Renée Fuller, Ph.D.
Copyright © by Renée Fuller
Four-year old Simon was a lively charmer. He squeaked with delight at every new toy I handed to him, eagerly exploring what could be done with it. He was a pleasure to examine. Since he represented part of the normal control group of a large research project, there was no expectation of pathology: and I certainly didn’t see any.
However, after her son’s examination, Simon’s mother, on entering my office appeared unexpectedly anxious. When I said, “Your son’s a great kid. We both had so much fun.” She answered with, “You found nothing wrong?”
“I was supposed to?” was my quizzical response.
“Well the nursery school says that Simon is out of control because of his attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder. They said he needs medication. And when I spoke about it to my pediatrician, he agreed. Simon did race around the Doctor’s office and made an awful racket.”
I shook my head. “But he didn’t in my office. He had no trouble paying attention to the test toys and following instructions. In fact, for a four-year old his task concentration was remarkable. There definitely was no attention deficit. As for hyperactivity, he’s an energetic youngster with a zest for life. Some youngsters are more laid back. They have other things to contribute. There’s bio-logic to our not all being the same.”
“That’s sort of what my husband says. When he comes home he plays with Simon and the two of them have a great time. He says that Simon is a real go-getter. The sort of person he likes to hire. He says maybe we should hire another pediatrician and another nursery school.”
When several weeks later I again saw Simon’s mother she was beaming. “We found another pediatrician. He’s an old gentleman, but you should see his office. It’s filled with toys. And he was great. He played with Simon and Simon just loved it. He absolutely refused to give Simon any medication. He said that on the contrary, the rest of us could use some of Simon’s energy.”
Already by age four, Simon was the victim of an educational system that demands that all children have a specific set of abilities, personality, energy level, and skills. The children are supposed to fit a preordained mold necessary for school classrooms that emphasize rote learning and sitting still until the bell rings. Nor is this cookie-cutter insistence that everyone fit the “norm” restricted to schools. We make similar “normalcy” demands for children’s sociability, even for their height. And yet it is our different talents, our different personalities, and our different energy levels, which are responsible for our complex and multifaceted society.
Because our brains organize information in different ways we not only learn differently, but we also see the world differently. As a result humans have created an amazing cornucopia of artifacts from machines to music and art, and conceived a diversity of ideas from science to mathematics. Our different personalities and abilities have enriched us with the teacher, the politician, the religious leader, the doctor, the scientist, the musician, the list goes on and on. However, the demands of our educational system and therefore what we teach is frequently at odds and contrary to the encouragement and therefore the blossoming of these different talents and personalities. All too often the requirements of our schools and what they reward has little relation to what is needed and rewarded in the real world.
Several years after I first examined Simon I saw him again. He was now eight and an out-going people person. His mother described what had happened since their last visit. After firing the original pediatrician and finding an understanding new one, they had followed the father’s suggestion and fired the nursery school. Eventually they located a kindergarten associated with a very special elementary school. In this new setting Simon bloomed. His new teachers encouraged him to channel his energy into a budding leadership role, which he took on with charm, zest and an unusual degree of responsibility for someone so young. Third grader Simon had begun to truly fit his father’s description as the kind of go-getter many companies like to hire.
Not every child with Simon’s potential gifts is this lucky. He had understanding parents who were willing to do battle for him; and they had the wherewithal to pay for the expensive private school. How many potential leaders, thinkers, and people persons are we losing because of the straight jacket most schools, even nursery schools, insist that all children must fit into?
Another straight jacket victim of our schools was Marly. Like Simon’s nursery school, Marly’s school had tried to insist that she be placed on Ritalin, even though contrary to Simon, Marly had a reduced energy level. In her case the justification for the Ritalin was her “learning disability.” The soft-spoken eleven-year old was still not reading. The Ritalin was supposed to help her concentrate so she would become proficient in phonemic awareness, blends, diphthongs, etc. and by so doing finally become literate.
When I tested her, again as part of a normal control group, Marly started failing test questions a year below her age level. However, she successfully passed test items all the way through Superior Adult II, thereby going through the ceiling of the test. This precluded an accurate measurement of the full extent of her academic intelligence. Paradoxically, rather than appreciating the child’s outstanding academic intelligence, her school had drawn the conclusion that their testing indicated learning disability. My conclusion was vastly different. The test items that Marly had failed during our session required rote memory; i.e. they were non-contextual nonsense material. The more abstract and therefore difficult the test question, the more the child came into her own; which was the reason she passed items on the Superior Adult II level thereby going through the ceiling of the test. It was the school that had failed, not Marly, by dumbing down what they required she learn. When taught with the contextually oriented phonics reading program Ball-Stick-Bird, which allows for a reduced emphasis on rote learning, she became a proficient reader within weeks.
Marly’s gifts like Simon’s were viewed as indicating a cognitive defect, even a pathology, and therefore had to be treated, had to be changed – presumably for the good of the child? The same happened to Rupert, although this time the concern of the school was not that he had an attention deficit disorder or a learning disability. Instead it was his preference for numbers and his budding fascination for higher mathematics to the exclusion of “appropriate socialization,” i.e. the school’s social programs. The school “experts” were sure that something was very wrong with a child who had only his dog and another math “weirdo” for a friend. Rupert’s parents were contacted, first by his homeroom teacher, then by the principal. Both expressed concern over the child’s poor social development. Fortunately for Rupert, this was before the diagnostic classification referred to as Asperger’s syndrome. So it was much easier for Rupert’s parents to ignore the school’s persistent concern, which they felt had reached the level of “harassment.”
For years now I have heard a variety of similar stories from distraught parents. “The teachers say that the child has ADHD, and that’s why (he/she) doesn’t pay attention in class; the child’s disruptive. The child is learning disabled, dyslexic, has Asperger’s syndrome, just to name of few of the latest would-be diagnoses. But at home (she/he) works for hours on some machine, or on a house (he/she) is building. It’s just that at school… And they say it’s so bad that they have to insist on medication.”
It is not just the energetic youngster and the “learning disabled” youngster who is presumed to need medication. There was Ellie, the opposite of noisy Simon. Even as an infant she almost never cried. When she learned to talk it was with a soft sweet little voice. Ellie’s parents were delighted with their soft-spoken “little angel.” She didn’t even go through the shrieking phase that so many children do. Everything seemed perfect, although in retrospect there was the kindergarten teacher who gave the child’s mother a very strange look when she referred to Ellie as “our little angel.” Several years later when Ellie was in elementary school her mother recollected that look. The school principal told her that Ellie’s records showed that already in kindergarten Ellie had been diagnosed as a severely depressed child. Emphatically they urged that the parents seek psychiatric help so that the child could receive the proper medication. They deemed that Prozac or a similar drug was required.
And yet when I played with Ellie she giggled with delight at our fun games. True, it was a soft giggle, not Simon’s noisy cackle. But must we all laugh in the same way? Is the nature of a giggle an indication of depression? Depressed people don’t giggle with delight when you play fun games with them. They have lost the capacity for laughter. When I spoke to the mother about the charming giggle she said, “Yes, Ellie does giggle a lot. She’s such a happy child; but evidently not in school.” However, Ellie who reads four grades above her grade level, is happy visiting the local public library. The librarians, like the parents, delight in the soft-spoken little girl and show her their latest juvenile acquisitions. Her mother described how “The librarians are so nice to Ellie and they too refer to her as ‘our little angel’ “. Not surprisingly, Ellie wants to become a librarian.
Recently a new pathology has come on the scene. It is lli. The initials stand for language learning impairment, with 10% to 20% of children supposed to be thus afflicted. These are the toddlers who because of “a weakness in their perception of rapid acoustic changes” are presumed to have difficulty in early language acquisition and the subsequent acquisition of phonemic awareness that “experts” deem essential for literacy. The discoverers of this new disorder ignore that some of mankind’s greatest contributors probably had this “defect,” this pathology. The most glaring example of lli would be Albert Einstein. He too had late development of speech and problems with learning to read. Churchill, the eventual master of English prose was another. Both had minds that specialized in abstract, high context ideas and had difficulty with rote learning. I suspect their test results would have had a pattern similar to Marly’s. My take on her test results is that they are indicative of the different ways that different brains organize information; which in turn can lead to different ways of language learning and learning to read.
For the majority of toddlers the paradigm of rapid acoustic perception, which uses these signals to differentiate words, may indeed be how they learn language. But there appears to be an alternative cognitive approach to language learning, one that depends on whole word recognition utilizing context. The initial stage of language acquisition that is dependent primarily on context can be slow; frequently such children have a long mute stage and then quite suddenly talk in sentences. However, the cognitive organization of these toddlers may give them an enhanced understanding of abstract conceptualizations. With respect to the acquisition of literacy, brains with a highly contextual organization frequently fail when given rote instruction. Instead they learn with astonishing rapidity when taught using a contextual approach.
The common characteristic of all these diagnoses of disability and pathology is that they have been made by people who rarely, if ever, have seen the real thing. If you have seen what a real attention deficit disorder looks like you would never diagnose Simon as having this problem. The same goes for the supposedly depressed Ellie, or for the latest pathology, lli – language learning impairment. However, our research demonstrated that even in cases of genuine pathology the reading problems of all of these groups could be overcome by using the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system as an intervention technique. The program was effective even in cases of severe mental retardation.
Nor is the propensity of finding things “wrong” with our children restricted to schools. There is Lynne’s three-year-old granddaughter. First the concern by the pediatrician was that the child was not yet talking by 18 months. Then when by three she was talking up a storm that she was too short. The grandmother kept shaking her head as she said, “All the girls in my family are shorties. And we all married these big guys – over six feet tall. Now that my little grandchild is jabbering away they can’t say that a lack of talking shows there’s something wrong with her. So now it’s that her being a shortie means there’s something wrong with her. They admit they can’t figure out what. Why do they keep picking on the poor kid? Don’t they know that we’re not all alike; that one of the fun things in this world is that we’re different.”
I couldn’t help laughing when Lynne said this and responded with, “Little girls like you appeal to those big guys because they think you’re adorable.” Lynne didn’t even try to be modest, she agreed. Was she thinking that she, as a shortie seventy-year old widow, had been so appealing that an over six-foot widower had just fallen madly in love with her? Perhaps she didn’t want to deprive her shortie granddaughter of similar prospects.
“Besides,” I told her, “Some ethnic groups are real shorties. The longest-lived people in a developed country are also the shortest – Japanese women.” When I was in Japan my 5’4” height had me a good head taller than almost everyone else. The reason for their greater longevity may be that the smaller frame puts less of a demand on the heart. Maybe we humans resemble my Great Danes. The smaller ones have had the greater longevity. Their hearts held out longer. Should greater longevity then be considered pathological; something that should be treated with growth hormone? There are indeed pediatricians who view shortness as pathological, which they treat with growth hormone. Anxious parents who consider shortness as predictive of business failure often seek out such doctors.
In Germany, DER SPIEGEL the magazine that corresponds to our TIME or NEWSWEEK devoted a major portion of a recent issue to what they called the pharma-medical industry. Their various articles dealt with how the perception of ubiquitous pathological disorders, which of course have to be treated with medication, is a grand moneymaker. Besides, the creation of a new disorder also gives name recognition, i.e. importance, to the “expert” who claims to be knowledgeable in its diagnosis and its treatment. According to DER SPIEGEL, the pharma-medical industry, by claiming that most of us have some kind of disorder or pathology, is assured an ever-expanding number of customers and huge profits.
And yet the successful children I have described belie their presumed pathological diagnoses and raise questions about the treatment they were to receive. The history of Rupert tells it all. Eventually, despite his school’s disastrous prognosis, he became a successful math major in college, president of the math club, and was finally free of the persistent nagging by the school that “something is wrong with that child.”
Rupert’s Dad’s angry reaction: “So why did the school make my child so miserable? The only time Rupert was happy was when he was home with his dog and discussing math with that supposed ‘weirdo’ friend. Now that he’s in college he’s happy surrounded by fellow ‘weirdoes.’ And when those ‘weirdoes’ graduate from college they get really good jobs, if they don’t go on to graduate school. The large company I work for is eager to hire these youngsters, and they pay them handsomely. What’s the matter with our schools that they insist that all the children be the same? In the real world we need different talents. Why do our schools create so much unhappiness?” – R.F.