In a chance conversation today I made an observation about our local homeschooling group and how neurodiverse it is. Like Justice Stewart, I can’t always define how or why I know, but I can almost always recognize neurodiversity. Which is funny to me, considering that I was completely oblivious to gifted neurodiversity both as a child and as an adult until I had kids.
These days, I can spot it a mile away. I know the tell-tale signs of meltdowns. I can give you a checklist of sensory symptoms. I can armchair diagnose a gifted kid just from chatting with them. Sure, I’m no expert and sometimes I forget that not every neurodiverse kid is gifted, but I can usually tell. I’ve grown to trust that instinct after having so many confirmations of it.
You can call me the zebra whisperer.
I love the term “zebra.” I can’t tell you exactly where I heard it, but in some countries (the UK? France?) gifted children are referred to as zebras. The metaphor makes sense: they live in a herd of horses thinking every day that they are a bad horse – deformed, weird, not horse-like. They don’t fit in. Then one day they find a herd of zebras and realize they’re not weird, they’re just not a horse!
I’m happier with the term zebra than poppy, because poppy has some very sad connotations tied to it. It’s implicitly understood that if your child is a tall poppy in a field of wildflowers, people will try to “cut” the poppy down to size to fit their surroundings. It’s a term loaded with lots of negativity and pessimism about how others view our kids. A very accurate term, but not one that I feel comfortable using every day.
I think I might further confuse the whole “gifted” term and make a zebra my blog’s mascot from now on.
The thing is, recognizing a zebra who isn’t labeled as a zebra may cause problems. The parents may not know, or may not want to admit that their child is a zebra. They may just be starting out on a journey of discovery, and my blurting out “hey, your kid is a zebra!” really doesn’t help them at all. And in some cases, they’re dead set against any kind of label. They don’t want their child to be labeled, they just want us to accept the child for who they are and learn to work with them. Which I understand. Labels can be difficult. Labels can be scary, or off-putting. Unwanted, even. Labels are helpful to some but not for everyone.
So I keep my mouth shut and make a mental note. This kid is a zebra, that kid is neurodiverse. I know how to deal with them, how to talk to them. I understand how to reach them. And my kid gravitates towards them. In fact, our current core social group seems to be almost completely made up of zebras – because we zebra parents gravitate towards other zebra families. We all have stripes under our skin, even if we don’t label it.
And more importantly, I’ve found that zebra families tend to be more accepting and tolerant of other’s quirks. Because we live with quirks! That’s our normal. If another kid hates eating strawberries, my kids don’t blink an eye because they hate eating peas. It’s just people being people to them.
The funny thing about finding your herd of zebras (and zebra parents) is that we cautiously say little clues about our baby zebras and feel our way carefully. We get excited when the other parents don’t tell us how we’re being horrible parents, or “have you tried XYZ yet?” We know zebra parents offer sympathy and acceptance instead of judgement. We don’t announce that we’re zebras (in general. I’ve been known to do so at times) and we carefully see if we fit in the herd before we jump right in. We look for stripes. We listen for zebra instead of horse.
The funniest thing about zebra parents is that we’re generally the first to admit our kids haven’t been tested. They’re not officially gifted, they’re just not average. In my less-than-expert opinion, I’m guessing that a lot of us zebra families deal with undiagnosed 2e kids and all the assorted challenges that come with that. It’s tough to claim that your kid is gifted when they’re not conforming to the herd standards. Even the zebra herd standards.
I wanted to cry and smile at the same time the other day when my kids encountered a group of teens with special needs at a local pool. Instead of pointing and asking questions, my kids took a quick look at the visible differences, and then carried on treating everyone like they were people worthy of respect. They didn’t care that the girl with down syndrome talked a bit differently, or that the boy with autism was overly friendly. They were just people. People with quirks, having fun in the pool just like us. I loved it! The hardest part was keeping my mouth shut, because if I pointed out how proud I was of them I would also highlight the teens’ differences. My kids didn’t need me pointing anything out, they needed me to model respect and acceptance. So mama shut up. Write it down. and date it: it doesn’t happen often!
So hey, zebra families, I see you. I get you. I won’t say anything to you for now, but I’m supporting you and I understand you. We’re all striped under the skin here, so join the herd and be welcome.