No friends for kids with learning differences?

It’s been a long week. A boy at my 10-year-old son’s school has been calling him “stupid,” “dummy,” and “idiot.” This would not be nice for any kid, but for my son these words hurt deeply. As I mentioned in my second post on this blog, Jacob is severely dyslexic. “Stupid” is a label he lives with every day.

I hesitate to use the word dyslexic because most people do not have a clue what dyslexia is. I know I didn’t until five years ago when at the end of Jacob’s first grade his tutor told me she thought he was dyslexic. I thought being dyslexic meant reversing letters like “b” for “d” – which is what happens for some dyslexics.  But really, people who have dyslexia experience far more diverse challenges than reversal of letters.

According to the International Dyslexia Association:

Dyslexia is a neurologically-based, often familial, disorder which interferes with the acquisition and processing of language. Varying in degrees of severity, it is manifested by difficulties in receptive and expressive language, including phonological processing, in reading, writing, spelling, handwriting, and sometimes in arithmetic.

While I think this is a good definition, I’m challenged every day to explain and understand Jacob’s neuro-diversity. I can tell someone he can’t fluently read and write, but they don’t usually get it until I explain that at a restaurant while his third grade brother is ordering off the menu Jacob is often  holding his menu nervously hoping to recognize a few key words that would help him order. At age five this was not a big deal. At age ten it’s a social disaster.

So we put him in a special school, a very expensive special school, a magical school where he now comes home at night and tells us how much he likes “Hamlet” and how Shakespeare is rocking his world. But still, dyslexia challenges him. And this week(well, really month)  it’s in the social realm.

While I was very upset to know a kid at school was calling him names, and this is unacceptable, I also have had to face that Jacob has problems socially. His auditory processing issues (another symptom experienced by some dyslexics) makes it very hard for him to quickly hear words correctly and react appropriately. For anyone who has a middle school child you know that their social life is fast-paced and a good memory is key, something that is challenging for some dyslexics (and definitely Jacob).

“Are you going to the basketball game tonight? What color are we wearing and where do we meet and what time?”

“When are your parents picking you up and where? What color is their van and how many kids can come?”

“Let’s play knights of the round table and you are the blue knights, I’m the red knights, those two boys over there are the green knights…”

“What’s your address? Phone number?”

These are disaster scenarios for a dyslexic like Jacob.

So what to do? This weekend I attended a conference near my home called “Diamonds in the Rough: Smart Kids Who Learn Differently.” The national conference included many national educators working with kids like Jacob.

Here’s the good news about what I learned: that I know more about my child than anyone else.

Here’s the not-so-good news: that 50-70% of kids with moderate to severe learning differences (and often ADHD) never have one good friend in life.

That’s when I started to cry. It’s not fair. And yet, deep down I knew despite all the emphasis at his age on learning I’ve never been concerned about his learning. I’m concerned about friendship, community, and connection. I’m concerned that his younger brother gets invited to lots of birthday parties and Jacob doesn’t. That if his brother had someone call him “stupid” he knows what to do and it blows over, but Jacob does not know what to do and simply starts to scream.

I’m concerned that right now Jacob does not feel any kid in his class likes him.

Whether this is truth or fiction doesn’t really matter because it’s his perceived reality.

So I guess my question is: how do we support kids like Jacob to have meaningful friendships when the odds are stacked against them?

Sunday night I did a yoga nidra group session with Jacob, his brother and his father. And when I asked them to identify an emotion in their bodies after the session Jacob said his emotion was “nothingness.”

My heart sank. What mother wants to hear her child say they feel “nothingness” in their body?

I know some of you will say home schooling or unschooling is the answer and don’t think I haven’t considered this and am still considering it despite my personality and Jacob’s not being an easy marriage  (he’s up at 6am and wants a schedule from the moment he wakes up). But I keep wondering will this solve my main concern, his social future?

One day, I think it will because we could focus on his strengths and forget the things he doesn’t do well and maybe this will enhance his people skills. On other days I think of his love of school, his excitement learning Shakespeare and hope and pray the social piece falls into place.

I’ve never been a big fan of traditional learning. But I do know friendship is key.

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on Thursday, March 18th, 2010 at 4:36 pm and is filed under General.
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3 thoughts on “No friends for kids with learning differences?”

  1. Thank you for your post. It’s a wonderful reminder to all parents the importance of teaching our children about what makes us all different yet still the same, but always loveable. I am happy you seem to have found a ‘magical’ school where your son feels welcomed and inspired to learn. If only the world was as gentle and open to all children. Sending positive thoughts your way!

  2. Although my situation isn’t precisely the same (my son had to enter a school where he didn’t speak the language), I think what worked for us might help you as well.

    I’d start scouting the families with kids in his class and find a family that is receptive to facilitating a friendship between the kids. Kids that are cold/cruel in school can be wonderful in a one-on-one playdate, kind, open and receptive to differences. Usually these are the kids who have parents you could see yourself becoming friends with… And once one ally is formed, he should find the groups at school more receptive to him.

  3. You may want to consider workboxes as a way to homeschool. It would give him his agenda for the day, from the moment he wakes up, without you having to be ‘right there’ You may find that it works for you…

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