This first-person column is the experience of Jennifer Fane, who lives in New Westminster, BC. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, please see the frequently asked questions.
Playing cards was our beloved family activity; our favorite game was contract whist or “Oh Hell” as we called it. My mom loved playing cards. Well, the social aspect of it anyway. I love cards, especially their competitive nature. We bump into each other in every game. It seemed to me that she was intentionally not paying attention to the rules of the game or estimating the number of hands she would win. Arguments broke out easily, tempers flared and everyone’s patience was tested.
But this was also something I was used to with my mom. Everyone in my family knew that my mom was different. We would make fun of her for her temporary blindness and for taking hours longer to do things than she would estimate. Or her system of remembering her tasks that included notes taped to walls and doors and stapled to her backpack.
Growing up, I was often frustrated when she struggled with what seemed like basic tasks to me. She ignored him and pointed out the things she was excellent at, which were many. Her patience, kindness, and empathy for everyone around her knew no bounds.
My mother completed her master’s degree when I was a little girl, which inspired me to pursue my own degrees. Although we both entered careers in public service (hers, nursing and counseling, and mine, education), our journeys were different. I struggled to understand how it took her nine years to complete a master’s degree even though she wasn’t working, while I completed a PhD in six years while she was working full time, also with a toddler.
I couldn’t understand how someone who was obviously intelligent and hard-working seemed so incapable of performing seemingly mundane tasks, such as meeting deadlines, following multi-step instructions, and reading maps, that seemed so simple to me.
It wasn’t until my career took an unexpected turn and I found myself working at a nonprofit that supports neurodivergent students that many aspects of my mother’s personality, strengths, and strengths made sense. As a teacher and professor, I had experience supporting children and young adults diagnosed with learning and development challenges, but this new role immersed me in the world of neurodiversity. It was then that I realized the extent to which learning differences went unnoticed and the impact this had on middle-aged and older people and their families.
With increasing awareness of neurodivergence, diagnosis rates of autism, ADHD and a range of learning disabilities such as dyslexia in children and young people continue to rise. More adults are also diagnosed later in life. This commonly happens when a father is supporting his son to receive a diagnosis and realizes during the process that he is also neurodivergent.
As I have met and supported families through their diagnosis journey, I have realized that there is also another category of people who are affected: people like me, who were raised by undiagnosed neurodivergent parents.
Suddenly, many of my experiences and memories of my mother made sense. Why she couldn’t estimate what hand of cards she would win or lose. Why, when I was eight, I was the one preparing the paper crafts for my Sunday school lesson instead of her. Well, at age 10, I was the one reading maps and looking up directions to the local hockey stadiums for my brothers’ games. Why at 25 you were rewriting and typing your annual Christmas letter because your ideas weren’t logically sequenced.
Now armed with my new professional knowledge, concepts like dyscalculia (mathematics learning disorder) and written production disorder were clearly evident in my mother’s struggles in daily life. So were other challenges, such as executive functioning (higher-order cognitive skills used to control and coordinate cognitive skills and behavior) in her struggles, such as planning and time management. Everything finally made sense.
Finally, I asked him if he thought he might have learning problems. It was then that she shared that several of her colleagues had encouraged her to undergo a psychoeducational evaluation, the same routine evaluation used to diagnose learning problems that she would have recommended to her own clients. When I asked her why she hadn’t done it, she revealed to me that she was too scared to know if she was “stupid.”
I was surprised and deeply saddened. Unfortunately, feeling “stupid” is a common experience among people with undiagnosed learning difficulties. But I never expected my mother, who understood what a learning disability was and supported those who suffered from it, to be so afraid. The years of pain, shame and fear were clear on her face. All she could do was try to reassure her as she felt so ashamed for being so unfriendly and insensitive to her challenges.
Now I look at many of my mother’s struggles and see a lot of strengths. Those nine years working toward a master’s degree? That was her unwavering perseverance in her profession and her desire to help others. Sure, she probably had dyscalculia, but she also had greater verbal and reading skills. Writing was a challenge, but that didn’t stop him from painstakingly writing cards and letters to her loved ones; that was the depth of caring for her.
As I began my own journey as a new parent marred by uncertainty and anxiety, my mother’s life affective empathy — a strength for many neurodivergent people – which allowed her to shine as a mental health doctor and brought us closer than ever. And these lessons in empathy, patience, and understanding others different from me have proven to be the most powerful tools my mother could have given me as a mother to help my son find his way in the world.
About 22 percent of the Canadian population has learning disabilities.
My mom was never diagnosed. She had accommodations in the workplace, but she never fully accepted her neurodivergence before she died two years ago. I try not to think too much about what she could have done differently. She was an amazing mother and grandmother, and now I just want to help other people I know through my work understand that her parents are amazing in her own way, too.
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