Thursday, May 24, 2007

Widespread Misunderstanding

Maybe I'm just unusual this way, but when I'm traveling (especially when I'm traveling alone and have no one else I know to distract me) I have a tendency to listen in to other people's conversations around me. I don't go out of my way to do so, and I never stop what I'm doing long enough to stare or otherwise identify my auditory voyeurism, but I do find it fascinating to hear what others around me have to say.

Last week while I was visiting Monticello I had to opportunity to hear snippets of many conversations. There were numerous groups of school-age students meandering about, with their shrieking and babbling tendencies. There are three features of these groups that intrigue me: (1) the students themselves, (2) the adult caretakers, whether teachers, staff or parent volunteers, and (3) the onlookers, not associated with the group, but drawn by observation.

As I sat waiting outside the gift shop beneath Monticello's imposing presence, I watched a group of seven 5th grade boys interacting together. What I witnessed should not have been surprising to me since we have raised a number of fifth grade boys over the years ourselves. There were the requisite pushing and elbowing interactions aided with the obnoxious gestures and pseudo-threatening phrases of approaching adolescence. In the small group there was, of course, the standard fifth grade prepubertal boy chomping on a huge, gift-store-size sucker, at 9:00 AM, much to the derision of several of his comrades. The energy, emotional and physical, I witnessed made me breathe a silent prayer of thanks to God that I was visiting Monticello alone.

Then there were the already beleaguered responsible adults, standing nearby, craning their necks for the minute-by-minute "count" to make sure their charges were safely present. Some were dressed casually for a day with the kids, while others looked a little more professional (perhaps these were the teachers), but all wore the sublimated grimace of adults who were counting the minutes until they could board the buses back home to be released from their obligation of the day.

In particular, and this is the overheard conversation that most stands out to me from that scene, were a couple of casually dressed, pre-retirement individuals. Stereotypically they appeared to my eyes to be blue collar workers, skilled but not academically trained, fairly black and white in their judgments of life and naive about the issues that face special needs children. Here is the brief conversation I picked up while awaiting the next tour:

Female: Doesn't he [a particularly "busy" child in question] remind you of Brandon?
Male: Huh?
Female: You know, how he could never quite settle down and focus?
Male: Oh, yeah.
Female: Yeah, I think they call that bipolar or something now.
Male: Ummm?
Female: You know, where they just spin and spin and can't never settle down?
Male: Yeah.

The interchange interested me because of the "typical" interchange between the male and female conversational partners, in which the female offered her observations and the male placidly responds. I also found it intriguing because the behavior she witnessed in a student she did not know reminded her of someone she did know; as a result she felt from her initial observation that she understood what the unknown child's issues really were, when in fact, it is unlikely she did. And, of course, the most glaring misunderstanding in her confusing what sounds like ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) with Bipolar disorder. While the two may have some similarities, they are not the same thing at all.

It reminded me of how often those of us with special needs children are subject to a similar misunderstanding. The casual observer really does not understand, nor can fully appreciate, what life is life with or for those who have mental health issues. And those of us who do understand as a result of personal experience need to be patient, although not necessarily silent, in the face of widespread misunderstanding.

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