Children who are Different

9-year old James says homework’s too hard. However, his teachers say that he’s very intelligent, so how can it be too hard? James picks through his food and takes longer than others. He seems “hyped up”, unable to settle down, and it’s late before he finishes his evening routines and goes to sleep. His parents worry that “he’s not achieving his potential”, “he doesn’t have many friends, or can’t maintain his friendships”, “he just doesn’t listen”, and there are arguments and temper outbursts.

James has always been a bit sensitive – hates loud noises, complains about the labels in his clothes, and is a “picky” eater. He has always found it difficult to settle to a task (unless it’s something on the computer, Playstation, or TV), been a bit distractible, and found it hard to wait for things. While he loves to play soccer and tennis, his handwriting is messy and he was a bit slow learning how to manage shoelaces. While he has very strong language skills, he finds maths hard, or battles to organise his thoughts to write stories.

This profile of strengths and difficulties is associated with a brain that is “wired” a bit differently from the usual. Children with this kind of profile may have social problems and they worry about a range of things, or worry about one particular thing. Those with strong language skills ask questions about their worries, or “talk themselves through” their activities. They have difficulties with the give and take of relationships. They can be “in your face” at times, or seem unaware of other peoples’ feelings. One of the really confusing aspects of their behavior is that it can vary from day to day – one day they can do everything they’re asked to do and the next day they can’t. Their strong oral language can lead parents and teachers to have expectations that are unrealistic. Just because a child has a highly developed vocabulary, doesn’t mean that he can write a well-structured story within a particular time-frame.

Sensory sensitivities may be most problematic during early childhood when feeding, washing hair or cutting nails becomes a battleground; inattention and distractibility may become more noticeable when a child is put into a structured teaching environment; specific learning difficulties may become more obvious in middle to late childhood as academic demands increase; motor planning and sequencing problems become more evident as children are expected to become more independent in their self-care. Anxiety may be a longstanding feature, with worry about upcoming events or changes in familiar routines. Social difficulties may appear at preschool with some boisterous or aggressive behavior, or withdrawn or solitary play.

A first step is to find out how the child’s brain works. An assessment of the child’s intellectual functioning can tease out the ways that his brain processes information, and an assessment by an occupational therapist can clarify how the child’s brain makes sense of sensory information from the eyes, ears, and skin. The psychologist helps to make sense of these assessments and gives practical recommendations making life easier for the child and his family. Parents might need to stop making assumptions about why the child is not completing homework; doing chores; having a tantrum when asked to put away their toys, or being whiney. While being oppositional may explain some of the behaviors, it’s also possible that tiredness or difficulties with remembering and carrying out directions is involved.

Unusual children can have above average intelligence, and may even be described as “gifted”. However, that does not mean to say that all of their abilities are at the same level. Difficulties with visual tracking (following a line of text across a page); problems with attention or organisation; and struggles with planning and sequencing information or activities can have a significant effect on children’s all-round behavior. Differences in abilities can result in frustration for everyone – particularly the child. Self confidence and the feeling that they are capable individuals can suffer as a result of these differences, and sometimes children become reluctant to try things out for fear of failure. Undetected, these difficulties may contribute to negative outcomes in adolescence, such as school failure, mood and anxiety problems, and poor peer relationships. If parents are puzzled by their child’s inconsistent abilities or contradictory behavior, observing what makes it harder or easier will provide clues as to how the child works in the world.


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