Unpacking “Rigid Thinking” in Twice-Exceptional Children – more musings by a mother and a therapist.
Teresa Currivan, LMFT
There are those who are gifted at bridging the divide between the complex, deep thinkers and any one of us. By any one of us, it’s all of us on any given topic that we do not yet understand the complexity of. We are either doing a deep dive in another industry or subject area and don’t have the interest or ability to go deep on another.
Many of the parents who I work with have jobs where they are the bridge at their jobs. That is, their job consists of explaining a complex topic from one specialty to another. The people who are the bridges – who can clearly explain complex information in a way that is easy to understand are rare. This is a rare skill set. Most companies will recognize this and these employees are valued, while others don’t understand the need for such a bridge.
One family member of mine is a self-confessed “data nerd.” She loves getting deep into data, and the programming that goes along with it. She works for a large company whose specialty is not data, but who has decided that using it in their industry is helpful, and they have hopes in using it more and more. My family member is also socially gifted. She can feel the elephant in the room when no one else can, brings happiness wherever she goes and is very gracious and considerate in an intelligent way when she has to deliver bad news to anyone. She is young still, but already those above her understand that having her in a meeting where there are discussions between the data people and the industry people (which is all of them,) is very helpful to have her there. She has the innate ability to go deep into the data and the task of forming the data, pull out the information that those who are not data nerds need to understand, and explain it in a clear, concise manner. The data nerds are impressed. The industry nerds who want what they want are impressed. She just saved them hours of time and misunderstandings.
These people are worth a lot when a company understands their skillset. Think Neil deGrasse Tyson. I believe he is also a bridge. He’s a nerd who understands complex topics and who also understands how much a typical person who wants to understand a bit, is able to. He can go deep into the information, pull out the necessary bits, put it into interesting formats (visuals and all,) make some jokes, and we are all meeting him there on the bridge between human and science nerd. And he’s inspired us to want to know more. There are many others…. Yo-Yo Ma I think is also good at this.
So what happens to a young child, say a four-year-old, who understands big complex ideas but can not yet figure out how to sort out the necessary pieces in order to help us help them to learn more?
Neurodiversity by definition means that they think differently. So if a child is, say, picturing math in their head and can come up with the answer, but is not able to explain how they got the answer, how do we teach them? If a two-year-old who has memorized the table of elements, knows all of the planets and says that there exists another planetary system we have not yet heard of, how do we join them where they are at?
So I want to address the idea of Child-Led Learning. When I talk about child-led, unschooling, or project-based learning, I am not (and most of us are not) talking about leaving a child completely on their own. They need to have agency, but they also need exposure, and from time to time, at least, someone who is able to meet them where they are at, at least in part.
And this, I believe, can be the hard part. Because it involves the skill set of describing what is in one’s brain.
I believe many of the children who I work with will someday be the bridge of understanding. At least, I see the potential. But either way, for those who have a difficult time explaining where they are at, how do we help them to continue to learn given this challenge? These are usually the kids who get a label (not inaccurate) of “rigid thinking.” What I see from behind their eyes is often not rigidity, (although it can appear so from the outside,) but a complex system of learning, understanding, asking further questions, and back to understanding again. The idea of trying to explain the process at any given point in this loop is in and of itself a skillset, and they are being asked to do so when they are trying to manage the complicated and sometimes overwhelming process of navigating what is in their own mind. But they need help. And this is the conundrum.
For many twice-exceptional children, depending on the child and the degree of exceptionalities, this can impact friendships, relationships with teachers, siblings, friends, and even dinnertime dynamics and meltdowns. They can feel very judged and isolated.
I think a good place to begin to help the “rigid” child is to understand that there might be more going on behind the scenes than we are able to understand. Back up without judgment and let them show us in their own way and on their terms. But don’t back up so far off they are left completely alone.
©Teresa Currivan 2022
Teresa Currivan, LMFT is a school therapist for the San Francisco Unified School District, specializing in neurodiversity. She has a private practice supporting parents of twice-exceptional and neurodivergent children and is the mother of a 2e child. Teresa developed the Currivan Protocol™ Qualitative Assessment tool to assess neurodivergent children who struggle in school. She is implementing the tool for use in private and public school settings. Teresa is the author of the book, My Differently Tuned-In Child: The Right Place for Strength-Based Solutions, available at Amazon.com, as well as co-author of other books and articles on twice-exceptional and neurodiversity. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
You can contact Teresa here: Contact