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No, you won’t hear me calling my son ‘disabled’

My son was recently diagnosed with a processing disorder. When I first heard those words, I was furious. But I made peace with it. This is how.

When my son was 4 years old, he sometimes came home from his pre-kindergarten program with a migraine headache. He would lie on the floor in the bathroom in agonizing pain. He’d vomit occasionally. I knew what was happening; I get migraines too. And I knew they were from the stress of school. It was a very traditional, “hard-core” school, and I knew in my heart it was not a good place for him. (Can I tell you how much guilt I felt for enrolling him there? Ugh.)

I took him out of school and enrolled him in a charter home-school program. We spent his whole kindergarten year together. He never got another headache.

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During that year, I learned two things: 1) I’m a terrible home-schooler, and 2) my son has a really, really hard time learning letters. But he was young, and it wasn’t clear if his struggles were rooted in (im)maturity or something else. My husband is dyslexic, so I knew there was a good chance of Rocket (my son) following in the footsteps of his dad.

I also thought maybe it was just because I was a crappy teacher. And believe me, I was a crappy teacher. So much respect for actual elementary school teachers. My Lord.

I enrolled him in a Montessori-based public school for first grade and knew it was a deal-breaker year. He had an amazing teacher. He felt safe, supported and confident. If he didn’t learn in first grade, we were going to do something. I had already held him back one year, so he was almost 6 at the start of first grade.

He progressed a little, but by the end of the year, he still didn’t know all his letters by name, let alone their sounds. None of this was really that alarming. What was alarming was the total plateau. No progress. No development.

Every night, we would work on three sight words, and he would know all of them, consistently. He’d get up to go to the bathroom, and by the time he came back to the table, he would have forgotten all three. It was excruciating for all of us.

One day he came home from school, sat down at the kitchen table, and his head fell into his hands. He cried. “Mama, all the other kids are learning to read, and I can’t.”

“School isn’t working.”

He was at the end of first grade, three months from his 8th birthday, and he didn’t know all his letters. He was losing confidence. I knew it was time to explore what was up.

When I heard her speak the words “processing disorder,” I was simply intrigued. I wanted to know all the details. What does that mean? How is his brain different?

But when the doctor started talking about his “disability” and “special education,” I wanted to punch her in the face and leave the room.

Hold up, lady. That’s my boy you’re talking about. That’s my beautiful, sensitive, intelligent little buddy. The one who builds advanced LEGO projects by glancing at the final product, the one who memorizes directions to places an hour away, telling me he was “born with maps in his brain.”

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He’s the one who does multiplication in his head but can’t tell me how.


Special education?

Nah, you’ve got him confused with somebody else, I’m sure.

When my husband and I talked later, we both cried, not because we loved our son less or were disappointed or anything like that, but because it was as if our complex, smart, infinitely insightful boy had been reduced to some weird diagnosis on a paper: “processing disorder.” Processing disorder, the “problem” that causes dyslexia.

I told my husband what I believe now, with all my heart: There’s nothing wrong with my son. There’s nothing flawed about him. He sees the world in a different way. He perceives letters and numbers and systems and dimensions in a way that’s unique, complicated and wholly incompatible with mainstream education.

And yes, he’ll need help with that. And he will get it.

But you won’t hear me calling my son “disabled.”

Not because I can’t face the truth or because I’m afraid of the word. This has nothing to do with wordsmithing or pride. This has to do with facts: The boy is gifted in design, building, mathematics. He freaking sucks at language arts.

The very thing that makes him “disabled” in language makes him “super-able” in math, so how can we say there’s something wrong? If he is disabled, he is equally gifted.

He needs to learn to read, obviously, and he will. And he will always need special help with that. But I, well… I will always stand in wondrous awe of him, of the way his extraordinary mind works, and rather than see him as something to be “fixed,” I will see him as my greatest teacher, because he sees, quite clearly, that which I do not see and probably never will.

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Which I guess makes me a bit “disabled,” huh?

Or maybe we’re both gifted and disabled, just as we should be, contributing to the world what we have to offer in our years here, singularly, brilliantly, with love and confidence and depth.

That’s my boy. I’m his mama. And I’m desperately proud of him.

This post was originally published on AllParenting. Author Janelle Hanchett is a mother and writer at Renegade Mothering.

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