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Undercover Expertise

A mom on trusting her gut

Published on: September 29, 2017

baby boy glasses

Editor Note:

This is part of a collection of seven personal essays written by parents of children who have special needs. 

One spring evening, I watched our son carefully deliberate before laboriously — yet confidently — writing the letter “b.” He was 9 years old, and this wasn’t a simple alphabet practice sheet. This was a third-grade assignment, and that was just one letter in an entire word, which was just one word in an entire sentence!

For years, homework had been a fight. Our son’s most frequent battle cry was “I can’t do this! I’m stupid!” Homework that should have taken 20 minutes took two hours. “It has to be done,” my husband would tell our son. “Besides,” I’d chime in, “you’re smart. If you’d started working when you began complaining, you’d be done by now!”

But that particular evening — graced with authenticity instead of attitude — my son and I worked together without the usual hostility. Seeing him put so much effort into thinking about and forming a single letter — a skill I knew his peers had long ago mastered — forced me to acknowledge a persistent knot in my gut: Maybe reading and writing truly were hard for him. Maybe something could explain these problems.

I’m not a trained expert in every field, but I am an expert when it comes to my child.

About eight months later, a neuropsychologist diagnosed our son with dyslexia, dysgraphia and ADD. That journey is itself a story, but this story is about how I let my presumptions, books, school and the internet interfere with my instincts.

I’ll admit I had strong beliefs about what it means to be “smart.” Smart kids read and write well. Smart kids manage time and projects well. Smart kids do well in school.

Agreeing that our son was smart, my husband and I simply couldn’t see why he was falling behind academically. Unable to accept that both realities could be possible, we concluded our son must be stubborn and unmotivated. We had no idea that identification of learning disabilities may include a person’s unexpectedly low academic achievement compared to his or
her IQ.

Not to mention, I thought we’d done everything “right” to promote language development. Talk to the baby throughout the day? Check. Library story time? Check. Music and movement activities? Check. In effect, I unintentionally treated those recommendations as preventative measures against learning difficulties.

At our son’s school, my husband and I casually shared our concerns, each time receiving reassurance that he was a great kid and reading would eventually “just click.” This took the edge off our worry, but didn’t fully relieve the unease in my gut. In hindsight, we put more weight on those reassurances than they may have deserved.

When my husband and I first wondered about the possibility of dyslexia, I dismissed it because our son didn’t show all the “symptoms” on various online checklists. He wasn’t a late talker and could recite the alphabet before preschool. He didn’t bump into things and could easily catch a ball. He had no trouble remembering the names of things and kept up when we talked to him.

At this point, it was easy to explain away even the “symptoms” that did fit our son. Does he skip over or replace words while reading? Yes, but that’s because he’s going too fast. Can’t remember how to say a word he read on the previous page? Yes, but he’s just not paying attention. Mispronounces words? Sometimes, but his vocabulary is beyond his peers, so that’s probably all right. Spells common words phonetically (but incorrectly)? Yes, but since that shows he understands phonics, I don’t see why this is on the list.

Of course, the checklists weren’t meant as diagnostic tools, but I think that’s how I viewed them.

It’s been more than four years since I finally listened to my gut that spring evening over homework. I’ve gotten better at noticing and naming the feelings and thoughts that underlie any new hunch. I’ve also realized that I’m not a trained expert in every field, but I am an expert when it comes to my child. At every opportunity, I tell parents as much: You know more than you think.

Read the full collection

  1. The Secret Language of Chickens: How a family pet helped a boy communicate

  2. Dangling Without a Diagnosis: Moving forward on an unclear path

  3. Parenting in the Present: Why special needs aren't so special

  4. Undercover Expertise: A mom on trusting her gut

  5. It's Not a Catastrophe: Learning to cope, one year at a time

  6. My Daughter's Superpower: A mother's diagnosis helps inform her daughter's

  7. 'But She Looks So Normal': Reflections from a mom of an Asian American child who has Down syndrome

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