Health for Kids

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
Health for Kids

Health Information for Kids

          You and Your Quirky Kid

The girl who wears her clothes inside out, the boy who loves plumbing. What parents and experts say about the children who just don't fit in...

 

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      At a  recent pre-school musical, my son was to stand single file onstage with 13 classmates and perform " Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing " while flapping the wings of his bright yellow canary suit. As the other kids sang.    Fidgeted or stood there, stunned by the audience, he broke ranks and began marching to his own tune.  He spun, then, stomped, then shimmied his way out of line as it responding to several different styles of music no one else could hear.    Seemingly unfazed by the crowd of parents seated before him, he wandered about the stage, shouting his own improvisation lyrics ( something about babies  and broccoli ), which were picked up by a nearby mike and broadcast throughout the auditorium.  As the other parents laughed.   I vacillated between feelings of pride ( my son's such and individual ) and fear ( why is he so different ?).      

 Because, even at 4, it's clear my son is different.  On the playground, he's bonded far more with one particular tricycle than with any classmate, and during circle time he's the only child who consistently wanders off to inspect the pipes under the sink or play with the push broom.  His unconventional  behavior may not sound like a big deal- and it wasn't, until some well-meaning educators noticed my son's quirks and asked if he'd ever been diagnosed.

 But just how do you determine the difference between  a nonconformist kid and a child with more serious issues that may need to be addressed?.  Previous generations of parents could embrace, or overlook, their child's tics, quirks or eccentric personalities much more freely than the moms and dads of today.   If their daughter was reading " Moby - Dick " by first grade, she was gifted. If their toddler wasn't talking by 2,he'd likely catch up by kindergarten.    Even pediatricians were far less versed in things like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder  (HDHD ) and the autism spectrum disorders, which didn't start showing up on their radar screens until the 80's and early 90's.   But today we know so much more about how the brain functions, what causes some unusual behavior and how a child can really benefit from early intervention, that we're obligated as " good parents " to have our children's peculiarities evaluated.   ( Of course, there is mistaking the more severe forms of autism for quirkiness. ).    It can mean running a toddler though a bevy of experts-pediatric neurologists, speech  pathologists, behavioral psychologists, socialization experts - before he's out of training pants.   More and more, kid who once would have been considered slightly out of step with their peers are emerging with diagnoses of sensory integration dysfunction, dyspraxia and pervasive developmental disorder, to name a few.    In past decades, autism was thought to occur in about one child in 2,000.   Today, the U.S. Centers for disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 150 kids has an autism spectrum disorder.  And just last week, a new study found that the number of kids in the United States younger than 20 receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder  had soared from about 18,000 in 1994 to an estimated 800.000 in 2003.

So what do we do about the eighth grader who alienates peers with his obsessive talk of baroque architecture, or the 6-year-old    who'd rather spend recess talking to the hamster than playing dress-up with her classmates?.  Is is possible we shouldn't do anything?  " Of course it is a source of deep sorrow when it is obvious that a youngster can never lead 'a normal life' because of special needs ," says Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child and adolescent psychiatrist whose books include " Raising Kids With Character. "   "  All the same, there is something amiss when every mother is susceptible to fears whether or not this week's fashionable diagnosis applies to her child.     There is something unexamined in our thinking when we elevate the need for normalcy to a state of spiritual grace, and live under a constant anxiety that we fail to measure up to its demands. "

If we examine ourselves and those  around us-the husband who shuns picnics because he can't stand the texture of grass, the co-working who can't get along without those billion organic remedies on her desk-we have to admit that everyone, to some extent, is odd.    The terms  " normal " and " abnormal " are subjective words whose interpretations can be as varied as the people who speak them.  So when we worry about our kids' strange behavior, is it because they deviate from our own expectations of what life should be like for a " well-adjusted " 5-,7-or 12- year-old, or is it because that little person in front of us seems to be struggling way more than she should?.    " Parents need to ask themselves. Is this making him unhappy or just making me unhappy?" says Dr Perri Klass, pediatrician  and coauthor of " Quirky Kids : Understanding and Helping You Child Who Doesn't Fit In - When to worry and When Not to Worry."    " Is he having a perfectly good time in school, but he's not interested in the things the other kids are interested in?. Or is he desperately trying to be part of something but doesn't seem to understand how? I'm not talking about a child who's a developmental emergency,  I'm talking about the kid who's different."

According to Klass and her coauthor,  Dr. Eileen Costello, skewed development, temperamental extremes and social complications are the hallmarks of so-called quirky kids.  They define this enigmatic and varied group in their book as children with developmental variations : kids who don't  talk on time or, alternately, " talk constantly but never seem to get their point across " : kids who have rigid routines or throw " nuclear tantrums " : toddlers who keep to themselves "while the rest of the playgroup lives up to it name." 

Children who fall into these (and other ) categories include Sam,6, who confuses peers with his garbled verbal  skills, but makes them laugh when be covers with silly voices and impressions : Parker,13, whose daily Reports cover to cover, twice, and jaden,7 who prefers chatting with his Matchbox cars over talking to classmates.  Two of these kids are diagnosed with high functioning disorders, one is not.  But all are at the center of a complicated debate among parents, educators and experts they includes arguments for and against getting a diagnosis (do labels help or stigmatize?)  and lengthy discussions of the pros and cons of mainstreaming  ( should we keep quirky kid in "normal" schools, where they challenger themselves and those around them to think differently, or put them in " special " schools?).

A diagnosis can be a godsend, especially for families struggling to help a child who is clearly unable to function.  It can give them some concrete answers, and offer resources where once there were none.  But fot a high functioning child who may seem more enigmatic than disabled, the process and outcome is often frustratingly subjective. "We've been told Markus has everything from autism to ADD to a blanket sensory disorder with such a long name, I can't even remember it," say  Tara, the mother of a 7-year-old whose " stupid/smart" behavior has mystified his parent.  " We get different answers depending on the specialist, and none of them seem to really fit.  It makes you wonder how much of this is really founded and how much is just guesswork."

Klass argues that even though none of these diagnoses carries with them a recipe-i,e, take this pill  and you're cured-they do  " allow parents to access a certain amount of collective experience that may improve their child's strengths and help them work on areas that are weaker."   Diagnoses also offer older kids who know they're different a set of clues as to why, and can essentially give those who never fit in a sense of belonging.  But Mary-Dean Barringer, of the nonprofit learning institute All Kinds of Minds, says we put too much emphasis on the labels that others assign to our kids. " We're absolutely appalled by this diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, " says Barringer. ( Asperger's is a high-functioning form of autism, marked by obsessive interests and impaired social interaction. )" These are very highly specialized minds, and to put a syndrome on it and treat it as an aberration does damage to kids and families.

 

  By  Lorraine Ali

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