Giving Up “Normal”

My son has lived most of his life in the space between “normal” and not.

His nonverbal learning disability certainly affects his social and practical skills. You’d know something was up if you were to spend time with him.

But when we considered camps or classes for “kids like Adam” as he grew up, we knew he wouldn’t fit in there either. Adam—in an ironic way—was too high functioning. He had some friends, excelled in school and “passed for normal” when he had to. He also knew enough to be insulted by the mere suggestion of such places.

As scared and worried parents, we found some kind of relief in Adam’s resistance. It meant that maybe his issues weren’t so bad. That maybe they were only visible to us because we were so close to him. So we played along. We never uttered out loud to his younger brother why Adam saw occupational therapists and psychologists.

We got an for Adam early on, but took heart in the fact that he never used his . We even preferred that Adam’s own grandparents consider him rude rather than having to explain that our firstborn wasn’t “right as rain.”

We didn’t even specifically say out loud to Adam that he had a disability. He just had some, well, “challenges.”

When college application season arrived for Adam, we were all euphoric. On paper, Adam’s outstanding grades and well-crafted essays portrayed him as an all-star candidate. No college would even know, we were thrilled to learn, that he had an IEP in high school. For the first time, we felt that the sky might just be the limit for our son.

That was, until Adam crashed. As springtime and the reality of actually leaving home approached, he stopped functioning. Adam lay on the couch for hours on end. The search history on his computer revealed he’d been researching suicide.

We got Adam back into therapy as fast as we could. And this time, we all started talking. We explained to Adam—and his brother—what a nonverbal is and how it had affected Adam socially and emotionally. For both sons, life in our home and the challenges we faced finally started to make sense. And yes, it’s something I wish I’d done sooner.

We also did an about-face on college. Instead of focusing on the “best” school Adam could get into, we focused on helping Adam find the school that was best for him. That meant that in addition to great academics, it had to have an engaged and on-point disabilities office that could provide the support he needed.

We revisited campuses—and this time included the student services office (or whatever name each one used) on our rounds. I’ll admit, it was bittersweet. As we parted ways with the campus crowds and headed for our meetings with various case workers, it was clear my son had not left his challenges behind. He probably never would. But each time I heard Adam introduce himself and explain, “I have a nonverbal learning disability and I think I might need help,” I knew he was finally making peace with who he was.

And so, at long last, were we.

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