By Dr. Mike Postma.
(First Published in the 2e Newsletter, January 2019) ©Gifted & Thriving, LLC. 2019
Our son Alex, one of our three twice-exceptional teenagers and the only one who was able to officially graduate from high school (with ongoing support), would often spend his ‘off’ days sleeping. Sometimes, he would be out for 12-14 hours at a time. One might think this pattern of behavior somewhat unusual, even for a teen boy. In fact, we received plenty of advice from family and friends as to how to address the ‘issue’. In fact, with every visit, we were advised that this is not normal.
“Clearly there something was wrong with the boy.” They would postulate. “Shouldn’t you get that checked out?”
Despite the pressure, we didn’t and quite frankly, I was tired of trying to explain that twice-exceptional children require a different set of rules and expectations than their typical peers. They are different! They experience atypical nuero and physiological development; they develop atypical social and emotional skills; they approach the world in an atypical manner; and, adjust to circumstances in an extraordinary fashion. Why would we subject our child a formulaic system of expectations and behaviors when they clearly need an alternative solution? As such, we treated this behavior in our usual fashion; with a couple grains of salt. We knew that twice-exceptional children are prone to fatigue due to the exertion of daily compensation mechanisms that allowed Alex to attend school. He needed and continues to need the extra rest.
Our twice-exceptional children (and adults) deal with all kinds of challenges on a daily basis. They are extremely bright yet struggle to accommodate at least one diagnosable disability. In fact, the majority face the added challenge of having multiple areas of weakness that inhibit daily operations. The reality is that coping with a disability (or camouflaging to appear normal) produces stress, frustration, and anxiety. In addition, many deal with sensory processing issues that also inhibit how they are able to interact with their environment. For example, a student with a case of stealth dyslexia attempting to keep up with the notes in an AP History classroom. She has the ability but not the accommodation or support. The work load grows as does the anxiety increasing stress and fatigue that, in turn, affects performance and possibly attendance.
A more formal understanding of the impact of fatigue on the daily routine of the twice-exceptional can be summarized in two words; code switching. The term code switching describes the continual pattern of shifting between the expectations of two very different worlds; the world of societal norms and expectations versus the world of twice-exceptionality. Within their ‘comfort’ zone, the twice-exceptional can operate with ease, adhering to atypical patterns of behavior, acceptance, and probabilities. In the real world, those behaviors are generally not accepted as ‘normal’ forcing the twice exceptional to continual adjust or accommodate the particular space in which they find themselves. Continual code-switching generates fatigue and by the end of the day, the student is exhausted. Finding their comfort zone and getting the appropriate rest is an essential factor in whether or not they will be able to repeat the cycle the following day. To be sure, homework assignments and assigned chores only serve to further exacerbate the problem. Indeed, over time, fatigue unchecked can lead to longer periods of school absences, growing emotional turmoil, and a negative spiral of doubt, incompetency, and self-worth. So, what are we to do?
In the first place, it is important to identify any suspected disabilities. Twice Exceptional children are masters at disguising, however, as the rigor of school programming (including expectations around basic executive functioning skills) increases over the years, the collision between school expectations and functionality also increases and the end result is generally a negative one. Identifying the weakness allows the parents and child to seek assistance, support, and perhaps most importantly, develop a metacognitive strategy of self-worth and acceptance, despite what may be initially perceived as a problem. Knowledge is power.
Secondly, set up expectations within the household that are agreed upon by both the parents and child. These understandings should take into account all aspects and parameters of the daily schedule including school, homework, activities, etc. to ensure the child receives adequate rest. Additionally, one might want to set up a private parent/student journal that can serve as a communication device as to how the child is feeling within their daily routine. Twice-exceptional children need structure. They can be linear thinkers and if things get out of order, or if transitions are not prepared for, they can, and will, resist leading to further conflict, and, of course, expended energy.
Thirdly, advocate for you child in the school setting. The school cannot act if they do not know. Applying for a 504 Plan or even an IEP can help alleviate daily stresses such as homework, taking notes, seating plans, test taking, and much more. In general, twice-exceptional children struggle with slow processing speed and need additional time to process, formulate responses, tackle assignments, and produce work. Indeed, an incredible source of stress for twice-exceptional children happens to be homework expectations. The reality is that homework is rarely productive. It is not always easy to attain a IEP or 504 as a specific disability must be identified and schools are generally looking for very low performance as a qualification factor, but, they must be made to understand that average performance (or even above average) for the twice-exceptional child is actually an issue. In fact, it indicates a large discrepancy between the child’s innate ability/potential and how they are performing. Large gaps need to be addressed and remediated. To be sure, you can expect resistance. An educational advocate can be a good source of help when seeking this avenue.
Finally, build an effective communication system with your child. This means careful listening, realistic expectations, scheduled check-ins, guarded words, and, an awareness that twice-exceptional children are extremely perceptive. They can read your every look, expression, and emotion. Be careful what you say, even when your angry or frustrated. Positive and consistent communications can help to build a confident, self-assured child; despite the challenges while opening the path to partnership.
Fatigue is real. Our twice-exceptional children battle every day to navigate a world that is not designed with their needs in mind. As their parent, guardian, or even teacher, it is imperative that we recognize their need for personal space, rest, and acceptance. In doing so, we can contribute to their unique gifts that just might change the world. Just not today. Today they need to sleep.
Dr. Michael Postma is a teacher, administrator, consultant, speaker, and author dedicated to the holistic development of both gifted and twice-exceptional children through his new company Gifted & Thriving, LLC. During the last two decades, Dr. Postma has worked in the field of gifted/talented education as both a teacher and administrator in the public and charter school system in Minnesota and North Carolina, and, was the architect of the Minnetonka Navigator Program, a magnet school specifically designed for highly gifted and twice-exceptional students.