SARAH SMILEY

Colorblindness could be missing link

Posted May 15, 2011, at 4:13 p.m.

I always thought Lindell was being silly when he said green was orange and red was black. Who could blame me? Lindell, 4, is the child who mooned me at the dinner table. His first word was “SpongeBob.” He thinks whoopie cushions are hilarious. And if you throw him a ball, he’ll fetch it with his mouth like a dog. Most days he insists we call him “Scooby,” and once, when Ford and Owen whined about wanting a pet, Lindell said, “Why? You have me!”

In short, Lindell takes few things seriously.

So there I was reading him “Go, Dog, Go,” and I asked, “Can you point to the orange dog?” He pointed to every green dog on the page. And these dogs weren’t just kind of green; they were unarguably green. Or, at the very least, they most definitely were not orange.

“Stop being silly,” I said. “Can you point to the orange dog?”

Lindell twisted his lips for a moment. Then he said, “Oh fine, you be Daphne, and I’ll be Scooby.”

“No, I don’t want to play right now. I want you to point to the orange dog.”

Lindell sighed and said, “I’m done with this now, Mom.”

After Lindell went to sleep, I showed Dustin the page in the book. “He thinks this dog is orange,” I said pointing to the greenest of green dogs.

“Maybe he’s colorblind,” Dustin said.

We both thought back to times before: when Lindell sorted his Fruit Loops by color and put many of them in the wrong pile; when he called a red Matchbox car “black”; when he could not see his brother’s soccer uniform against the green grass.

Suddenly it seemed so obvious. How could I have missed this?

Let’s review: I read all the parenting books when I was pregnant the first time, and I had two children to practice on before I had Lindell. When one of my babies smelled like maple syrup, I knew it was cause for worry. When baby Owen’s eyes never teared, I knew he needed to see a doctor. I’ve made countless trips to the pediatrician’s office to investigate “warning signs”: a foot that turns in, a tooth that won’t come out, rashes and fevers. And still, it never occurred to me that Lindell’s confusion with colors might be anything except silliness.

The next day, I found an online test for colorblindness. You’ve probably seen these: Multicolored circles surround a slightly different-colored number in the middle. I showed the picture to Lindell. “What do you see in the middle of this circle,” I asked.

“A bunch of other circles?” he said unsure.

He couldn’t see the number. Dustin’s pilot heart broke a little.

My oldest brother, Van, is colorblind, too. I called him that night to get more information.

“I’ve learned to compensate,” Van said. “Lindell will, too.” Then he accidentally gave Dustin a leg up in their next round of golf: If Van uses an orange ball, he can’t see it in the grass. He hits it once, and then it’s gone for good. But Van assured me that outside of not being fit for flight school, Lindell’s colorblindness will be nothing more than a nuisance most of his life.

A few weeks later, Lindell and I were shopping for shoes. “Do you want the green ones or the blue ones?” I asked.

Lindell ignored me. He fell on the ground and rolled around.

“I don’t have time for this, Lindell,” I said. “We’re in a hurry. Green or blue? Pick — ”

Before I could finish my sentence, I remembered. Oh! “What colors do you see?” I asked him, holding one of each pair in my hand.

“Orange and blue?” he said, again unsure.

That’s when I realized that colorblindness might be nothing more than a nuisance, but left unrecognized, it could be the missing piece to some children’s “misbehavior.” All those times I thought Lindell was being defiant, he actually didn’t understand what I was asking.

And now I recognize that this has spilled over to other areas as well. Stubborn to our attempts to teach him letter recognition, Lindell, we suspect, has lost confidence in his ability to identify what he sees. After all, if he tells us it’s an “A,” will we say, “No, that’s a ‘B’,” the same way we tell him “orange” is “green”?

Colorblindness. We seldom think about it. Most parenting books have a paragraph, at most, on the subject. And yet nearly 7 percent of males see colors differently from the rest of us. That amounts to a lot of schoolchildren pointing to the wrong color or picking up the wrong crayon, and then not understanding why their teacher tells them to “pay better attention next time.”

I always watched for the big stuff — diseases, disorders, accidents — that might affect my children’s behavior. It never occurred to me that something as simple as identifying colors could be just as important.

But it seems Lindell has accepted his uniqueness. The other day, he overheard one of his brothers saying, “Lindell is colorblind.” Lindell yelled from the other room, “Hey, maybe all of you are colorblind!”

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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