Category Archives: Parenting an autisitc child for success

Visual-Spatial and Twice-Exceptional Learners

In Color Me Purple, in the text box about “Art Smart and More,” I mention that visual-spatial learners may be late bloomers, may not pay attention or follow step-by-step rules, and may not conform to the definition of smart that most people in our society believe in. In other words, they see the world in a different way.

So what does visual-spatial learner mean and who do you know who learns in this way? This question has become very personal to me. When I wrote the book, it was based on children I had worked with through the Wisconsin Center for Academically Talented Youth (WCATY), and not about my family. But this year, one of my grandsons has been identified as a visual-spatial learner, and as twice exceptional. It was time for me to delve a little deeper.

First I wanted to read and discuss Color Me Purple with him, one-on-one. My purpose in writing the book was for children from all different backgrounds and with all different kinds of interests and skills to know that smartness or intelligence was not limited to the kids who were identified as gifted because of their reading or math abilities. This was especially important now, because this grandson’s little brother had been so identified in kindergarten and was thriving in school. Yet, year by year the older boy was becoming less and less self-confident and more and more emotional when he thought he was less than “the best” (or whatever his definition of acceptable was) in anything. It helped that he’d now been tested and told by an authority (the psychologist) that he was gifted, yet ongoing reinforcement of what that meant was going to be important.

I also sent his parents to the best authority and book I know on the topic: Upside Down Brilliance by Linda Kreger Silverman. Here is some of what they learned.

Visual-spatial learners think in images or pictures. They “are excellent observers, comprehend holistically—may have sudden ‘Aha’ understanding that leaps over steps—may need translation time to put their ideas into words, and sometimes have word retrieval problems. Their thinking and emotions are intertwined.”

Two things about that definition really struck me in relation to our situation. I already knew about thinking in pictures and many of the other characteristics, but one of my grandson’s increasing problems in school was his need for time to get his very complex thoughts into words, i.e., more time for testing. Another was how his emotional needs were growing exponentially as his thinking he was not smart was spiraling him into turmoil.

What does twice-exceptional mean? I had taught twice-exceptional learners in schools and at WCATY, but now my own grandson was, in a sense, crying out for help. I’d thought he was underachieving, but I hadn’t thought of twice-exceptionality, which Linda Silverman says means gifted with learning disabilities. These are kids who fall through the cracks in school because they perform at or a bit above the norm in school and thus do not qualify for special education support. As we’ve’ve already established, they also don’t qualify for the gifted programs because their high intelligence is right-brained (visual) versus left-brained (auditory) based.

Like Linda Silverman, and I am guessing many if not most of my readers, I am a left-brained learner. I wrote Color Me Purple because I know not all children learn like me, and I want them to have a fair chance to grow up loving who they are and becoming all they can and wish to be. In the fall of 2017 my twice-exceptional grandson will be entering high school. I hope he will be appreciated for his exceptional abilities and that those abilities will be developed as his weaknesses are also being strengthened.

Autistic and Gifted

Every parent of an autistic child should read the books of Temple Grandin and see the movie about her life. While downplaying the autistic child’s need for personal relationships, Grandin  emphasizes their need to be identified as smart. She writes, “Autistic children will remain in their own little worlds if left to their own devices…. People with autism can develop skills in fields that they can really excel in. Where they really need help is in selling themselves.” She goes on to explain that it is now thought that Einstein might have had Asperger’s. He didn’t speak until he was three, he silently repeated words to himself, and he didn’t interact with his peers. He did poorly in school until he was sent to a school that allowed him to use his visualization skills. Later in life he told a psychologist friend, “I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I try to express it in words afterwards.”

One of the smart, autistic children I worked with is Terra, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when she was in 2nd grade and who is now a graduate student living independently of her family. Terra’s mom, a special education teacher, admits that she wanted only to see Terra’s strengths and not her weaknesses when she was little. She says, “I didn’t want her labeled for her deficits in school. Kids with the learning-disability label are categorized based on their weaknesses. But Terra’s social and sensory deficits became more and more apparent as she approached middle-school age. I knew I needed to get an IEP [Individualized Education Plan] with Asperger’s listed. By pretending the issues don’t exist, you are denying the child her full development. You must work on the weaknesses, as well as the strengths.”

When Terra was in 7th grade, she took the ACT through Talent Search. She had a phobia against math, and those scores were low, but her English and reading scores were high, a 28 and 27 respectively, compared to a mean of 20 and 21 for college-bound seniors. Her mom sent her to me at WCATY. “My goal in sending Terra,” she reported, “was for her to see herself in relation to smart kids, rather than only in terms of her disability. I wanted to expand her world intellectually and build her confidence, and I hoped that maybe she would find a friend.”

Terra concentrated on the areas she excelled in – art and writing. She did grow intellectually, gained confidence, and made a friend – a close friend.

Her mother advises, “Do not push thoughts of the future on your children with multiple exceptionalities when they are not ready for thinking that far ahead. But do help them to develop their gifts. At the same time, don’t deny their limits. They must know and understand both their weaknesses and their strengths if they are to become all they can be.”

Like all mothers, Terra’s most wanted her child to be happy. “So much is heavy in her life,” she said, “But I can’t make her happy. The best I can do is to keep making connections and hope to get her in the right environment. She sees herself as being from another planet, an alien. Once we get her through high school, maybe the connections in the academic world will work. She is a little professor.”

The connections worked, and this little professor is succeeding in her academic world today!