Monday, April 22, 2013

Two Standard Deviations from the Mean

"More. like. you.than.not!"
-Larry Bissonnette,  "Wretches & Jabberers"

I was in a meeting with my education services officer, academic adviser, and my psychology professor. The ESO started off right away. "We received your test results today." "We want to rework your academic goals for the remainder of your freshman year with us accordingly." All three men were staring at me strangely. I thought this was a very bad sign. 

The counselor mumbled "it's amazing". "What is going on?" I shouted, really disturbed by now. My psych professor said "You've tested over two standard deviations above the mean." "We think you should test out of your general educational requirements and take the 400 level psych courses we're offering next term." They went on to say I could handle an additional 3 semester hours a term with no issues. I expressed concern that I was trying to hold down a job and did not want to risk my scholarship and BASIC (what would later become Pell) Grant with a subsequent poor performance if I could not manage the additional course load. They were more confident about my ability to manage the added coursework than I was. I was approved to take Child Psychology and Animal Behavior, senior level psychology classes, the following semester. 

What I will never forget about that not so positive incident was the three men staring the entire time we spoke. I felt like a zoo exhibit throughout the interview. They stared as if they suddenly realized I was a creature from another solar system. 

I was 18. I learned a new, painful lesson; how people react emotionally when they learn a person is more than two standard deviations above typical intelligence.

Twenty eight years later I sat in a pediatric neurologist's office as he explained our son's comprehensive evaluation results to us in a flat, cold voice. All I could remember were groups of words slapping consciousness painfully:  global developmental delays, profound autism, intellectual disability so severe there was no measurable baseline. He threw out a rough estimate of mental age. I thought to myself, "he's saying my baby is at least two standard deviations below the mean." We were told there was nothing we could do. The future was grim for our son. Over two standard deviations from the mean. Now why was that familiar? In that moment, I couldn't catch the thought thread and reel in why it might be important. 

Mu's father is a brilliant man. The term genius has been used by those who know the minutiae of his creations. Not average. His intelligence has not been formally measured. We had plans for our son. Singapore Math courses, Montessori school, robot building. The day we got that diagnosis, after we stopped crying, we began thinking. Our joint ability to think and think well helped us push past this moment. We held hands and spoke together softly, saying we had to regroup. Now the plan was how our son would be able to manage on his own. The new question was how could someone more than two standard deviations below the intelligence mean command his own life? We approached that question as a series of engineering problems. We have been navigating and recalculating solution arrays on the fly ever since. 

The connecting thread of experience caught me years later after an incident that occurred while I was at the playground with my son. Someone said something awful about him, right to his face. I corrected them. I told them he understood exactly what they said. I did the "what is autism" speech. The child, much older than my son, apologized to me. "No," I said. "Apologize to him". A hesitant apology came. The playground had become an unwelcome place for us again. As I settled my boy in his wheelchair and turned us toward home, the silent, persistent staring followed and I felt that sense of vertigo that sometimes accompanies flashbacks.  

Realization came, and that thread of memory yanked itself to our moment on the playground. I was back in time looking at three men who had met me a lifetime ago, who spoke with relaxed ease to me when exchanging social pleasantries in the school halls. Looking at the way they changed when they held in their hands the knowledge that the same student they conversed with and encouraged was more than two standard deviations from the intelligence mean. And the looks were exactly the same. It was the same type of horrible, distancing stare. Like the child bully and her friends at the playground, staring as if my son could not be like them.

My son and I are equidistant from the mean in measured intelligence. We are both somewhere beyond two standard deviations from that mean. Neither of us is of mean/typical/average intelligence. We are both neurodivergent. That additional odd fact, when linked to all the knotted ties that bind me to our son, makes blaming him for being different impossible. He is not different. Not from the wrong planet. He is very much my son. 

True respect and acceptance means understanding that part of those unique characteristics that make our son diverse are from the same genetic soup that floated together to create us, his parents.