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My son has the same condition as Amanda Gorman — and he taught me to listen

Amy Aves Challenger
·5-min read
La gente elogia a Amanda Gorman tras su actuación histórica (Getty Images)
La gente elogia a Amanda Gorman tras su actuación histórica (Getty Images)

Everyone wants to hear what Amanda Gorman will say or do next since she read her poem The Hill We Climb at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. This week, she signed a modeling contract, received a prestigious job offer, and her social media accounts became more popular than most politicians. And little wonder: with graceful hands, Gorman wove us through a story of America’s racism, of diverse suffering, and especially of our division. Then with the concept of dawn, she painted an astonishing potential for unity and healing. She called for boldness not simply in her poem’s final stanza, but in the daffodil shade of her coat, in the ruby-red sash in her bun, and in the fact that she was a Black woman glowing with authority on stage in front of the world, reading poetry.

But what was the strangest to me was this: the world listened.

What’s her story? I wondered. I read up on her — and found that she has an auditory processing disorder, the same as my own child.

“Have you heard of auditory processing disorder?” I’ve often asked my son’s educators, trying to make my words as clear as Amanda Gorman’s.

Auditory processing disorder, or APD, is defined by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders as “when people have trouble making sense of the sounds around them.”

My son has survived open heart surgery and other heart complications. But over the years, his APD and autism have caused him to suffer most.

“He hears you, but the words aren’t getting to the right place right away,” I’ve said to so many people, feeling like I’m speaking into the deep tunnel of his difficult childhood. His reading comprehension is excellent. His writing skills are ideal. But the sounds around him get all mixed-up. And he feels overwhelmed.

Meanwhile principals, gym teachers, and “design thinking” instructors have stared from a distant place, avoiding change in themselves, deaf to my words. After all, my son looks pretty “normal.” But he interrupts, talks over people at times, and misinterprets social situations.

I shared data about APD with these people, and showed my son’s SCAN-3 test scores that described how he was in the 18th percentile for recognizing social language and the 1st percentile for word integration. But more explicitly his report spells out, “Where he faltered, it was in judging appropriateness of information, presupposition, and requesting permission and assistance.”

I’ve explained that locker rooms, big gyms, and noisy classrooms bounce sound like firecrackers, triggering anxiety, causing him difficulty in filtering instructions. And I’ve detailed success strategies: keep him near the front, share notes, allow him to wear headphones during study time, and permit repeated questions without eye-rolls.

Then I’ve tried to empathize with the teachers’ subsequent lack of response. Hearing, I’ve learned, is complex.

How does an educator process words from the mother of a child with disabilities? So wide has the space felt between us. In their defense, they’ve been distracted by mainstream budgets, tests, increasing class size, students who distract, take time. They’ve been recalling perhaps that they learned algebra fine; they made friends without their moms explaining the circuitous path of sound.

My son struggled not just with teachers and unwinding facts from abstract classroom presentations. He struggled with peers who watched him traipse through packed hallways and noisy classes with a “shadow” following him while reciting everything he’d misunderstood. Of course, they teased him.

My son didn’t understand social situations in real time. And so he often came home with knotted versions of a day which my husband and I tried to untangle. Why was he called “f****t”, “r****d”, “mentally ill” again? Why had kids designed a logo about him and told him to kill himself? Why did a boy post a poll on Instagram asking peers to rate his “level of retardation”? How could I help parents and teachers hear me – the cruelty of others was causing new disabilities in my son including anxiety, depression and trauma.

But this story takes place during a month of unity, when a young Black woman with APD read a poem and people listened. And like all who have survived special needs, race wars, bullying, politics, the storming of the Capitol, and COVID-19, my son survived too. At age 15, he’s built his success through suffering, discerning, through keen word choices that he’s studied because of his strong desire to make friends and narrow the divide between himself and others. Due to his disability, he’s been forced to compensate for those who haven’t heard him through the years. Because he’s old enough to define his challenges, he’s got words like “neurodiversity” in his arsenal now, and he appears more fact-based and confident than the average teen.

“Sir, I don’t always hear everything, even when I listen,” he says. “That’s why I need to take notes on my iPad. I need headphones when I study.”

Now he tells me when a teacher condescends to him about his “condition” in front of other students, but he asks me not to intervene. “I need to speak for myself,” he says, glad to be rid of the old “shadows” who haunt his memories.

“I just want to be heard like a normal kid,” he says. I tell him everyone feels that way. I tell myself it’s ironic that a child with a hearing disorder wants to be heard.

Last week at the presidential inauguration, I think Amanda Gorman was trying to demonstrate not just good poetry, but a kind of radical, national “hearing.” She showed us that we need to listen to all kinds of people not only with our ears, but with our minds and hearts, where “love becomes our legacy and change, our children’s birthright.”

I think that only when we listen to one another will we be “brave enough to see it,” as she wrote. Only when we listen to one another can we follow a young person’s lead to where our children and country can heal.