Monday 21st , 2015
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“Hello, my name is Louise. I am an introverted, highly sensitive, dyslexic foreigner with ADHD.” Please don’t take this as a sign that I am a hypochondriac, I actually dislike labels, however, sometimes I wonder if as a child had I introduced myself in this way if I would have had an easier life. Even as an adult I struggle with these characteristics that in many ways make me different from the “normal” adult. As I look back on my childhood I realize how often I blurred the line between different and bad. Certainly I’m not the only child who has struggled to make that distinction.

I am not an expert in child psychology nor do I have experience with every kind of disability out there. Rather I invite you to explore this topic with me and some of the wonderful resources I have found from the experts. Chances are many of you or your children have/continue to struggle with fitting in and excelling in society. With my firsthand experience, I find that these characteristics that define us do not make us lesser, quite the contrary. In many cases, our differences give us wonderful benefits that the people in our lives and work places actually need us to bring to the table.


My first struggle was with being an introvert. A difference that I noticed early on was when my family and I would move homes my brother would miss his friends and I would miss the forests and the quiet nooks I had come to love. I was not shy as a child but I remember countless times when I would crash emotionally after a get together because I had drained all my energy being social. I didn’t know what this was at the time so I would try to push through it usually ending in tears. Even today my brother will invite me to go on a hike, but instead of quality time with him, several other people will join us and I soon find myself socially exhausted long before I feel the wear of the hike. Pop culture reinforces the extrovert love of big parties and constant hanging out and many of the virtues of a “good” person involve being comfortable in crowds like working in teams in school or volunteering at homeless shelters. Am I somehow less human than my brother since I am so antisocial? I have adapted and learned great team-working skills and can put on a mask for going to parties all so I can function in an extroverted world, but I have also found ways of embracing the benefits of being an introvert. Instead of being the life of the party, I will be the one that finds the loner and helps them feel welcome or I will be the one behind the scenes ensuring that everything runs smoothly. If any of this resonates with you or sounds like your child, a wonderful resource for you is “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. She also has a wonderful TED talk called “The Power of Introverts.” Another wonderful resource is StrengthsFinder, a test that helps you discover what wonderful things you bring to this world (also exists for children).


Learning from these experiences, I find that I was/am also very sensitive.  Note that Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) tend to: 1)be easily overwhelmed by strong sensorial stimulation (loud noises etc.) or the effects of chemicals such as caffeine and other drugs; 2)take on the emotions of others; 3)be deeply troubled by violence (even on TV) and 4) often feel paralyzed by time sensitive deadlines. HSPs make up about 1/5th of the world’s population and can be either introverted or extroverted. I believe my family would have benefited greatly from knowing that I was an HSP as I look back on so many occasions where I “over-reacted” to things. Recognizing this now, I can be more attentive to my limits, embrace the fact that being highly sensitive means that I sometimes sense the world in a more subtle way, and I can use my heightened empathy to help others. I have done only a little research on this topic, but have found the following website very helpful: http://hsperson.com/.

Let’s now consider learning “disabilities.” Roughly 20% of our population struggles with dyslexia and it is something that will stay with us throughout our lives. As a child I was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD after my mother realized that I was struggling significantly at school. We discovered that when I read, letters on the page would jump from one word to another so that in addition to struggling to learn to read I was reading something that wasn’t there. 


As for ADHD, I was not physically hyperactive (jumping all over the room), my mind was jumping all around and had trouble focusing. This meant that making a real effort to work through the difficulties of dyslexia was constantly being thrown off by interrupting thoughts.  Reading and writing continued to be a struggle for me well into high school despite countless hours with specialists around the world. Continually being behind in class hurt my self-esteem and I developed a defeated outlook on school for most of elementary school. While I continue to be behind my peers in reading to this day, I have found many coping mechanisms to be able to not only keep up with school but excel. The biggest contributor to helping me move beyond my difference was a high school teacher who told me, “I can see that your brain works differently and in some ways you are distracting the class because of it. While most minds think linearly you are making connections all over the place in ways that other students can’t keep up. I can’t help you figure out how to make your brain work with other brains. You have to figure it out for yourself but I will support you however I can.”  This was a game changing moment. Instead of an adult pretending to understand what was going on my mind he was empowering me to figure out my own strategies and encouraging me to see myself as not “disabled” but different, with different methods of thought to offer.

Dyslexic people tend to have better spatial reasoning for example and while some people might begin to write a paper by creating an outline I found mind maps most useful. Most research will tell you that every case of dyslexia is different and helping children and adults with dyslexia is further thwarted by the high cost of diagnosis. There are, however, some good resources including “The Dyslexic Advantage” by Brock and Fernette Eide and “Delivered from Distraction” by Edward M. Hallowell. Also consider audio books as a wonderful resource! Most of all though, I would encourage you to give the amazing resource of support and empathy that my teacher gave me, regardless of what type of disability you or your child is struggling with.


Finally, growing up in a mixed culture home, or in cultures that are not those of our parents, can also be a struggle. The term Third Culture Kids (TCKs) has been developed to refer to children that have spent a significant part of their developmental years outside of their parents’ culture. I was born to a French father and an American mother in the Netherlands and spent all my childhood moving every three years between Europe and Asia. It is hard not to be different when you are the only blond, blue eyed girl in a sea of Chinese children. Thankfully these days it is less common to be ogled at by passersby but we all know that prejudice is still a strong influencer in children’s lives. Even if you consider yourself and your children American, living in the US you may not be the same kind of American as those around you (African American, Thai American etc.). The truth is that it is nearly impossible to find someone who has the exact same blend of cultures as you. TCKs have to work much harder to develop a sense of identity than those that inherit a clear sense of self. Instead we often feel out of place regardless of whether we are abroad or “home”. According to tckid.com, TCKs tend to have a higher rate of depression and some, like my brother and I, flip flop between yearning to settle down and having an itch to move on. Despite this, TCK teenagers tend to be more mature than their peers and grow up to create more inclusive communities.

As with anything that makes us different, there are disadvantages that we need to recognize and work through and advantages that we should recognize and celebrate. As I said earlier, I am not fond of labels but I have had to accept that these are aspects of who I am and labels help me identify resources that help me maximize those differences. In the end, you and your children will be unique because of the amazing complexities that envelop your lives but you are not unique to the point of having to struggle alone. We can all help support and encourage one another in creating a society where there is not one way of being but many ways. Let’s model for our children a celebration of our differences to dispel any feeling of being lesser or bad. 


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Louise Leborgne, Nature Specialist, has been with Kidspace Children's Museum since 2012. She is in charge of caring for all of our live animals as well as managing the Nature Exchange, developing curriculum for daily educational programs, and large events like Bug Fair and the Grand Butterfly Release.