Insight Into a Bright Mind: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Stories of Unique Thinking
Our next blog post explores expert insight on the needs and characteristics of twice-exceptional students and adults. “Twice exceptional” is a term used to describe gifted individuals with one or more disabilities. The term is sometimes used to describe individuals with disabilities who have any high-ability area of strength.
Dear Gifted Education Family Network subscriber,
Thank you for spending the next hour going on a journey with Dr. Nicole Tetreault.
Dr. Nicole Tetreault is an author, neuroscientist, writer, meditation teacher, consultant, and international speaker. She is currently an Associate Dean at Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity and a colleague of Dr. Lin Lim, founding board member of the Gifted Education Family Network. Dr. Tetreault holds a doctorate in biology from Caltech and she has a recently released book, Insight Into a Bright Mind: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Stories of Unique Thinking (2021).
This book brings readers on a journey through Dr. Tetreault’s realization that she is a twice-exceptional individual, the neuroscience of our biology and interactions with our surroundings, giftedness, and characteristics of neurodiversity. One big reveal in her book is that about 20% of students are considered neurodiverse – which means that 1 in every 5 children in the classroom is neurodiverse.
From the Interviewer: Dr. Tetreault and I had a wonderful organic conversation around parenting, education, and her personal experiences as a twice-exceptional individual. As a parent of a twice-exceptional child, having a conversation with Dr. Tetreault provided me – and hopefully you, our viewers – with a window to the inner experiences of a twice-exceptional individual through time. Our conversation begins with the question around labels and ends with Dr. Tetreault sharing her top 5 actionable tips that all families, regardless of economic ability, can implement and begin to use to better nurture our children. I hope that you will be inspired to read her book, watch the other talks Dr. Tetreault has been giving around the country, or visit her webpage. Enjoy! — Yours Truly, Dr. Lin Lim
Edited Video Transcript
Dr. Lim: Welcome, Dr. Nicole Tetreault, my fellow colleague at Bridges Graduate School of Cognitive Diversity in Education. We’re here today to talk about your book, “Insight Into a Bright Mind,” and to share your wisdom — gained through your journey as a twice-exceptional adult — with the Gifted Education Family Network, a Texas nonprofit started by parents to bring information and resources to families. One of our missions is to support gifted [programs] in public education, as that is often the only option for some families.
Your book is full of a wide range of information — from brain science, poetry, letters, personal stories, both yours and other families, to discussions on different neurotypes. It’s been very difficult to select what to talk about with you today. I’m interested in the use of metaphors and language to convey ideas, so this interview is focused around that aspect of your work.
To begin, I would love to hear about your perspective of the use of terms such as neurodiversity, neuro individuality, gifted, talented, intelligence, twice exceptional, and so on. Walk us through your thoughts and feelings about such labels and terms and make a case as to what terms we should use to create a common understanding between families, schools, researchers, and policymakers.
Dr. Tetreault: Well, can I just say I really am delighted to be here with my fellow colleague here today, and all of the work that you do. I think it’s so beautiful that even the mission of your organization is to offer education for families in public schools, because that is only the option for so many.
I think part of the mission of writing this book is an alignment with how we get collective consciousness where we can focus on the work of Dr. Baum and the strength-based education model that really holds true [with our neurology]. And so part of that mission is to think about how can we – not me – collectively rethink the labels that we’ve been identifying ourselves and children with, and how can we shift our awareness, to really shift us into a more positive light, where these kids and adults are able to grow up and experience their true essence.
I think that when you bring up public school education, there’s really a challenge. Teachers are faced with having a classroom full of kids. Especially if you’re in a standard classroom you’re going to have 20% of the kids, that is one in five kids, who’s going to be neurodiverse. When you think about that, and you break it down even more, when you think about the term neurodiversity, what we know in brain science is each of us has our own very unique brain map. So it’s not that that the wiring is a subtype of a subgroup of people – that helps for understanding a broader view, to offer in services and offer types of supports and also really build the strengths – but when you really think about it with science, it’s so much illuminating, even when it comes down to it, that really each of us has a unique way of processing and interpreting the world.
Dr. Lim: People need to be aware when you’re talking about groups in general. It’s still an umbrella term, you know, even for twice exceptional students; there are subtypes, and within subtypes, everyone is still so different. And I think that’s something for people to keep in mind. That what may be true for one person may not work for the other, and I think that speaks to what brain science is showing – an alignment with the general kind of philosophy that we really need to cater [to] and be considerate of individual differences in general, overall, not just for gifted outliers. Perhaps taking that bigger viewpoint might be helpful in terms of framing policies and giving us a big picture of where we should go.
A lot of things start from assumptions. If you have a different assumption, or you buy or choose to buy into a different assumption, then the behaviors could be so different, like what you wrote in your book. You talked about the butterfly effect, how you had experienced it on your own. You know, I believe that was in English writing class.
Could you explain that a little bit? I think it’s important for people to know, little behaviors and small things we could do. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed – like how are we going to change this whole education.
Dr. Tetreault: I think that really when it comes back to – when you’re bringing up the butterfly effect, and when we think about it – is to look at the individual. And I think, to take out any sort of bias, as much as you can take out the cultural biases, take out the biases of gender, take out the biases of gender identification, take out the biases of gifted or not gifted, special ed, and really reframe.
A lot [of] what I talked about in my book prior to that butterfly effect is the experience that I had growing up, really being misunderstood, a female being awkward, being really different than my peers. I was in a school where I was actually the only Caucasian girl. And, you know, having blonde hair was very strange. And at the same time, there was this bias that I couldn’t do math or I couldn’t be certain things.
And so really, elementary school was challenging for me, not due to the fact that people were bad. It was just a misunderstanding of what I brought to the table. The way the butterfly effect happened for me, and the way that I talked about it is – you know that famous experiment, a butterfly flaps its wings a distance away, and you could have a hurricane or tornado happening across the country or across the world. At that moment for me, [with my] being dyslexic, I didn’t read very much. I avoided reading. Reading wasn’t something pleasurable to me, and it wasn’t until I was in high school that I read Maya Angelou’s, “ I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and I read it from start to end, start to end.
It was the first time I fell in love with literature, and it was a viewpoint so different than anything I’ve ever been exposed to. I started – and I had always been a kid who loved writing poetry. I loved words, I loved the sound, and being dyslexic, you know, phonetics is strange. You make up your own spelling. I had this teacher [who] wanted us to write about a very first kind of memory, and mine was a first kiss. I remember I wrote about it, and I had all these details based on what I learned from Maya Angelou’s writing – [to] kind of go into the body to describe it, really in detail. She read it out to the class, and it was the first time ever in my life – and I was in ninth grade – that my work was actually highlighted. There were so many times I was overlooked and overlooked. It had such a profound effect, where I realized, okay, this is something I could do later on maybe. It gave me that sense of hope that maybe I’m actually good at school, where I thought I was such a bad student my whole life.
When a teacher sees the potential, [when] they see that goodness, they see that seed, they help that child plant that seed and teach them that it’s going to grow. It really makes a big difference in their life. It goes back to the strength-based model; this teacher found strength and really supported it.
Dr. Lim: And the strengths could come from not just teachers, but any one person could be that spark for another person. So I think that’s a very powerful and uplifting message – that even when things are dire, and you feel like, “how do we get out of this,” it just takes that one person, right? Your story attests to the butterfly effect, how that one person was put you on this journey, and look where you are now.
So, jumping a little bit, kind of more removed – I really enjoyed your series of personal letters that you put in between each chapter. What was your inspiration to decide to include this after each chapter? You take a break, you’re in a completely different setup – what was your inspiration to do it this way?
Dr. Tetreault: Well, it was an experiment. You know, it’s so interesting. I’m glad you mentioned that, because I actually had a first editor that told me it didn’t work. I had to make the choice that our relationship [wasn’t] going to work because I need[ed] someone to help me find the way that I think is going to work. The book in itself is an experiment that you bring out about language, in the sense that I played with a lot of different forms, with the intention to break what it is to write about science, to break what it is to write about giftedness, to break what it is to include poems and personal narrative. It’s an experiment. A lot of my inspiration came from the work of Lidia Yuknavitch, who wrote “The Chronology of Water,” where she plays with a lot of different forms. She was one of my teachers early on, saying, “as long as you really stick with a form, your reader will trust you.” So, I had to trust that the form I was doing was going to work.
The inspiration for that [form] was originally an exercise that I loved to play with when I teach expressive writing. It is a letter to your future self, called Futureme.org, where you could type in a letter to yourself a year from now, and then see what you said in it. When I started out, I was going to only have one letter at the end and it was just going to be, “today’s your birthday.” My husband actually mentioned, “why don’t you experiment and try to write one per chapter, and see if that would work.” I had a bunch of them, and I was going to mesh them all together, and then I kind of divided them up to match the chapter with the experience. I wanted there to be that conversation of “I see you, you’re not alone.” I think so often individuals feel alone in their experience. I really wanted to offer a place where they could land on the page in an emotional sense, and then dive into the piece about the science. For me, science and poetry are very closely related, almost like spiritual experiences of prayer, where I feel that they have healing intrinsic aspects to them. And so I just wanted to offer those in that form to the reader.
Dr. Lim: I really liked that, because stereotypically, as we’re talking about all the different labels, when people think about science, it is supposed to be dry. When you think of the word “science,” in general, the imagery and the emotions that it brings up for a lot of people are so different from the way you’re doing it in your book. Putting the more lyrical content in between the chapters is not a distraction – it actually pulls everything in more closely. That is how I experienced your book, and I thought it was very interesting. Recently, I’m really interested in the use of language, imagery, and metaphors to convey ideas and to change minds. Your book was really interesting to me from that point of view. A lot of the things you said, for example, tell us a little bit about the “secret side doors.” I love that language – you could have said the same thing using different words. The really interesting part about your book is that it is more relatable. I can imagine what side doors are – secret – it’s something hidden. Explain your secret side door. Viewers who haven’t read your book would love to know.
Dr. Tetreault: When I talk about the secret side doors, it’s these unconventional paths that 2e individuals experience because of their unique biology and physiology, unique processing, and unique experiences. Sometimes behaviors get misunderstood because they are new, novel. The same thing happens when I think about experiences and the side doors that I had to do through [my] education. I didn’t have a standard canonical path. I went to high school, and my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. My grandmother had moved in with us and had cancer. There was a shift where I decided to not go away to college right away, and I went to a junior college, and actually worked in a lab at Caltech. That was my first introduction to this world of the laboratory, testing it out. Then I went on to UC Davis and I really fell in love with neuroscience even more. I didn’t have that standard trajectory because after college I got married, had a baby, and then went to graduate school. I had a one-year-old in graduate school.
When people ask, “how old are your kids” – I have one son, he’s 17 – they think I have a three-year-old or four-year-old. I had [my son] while I was in graduate school. Right when I was applying for graduate school, because I have a visual processing difference and I’m dyslexic, I had to really study and I had to get a tutor to help me with the verbal reasoning on the GRE. I had a six-month-old and I was studying for the GRE, and I applied to graduate school and actually didn’t get in the first time around. I had gotten into UCLA, and my dream was really to go to Caltech, yet at the same time I wanted to study Parkinson’s (UCLA). And I went and I studied Parkinson’s (at UCLA). After doing that for two years, it was a bit heavy because my mom had that same disease, and I decided to transition to autism – and I got into Caltech. It was my dream come true. Spence [my son] was three and on campus with me. It was a really unconventional path. Right after I finished graduate school, my mother passed away three months later. I was in this position where I had a couple of postdocs and I had one specific job that I turned down. I said to myself, I think I’m really meant to write. I think I’m meant to translate, because there was this big gap when my mother was suffering from Parkinson’s and what I knew was going on in a laboratory. I saw – that’s where my heart wanted to go. So, all these years I thought I wanted to study human brain tissue and Parkinson’s, and I transitioned out! What I’m saying about the side doors is that I tried, and did many different things along the way, and it wasn’t really a standard way, how things are done – and it’s funny, because I walked away from academia and now I’m back at Bridges (Graduate School) with you. I thought that part (academia) is over. I’m a writer now, and it’s like – no I’m not. You know, life shifts and it changes and it builds. And so I think it’s just you never know where you’re going to land. With these gifted and 2e kids, there’s so much that they have to offer, and it may not be the way that you know. You may have a kid who wants to go to art school, or wants to go to Harvard, or doesn’t want to go to college and wants to program all day, and they end up heading to Mozilla. I think we create these structures, that you have to go this certain path to be this certain way, and I definitely thought that. I realized I didn’t get to where I was by any standard normal path.
Dr. Lim: So would you say that perhaps the first step on this journey to understand yourself can be self-awareness? How does one go on this journey, because sometimes you wake up, you’re like – whoa what happened – [and] you’ll find yourself somewhere. I think in your case, you bring a unique perspective because you’re telling us your journey as a neuro individual. How did you finally realize you are dyslexic? You talked about your sensitivity to light. If you had the migraines at a younger age, at what point [was] the tipping point? Let us walk with you in your shoes as that person journaling along. I understand that when [you were in college] you found out you were dyslexic, but I think your light sensitivity and migraines you experienced a lot earlier. What was going on at that time, what were you thinking?
Dr. Tetreault: I think there are a couple of things. I was the youngest of five kids, so I was either with a bunch of my siblings or completely alone. And I think that the way that I naturally processed, if things were too bright or too much, is I would retreat, and I would be by myself. I didn’t know that I was naturally self-regulating, if that makes sense. I grew up in a household where there were TVs on in all different rooms and that was just like a nightmare to me, so I would just go to my room and close the door, and have it be really quiet. One thing that my parents gave me was the ability to be autonomous in some ways and figure it out. As a kid, I obviously didn’t understand that other people didn’t experience [sensitivity] the same as I [did]. I thought that this is what everyone else experienced and it’s no big deal. It wasn’t until I was working in the laboratory that I started to notice how dysregulating fluorescent lights were and developed a deep awareness. In my house, I could shut lights off, at school I always sat by a door. I might have tuned out and had been staring out off into space or I was super highly aroused and I would blurt out answers. I think I [went] from one extreme to the other at a very young age, where I would tune out to a point or be totally overstimulated. At the time, no one knew what was going on. There were maybe thirty-five other kids in the class and they wanted us in our rows and to kind of be quiet. At the same time, I think I learned to endure without naming and speaking about it. It’s sort of like when you’re running a marathon, you may be getting a black toe but you may not know it until the end of the race and you pull off your shoe and you’re like, “oh yeah, my toe was banging quite a bit, and I got a black toe.” I was enduring. I do remember as a kid being highly distracted every time a garbage truck came by. The noise was just so loud, sirens were very loud, and I did not think I could just stop the noise. Now I have the awareness and I just cover my ears and I don’t care if it looks a little strange, you know. It’s loud, it hurts.
Dr. Lim: My son is the same way. It’s actually amazing if you think about it – kids are actually naturally very self-regulating. I think the discrepancy comes because we don’t understand what they’re doing or why, and perhaps they don’t either. My son doesn’t do it often, but he seems to be more sensitive to bass sounds. We happened to be somewhere where the bass was loud, and he just covered his ears in a concert, [and] we’re like, “you can’t do that.” Later on, when we had a conversation and took the time to figure out “why” versus “you shouldn’t do that because it’s not appropriate,” we realized looking back [that] he was naturally self-regulating without consciously being aware, and removed himself from the stimulation. I do see the effect when you’re in public school because it’s so loud, so many people. We were in a public school – it’s considered “small” – he was very very dysregulated by the time he got home. He needed a lot of downtime, he could not even speak when he came home. I wanted to do the motherly thing, such as, “hey, how was your day?” and he [couldn’t] even talk for a few hours. He had to go to his room and close the door. Initially, I felt offended and hurt wondering, “why is he doing that?” when I just want[ed] to see how [his] day was. It was much later (years) when we were able to talk about it, he said that he just needed downtime. If I gave him that space, he would – then when he’s ready – come back down and reconnect. But if I pushed it, it actually got worse because I didn’t understand (what was going on). I love your story. Instead of rushing to act, when we see something, perhaps pause, especially when we feel like we need to act immediately (and be reflective versus reactive). I think your parents gave you that grace to let you be, instead of [asking], “why aren’t you with the family.” I think that’s something for parents to think about and consider, instead of reacting to the situation – whether we think it’s right or wrong, appropriate or not, maybe try to find out from the child’s point of view, “why were you doing that?” Sometimes they don’t even know.
Dr. Tetreault: I love that you’re bringing that up about your son, because even really simple things – like we pressure our kids when we’re around family and there is the bigger family. I feel like I can always remember the stories when my son was tiny and I asked him to “do that thing you did” and he said “no, I’m not doing it.” I would pressure him, “but it was so cute, do it!” and my son [said], “no, I’m not doing it” – they have a mind of their own. They’re not our little circus acts. Sometimes we may force our kids, “you need to hug everybody, you need to kiss everybody,” and it may not feel right for them. Even a “simple” thing (hugging) – I’m not into hugging, and sometimes my son was very huggy, and other times he really wanted the space. My son is now 17, and when I hug him, I ask. Sometimes he doesn’t want that affection, so I ask, “can I give you a hug? Can you receive it?” If I’m going there (hugging) and expecting him to take my affection, and if his body’s not in it, that is not going to feel good to either of us. Usually when I say, “can I get a hug or may I give you a hug?” he may want to embrace. Other times, he says, “in a minute, give me a minute.”
Dr. Lim: I think that’s a conversation to have that seems important. We do that (ask for permission) with adults, we generally ask for permission to be close, but we tend to forget that with kids. We just take it for granted that they should accept it. I think what you’re saying is that it is a great idea to just ask so they can be prepared, or assess if their body is ready for that. This communication piece that you brought up – let’s bring it back to your elementary teacher, Mrs. R and the story about coloring all the pages of your phonics book in order to pass the class. What was interesting to me about that particular story was that I wondered if you’d be more willing to comply if she had told you that punctuality, task completion, and following directions were the important things in her class – meaning, that communication piece. It is not about phonics, really – she wanted everybody to learn to listen to instructions. It makes me wonder – if you [had] heard that if she had communicated that with you, would you have felt differently?
Dr. Tetreault: I mean, it’s a really interesting question. I think that when you offer a person what your expectations are, they could either meet your expectation, they could deny your expectation, or they may not understand your expectation. For me, in that case, the expectation wasn’t clear, so I didn’t totally understand her motivation. Had it been readjusted where it was about task completion, showing that I can follow instructions – that I valued the process of coloring rather than it being, “bad kid. You didn’t do this” – maybe it would have been. At the same time, I kind of got from my mom that there are going to be things you’re going to have to do in life, that you may or may not love, and it’s part of the expectation. My mom gave me that piece, whether or not I fully learned it at the time, or still have yet to learn it. Sometimes I still think, “Oh, why are we doing that?”
Dr. Lim: I wonder about that too, just because that’s the case now – why do we have to do all the busy work for? This sort of sounds like a larger philosophical question. It’s almost like all of us have taken for granted that somehow we have to suffer through busy work in order to get the things we really want to do. Can we not think that there could be a better way?
Dr. Tetreault: Why can’t we subtract out the busy work and offer a kid a chance to creatively think? When you think about it from a biology and a brain standpoint, when the brain is doing a repetitive action over and over, there’s less activity because it’s not novel. When you’re allowing a kid or an adult to be in sort of their imagination or creative flow, we know that it’s brimming with activity. So I do wonder and I do think that even when we consider standardized tests and things, what are we actually testing? We’re testing that a child meets a standard for a specific skill. We’re not necessarily testing how bright that child is. A lot of what I talked about with executive functioning in relation to standardized testing, that is a little more in alignment (with that standardized testing is assessing) than a child actually being creative. In standardized testing, you’re also testing whether or not a child could follow directions – you know, that’s another executive function.
Dr. Lim: Or sit for three hours, to fill in the little bubbles or whatever it is now!
Dr. Tetreault: If you are twice-exceptional and you are getting accommodations, then you’re getting six hours, and this kid is missing recess with their peers. Educators in the system have such a challenge to show competence, but I think maybe we could do something a little bit different. I find it really inspiring that for college admissions now, standardized tests are really not the only benchmark, which I think is really important. If people have the money and the resources, they could increase the standardized test scores 200 to 300 points. What does that say about kids who are struggling in low socioeconomic status, where getting food on their tables is their or their parents’ main concern? They are not going to be getting those resources. I definitely don’t have the answer, but I think that there needs to be a collective reboot. I love the way Bridges (Graduate School) is tailoring, where the kids really thrive in their natural strengths, and you see the success. You see them eventually getting into college and you see them find that side door. When they’re going in that path, it is actually not a side door anymore, it’s a front door where they’ve been given the opportunity to flow with their natural abilities.
Dr. Lim: There is this video that we watched in one of [the Bridges Graduate School] classes called “the animal schoolhouse.” All the different animals in the forest had to all take standardized classes like flying, climbing, riding, or something like that. You see the poor duck for example, who might be really good at swimming but can’t run or climb that well. When you watch that video, people understand that (standardized classes) do not make sense. If you think about it, that’s exactly what is going on (in education). For some students, they naturally have certain strength in certain areas, but not all across the board – and you know everyone’s different. That is why the kind of language in visuals and metaphors have been really interesting to me recently. We should do a lot of these writings in a way that links the imagery people understand and the emotions that come with that imagery. That might possibly be an additional way to connect educators, families and researchers to find a common language. It just seems like we are all speaking in a different language. Take translation of neuroscience into application or other realms – the language you’re using is so specific to neuroscience, so we can’t relate to each other to create a common understanding.
When you were younger, you had a large vocabulary, but you couldn’t really spell and you [were] going to get points taken off if you [couldn’t] spell them correctly. You substituted them for an easy word so you [didn’t] lose points. With technology increasingly now being available, at school and at younger ages, what do you envision technology’s role might be regarding the need to spell? With changing technology, how does that impact groups that were disadvantaged before – that may benefit more than certain groups? It’s sort of like the technology piece seems to be one of the butterfly effects thrown in.
Dr. Tetreault: I think it’s incredible, and I think that technology can make such a difference in communication and production. Even for kids that are on the autism spectrum, often they may have challenges with verbal expression but technology can provide a bridge for them to be able to communicate. I think that it’s definitely something that is a positive feature. I don’t know if I wrote this in my book, but my son was highly verbal and he has dysgraphia, and he would get to the test and write, “the book was good,” while all the way driving to school he was telling me for 45 minutes nonstop how the book was great. Of course his name was not on the paper but the teacher knew it was his. The next week we put him onto typing, and he was able to write a paragraph in a flash. I absolutely think it (technology) is a side door, an opening. When I was in college, I had this thing called an AC speller, you still had to hand write for exams.
I would be in my test and one of my accommodations included using the ACE to type in the word, and then it would translate it for me because I couldn’t spell the word, but it actually made quite a difference. Even in my exams in college, I was able to have access to language that I just didn’t readily have the spelling. My dyslexia was really particular, specific to “I” before “E” and double consonants. Having that [technology accommodation] was such a weight off my shoulders. I was able to really focus on the material and the content and focus on my ideas and focus on playing with ideas and playing with language. So, absolutely, I think it’s a foundational bridge for children and adults. Voice to text is another technology bridge as typing may not even be that accessible for some kids. Dictation software can be fabulous and be relieving as well.
Dr. Lim: One of the things that a lot of families struggle with, when they have a diagnosis – what and when do they tell their child? They worry that would have a negative impact on their child. College is another big transition area where families wonder whether they should let the school know about their child. What are your thoughts on that? I’m sure there aren’t any easy answers, but that seems to be something families struggle with. Initially, depending on the age of the child, they’re like – well, when should I tell them – we’re not – that timing between when the parents found out and when the child should know. And then the next big thing is going off to college – should they let the school know ahead of time or not? How does that impact your child? As somebody that has gone through it, can you speak to parents about those worries that they have?
Dr. Tetreault: To be honest, the sooner a child knows, the sooner they become empowered to advocate for themselves. Through nurture and compassion, parents can say, “these are your superpowers. You have such an amazing unique brain, where you’ve got these strengths – and at the same time, we have some areas where [we say], why not get a little support if you’re having a challenge.” If this is going to alleviate any sort of suffering a child would have, I would absolutely advocate for it because of a lot of misunderstandings that happen in the classroom, especially with 2e kids. [It] is what I call the gifted disconnect – where, “you’re so bright, and you do well in these areas, but why do you get a C or D here? What’s wrong with you?” The child can really internalize these messages and can have low self-esteem, struggle with things like perfectionism, imposter syndrome, and mental health considerations. They struggle with anxiety because they may not understand that they think differently and that they need support. So, absolutely. I think communicating to the child, so they can be advocates for themselves – and at the same time I also think that it would even help at the playground and with friends. If you have a child who has a different communication style and ADHD, when they’re with their friends, they can say, “hold on one second. Can you resay that, because my attention shifted and I was watching the bird.” This allows the friends to respond, and pulls away from the stigma – versus in the past, we go off, self regulate or deal with ourselves without fully knowing. This is a piece of a child’s identity. It is not their whole identity, but I think understanding the intricacies within helps them better identify and communicate with others.
Then the second part of your question, in terms of college – 1,000% allow the college to know, because it could make all the difference. You have to remember that these kids can be coming from a classroom of 12. They could go to a small college and be in classrooms of 15, or they could end up at a really big university where they could have 300 people in their classroom and they could get lost in the sea of kids. At the same time, if they’re taking a test and their [normal accommodations] were saved, perhaps they have a note taker or they get books on tape, or audiobooks – and [if] those accommodations aren’t made, it could be a shock to their system, where all of a sudden they could be experiencing challenges. They could be failing out because they’re not having the proper support in place. So, by all means, bring those in. And let parents know [that] when I was identified in college, it made the difference for me – where I was getting, Bs and Cs in classes all the way to getting As. Once I got the support, once I got the ability to figure out that I needed to rewrite my notes a certain way, and did those kinds of things, it made all the difference.
Dr. Lim: Sounds like parents have to balance between short term worries that if they disclose certain things during the application, their child may not get into the college versus the long term success of their child after they get into college. What might happen when they are not getting the accommodations they need after they have gotten into college? Considerations between short term and long term goals can perhaps help individual families handle their individual situations.
Dr. Tetreault: If the child is applying to a school where accommodations are not a part of the built-in process, it may not be the right school for the child. It may be the child’s dream school, but it may not offer the right kind of support the child needs.
Dr. Lim: This means in the long run, they may not be successful. When you look at the long run, families can minimize heartaches and unnecessary detours along the way.
Dr. Tetreault: You want a child to land in a place where they’re gonna thrive, not where they’re struggling to survive, and to recognize that they may have challenges along the way. Just because you put all these things in place, it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to have difficulty. Parents can teach them ways to have self-compassion for their way of processing and compassion for their experience. It is really important to also know they’re not alone. One in five are neurodiverse.
Dr. Lim: You might think you’re the only one out there, but it really isn’t the case. You also talked about educators and teachers as guides. That’s very different imagery. That’s a great way, if people buy into that – it leads to very different types of teaching and ways of teaching. Can you talk a little bit about that? You talk about teaching in a very kind of dynamic way versus the way people traditionally think about teaching – such as, I have this method I went to school and learned, and this is how I’m going to teach it.
Dr. Tetreault: There is a lot of pressure on teachers. The biggest gift a teacher [gives to] a child and a family is to help them identify their magic – to say, “you brought this into the class today. That’s you. That’s your essence.” A teacher can help guide that child through their strengths. I think teaching is a dynamic process, and I think any educator would tell you that it’s a synergistic relationship. The student also teaches the teacher how to think about things, how to grow. Sometimes that student is going to ask a teacher a question that they don’t know the answer to. For example, in my own experience, when I lecture and give talks, often when people ask me questions and I don’t fully know the answer, it informs me that this is an area that we need to investigate together, and it really ends up being a point of interest and spark for me as I hadn’t thought about it this way. When a teacher comes to it in [that] sense – like, we’re in this together, as a guide – there’s sort of humility, rather than, “I’m going to teach you X, Y, and Z, and you’re going to spit it back out.” It’s a much more dynamic and synergistic relationship.
Dr. Lim: It sounds like it’s a collaboration – you’re on this journey together. In your writings, there is a lot of imagery about journeying together, or to be in somebody’s shoes to accompany that person. Last but not least, for families that have to stay in public school and they have no other choice, please pick the top five things that would be very useful for families with limited resources, so they could just run with it.
Dr. Tetreault: For families that are in the public school system, the first thing is to find a space of communication and open dialogue with the teacher and the child and the family. So often in the education system, parents and educators are “otherized.” The teacher thinks, “this kid is a pain in my rear end,” and the parent thinks, “my child is not,” and they’re not seeing that the child is suffering – and at the same time, the child is causing suffering for the teacher. I think first and foremost, [prioritize] working to nurture the relationships with the teacher and the community.
The second thing is to find what the child loves and help guide the child to do the things that they love. The more that they’re doing the things that they love, they’re in flow. They get the positive reward, they get that dopamine, and they get that motivation. Another thing is that they get those social connections from engaging in the thing they love. A child may love robotics, and they may have a 16-year-old in the group, and the child is maybe 10. That 16-year-old and 10-year-old could really get along happily because they’re talking about robotics or Legos, or, you know, anatomy of horses, if they like animals – to diversify.
The third thing is for parents to step back about their expectations for their child. The parent is the guide for the child just as the child is the guide for the parent. Our job as parents is to help the child see what they have to give to the world, not what we expect them to do.
The fourth thing is to identify the source of the differences in their learning. We often talk about these bad behaviors the children experience. If we can identify the origin of where that behavior is coming from, it is most often from fear, anxiety, or a pattern of suffering. If we could tend and nurture that suffering, we can help the child move through that rather than continually adding fuel to the fire.
The final thing is to really spend time with your kids without electronics. Go outside, be in nature. Parks are free, greenery is free. We know [that] nature naturally calms the nervous system, and it could be really healing for some of these children who have high levels of overstimulation. Just being in nature can be such a healing force, it brings out that spaciousness.
Dr. Lim: Thank you for sharing that! I wanted to just share a personal story about the last part about spending time in nature. My son has pretty severe dysgraphia, [and] he also has dyspraxia, which is not knowing where he is in space. One time we were near the Gardens of the Gods [in Colorado], and we were there for a camp with other families. [We were] at this place for two hours, it was all just nature, no reception – and he started writing spontaneously! He is the child that speaks with great creativity, he could tell you wonderful stories verbally, nothing is ever written. He just started spontaneously to write, there was no reason or rhyme to write, and he was never a writer as far as I could tell. He started spontaneously writing, and it was about two pages. He used a pen, [and] it was legible, which was shocking! I asked him “why did you do that? I was really curious. He said, “I just felt like it!” There is nothing scientific about it, but sometimes you wonder, and he has asked about going back there. That is the only place we’ve been to that he has enjoyed that he kept asking to go back, which makes me wonder what maybe interacting with him there was like, as he was like a different person. In that moment, when you’re there to witness that sight, when you see how different your child is under different circumstances, it really opens your eyes. I wonder what was going on there for my son to be like that. How can I find and replicate that where I’m seeing that side of him? What you said reminded me of this story.
Thank you very much, Dr. Tetreault. We had a wonderful, honest, heart-to-heart conversation about humanity, parenting, and what it means to grow up as a neurodiverse individual. Hope you all enjoy this recording – and here’s her book right here. Our conversation today centered on human beings, while Dr. Tetreault’s book goes into more detail on the neuroscience of things. Her book is full of tips and insights for various neuro-diverse brain wiring, and we recommend it for parents of twice-exceptional students.
About the interviewer: Dr. Lin Lim is an Associate Dean at Bridges Graduate school of Cognitive Diversity in Education (BGS). She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Boston University, an Academic Graduate Certificate in twice-exceptional education (BGS), and an Academic Graduate Certificate in Mind, Brain and Education from Johns Hopkins University Graduate School of Education. Dr. Lim is a founding board member of the Gifted Education Family Network and a member of the SENG board of directors.
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