My Kid Ever Be Normal?
by Delia O'Hara, Chicago Sun-Times, January 5, 2004
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pediatricians Perri Klass and Eileen Costello couldn't find a
comprehensive book to give parents who feared their children had
begun to veer off on a tangent, away from the "normal"
developmental curve, so they wrote one: Quirky Kids:
Understanding Your Child Who Doesn't Fit In (Ballantine Books;
Quirky Kids addresses the bewildering and distressingly common
array of what Klass calls "new names for old problems" --
autism-spectrum disorders, Asperger's syndrome, pervasive
developmental disorder and sensory integration disorder, among
others -- that keep parents up nights wondering if their
children will ever have friends, a way to make a living,
families of their own.
Every adult remembers some of these "odd ducks" from his own
childhood, Klass says. Some of them perhaps went on to be
computer geniuses; others got "chewed up" along the way.
Recent medical advances mean that many more of these children
can be helped to realize their potential, but where to begin?
"We noticed we were talking a lot about these kids, and about
this overlapping, fascinating universe of quirky kids, and to a
great extent, it seemed that parents and pediatricians were left
to figure it out on their own," Costello says.
Readers will quickly hear the voice of the loving parent coming
through the professional advice, because the authors, both
mothers of three, have quirky kids of their own.
They, too, have had "the experience of lying awake at night
trying to figure out, 'Is something really wrong, is something
not really wrong?' We had to promise when we set out to write
this book not to tell tales out of school, but we come to this
with parental experience," Klass says.
"We've been around the block," Costello says. "We've been around
a number of blocks between us."
Klass, an author of both fiction and nonfiction and a columnist
for Parenting magazine, and Costello have known each other since
their medical residencies in Boston. They are both on staff at
the Boston University School of Medicine and practice together
at Dorchester House, a community health center. This is
Costello's first book.
Quirky Kids takes parents from their first vague worries -- or
even "a major red flag, like a child who has absolutely no
language by age 3 or who cannot stand the feeling of his own
skin, or can't interact with other children or with toys in a
way that brings pleasure," Costello says -- through a discussion
of the types of specialists they might consult and the diagnoses
they may receive. Then, onto choosing a school, how to navigate
the perilous waters of a quirky kid's social life, to therapies
and medications that parents might be called on to consider.
As parents will quickly learn, "There's a huge cast of
characters assessing, evaluating, helping these children.
Depending on what age the child is and who he sees, the
diagnosis can be any number of different things. It's a very
confusing world for parents when they're just starting out,"
Getting to the proper professionals is important. As Klass puts
it, "If you go to Midas, you're going to get a muffler. People
will see your child through the lens of their professional
training and experience."
Parents have to arm themselves with knowledge just to understand
the context in which their children will be viewed.
The authors would like to think that pediatricians can help
parents, but have come to believe that "most pediatricians, like
most teachers, don't know nearly enough" about quirky kids.
"Pediatricians are great ones for the tincture of time," the
idea that children will outgrow most early problems, Costello
says. But she and Klass have come to believe that while waiting
often is the best plan, there are many children who benefit from
intervention at an early age.
For those children, not only is greater improvement sometimes
possible while the brain is more plastic, but "getting help in
the first decade can really pay off in the second decade, when
parents have less control over their day-to-day life," Costello
On the other hand, therapeutic interventions have become big
business, and it's easy for worried parents to get drawn into
expensive therapies for which there are no solid scientific
"There are organizations in every major city in the United
States where you can bring the most typically developing child
in the universe and get a diagnosis [of one of these
conditions]. It's hard to tease it out," Costello says.
Even "reputable therapies" often heap a "load of guilt" on
parents, adding to the guilt family members who don't grasp the
situation may already have piled on these parents. "There's no
end to how you can push parents' feelings," Klass says.
Costello and Klass interviewed more than two dozen parents for
their book, and a recurring theme was the importance of finding
one person, perhaps at a child's school, who understands the
child's condition and serves as that child's "champion,"
advocating for her with teachers and other professionals. Says
Klass, "There are many good people in the schools, but you have
to find them."
Klass and Costello note that while it often seems that these
conditions are on the rise, to an extent that is because some
other diagnoses, notably mental retardation, are on the
decrease. That is, more children are getting more accurate
diagnoses and help toward useful, happy lives.
At the end, the book brings the quirky kid into adulthood, which
for higher-functioning individuals can be calmer than childhood.
"We're so much more tolerant of quirky adults than we are of
quirky kids," Klass says. "We have such high expectations of
children now. There's a lot of pressure to be good at
"Our field, medicine, is full of these people -- people with
poor handwriting, poor social skills, peculiar obsessions. Many
quirky kids have special skills that they can build into
As for the parents, "It's a long, hard job being your child's
advocate," Klass says. "But then, no parent gets to look back
over his child's life and think, 'I did everything right.' "
Pediatricians Dr. Perri Klass and Dr. Eileen Costello chose the
term "Quirky Kids" for the title of their new book because
"other people in the field were using it, and it's an
affectionate term," Klass says.
"Some people were offended by it; some people thought it wasn't
serious enough. We wanted to focus on the positive," adds
Some of the best parts of Quirky Kids have to do with everyday
life with these "interesting, often charming" kids, as Costello
calls them. But the authors, who have quirky kids of their own,
take some flat-footed stands on controversial topics in the
* Quirky kids should get a full and honest picture of human
sexuality in the language they'll hear on the street, including
a presentation of masturbation as a normal but private part of
life. "It's hard to talk about these things, but we believe in
erring on the side of spelling them out. These kids are very
literal-minded; they're not going to pick up subtle hints,"
* Parents need to demand that their children's schools address
bullying, so that, among other responses, bullies meet with
"retribution, swift and terrible." Says Costello, "Bullying is
huge for these kids." They belong at a school that treats
bullying as a serious problem, with serious consequences, the
* Mothers of quirky kids should work, at least part time. "Just
as you don't want to reduce your child to the diagnosis, you
don't want to reduce your own identity to 'the mama of the
diagnosis,' " Klass says. "You need to be attentive to your own
* Therapeutic treatment should not be allowed to swamp a
family's activities together. "Your child has to have a
childhood. Your family has to have a family life. You have to
ask, 'What's reasonable? What's helping?' " and families should
reassess the answers to those questions on a regular basis,
-- Delia O'Hara
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