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It’s Not an Excuse, It’s a Reason: A 2e Teen’s Story

Updated: May 11, 2022

Twice-exceptional students have few forums to express their lived educational experiences. REEL is pleased to launch “Living and Learning 2e,” a new blog series dedicated to giving twice exceptional children, teens, and young adults a place to share their voices.

Serena C. is our fifth guest blogger. In her own words: “contrary to the meaning of my name, I am actually anything but serene.” During her elementary and middle school years, she attended her local public schools in Cupertino, and now is a senior at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, California. She was diagnosed with ADHD while in high school, after self-advocating for her need to be assessed. Serena founded NeurodiverCity with a vision to eliminate misconceptions, reduce stigma, establish a supportive community of neurodiverse individuals, and embrace neurodiversity—learn more about NeurodiverCity in Serena’s own words below! Aside from advocacy, Serena is “an avid fan of the bassoon countermelody in I See The Light from Tangled, creating atrocious emoji combinations, and obsessing over the size of both uncooked and cooked manicotti pasta.” She plays trumpet in the Golden State Youth Orchestra and enjoys running, Photoshopping pictures of her cat onto Snoopy comics, coming up with bad puns, and shuffling her Spotify playlist. She finds this to be an apt representation of her mind and shares that “I wish I could run as fast as my thoughts do, but for now, I’ll just have to settle for pushing the 6 skips/hour limit on Spotify to compensate.”

Hummingbirds and Whales: What It’s Like to Be 2e

Waking up and thinking, wow, I have so many things I could contribute, then actually trying to contribute but not knowing how.

The best way for me to describe it is probably with an analogy of hummingbirds and whales. If hummingbirds are supposed to hum and blue whales are supposed to wail, then I am neither a hummingbird nor a blue whale, but I can be the hummingbird that wails and the blue whale that hums. Essentially, my hyperfocuses and passions are what tie my two “disparities” together as the mediator between the conflicting aspects of myself.

Yet, these intense passions and interests were also what shadowed the struggling side of myself from the outside world. In elementary and middle school, I was recommended for psychoeducational assessments multiple times based on my eccentric behavior—which my parents also denied, multiple times, because of my extensive interests and their hesitancy to label me. No, I did not fit into the “normal” success or behavioral archetype, but in their eyes, an evaluation would only further detract from what I had already lacked.

Part of growing up 2e has also been that I don’t always understand how to communicate myself adequately. For example, when I was younger, I realized that learning in general didn’t really work for me. Instead of telling anyone, though, I made up my own strategies to achieve the desired results so that I wouldn’t get in trouble (spoiler alert: I still did). Many of these fabricated methods were completely unconventional, but they worked for me. Do I regret that? Occasionally—looking back, some of these strategies probably weren’t very efficient, but they’re the only ones I’ve ever known (for example, I learned tonguing on trumpet without ever actually using my tongue). Parents and teachers were all under the impression that I could do so well by myself, and they saw this as “If you can make up and learn your own method yourself, you definitely won’t have any problems. You’re just seeking attention.”

Whereas most of my earlier unconventional methods still persist, I’ve since adopted new memorization techniques for enhancing my retention of established concepts. For example, I memorize chemistry by coming up with cat puns and terrible jokes. I can’t tell you what molality is, but I can tell you what the chemist said in light of the babies born on New Years’ Day of 1990: “HALLO, Gen Z” (Halogens).

A New Perception: Has Being 2e Changed Over Time for You?

With a diagnosis, my perception of myself has changed. Rather than the ever-persistent internal monologue of “hopeless” or “stupid,” I know why it’s more difficult for me to grasp multi-step concepts. I understand—even if I don’t really understand—why I learn the way I do, or why I get flustered over a different study environment or schedule. It’s easier for me to explain as well as for others to listen with a reason other than “Hmm…she’s just not applying herself.”

Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace this aspect of myself. The once-inexplicable accusations, self-hatred, and punishment inflicted upon me have now morphed into my motivators for resilience, persistence, and creativity. It’s sometimes still difficult for me to express my appreciation for my ADHD in my traditionally stigma-oriented community, but I’m working to eliminate these harmful byproducts of ignorance and stigma.

The Sigh: What Goes on in Your “Interior World”?

I. Hate. Certain. Noises. When someone’s loud sigh pierces through my thoughts as my fingers are doing the light tap-tap against the wibbly wobbly of my keyboard, I only wish I could project myself into the interior of my computer to seek refuge from this astronomically atrocious sound. Unfortunately, as this is quite the dangerous route, my only real flight-or-fight response is to involuntarily sigh right back, which—as it turns out—is also quite the dangerous route, given its high probability of misinterpretation as an incendiary expression of ingratitude.

Despite this, the “sigh” is not the most frustrating thing that bars me from completing my tasks. This sigh mostly presents itself when I bring up how my neurodiversity affects me at home, and I somehow end up half-conveying this with my Foot In My Mouth—although my intent remains to reduce conflict and misinterpretation, this “culturally uncomfortable” topic usually has the effect of upsetting my parents instead.

It’s difficult to interject that I am not neurotypical. Sometimes it’s felt as if the very essence of my identity is put to shame. People are embarrassed when I mention it to others. They say, shhhh, when I talk about it at home. They sigh. But if I’m not ashamed of it myself, no one else should be for me—I only wish I could tell them about the psychological trauma and internalized inferiority that comes from being undiagnosed for so long. Although I still can’t fully explain it, I know this for sure: it’s not an excuse; it’s a reason.

Previously, I reluctantly accepted the excuses and labels assigned to me by unfounded tirades of misconceptions, stigma, and ignorance. What I’m still learning to do is to stand up against others’ misconceptions and redefine 2e for myself. I’ll set my own pace, establish my own boundaries instead of having others impose their erroneous standards upon me. And once I feel ready, I’ll work to transcend them.

Patience, Listening, Support, Exploration: Advice for Parents and Teachers

After so many years of being forced into a mold, I can confidently say that my top advice is to not force us into a mold.

Instead, give us the chance to express ourselves. The support we desire lies in increased patience and acceptance, not a laundry list of what works for neurotypicals. While your encouragement and motivation is greatly appreciated, forcing unfounded assumptions upon us is not. At the end of the day, it’s easiest to take things one step a time. Listen to us. Let us explore our interests. Hold us to the same standards of achievement that we hold ourselves to. Don’t tell us that you’re going to solve our difficulties—instead, ask us how you can help.

When my parents were still in denial of my neurodiversity, they used to say something along the lines of “No, you don’t have ADHD, because when you were 5, you could sit there and learn.” I laugh, because for one, that was 11 years ago, and two, I can sit for hours and not comprehend a single thing. You could take away every single distraction and I’d still get sidetracked by the fact that I can make the letter “Y” by curling up my pointer finger. As such, it’s incredibly important to both discuss our “disabilities” and how it actually affects us, not just how you think it does. ADHD goes so much beyond “can’t sit, can’t do work, must go zoom zoom.” I hate to break it to you, but that’s not ADHD… that’s my cat.

So, for 2e parents: never try to pretend that your child is neurotypical! The diagnosis itself is not what “changes” your child; your support, or lack thereof, is what does. It is harrowing to be denied an identity that is built upon the essence of neurodiversity. ADHD or autism will not usurp your child’s personality overnight—a persistent invalidation of our struggles, perceptions, and experiences is what will.

As for teachers, I promise we’re not trying to intentionally act out or underperform—please never jump to conclusions or purposely invalidate our struggles. Just because a student may appear outwardly high-achieving, doesn't necessarily mean that they don’t need any extra support (we’ve learned to mask this and often compensate in terrible ways!). As for acting out, sometimes this is part of coping with academic difficulties; other times we truly don’t understand what’s appropriate and what’s not. There’s absolutely nothing more frustrating than a deliberate “Yeah, you can!”, “Everyone struggles with that!” or, my personal favorite, “But it works for ...HER!” when we finally seek assistance or reveal that we are struggling.

What is helpful, though, is expressing support for our different learning styles. For in-class accommodations, anything as simple as an “Okay! Thanks for letting me know. Don’t hesitate to reach out if there’s anything you ever need!” can make a world of a difference. In terms of teaching, experimentation with different learning/assessment methods not only facilitates our knowledge retention but also allows us to express our creativity. Of course, this varies from student to student, but oftentimes we don’t know how we learn best yet—so incorporating a variety of ways for us to discover that really helps. Personally, I’ve found that I love projects that allow me to highlight the more imaginative aspects of my thinking.

Learning to Scream: The Best Teacher You Ever Had

The best teacher I’ve ever had was a trumpet professor, Mr. Larson, who I studied with this past summer as part of an online music institute. The entire camp was incredible—he managed to keep every session informative and engaging even over Zoom—but my greatest takeaway from the entire camp was during one of our private lessons in which I Learned How To Scream.

I had been struggling with some high note octave jumps and I was trying to hide my frustration. Previous teachers always described the approach to high notes with something along the lines of, “Okay, high notes, you need to attack it and open up your throat”—which, as I eventually came to know, I had to do—but I never exactly knew how to do. Sometimes I’d actually fulfill this open-throat method, albeit by chance because I ultimately didn’t understand how to open my throat (like, with a doorknob?). But jokes aside, I truly didn’t know how to do it and it was incredibly frustrating for both myself and other teachers.

What Mr. Larson did differently, however, was that he actually showed me how instead of simply explaining. Ironically, he also has ADHD and didn’t even mention the concept of throat-opening at all. Instead—and in the calmest manner possible—he told me first to scream, then play the high note. I wasn’t sure if he was being serious at first because it was the weirdest advice I’d ever been given before, but it worked; having to scream forced me to open up my throat, and playing that octave jump became so much easier after that.

Although I realize that screaming before playing is not a viable option every time (especially not during performances), I can now imitate the same “throat-opening” effect because I know what it feels like. Ultimately, Mr. Larson truly understood my different learning style—and he’s also given me a 2-in-1 outlet that allows me to both expend my frustrations and improve my playing!

Time to Make It All Click: What Does the Future Hold?

For other 2e students, I hope to see better support and recognition. Learning disabilities don’t mean that we can’t learn (I’ve really heard this as a means of objection before), and giftedness doesn’t mean that we don't struggle at all; in fact, we sometimes struggle to display this giftedness because our other “side” isn’t adequately addressed or supported.

Ultimately, there’s a fine line between perceiving what we can’t do for ourselves and others perceiving that for us. Every twice exceptional student is different. I hope others understand that neurodiversity isn’t an excuse and that it’s something that can manifest regardless of intelligence levels. We aren’t struggling on purpose when it looks like we aren’t performing to our full potential; if or when we act out, it is more a culmination of frustration with ourselves than an intentional “attack” of hatred. Yes, we are perfectly capable—but we still need resources, accommodations, and time to make it all click. I know I do.

In the future, I’m looking forward to more neurodiversity advocacy, expanding NeurodiverCity, stepping out of my comfort zone to share a bit more about my experiences, and continuing my trumpet endeavors. Although I harbor more of an “I can’t wait to be done with this” sentiment towards college apps and prescreening recordings, I am excited for what comes next. To my future self, I hope everything worked out. To other 2e students reading this in the future: I hope you can look back and realize just how much you’ve proved your most unsupportive teachers wrong.

Creating Community: What is NeurodiverCity?

NeurodiverCity is an online community for neurodiverse students from all over the world to connect, share creativity, bond over interests, and consult mutual support. Its namesake is a two-part pun: Neurodiver, one who delves deep into their brain; City, a diverse community of supportive supportive individuals—neurodiversity.

I’m passionate about creating advocacy and education posts as the founder of NeurodiverCity, as well as supporting and talking with other neurodiverse students in our Neurodiverse Student Chatrooms. Connecting in a community that is comfortable with discussing every aspect of neurodiversity has been revolutionary for me; it’s amazing to be able to bond over shared experiences, laugh at neurodiversity memes, consult support, and embrace our unique traits together without feeling the pressure of forced assimilation.

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