A Stupid Problem
At this time next year, I will have already surpassed the anniversary of my twentieth year in the land of Developmental Optometry. The the bulk of that time, minus a two year stint working with P.A.V.E., was spent in direct patient care in the Vision Therapy room. There have been several memorable patients, several poignant seconds, and even a few of those much sought after “a ha moments” with those sitting across from me. Even with all this time under my belt, with all the vision therapy successes and screw-ups I’ve maneuvered, there is still one type of patient, one set of beliefs, which never gets easier to stomach. The “I’m stupid” kid. No matter how much training I receive, no matter how much practice I have, no matter how much the concepts are reviewed as to how to “pull a kid out of it”, it still hits me in the gut each and every time. Although well intended, my empathetic words and reassuring thoughts just seem to fall short when looking into their tearful eyes.
It’s no secret that working in a field which primarily services children carries a certain added level of responsibility. Aside from being highly impressionable, kids tend to have a layer of honesty most adults are no longer willing to access within themselves and these kids often will display that honesty openly for the world to witness. Many children also have a unique way of seeing through the layers of fluff adults tend to incorporate into a conversation and will identify ulterior motives rather quickly. Kids want to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, why you’re asking them to do what they’re doing, and how any of it is relevant and just like anyone else their senior, look to provide an intelligent response. With this, my feeling has long been those who work with kids should value passion over pedigree, sincerity over smarts, and heart over higher education. The old saying “before they care how much you know they need to know how much you care” was almost certainly written about a child.
About seven or eight weeks ago, a patient was added to my schedule who by all accounts was going to be on of the “easy” ones. She was diagnosed with a few challenges in visual mechanics, but otherwise seemed to be well intact. Halfway through the third grade, it was reported to me her academic abilities are measuring somewhere between fair and good, she is a hard worker, and is also quite athletic. Her mom asked early on to observe the therapy sessions, which incidentally I encourage, and about three or four sessions in made a comment to me which turned the plan for this young lady on it’s head.
“She came home from school crying…because she thinks she’s stupid”
Hearing those words are tough for me no matter who says them. I’ve written many times of my younger brother who suffers from Fragile X and is cognitively diminished as a result. Many of my childhood memories involve his failures in school, the accommodations made both in our home and in the classroom to enable his success, and the constant reminder nowadays of his special needs which come with every phone call, text message, or post to social media. Understandably, others in their VT rooms hear a patient refer to themselves as stupid and offer an encouraging word and move on. Maybe they feel the less attention offered to that idea, the better. I don’t blame them one bit because surely the strategy has worked. For me, it’s just not that easy. Those words hit a nerve.
After our session was over, I emailed this young lady’s mom that same night, in part to offer support, but mostly to extend an olive branch towards communication because my experience told me there was more to this than meets the eye. Her mom responded by explaining her daughter was a highly successful first and second grader, but in third grade, life has essentially fallen apart. She struggles in math, she struggles in reading, she is being pulled out of class for a few smaller group intervention sessions three times per week, and if that isn’t enough, she is having issues with one of her classmates who feels my patient’s struggles should be the target of some ridicule. Probably because of watching my brother experience all of these emotions when we were children, this information weighed heavy on me. During our next session, before we even started discussing anything to do with eyeballs, we sat on the floor and talked about school. It wasn’t long before the tears arrived and that “s” word reared it’s ugly head. As much as I wanted to find the right words to say, it quickly became apparent the best thing I could do is stay quiet and listen. After all, sometimes people just need to let it out.
In the days and sessions since, after conferring with my doctor a few different times and exchanging several emails with this mom, it’s clear to me Vision Therapy will dramatically change this young lady’s life. Although she’s turned out to not be that “easy” after all – which was an unfair and incorrect assumption on my part, but that’s for another post – our new found knowledge of her struggles has helped to revise and improve our treatment plan for making positive changes. Our work will be slow, and most probably a few more tears may be shed either by her or by me, but it’s undoubtable amazing things will be occurring in her future.
Between now and then, my mantra with this young lady will be fairly simple…