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My son was valedictorian of his high school, but he did not give a valedictory speech at graduation. As far as we can tell, it’s because he acted goofy. He danced around the school sing-songing about being valedictorian (thinking he was being ironic and self-effacing); he wore a cape at the school’s honors trivia bowl; he told friends he might talk about Batman in his speech. He lost his right to give a speech. He stayed in his room for two days, in anguish and grieving.
Thinking about this, and thinking about our long, sometimes confusing journey with this young man, I’ve written my own speech. As mom, I claim the top GPA in this endeavor of raising a child who is different.
My child has dyspraxia. It’s a diagnosis better known in Great Britain than the United States. Dyspraxia is when a kid’s brain doesn’t connect effectively with his muscle system. It can affect posture, speech, fine motor skills, spatial sense, organizational skills, and social skills. Kids with dyspraxia can speak too loudly, mispronounce words, stand too close, talk too much, act immature for their age, and have trouble picking up nonverbal signals. There is some correlation between dyspraxia and giftedness. Some aspects of dyspraxia can look like Asperger’s.
At school, my kid has had an IEP for dyspraxia since fifth grade. It has allowed him to use a keyboard instead of handwriting and to take a little more time on exams. My kid also “has” giftedness. For what it’s worth, he scores in the 99.9 percentile on typical standardized intelligence and scholastic tests; and he has many fierce interests: math, physics, international politics, Game of Thrones, Africa, the Middle East, Nordic skiing, trail running, American history, nature. He’s intense, sensitive, introverted, introspective, athletic, loyal, sometimes clueless and, too often these days, cranky. This is what a gifted kid diagnosed with dyspraxia, with a few Asperger’s traits, looks like.
My kid has been excluded, jostled, taunted, and made fun of for most of his life. He’s naïve, once coming home using the F word in every sentence because a kid at school told him it was a good word to use as much as possible. In middle school, he was shunned for about a year and a half. Two kids did the slandering and all the others rejected him — even his best friend. He lost 10 pounds, became depressed, and scuttled, alone, to the library for recess and lunch. The school couldn’t seem to resolve the problem; parents couldn’t resolve the problem; so we finally switched schools.
My child is also the kind of kid who gets mistreated by adults. When he was 12, he saw a fuzzy caterpillar in the middle of some smaller children playing. My son gently moved it out of the way. Another mom started yelling at him, accusing him of hurting the creature, then gossiped about him for months, asking our friends “What’s wrong with him?” This is what a gifted kid, diagnosed with dyspraxia, with a few Asperger’s traits, looks like.
My kid has had an unusual school career. He tested into college algebra at 12, completed every locally available 200-level college course in math by age 14, earned A’s in all those courses, then taught himself linear algebra and real analysis online. He went from middle school right into his high school’s eleventh-grade International Baccalaureate program. He took 300-level university art and literature classes, which he aced, did two senior years, and graduated valedictorian after a total of three years. He had the highest-ever GPA at his school. This is what a gifted kid, diagnosed with dyspraxia, with a few Asperger’s traits, looks like.
This is my kid — bold, brash, clueless, occasionally impulsive, fervent, and tough. I’m not excusing his behavior. He’s made mistakes, but he owns them like the man he is. This is my kid, one who runs a math club for grade schoolers; tutors college students in calculus; is a varsity athlete; helps his little brother with his homework; and can cook a dinner and make an excellent apple pie.
This is the kid who wrote a valedictorian speech he will not give. The first line is this quote by Charlie Chaplin: “We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.”
This is my son, and we are so thankful for him and for the people who support him — like the pediatrician who diagnosed our guy with dyspraxia at age nine and said, “This is what a gifted kid looks like”; like the teachers who tolerated, explained, got his jokes, insisted he do his best work, and gave him honest grades; like the friend who runs with him and serves as his confidant; like the team mates who listened, cared, and let this awkward guy be part of their group.
And finally, thanks to my son, my first born. Look at you. You’ve made some mistakes (but then, as you know, to be human is to make mistakes), but you are resilient. You know yourself. You know you need a team, how to be a friend, and that you need alone time. You’ve retained your passion for learning and for your sport. You have a personal code of ethics as well as honor and dignity.
Now you’re embarking on a wonderful college adventure with a fabulous scholarship. You did it. You grew up. I’m so proud of you. And this is what a gifted kid, diagnosed with dyspraxia, with some Asperger’s traits, looks like.
Cat Finney is the mom of two boys and lives in the Oregon high desert.