My family and I recently kayaked with manatees in Florida. It was a unique experience. Manatees, sometimes known as “sea cows” can weigh up to 1200 pounds – usually the sign of a formidable creature. At one point, my fourteen-year-old and I, sharing a kayak, found ourselves surrounded by seven manatees; yet we, and they, had no fear. Several of the manatees had bright stripes on their backs – a telltale sign, we learned, of unfortunate encounters with boat propellers. Not only are manatees slow to move, finding it difficult to get out of a motorboat’s path, they also don’t perceive danger. This made me think of the often-sweet nature of 2e humans, their vulnerability, and how frequently they find themselves in harm’s way.
As we gazed over the side of our kayak, we marveled at how close we were to the manatees, literally able to reach out and touch them. Each time a manatee came up for air we heard their signature exhale and saw just their noses poking through the water’s surface. Every once in a while, a manatee would swim right past our boat, or we’d see their tail poke out of the water as it descended. I noted bright white stripes on some of the manatees’ backs and couldn’t help but think about scars some twice exceptional people bear because they don’t recognize danger or get out of the way fast enough when they are being harmed. We learned that manatees’ scars never heal and that made me think about how hard it is for twice exceptional people to shed their scars that are often hidden well beneath the surface.
I juxtaposed the irony of the manatee, understood as a gentle, non-threatening animal even at its full-grown weight, with the oft-misunderstood twice exceptional person labeled as lazy, oppositional, manipulative, or just plain “bad.” The truth is, 2e people, like manatees, are vulnerable because of their nature; their deep empathy and ability to care so much. And, like manatees, twice exceptional individuals may not perceive danger in the same way as others. A 2e person’s exceptional abilities might overshadow their awareness of potential threats. Rather than “reading the room,” or noting someone else’s perspective, they may find themselves in situations where they struggle to navigate a world that operates with different priorities.
Sometimes, the 2e person can’t get out of their own way. Feeling a deep need to express a thought to its logical conclusion, a 2e person may not note that their audience is no longer engaged or interested. At other times, the 2e person fails to protect themselves and instead of asking for help, uses their strengths to plow through challenges. The result is exhaustion, overwhelm, and burn out. Still, other times, 2e people who feel a strong sense of justice, who are highly invested in a particular topic, keep pushing, thinking they can change the way someone else thinks. If they are unsuccessful, not only are they discouraged, but can become distressed at their failure to persuade.
Much like the scars on the backs of manatees, the 2e person’s wounds caused by misunderstanding, misperceptions, and inappropriate expectations don’t tend to heal quickly. The thing that struck me most about our day with the manatees was that, although their size and strength could be intimidating, we had no fear. In fact, we learned that alligators don’t attack manatees and manatees don’t attack alligators. They have a mutual respect. Though the alligator is surely faster than the manatee, he recognizes he couldn’t possibly eat 1200 pounds of meat and the manatee has no interest in attacking an alligator. This peaceful nature and reciprocal respect from a potentially impressive foe feel like a celebration of the manatee’s gentle nature and innocence.
There are poignant lessons 2e people can learn from the manatee. First, get out of the way when there’s a threat in your path. Avoid real danger but don’t allow potential danger to cause you to hide. Secondly, know that it’s okay to temporarily stop what you think is important, regroup, and address your concerns from a safer vantage point. Third, you are worthy of respect. As you navigate this world with others who may be stronger and weaker than you in different ways, play to your strengths and respect theirs. Know who you are, what matters to you, and be okay if that’s not exactly what matters to others. Back away when you start to feel hurt, but don’t avoid interactions altogether. Like the manatee, trust others to come close, and observe your uniqueness in awe. If they get too close for your comfort, withdraw and resurface when you feel safe. But don’t stay away too long or keep your authentic self, hidden. Allow others to marvel at the awesomeness that is you and above all, don’t let the scars on your back define who you are or what you can do.