now.” Icky. First I had a son only once exceptional, and now I didn’t even have a job.
Mrs. Twice-Exceptional said, “That one’s not my business card. It’s my personal card.”
As that morning’s school tour began, I examined the card. It had big blocks of primary colors, Mrs. Twice-Exceptional’s name and email and phone number, and her title: Wonder Kid’s Mother. That was her title. Mother of a twice-exceptional wonder kid.
I sensed we probably wouldn’t be staying in touch.
But alas, they were unavoidable. At the next kindergarten tour, just a few days later, there they were. Mr. and Mrs. They did all the tours together, a unified front of exceptionalism doubled. Adrian, with his long work hours, toured the two schools Martin’s social worker identified as likely best fits. The other 12 I visited alone.
“Hello again!” Mrs. Twice-Exceptional greeted me. “Did you get a chance to look at the Quirky Genius School?”
“I did,” I said. “I checked the website. It looks like a terrific program. I’m not sure it would be right for Martin, but wow. Looks like exactly what you want for Wonder Kid.”
“It is,” Mr. Twice-Exceptional said. “It really is. We’re just sorry that we have the Quirky Genius School tour scheduled so late. It would be great to find the perfect fit early instead of visiting so many schools.”
Why did I resent this friendly couple? Was it the insistence on “twice-exceptionalism”? Was it their forcing me to declare my own son just once-exceptional? Was it the business card? Both of them showing up at every tour? The fact that the wife followed me throughout one tour to share details of her weight-loss journey? That she informed me that they would leave the City for a suburban district if only their hands weren’t tied by living in a beautiful rent-stabilized apartment?
All I know is that, on each of several kindergarten tours, Mr. and Mrs. Twice-Exceptional inquired with uncomfortable determination whether I was now considering the Quirky Genius School for Martin.
Last weekend Adrian and I saw The Imitation Game. Lovely movie. For the most part, well-scripted and –acted, and a meaningful story. The main character, Alan Turing, is a math and computer-science prodigy who may have been on the autism spectrum. I didn’t know that detail before watching the movie; afterward, I did some research and found conflicting reports on whether Turing was on the spectrum, or just awkward, and if the latter, how awkward. For this post, I’m going to take the Hollywood version and assume that Turing was “twice-exceptional.” As in, wickedly super-twice-exceptional, on brain-power shots.
As the film depicts, and as additional accounts seem to bear out, Alan Turing’s genius and work effort shaped history, shaving some years from World War II and sparing millions of lives. Turing also ended up profoundly unhappy. To be sure, spiteful laws enabling the persecution of homosexuals (as Turing was) contributed to the malaise. So, very possibly, did his social challenges.
Which brings me to consider a hypothetical: Would I rather raise a genius who makes extraordinary, positive gifts to history, yet who himself wallows in despair? Or would I rather raise a man whose contribution to society is limited to taking care of himself and his own, and yet whose existence is marked by love and contentment?
Easy question. For the sake of humanity, I’d rather raise the desperate genius. For the sake of my own son, I’d rather raise the happy, ordinary gent. And my own son trumps society. My family first, then my friends, then my closest neighbors, my society, and the rest. That’s the natural order of things. (I’ve touched on this theme before.) How could I sacrifice my own child’s happiness for anything, even in order to shorten a war?
I’m not faced with that choice, at least not that I know. If Martin is a genius of historical proportion, I haven’t seen it yet. On the other hand, even if Martin is not twice-exceptional, he does have an unusual worldview and some exceptional abilities. He categorizes memories by specific date. “Mommy, on Thursday, September 25, I had lasagna and green smoothie at a restaurant in Manhattan,” he told me, unprovoked, one recent afternoon. “I don’t think that’s quite right, Martin. You had those at PeaceFood Cafe after we went to the children’s museum with Jason and his mommy, so I think it must have been a Saturday or Sunday.” When he insisted on the date, I checked my calendar. Indeed. Thursday, September 25. Rosh Hashanah. Martin didn’t have school, so we made a playdate with Jason. Yesterday, when Martin said, “Mommy, on Tuesday, December 16, did Georgie [one of the cats] sleep on my bed?”, which he meant more as a statement than a question, I responded, “You know, I don’t remember dates that well, but I’m sure it’s possible that Georgie slept on your bed on Tuesday, December 16.”
When Martin turned six-and-a-half, Adrian and I wished him a happy half-birthday. Martin answered, “Oh! I’m 78 months old.” At first, I thought he’d computed the number—(12 x 6) + (12 ÷ 2) = 78—completely in his head. Probably not, though; some weeks earlier, he’d asked me a string of questions on months and years: “How many months are in one year? How many months are in two years?” I reckon he must’ve remembered (his memory is uncanny) that six years have 72 months, then added six, for half of one year’s months. In any event, what an odd response to “It’s your half-birthday! Happy half-birthday!”
Last summer, we were up in the Adirondacks with my sister and her daughter, Mandy, whom based on her initials we sometimes call MC, pronounced “Mick.” The cabin we rented had some basic supplies: paper towels, cooking oil, spices. One morning at breakfast, Martin started asking about the salt and pepper on the table. Would MC take the salt and pepper with her when we left? Did MC bring the salt and pepper from home? Were there salt and pepper for Martin?
“Martin, what do you mean?” I asked. “Why would MC take the salt and pepper home?”
“Because they’re hers,” he replied.
“No. We found them here. They belong to the cabin.”
“Why do they have ‘MC’ on them?”
Because they were McCormick brand salt and pepper, and the containers had little “Mc” logos on them. To an average six-year-old, that might not mean that the condiments belong to Cousin Mandy. The average six-year-old might not even think through the meaning of the salt logo. The average six-year-old is not Martin.
“Will he lose that, as he gets better?” asked my sister that night, tactfully, while we doused the evening campfire. “That different way of looking at things?”
“I don’t know, but I think so. I think he will start to think more typically,” I said. One mother I know told me that her son used to be able to determine, within seconds, the day of the week on which a person was born, just by knowing the year and date. As her son’s coping and social skills improved, his ability to figure birthdays-of-the-week evaporated. (In my goings about the autism community, I’ve met several boys with that skill.) Another mother told me that when various biomed interventions increased her four-year-old’s speaking skills, his precocious reading declined.
I once mentioned his subject to Adrian. I asked whether he thought Martin will lose his super memory or advanced spelling ability, or his compartmentalized way of thinking. I asked whether he thought Martin might, in recovery, become less amazing.
Adrian was silent for a few moments. As between the two of us, I think, Adrian had the higher “traditional” expectations for Martin. Adrian and I come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, indeed different cultures. When we decided to procreate, we weren’t one or the other of us more or less reasonable in our aspirations, but different. I hoped for a well-rounded child who enjoyed sports as well as reading, who made friends and enjoyed their company. Adrian thought more about long-term educational prospects and prestigious careers.
Eventually Adrian replied to my question about unusual thinking versus recovery. He said, “You know what? I’ll settle for happy. I really will.”
The last time I saw the Twice-Exceptionals, other than preschool graduation, was on a kindergarten tour after their much-anticipated visit to the Quirky Genius School. “So how was it?” I asked, feigning enthusiasm. “Are you done? Are you going to apply to other schools, or just Quirky Genius?”
Mrs. Twice-Exceptional said, “We hated it.”
Mr. Twice-Exceptional echoed, “Hated it.”
Mrs. Twice-Exceptional continued, “It was the most disorganized place ever. It’s too new. They have no idea what they’re doing.”
Mr. Twice-Exceptional repeated, “Hated it.”
Their twice-exceptional wonder kid, I heard later, ended up in a public-school ASD Nest program, the very program that had rejected my Martin.
I hope we all get to “happy.”
Martin visiting Stanford University. We are shooting for happy. That doesn’t mean the sky isn’t the limit.