My Special Education

When my sister was born, she was clearly unusual.  Her appearance, her distinctive facial and physical features were a curious, unexplainable phenomenon.  I remember thinking, “Where did this baby come from?  Whose baby is this?”  

My sister, as an infant, had dark, almost black, upturned eyes, a flat nose, a small mouth and large tongue.  Her ears were curved inward.  She had a single crease across both palms of her tiny hands, short stubby fingers, tiny feet with a larger than normal space between the big toes and the rest of them.  

She was extraordinarily double-jointed – almost as if she had no bones at all.

I didn’t know that the features that gave my sister her unique appearance were the physical elements that made people with Down syndrome recognizable.

Lying in her crib, I often peered in at her; she, staring into space, her dark eyes, like the black buttons that closed my winter coat, fixed on the musical mobile dangling above her head.  I don’t remember her ever crying or laughing or making any sound, really.  She was always silent, lying on her back, occasionally moving her feet and hands. 

For the first three years of her life, my sister couldn’t roll over, sit-up or stand; and she couldn’t talk.  She shifted her position only minimally, often with help.  Around three years, she started to roll over, sit up, maneuver herself onto all fours and sit in a chair without slumping into a bunch.  She experienced some level of independence at around four years, scooting across the floor, propelling herself by thrusting her legs and feet forward and humping herself ever onward.  

She grew and developed in her own way, along her own timeline.

“I hate it,” she told me one day as we prepared to go to her job at McDonald’s. She cleared and wiped down tables at McDonald’s and was overjoyed to do that. She was around twenty-two. “I hate it.”   She looked down at her lap, seemingly talking to herself.

I reached to pull her seatbelt over her ever-expanding waistline. “Why?” I asked. “You like working there.”

“They make fron’ a me.”


“The kids; the kids; make fron’ a me.” Her eyes magnified behind her thick glasses, smudged and always in need of a good cleaning, searched for answers in my face that, even if I could explain, would never really ring true for her. 

Even now, my sister survives on the belief that people are essentially good; and each time she experiences the recklessness of others, her expression is consistently a mix of deep sadness, regret and the hope that she will be forgiven for being so unusual – so much unlike others that the most she could ever expect is to be forgiven.  

All people with Down syndrome have some degree of mental retardation or developmental delay.  They are, however, far from being incapable of learning, especially to the degree that emotional expression, social expectation and the way in which others treat them as normal.  They are very sensitive to being a part of the social group. I know I am well outside the boundaries of making a gross generalization, but it is my best judgment that people with Down syndrome are quite emotionally adept, genius at expressing affection toward others. Their intellectual capacity cannot be reliably predicted in infancy and early childhood, but their ability to express love and caring toward others is evident from a very early age.  (I am well within my comfort zone making this generalization, and I invite my reader to take exception with it.)

My sister entered school at around the same age as other children, only she spent her days in a room where the window in the door was covered with construction paper.   I never saw her at recess, and we never sat together at lunch.  Knowing her as I did, I could only imagine that she was content among her friends and teachers, never questioning the good intentions of those who were responsible for her care and education. 

My sister went from elementary, to junior and on to senior high school seated behind a window covered in construction paper.

When she was twenty, she graduated from high school; and for all her efforts, she was mailed a diploma and a copy of her yearbook.  Inside were an empty oval where her picture should have been and a barren, blank square where her biography might have been printed, if anyone had taken the time to gather the information from her.

Of course, when she got the book in the mail, she leafed through it.  She had no idea that her picture should be there, alongside the other members of her graduating class.  She couldn’t even have imagined such an honor. She was content to look over the familiar faces she remembered from school – the lunch lady, pictures of the abandoned hallways, the quad.

My mother, much less content, contacted the school and demanded that my sister’s picture be duplicated and sent by mail to everyone who had purchased a yearbook.  Not only should there be a picture, but my mother strongly suggested that my sister’s favorite color, her favorite song, her most commonly spoken phrase and her most cherished memory accompany the photo in exactly the same proportions as the oval and blank spaces that were provided to her on page 31 of her yearbook.

My sister was quite proud when she pointed out her own picture in the yearbook, after discovering it one day, glued perfectly within the spaces inside her yearbook – as if it had always been there, proof that she was like everyone else.  She looked up at me, through those damnable glasses, kissed her hand and brought it down on top of her own picture. “S’me,” she said, “S’me.” She laughed, extending her long tongue as she drew in more air to feed her belly laugh.

My sister has never been like anyone else, really. She is my cherished and pure spirit, someone who is never truly unhappy for long or without a friend.  Her life has been a hearty handshake, a warm and sincere hug and a promise for unconditional positive regard toward everyone she meets, no matter who they are or how they may have treated her in the past. I can never imagine comparing myself to my sister’s strength of character and her dedication to the idea that everyone possesses inherent goodness – if we just take the time to see it.

My sister’s medical and cognitive impairments have increased over the years; they unravel the mystery of her human condition more and more each day; but from the day she came home from the hospital, wrapped in a yellow, satin edged blanket, she was the most wonderful gift I could ever have imagined receiving. 

My sister provides me with special education.

From the day she was assimilated into our family and our neighborhood, complete with her own unique personality, her own strengths and her own weaknesses, she has taken every opportunity to become the strong-willed, sensitive and tremendously good-humored woman she is today.


Children with Character

When I was a child, in the early days of the growing phenomenon that eventually became known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – before the harsh, punitive medications we now use to control children with character, my caregivers accommodated, as best they could, my curious nature.  In response to what I believe to be the disastrous burden placed on unsuspecting children by their misinformed caregivers, and drawing from my own experiences as an energetic, intelligent and misunderstood child, I will offer an intervention strategy for helping to improve the futures of children who, instead of having a disease called ADHD, have, instead, a misread and underappreciated gift.

For eating chalk, I sat behind the piano.  For pulling a worm from my nose, I sat in a chair outside the classroom; For general misbehavior, I was sentenced to sit in Murderers’ Row – a special line of seats and desks set aside especially for inquisitive, energetic and distractible children like me – mostly boys.  I was often the sole inhabitant of Murderers’ Row, so, sitting at the first desk in the row, I imagined I was at the head of a series of empty rail cars, chugging across the Pacific Northwest, The Little Engine That Could.

Learning to read, identify colors and do simple mathematics was often achieved from hearing, alone.  I traced my finger on the shiny, painted cinder block wall, making letters, numbers and symbols that I imagined accompanied the lessons that were being taught. A leaf was green.  A fire truck was red.  The sky was . . . blue – and so was the wall in front of me.

I didn’t need to actually see to learn.

I was Helen Keller! Only I could hear.

I adapted.

As punishment for living in my imaginary world, where so much more was possible than in the world in which my classroom merely existed, I would have to write lines –

I will not yell out. 

I will raise my hand and give others a chance to answer. 

I will not aim for the face when playing dodge ball. 

I will take my own bus. 

I will eat my own lunch.

After a while, I simply expected to break the rules and, as a condition of parole, write lines.  I was so confident that I would be found deficient in nearly anything I tried each day in school, I wrote out part of the sentence in advance – the part of the sentence I knew would be there no matter what I had to write – I will not.

I filled my desk to the bursting point with reams of paper; hundreds, thousands, millions, trillions of partial sentences that would only take a few more words to complete – freeing me to do as I pleased.

I will not – turn my eyelids inside out.

I will not – cut in line.

I will not – take powdered soap from the boys’ room.

The crinkled paper with the partially completed sentences written hurriedly across each page spilled out on the floor beside my desk and was the first thing to greet me every morning when I came back to school.

The number of school-age children (ages 3-17 years) who have been diagnosed and treated for ADHD is estimated at 5.2 million.  Following diagnosis, and when placed under psychiatric management, the treatment of ADHD is expected to involve some combination of medications, behavior modifications, lifestyle changes and counseling.  Often, however, the treatment of ADHD is limited to psychotropic medications, alone; leaving children drugged and with less potential than they had previous to the diagnosis.

The symptoms of ADHD can be difficult to differentiate from normal childhood development, increasing the likelihood that the ADHD label will be misapplied.  Impulsivity, emotional fluidity, lack of concentration and variability in mood and behavior are all observations suggestive of ADHD.  In addition, due to the constraints of time and opportunity, the diagnostician will often rely on caregivers, teachers and other adult historians for the longitudinal (biased) data necessary to formulate the diagnosis.  Rather than estimating the potential contribution to the child’s conduct made by the caregiver’s own level frustration tolerance, environmental conditions or early and current parenting style, the child’s behavior becomes, instead, a treatable disease, cured, ostensibly, with drugs.  A kind of no-fault provision in the implied contract between caregiver and child – a provision where the caregivers is absolved of responsibility for the child’s behavior and the child is found blameless for h/er poor choices.

After all, it’s a disease.

As early as the 1970s, when the ADHD diagnosis was first starting to gain momentum, it was, even then, considered a controversial, exploited and mismanaged psychiatric disease of childhood.  (Only recently has the disease become diagnosable in adulthood.)

At a time when the developing brain is highly susceptible to damage by intruding chemicals and other caustic substances, the use of stimulant medications for management and treatment of ADHD in children has become standard, rudimentary practice among healthcare providers.

I find the whole process repugnant.


As a boy with more energy than I had support for my ambitions, I spent a great deal of time, instead, trying to be like other children.  I remember watching the best-behaved students in my class – mimicking their movements, believing that if I shadowed them, talked like they did, I would be good too.  If one student moved her hand a certain way, I would move my hand just like she did.  If another student sat quietly, his hands folded on his desktop, so did I.  But my plan didn’t work. Nothing could save me from my teachers’ suspicious gazes. They simply didn’t trust me.  They were skeptical of me, even when I was behaving like one of the good kids.

One day, toward the beginning of summer and the opening of spring – a miserable time for a child with character who is stuck inside all day, separated from frogs and swamps and tree limbs, my teacher, the originator of Murderers’ Row, said, “Michael, let’s try something NEW!”

“Sure!” I said, taking my shoes out of my desk and slipping them on.

While the rest of the class was reading silently, my teacher took me to a small foyer in the back of the classroom.  He carried a chair in one hand and a TV tray in the other.  He clung to a bag of marshmallows under his left elbow.  He set the chair down, “Sit,” he said, pointing his chubby finger at the wooden seat, and unfolded the TV tray, clipping the legs into the plastic slots.  He broke open the bag of marshmallows and placed one on the table in front of me.  “I want you to sit there for twenty minutes and, if you can control yourself and not eat the marshmallow, I will give you two.  You can eat it any time you want; but if you can control yourself for twenty minutes and not eat it, I will give you two.”



I remember sitting in the chair for what seemed like hours, waiting for twenty minutes to elapse and I could eat the marshmallow in one bite AND have another one to boot.  Every now and then a student would turn around and give me a knowing glance – to which I stuck out my tongue and returned my gaze to the lone marshmallow sitting on the tray in front of me.

I ate it.

Nineteen minutes later, my teacher returned.  “Hmmmmm,” he said, hands on his hips.  “You couldn’t resist?”

I smiled, looking up at him, my red hair hanging just above my eyebrows.  “Nope,” I said.  “I almost did, though.”

“We can try it again tomorrow.”

Over the course of that spring, my teacher did the same experiment with me every day (sometimes two or three – maybe four times), until I was capable of not only making it through twenty minutes to achieve my second marshmallow, but I had strengthened my resolve and built my frustration tolerance to a point where I could sit for over an hour with little or no reward at all.

My willpower, my self-discipline, had increased dramatically. I had trained myself and built the neurological connections necessary to not only improve my frustration tolerance, but to make it a habit!

I still recall this memory of my teacher’s systematic instruction – his dedicated effort to teach me to focus my attention on a goal – to commit the proper amount of devotion to the task ahead of me.  Toward the summer, when school was letting out and I was free to roam the woods, quarries and sand pits in my neighborhood, that lesson helped strengthen me by creating an atmosphere of achievement and success that I could use to grow and improve.  Over time, my willpower, self-discipline and loyalty to my goals improved – leaving that place in my brain, the one that defined who I was as an individual, intact – where I could be myself and something more.

I am still the child I have always been, unimpeded, spontaneous and impulsive – instinctive and unrehearsed.  I am myself, unadulterated and un-medicated.  I enjoy myself and my unique perspective, and I have learned to live with all of my strengths and weaknesses, even when these traits are not as well received as I would like them to be by others.

Instead of thinking we will all be better off after taking pills, conceding to others and how they think we should be, deadening our intuitive nature to explore and challenge our understanding of the world, we may remember that our brains have immense possibilities that pills will never improve, but only creativity, inventiveness and ingenuity can achieve.

This is not a talk show

Therapists, rather than helping their clients tackle the more critical, covert sources of their emotional distress, often treat them for the signs and symptoms they expressStress, for example, has a very loud voice and will not likely be easily concealed by contradictory behavior, i.e., unhappiness, depression, anger, rage and discontent are all common and quite obvious indicators of some form of personal hardship.  We have to be careful as therapists, however, not to treat these emotional and somatic gestures as if they were our client’s primary illness.  The emotional signals our clients send are more often symptomatic of something much larger.

  • Lethargy, lack of interest and inertia may be symptoms of thinking that one’s life is wholly irredeemable and that there is no hope left. 
  • Anger may be a symptom of fear
  • Attention deficit (ADHD) and behavior disorder (BDD) may be symptoms of weaknesses in a child’s physical and social environment – or a parent’s inability to undertake the responsibilities of raising a rambunctious and demanding child.   (The way I look at it, if Helen Keller’s parents were able to raise Helen through childhood into meaningful adulthood, and we elect to give children chemical lobotomies because they won’t sit in their chairs at school, we’ve lost an essential component  in our present-day system of parenting and education. We are also addressing, in this example, the symptoms of the real problem.)

Like most things in our fast food culture, people who seek help resolving an emotional hardship want immediate relief of their symptoms – step up, get your product, swipe your card and leave. (And there are many therapists who are happy to do it that way.) Rather than working to modify the source of the symptoms, people often want the kind of help that will, instead, make them sleep, stop crying, stop obsessing, stop caring, stop feeling – to be NUMB!  If we treat our client’s from this perspective, however, it is unlikely that we will ever help them achieve emotional stability over the course of their lives.  

Ah, I see you’re back.  How can I help you?”

“I’m really depressed, again!”

“Heavens, you’ve only been gone an hour.  I really thought the last year of therapy had helped. That can be expected. People get depressed when they lose their job. What happened?”

 “I got fired!”

Relieving the overt symptoms of distress is often a therapist’s first goal.  It isn’t nearly as tough, however, as resolving the covert problem.

“Oh, that’s horrible! What are your plans?”

“I don’t have any.  I can’t get out of bed in the morning.  My life has gone to hell in a hand wagon.”

“I am SO sorry to hear all this.  This is all normal, though. You can’t let this get you down.  This will all turn out good.  You watch!  You’ll get another job – you and those pearly whites!”

If we persist in addressing only the symptoms of emotional distress, and attribute their cause to some external source, we will be forever chasing after temporary, short-term relief. For example, if a child persistently gets second degree sunburns in the summer, and h/er physician treats the burn with a topical medicated cream – and does nothing else, we would not be recognizing and addressing the prevailing issue, which is that the child’s parents can learn to take steps to avoid the damage in the first place.  The child may need to learn about the suns potential to cause serious injury.  If we can take steps to impact the true problem, rather than the symptoms of the problem, we will likely be more successful at negotiating an intervention.

This example might be used to develop and improve our approach to mental health mediation.  If we teach our clients that depression is just an expected result of misfortune, the client will likely always express depression whenever s/he experiences misfortune.  The client will be forever, as well, left to seek outside help to resolve nearly all of h/er emotional problems.

Contrary to the conversation, above, we might, instead, practice differently:

“Ah, I see you’re back.  How can I help you?”

“I’m really depressed, again!”

“You’ve only been gone an hour. How do you know you’re depressed?”

 “I got fired!”

“What I mean is . . . how do you know you’re depressed?”

“I can’t eat.  I sleep all day.  I sit and stare at the wall. You know . . . that sort of thing.”

“How is that a problem for you?”

“Oh, here we go again!”

“Yes, this is not a talk show.  This is therapy.”

“Well, I shouldn’t have been fired in the first place.  My boss is an asshole.  He was out to get me.”

“So is your problem that you were fired or that you shouldn’t have been fired in the first place?  Or maybe your problem is that you think your boss is a rectum?”

“Both!  All three!”

“Which event do you think is contributing to you staying in bed and not eating?”

“Probably thinking that my boss shouldn’t have fired me in the first place.  It’s his fault I’m in this shit mess.”

“What do you suppose you’re telling yourself about your boss these days?  What are you saying to yourself about him and these events?”

“I tell myself that my boss shouldn’t have fired me.  I didn’t do anything and people shouldn’t have to suffer if they didn’t do anything. People who follow the rules shouldnt have to put up with shit! My boss should be fair with me.  I ought to be treated better.  I deserve it.  I think your boss should always show you respect!  I need things to go smoothly in my life in order to be happy. If things don’t go smoothly, then I just can’t stand it!”

“Is that it?”

“No! My wife things I am a fuck up!  My boss might as well have cut my balls off. Maybe he and my wife are right about me.  Maybe I am a fuck up! My kids are mad because we can’t do much anymore, because I don’t have any money. I’m sure people are laughing behind my back.  I can’t even go out and mow my grass.  If people see me out during the day, they are whispering that I am a failure.  Which I am. Oh, hell, it goes on and on.”

“Sounds to me like maybe losing your job and getting fired are not your problems at all.”

“How so?”

“All that stuff you’re saying to yourself about your boss and your neighbors, your kids and your wife, that might be a bigger problem than losing your job.  Maybe if we can change some of that self-talk, some of that insane, nutty shit you say to yourself, you might make yourself feel better.”

“How will we do that?”

“That’s the hard part. That’s why I’m a therapist and not Dr. Phil.”

It is NOT the therapist’s role to treat the obvious symptoms h/er client presents in therapy.  It is our role, however, to uncover and treat our clients’ problem thinking – something they don’t often know they have.  By doing so, we will improve the likelihood that our clients’ symptoms will experience some measure of relief through more logical and rational thought.

The very thing that separates a client from a therapist is in the therapist’s understanding of the human mind and the human body – not only its structure, but its plastic, ever-changing environment for emotional evolution.  Your client depends on your ability to show h/er around inside their own heads (a place where you would think everyone would be more intimately familiar) and help them uncover the true nature of their emotional distress.  If you can have an impact on your client in this way, you will have helped h/er build h/er skills at self-help and self-sufficiency.  If you continue to treat your client’s symptoms, you will be establishing a foundation for a lifelong commitment to dependency.

Professional Equivalent

The foremost weakness in our present-day mental health industry, besides our overdependence on drugs as the primary source of mental health mediation, is the numbers of paraprofessionals who are treating not only the walking worried, but people who are far more gravely ill. 

People have an expectation and a right to excellence from those who claim the role of social worker, clinical counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist and the like.  People in need of mental health mediation, however, are not even coming close to meeting that expectation.

In the field of mental health, unlike other professions whose members are expected to meet a training standard before services can be reliably provided, there is a creature known as a professional equivalent

Normally the professional equivalent to the social worker and clinical counselor is a person who majored, as an undergraduate, in some topic that, shortly after graduating, lead straight back into a career field that was similar to the one they had prior to spending thousands of dollars on their undergraduate degree, i.e., sociology, psychology, anthropology or religion.  Mind you, there are no professional equivalents in law, dentistry, chiropractic or medicine.  Yet the professional equivalent to the clinical mental health counselor and social worker runs rampant within the field of mental health.

Often these stragglers, these poor misinformed and misguided students, will pursue a graduate degree in an area that may prove more useful later on.  Many, however, will be absorbed into the profession of child protection (and call themselves social workers) or community mental health services (and call themselves counselors); thereby creating the impression in the minds of their clients and others that they are trained social workers or clinical counselors, and not the paraprofessionals and nonprofessionals they truly are. 

Simply because someone says they are a social worker or a counselor does not mean they are trained in that field.  In fact, it has been my experience that a person who identifies h/erself as a social worker or a counselor is, in fact, neither. 

This well-tuned process of hoodwinking the unsuspecting public not only debases my profession, but provides fodder for the numbers of stereotypes we encounter in the world of human service. 

Social workers steal children from well-meaning, misunderstood parents. 

Therapist listen and their clients talk. 

Counselors give advice and are responsible for changing lives.

This whole process, of course, is nothing more than a money-saving device.  Most often used by mental health organizations, it is a way of increasing reimbursement for services that are provided by minimally trained or not-trained-at-all therapists.  For, if anyone can be a therapist, a social worker or a clinical counselor (and no one is likely to ask questions), why not hire a desperate recent college graduate and pay them minimum wage, rather than a licensed and trained practitioner and pay them something more competitive?

I would suggest that my reader ask questions and expect answers from those who would claim to be trained to help you resolve your problems and achieve your goals – especially where your children are concerned.  Often you will be surprised to find that the person with whom you plan to share the intimate details of your life is no more likely to help you with that than your next-door neighbor is likely to help remove your tonsils.

A Parade of Nuts

Life-long mental health labels often begin as childhood quirks, habits and eccentricities.  Viewed from any number of other perspectives, mental health labels could be signs of undeveloped genius.  Instead, a child’s esoteric, mysterious traits are frequently labeled disorders very early in their growth, having been judged against a narrow, unachievable definition of normal and found deficient.  

Children are not designed to meet a strict standard of normal.  In fact, no one will ever be contentedly normal – which, of course, brings great joy to psychologists and pharmaceutical companies.

Our society’s standard of normal is far too narrow and inflexible for anyone to meet it. 

As a culture, we have grown accustomed to identifying, analyzing, detecting, diagnosing and medicating children – to the point where they would be more ideally raised in a Petri dish than in a neighborhood.  

It may be best, then, to be more protective of children and the haphazard, indiscriminate and flagrant way we’ve come to harness and diagnose their abnormalities, damaging their potentials with all of our poking and prodding and pill-popping.

We cannot continue to allow our children to be the sacrifices we make to the mental health industry.  We are losing generations of leaders, anarchists, artists, writers, multi-taskers, protesters, Stoics, athletes, soldiers, explorers, scientists, lecturers and teachers who, without the impediment of mental health labels may well have done wonderful things for our nation and our world. 

We diagnose, label, treat and medicate, clap our hands together – PROBLEM SOLVED!

It seems we are now happiest when all is quiet; everyone is seated and half asleep.

We may, instead of judging children against a standard of normal, resolve as a culture to provide NO mental health labels to children.  We could encourage, instead, individuality.  We cannot continue to make it our goal to extinguish a child’s potential before s/he has even had a chance to fully realize it. We could resolve, instead, to leave the psychologists for later in life – for a time when to have a mental health label can be more entertaining, adding dimension to one’s character, rather than interfering with one’s early development.  

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