You and Your Quirky Kid

At a recent pre-school musical, my son was to stand single file onstage with 13 classmates and perform "Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing" while flapping the wings of his bright yellow canary suit. As the other kids sang, fidgeted or stood there, stunned by the audience, he broke ranks and began marching to his own tune. He spun, then stomped, then shimmied his way out of line as if responding to several different styles of music no one else could hear. Seemingly unfazed by the crowd of parents seated before him, he wandered about the stage, shouting his own improvisational lyrics (something about babies and broccoli), which were picked up by a nearby mike and broadcast throughout the auditorium. As the other parents laughed, I vacillated between feelings of pride (my son's such an individual!) and fear (why is he so different?).

Because, even at 4, it's clear my son is different. On the playground, he's bonded far more with one particular tricycle than with any classmate, and during circle time he's the only child who consistently wanders off to inspect the pipes under the sink or play with the push broom. His unconventional behavior may not sound like a big deal—and it wasn't, until some well-meaning educators noticed my son's quirks and asked if he'd ever been diagnosed.

But just how do you determine the difference between a nonconformist kid and a child with more serious issues that may need to be addressed? Previous generations of parents could embrace, or overlook, their child's tics, quirks or eccentric personalities much more freely than the moms and dads of today. If their daughter was reading "Moby-Dick" by first grade, she was gifted. If their toddler wasn't talking by 2, he'd likely catch up by kindergarten. Even pediatricians were far less versed in things like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and the autism-spectrum disorders, which didn't start showing up on their radar screens until the '80s and early '90s. But today we know so much more about how the brain functions, what causes some unusual behavior and how a child can really benefit from early intervention, that we're obligated as "good parents" to have our children's peculiarities evaluated. (Of course, there is no mistaking the more severe forms of autism for quirkiness.) It can mean running a toddler through a bevy of experts—pediatric neurologists, speech pathologists, behavioral psychologists, socialization experts—before he's out of training pants. More and more, kids who once would have been considered slightly out of step with their peers are emerging with diagnoses of sensory-integration dysfunction, dyspraxia and pervasive developmental disorder, to name a few. In past decades, autism was thought to occur in about one child in 2,000. Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 150 kids has an autism-spectrum disorder. And just last week, a new study found that the number of kids in the United States younger than 20 receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder had soared from about 18,000 in 1994 to an estimated 800,000 in 2003.

So what do we do about the eighth grader who alienates peers with his obsessive talk of baroque architecture, or the 6-year-old who'd rather spend recess talking to the hamster than playing dress-up with her classmates? Is it possible we shouldn't do anything? "Of course it is a source of deep sorrow when it is obvious that a youngster can never lead 'a normal life' because of special needs," says Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child and adolescent psychiatrist whose books include "Raising Kids With Character." "All the same, there is something amiss when every mother is susceptible to fears whether or not this week's fashionable diagnosis applies to her child. There is something unexamined in our thinking when we elevate the need for normalcy to a state of spiritual grace, and live under a constant anxiety that we fail to measure up to its demands."

If we examine ourselves and those around us—the husband who shuns picnics because he can't stand the texture of grass, the co-worker who can't get along without those billion organic remedies on her desk—we have to admit that everyone, to some extent, is odd. The terms "normal" and "abnormal" are subjective—words whose interpretations can be as varied as the people who speak them. So when we worry about our kids' strange behavior, is it because they deviate from our own expectations of what life should be like for a "well-adjusted" 5-, 7- or 12 year-old, or is it because that little person in front of us seems to struggling way more than she should? "Parents need to ask themselves, Is this making him unhappy or just making me unhappy?" says Dr. Perri Klass, pediatrician and coauthor of "Quirky Kids: Understanding and Helping Your Child Who Doesn't Fit In—When to Worry and When Not to Worry." "Is he having a perfectly good time in school, but he's not interested in the things the other kids are interested in? Or is he desperately trying to be part of something but doesn't seem to understand how? I'm not talking about a child who's a developmental emergency, I'm talking about the kid who's different."

According to Klass and her coauthor, Dr. Eileen Costello, skewed development, temperamental extremes and social complications are the hallmarks of so-called quirky kids. They define this enigmatic and varied group in their book as children with developmental variations: kids who don't talk on time or, alternately, "talk constantly but never seem to get their point across"; kids who have rigid routines or throw "nuclear tantrums"; toddlers who keep to themselves "while the rest of the playgroup lives up to its name."

Children who fall into these (and other) categories include Sam, 6, who confuses peers with his garbled verbal skills, but makes them laugh when he covers with silly voices and impressions; Parker, 13, whose daily routine includes reading Consumer Reports cover to cover, twice, and Jaden, 7, who prefers chatting with his Matchbox cars over talking to classmates. Two of these kids are diagnosed with high-functioning disorders, one is not. But all are at the center of a complicated debate among parents, educators and experts that includes arguments for and against getting a diagnosis (do labels help or stigmatize?) and lengthy discussions of the pros and cons of mainstreaming (should we keep quirky kids in "normal" schools, where they challenge themselves and those around them to think differently, or put them in "special" schools?).

A diagnosis can be a godsend, especially for families struggling to help a child who is clearly unable to function. It can give them some concrete answers, and offer resources where once there were none. But for a high-functioning child who may seem more enigmatic than disabled, the process and outcome is often frustratingly subjective. "We've been told Marcus has everything from autism to ADD to a blanket sensory disorder with such a long name, I can't even remember it," says Tara, the mother of a 7-year-old whose "stupid/smart" behavior has mystified his parents. "We get different answers depending on the specialist, and none of them seem to really fit. It makes you wonder how much of this is really founded and how much is just guesswork."

Klass argues that even though none of these diagnoses carries with them a recipe—i.e., take this pill and you're cured—they do "allow parents to access a certain amount of collective experience that may improve their child's strengths and help them work on areas that are weaker." Diagnoses also offer older kids who know they're different a set of clues as to why, and can essentially give those who never fit in a sense of belonging. But Mary-Dean Barringer, of the nonprofit learning institute All Kinds of Minds, says we put too much emphasis on the labels that others assign to our kids. "We're absolutely appalled by this diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome," says Barringer. (Asperger's is a high-functioning form of autism, marked by obsessive interests and impaired social interaction.) "These are very highly specialized minds, and to put a syndrome on it and treat it as an aberration does damage to kids and families. There are still challenges there on how to manage it, but why not call it a highly specialized mind phenomenon rather than a disorder? That label alone shapes public perception about uniqueness and quirkiness."

School is the most brutal frontier for these kids, and as we all know, anything from a lisp to a bad haircut is grounds for persecution. But there are other options, such as schools that specialize in specific disorders: the Monarch School in Houston is geared toward children on the autism spectrum; Landmark College in Vermont is constructed around the needs of kids with ADHD. Another way to go, experts say: if your son seems to focus only in math class, suggest capitalizing on his strengths by sending him to a school that emphasizes math and science. It will build up his confidence, and may lead to an increased interest in other areas. All Kinds of Minds has created courses (available to schools across the country) for all sorts of quirky kids who struggle with learning. Their advice to educators: take each case on an individual basis and empower kids with grass-roots techniques. "If a quirky kid is trying to talk to his 10-year-old peers about architectural design, I'd wait until they're alone, then say, 'You know, with that group, architecture's not going to work, but here are some topics that might'," suggests Barringer. "You can coach them in verbal pragmatics and even topic selection. They may not be the most popular kids, but it could help them navigate socially through those tough school years."

For parents and siblings, living with a kid who's different is almost always challenging: "It's hard on his two older brothers," says Lisa, the mother of a 6-year-old who's bright yet still can't carry on a coherent conversation with classmates. "They get frustrated and embarrassed that Matt is a little quirky. They don't know what to say to their friends, just like I don't know what to say to mine." But the disproportionate meltdowns at home or awkward public scenes that come with these kids are almost always balanced by equally extreme moments of wonder. Lily, who always wears her clothes inside out because the seams "are just too hurty," swears she can hear spiders walking on the wall two rooms away. Funny thing is, the 9-year-old is often right. "My son has never received a formal diagnosis, but has a handful of delays and quirks," says a parent who prefers to remain anonymous. "He's complicated and wonderful. I see his typical peers in preschool talking to each other, standing in line nicely, sitting in a circle. But they seem so 'flat' to me. I'll never have that issue with my son."

Every child is, of course, unique (quirky children, a little more so) and every individual situation calls for its own set of rules. But the challenges for parents with kids who are different—whatever their glitches and eccentricities may be—are remarkably the same. Can we make the world they're going to grow up in sufficiently kind and welcoming to them and their quirks, and can we provide them with the basic skills they need to navigate in that world? I eventually did consult experts. Some of what they said was helpful, but they offered no great, demystifying insights. I never really did expect anyone to totally peg my son; the fascinating little man changes on a daily basis. One day we call him Space Cookie, the next day Sweet Pea, the next our Tasmanian devil. But he is a whole person, the sum of all his average, stellar and quirky parts, and my job is much like any other parent's—to guide him when necessary, let go when I overdo it and constantly sweep for minefields (even ones I have inadvertently laid in his path) that threaten to obliterate his incredibly unique spirit. I can't wait to see who he becomes, this boy in a bright yellow canary suit, who insists on dancing to his own tune.

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