As I have watched my daughter grow, develop, and learn, I have noticed that her gears click in ways very different from what I have seen with the hundreds of other kids I’ve taught in my years as a teacher. She’s smart in many ways – incredibly smart. But she definitely processes and learns differently than most children. Her perspective on the world is often quite different from other kids her age.
It makes sense to me given that all of her sensory input is skewed, impaired, or challenged and that many of her life experiences are not typical for her age. She has impairments of her vision, hearing, balance, and other senses. Much of her life has been spent in therapist and doctor offices rather than playing with toys and other children. However, it seems that there is more to it. And that’s the part I have difficulty understanding.
A therapist once described it to me in a way that has stuck. Here’s the way I remember it. When I go from one idea to another, my thoughts travel down the superhighways of my brain (my neural pathways or whatever). Because I have intact sensory systems and have had basically typical experiences, my superhighways pass many of the same landmarks as other people’s thoughts. When I share my thoughts and ideas, most people recognize what I have to say and understand my thought processes.
But my daughter’s thoughts travel down gravel roads because her neural pathways are less efficient, organized, and developed. Her sensory input is different and her experiences have been different. She may get to the same ideas eventually, but it may take longer to get there and she passes different landmarks on the way. When she shares her experiences and thoughts, other people don’t always know what she’s talking about. They don’t recognize her landmarks. With lots of experience and practice, her gravel roads may be replaced by superhighways, but it’s not a given. Her gravel road experiences are building a different network of thoughts and ideas than my superhighway network.
It’s like two people going on a driving vacation from Chicago to Denver. If one takes the highways and one takes the back roads, their experiences will be vastly different although they will have some similarities and the general descriptions of their trips are the same.
In order to understand my daughter and help her learn, her teachers and I must understand the landscape of her thoughts and value the inherent intelligence required to build even gravel roads out of her limited and challenged resources. We must help her to make sense of how her understandings are different from other people’s understandings so that she can reconcile her world view with the world view of others. We must provide supportive technology, adaptive tools, and teach coping skills to provide the resources needed to pave over her gravel roads with superhighways.
In the end, intelligence may not be about as much about the kind of roads we build or where they go. It may be more about how we use the resources we are given to build the best road system we can. As they say, it may be more about the journey than the destination (or the mode of travel).