By Delinda McCann
I am the guardian/parent of a special needs child. Jamie came to live with us when she was five--just before starting kindergarten. When she came to live with us, I got a report from her previous preschool that listed, among her other skills, the ability to count to one hundred and to recognize all the letters of the alphabet and their sounds.
At our house, she found the children’s alphabet book among the other books I gave her and obsessively named all the letters with their sounds--endlessly, day and night, and in the wee hours of the morning. She definitely had OCD and knew her alphabet.
I enrolled Jamie in public school and handed the staff her evaluations from the early education preschool. I then proceeded to ignore the school for two whole weeks until the school principal called and told me to come get her and to not bring her back until they set up a special class for her.
Since this child wasn’t in school, I set about teaching her the things she should learn in kindergarten. She seemed eager to learn to read so I taught her to read. Eventually, she went back to school in the special classroom, and I went about my business of napping while this high maintenance child was at school.
In the spring of that school year, my hubby and I went to a parent/teacher conference where the teacher proudly announced that Jamie had learned to recognize fourteen letters of the alphabet. (This conference my have been the beginning of my PTSD.) I tried to politely explain that Jamie knew how to read.
Folks, this battle over whether or not Jamie could read raged for the rest of the school year and three quarters of the way through the next. At home she was reading A. A. Milne’s Now We Are Six. At school, she was up to recognizing twenty letters of the alphabet and could sound out simple words. Talk about meeting others expectations! Of course the staff at the school thought I was a crazy liar and called Child Protective Services. Fortunately by this time, I’d found someone at the University of Washington to do an independent evaluation and had a report that confirmed my observations.
I later learned that our experience with Jamie and the school is classic Fetal Alcohol Syndrome behavior. She behaved as she needed to in order to fit in with the expectations of those around her. We call this chameleon behavior.
Jamie was smart enough to do age appropriate lessons, and in the case of reading, performed above grade level, but she didn't live up to her abilities in the classroom. Her story may sound like an extreme case of the chameleon characteristics of FAS, but I’ve heard thousands of similar stories. Like others with her disability, she would conform to the expectations of the group she was in even to the point of appearing far less intelligent than she is.
Chameleon behavior is one of the core characteristics of the cognitive disabilities caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. Jamie’s behavior is classic for the full syndrome. Chameleon behaviors can be less pronounced in individuals with less brain damage.
I think this is a very important lesson about judging others. In the case of my daughter, she will behave as you, the person judging her, may expect her to behave. It is not uncommon for people with FAS or Autism to be much more intelligent than they appear. Rather than making judgments and dismissing these individuals as something less than fully human, you need to consider the possibility that you may be a negative influence on this person’s behavior.