What My Child Taught Me About ADHD That My Ph.D. Didn't

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When I say what I do for a living, most people reply, “Huh?” I’m a rehabilitation neuropsychologist. I assess cognitive and emotional functioning in people who have had a brain injury, stroke or other neurological conditions. Then we develop a rehab plan, identifying strengths and developing strategies to compensate for any weaknesses. I love my work because even if two patients have the same diagnosis, there’s never a one-size-fits-all solution.

That’s why at work and at home, I always appreciated Dr. Spock’s classic advice to parents: “Trust yourself — you know more than you think you do.” After all, the brain has billions and billions of neurons, and no one can say exactly how they all work together. So when my daughter was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a young child, I thought, “No big deal — I got this.” I often work with people with ADHD, focusing especially on problems with executive functioning (EF). Those are the higher-level skills that your brain uses to know where to direct its attention, for planning, time management and keeping track of what’s going on. Medication can help with attention, but EF skills often need to be taught.

All was well and good, until my daughter was in middle school and forgetting to write down her homework, or writing it but forgetting to bring the right books home, forgetting to do the homework, and/or doing it but forgetting to turn it in, and her school was not implementing the structure that could lighten the EF load. One day, in a particularly low moment of frustration (along with a building panic at the thought that maybe she might not make it out of that grade, let alone high school), I said to her, in the most non-therapeutic tone possible, “How could you have forgotten your homework again?”

To which she replied, “Mom! I have ADHD!”

And she was right. Luckily, there was one person in the room who understood brain-behavior relationships, because the higher levels of my brain, drenched in a cascade of cortisol (the stress hormone), had apparently made an executive decision to go out for lunch, leaving the “primitive” part of the brain in charge. All the knowledge I routinely share with people at work, encouraging them to be understanding of ADHD symptoms rather than rage against them, went right out of my head, replaced by the fear that maybe I didn’t know what I was doing and if I didn’t get things under control soon, the doors to my daughter’s success in life would be slammed shut.

Hence, my question whose answer was obvious. But perhaps it wasn’t a total #ParentFail, because my daughter had somehow developed a better sense of herself at 13 than I had at her age (or let’s face it, at 30). She understood what she was dealing with and had learned to advocate for herself. So perhaps it’s time to propose a corollary to Dr. Spock’s adage: Trust what they know.

As in, trust that a pre-kindergartener with an inexplicable fondness for horses might know what she’s talking about when she draws this picture:

Child's drawing of person riding horse. It says "When I grow up, I want to be a horseback rider."

Let me explain. We are not a “horsey” family, but because my daughter was obsessed with horses, I signed her up for riding lessons, figuring she’d try it for a while and then her interest would fade. Not quite. Somehow, this child who seemed at risk of missing the entire 7th grade curriculum could focus for hours when she was riding and never forgot any of her gear (excuse me, her tack) when packing for lessons. And at school, she found wonderful teachers who encouraged her to write almost every essay and do every art project about horses (or so it seemed). Twelve years later, she is applying to colleges with equine studies programs — something I didn’t even know existed when I was having my middle-school meltdown.

So after years of education and experience in neurocognitive functioning, now I can add my two cents to the unending stream of advice for parents of children with disabilities. Maybe I should have known it once I had my doctorate, but it took a kid with a disorganized backpack and a clear mind to set me straight: Brains may be “neurotypical” or they may have all sorts of idiosyncrasies. Who knows exactly what each child’s path in life will be? But generally speaking, if you’re a good enough parent that you’re worrying about it, I believe your child will be fine. You can deal with any problems that arise. But first, take a deep breath. Sometimes you just have to trust that the kids will be all right — if you can avoid panicking, trust them to discover the things they’re good at and then basically stay out of their way. Especially if they’re on top of a thousand-pound horse.

girl riding a horse

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment someone changed the way you think about disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When I Realized What I Say Isn't Always What My Son With ADHD Hears

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It’s one of those days. A day seemingly like any other, where I wake and go through my normal routine of breakfast, packing lunches, yelling about getting socks on and to stop sitting on each other’s heads — a day where everything seems “normal” until it’s not.

My son asked me to come watch a video with him. He’s been talking about these videos all weekend and asking me to watch. I haven’t been paying attention but have managed to successfully nod and murmur at appropriate times while saying, “Not right now.” I had just said no again, was putting the dog in his kennel and thinking about my to-do list. I looked up to see him standing there. His hands were twisting around one another, his shoulders slumped. He looked at me, frowning. I didn’t understand what was happening and was about to give him grief for not getting his bag together and standing there
with no socks on, but there was something about the way he looked that stopped
me.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“You just said you don’t care,” he says to me. My first response was to say quickly, “Oh no I didn’t,” and move on. Because I truly didn’t. My stomach clenched because I felt something coming, and I was nervous.

“Why are you standing there like that?” I asked, almost not wanting to hear the answer. He shook his head, pulled his eyes away from mine and went to put his socks on. Motherhood pushed me forward gently. I bent before him. “Why were you just standing there looking at me like that?” I asked, looking him in the eye, at his level, my hand on his knee. I felt it before I saw it, that gut-wrenching feeling as you watch someone you love deeply hurting. He crumpled. He wouldn’t meet my eyes, but I could see the tears in his. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. But I heard him, and it did matter. I didn’t know what “it” was, but it mattered.

“Please talk to me,” I said softly, still close to him.

“You just said you don’t care,” he said, working so hard to hold back tears. “I asked you to come watch the video and you said no and you don’t care.”

That was the realization. What I say is not always what he hears.

Heather's son at home
Heather’s son at home

My son is and always has been a very feeling boy. He is so in tune with my moods and emotions, he can tell when I have a migraine, when I’m tired, when I’m stressed and when I’m happy — all without me saying a word. He knows when my left eye droops, it’s a bad headache. He knows when I am pale that I am tired. He knows when I sigh deeply, I am stressed and thinking about something.

It hit me in that moment that my son might know me better than I know him.

This person sitting in front of me is someone I think know better than anyone. I know his voice, the way the right side of his hair curls up in the front when it gets too long. I know his sense of humor, his hobbies, his struggles. I know. So when it hits me that there is something I don’t know, I’m stunned.

I don’t know how my son sees his world. He has ADHD, and his world is so different than mine, we might as well be on different planets, speaking different languages. And I think at times, maybe we do speak different languages. Because my son is noisy, continually moving, forgetful, persistent to a fault, eager, excitable, messy and more. His days are filled with people around him telling him to stop. Stop talking, humming, doodling, moving. Stop to clean up his mess, do his homework and remember his socks. Stop asking questions, fidgeting – just stop. It gets tiresome even for me and I’m his mother. Others don’t have the tie to him that I have, that fierce Momma Bear feeling that comes out and wants to protect him from everything — all the hurt, pain and
judgment that comes at him daily because he’s a little different.

So when I realize that I have now become one of those people, someone who discounts him, who just wants him to be, well, not like him, it crushes me. When he gets into something, he gets into it with all of his being. The stuff he gets into is important to him, all-consuming at times, and because it is important to him, he wants to share that with the people he cares about. But because he ends up being so persistent, not knowing when to stop asking, not knowing when to take no for an answer, he ends up hurting. Because people get tired, tired of saying no, tired of him asking the same question different ways, hoping to get the answer he is looking for.

Our conversation makes me see that he is so used to hearing no, so used to be discounted, ignored and making people upset that he hears everything through a lens of negativity. My simple no translated into “I don’t care about your video. I don’t care about you.” My actions were telling him everything else was more important.

I could sit here and argue with him, explain why he is wrong, tell him that’s not what I said — but instead I say, “I’m sorry I hurt you. I do care. Right now we need to get ready for school, but how about we plan to watch the video tonight after dinner?” That’s all it took. He perked up and sat straighter and said, “You promise?” I nodded.

I do promise. I promise to keep kindness in mind. I promise to remember it only takes a second to hear someone and let them know they’ve been heard. This is vital for all relationships, but even more so for my son. I promise to work to change “no” to “not right now, but how about …” I can’t always say yes, and I won’t. But I can be gentler in how I reply. I can work to ensure my words accurately reflect my intent. I don’t always have to be interested in his stuff, but I can be interested in him.

I promise. I can listen. I care. It hurts how much I care.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Describe the moment someone changed the way you think about disability, disease or mental illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Why I Haven't Told My Mother's Family About My ADHD

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You think you know me. The American. Your oldest daughter’s oldest daughter. The bilingual college graduate…go ahead, fill in the blank.

But there is one thing you don’t know about me. One thing I am terrified to tell you.

I am terrified to tell you I have ADHD.

It’s not because I don’t have the vocabulary for it. It’s because I don’t know how you’ll react. I’m terrified you will judge me. The only representations of disability that I see are on TV specials or soap operas about the physically disabled or terminally ill patients.

Alisa Tanaka.2-001

There is a stigma around the word “disability” in Japan. I don’t want to be seen as an object of inspiration. I want to be seen as a person. I don’t want you to treat me any differently than you have been. I want you to learn about disability from someone you know, rather than just believing what the media feeds you.

I believe every learning difference (as I prefer to call them) manifests itself differently in everyone. Just because I don’t exhibit the stereotypical symptoms of a learning difference doesn’t mean I don’t have it.

A few of you saw me walk across the stage and receive my diploma that sunny day in Oregon, but you never saw the notes other people took for me in class that I pored over, the office hours I went to or the extra time I was given during exams so I could get the grades I did. You might think it was just because I have always worked hard. I did work hard, but there is more to it than that.

So please don’t just say something like, “Do your best,” because sometimes the best thing for me to do is to walk away. Please don’t trivialize things I talk about by scoffing or snorting and saying, “That’s easy!” The truth is, some things that may be simple for you might be difficult for another person.

I’ve always wanted to ask you the question, “When you hear the word ‘disability,’ what do you think of?” I haven’t because I’m terrified of your answer. I’m terrified that if I’m open and honest about it, you won’t be understanding. I’m afraid you’ll put me in a (metaphorical) box labeled “damaged goods.” I’ve found the word “disability” is a label that society puts on others when we don’t do things the way “normal” people do.

I know societies love to categorize people, put them in boxes and sort them away because it’s easier. Labels are easy. I’ve lived with a label for over half of my life, and I usually forget about it. My friends forget about it because they see me for who I am. I don’t usually talk about it because I don’t want my past to define me. You can make it work. You can still contribute to society.

My brain simply processes information differently than others. That’s why I call it a learning difference. I can learn things; I just learn them in a different way than what you’re used to seeing. I can function. I’ve learned how to manage my symptoms. I’ve learned how to work around the roadblocks I’ve encountered. I don’t see it as a disability. I see it as a strength.

If by chance you see this, you might not be able to read it. But even if you do, I hope you will see me as the member of your family who you love and care for and not a disabled individual. I can’t hope to change the culture of the country where you live or how your national media portrays disabled individuals, but I can hope that one day, I can speak to you openly about this part of me, experience acceptance and maybe even challenge your beliefs surrounding disabilities (though I hope that by the time we have this conversation, I won’t have to).

I love you.

Follow this journey on Navigating Life on the Hyphen.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability and/or disease. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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What This Woman Never Said to Classmates Who Questioned Her Learning Disabilities

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Scout MacEachron is a successful writer and journalist who written for media outlets like NBC.com and Marie Claire, but the path to get there has been filled with challenges.

MacEachron, 26, was diagnosed with ADHD, mild dyslexia, a math disability and a language disability as a child. After spending time with tutors, finding the right medication and figuring out a successful system at school, she was able to both fit in and perform in the classroom.

Still, MacEachron needed extra time on tests, and this was not something her classmates understood.

Having a handicap that people can’t see is a constant fight of justification,” MacEachron wrote in an article for Seventeen.com. She went on to describe the embarrassment she felt when she stayed in the classroom after everyone else, and how “everything was a battle.”

Some of her friends questioned the extended time she received on exams while others tried to convince their parents to have them assessed so they might receive the same treatment.

“I never told my friends it took me twice as long to do my homework, that I got so lost in mathematical equations I wanted to cry, and that I still couldn’t list the months in order despite being 16 years old,” MacEachron wrote. “Instead, I let them be jealous and kept my pencil-breaking moments to myself.”

Shooting with Dateline. #DatelineNBC #shooting #TV #muggin Posted by Scout MacEachron on Friday, November 14, 2014

 

She encourages others to see thing from her perspective and think about her daily life before making a snap judgment. She wrote:

Imagine your thoughts are constantly interrupted. Imagine not being able to do basic math. Imagine spelling or saying things so wrong it’s comical. Imagine being consistently late despite every effort not to be. Imagine having your intelligence and capability consistently questioned because of things you can’t control.

That’s what it’s like to have a learning disability.

Read the full Seventeen.com article here.

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I'm Not Embarrassed by My Child's 'Made Up' Diagnosis

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I’m angry.

Well, maybe that’s too strong a word.

I’m frustrated.

No, that just won’t cut it.

I’m angry, frustrated, sad, disappointed, surprised…

Over the past week this amalgamation of negative emotions has reached its boiling point. Suddenly I’m on fire. In this past week alone, I’ve read no fewer than seven articles relating to childhood ADHD, and most of them have left me white knuckled and aggravated. All of them, in one way or another, have touched on feelings of shame — both parental and child — associated with this diagnosis. They reeked of an essence of bravery, a feeling that these authors were courageous in publicly admitting their child had ADHD or used medication to control it. Don’t get me wrong, these women are absolutely brave for sending these thoughts into the vastness of the Internet; but they shouldn’t have to be. 

It shouldn’t be this hard to discuss a valid medical diagnosis with very real effects. There’s such an intense stigma attached to this acronym; it’s astounding. Four little letters, that in any other combination could carry a benign meaning, have parents embarrassed into silence — as if something their child was born with, that neither they nor that child had absolutely any control over, was their family’s dirty little secret.  

My son is almost 5. He has a medical diagnosis called ADHD. This disorder results in severe impulsivity, great difficulty waiting for turns, interrupting children’s play activities, interrupting conversations, blurting out answers to questions not directed him, acting recklessly, and so much more. I often try not to air his dirty laundry to the masses; but guess what? This isn’t his dirty laundry. It’s a simple fact. He has brown hair, he loves pasta, he has ADHD, and he has a little sister — all just facts. Would you have felt differently after reading the sentence if it had said, “He loves pasta, he has asthma, and he has a little sister?”   

Boy standing in front of fridge with the door open I’m not embarrassed by the documented medical condition that causes his challenging behaviors. It seems that most have forgotten or have chosen to ignore the fact that behind all the hype and possible over-diagnosis of the past few decades is a very real disorder with very real taxing characteristics. When people don’t believe in its existence they’re left uninformed. Parents are unaware and uneducated about the signs and characteristics to look for in early childhood. They’re sure their child will absolutely outgrow this. They’re left with family members and friends saying things such as, “All kids have a lot of energy,” or, “You just need to discipline a little better,” and my absolute personal fave, “Boys will be boys.” They’re left questioning their own instincts that something else, something bigger, might be brewing inside their child’s brain.  

I’ve found that unless you’re actually living through it, it’s extremely difficult to grasp just how significant this diagnosis can be, how much it can invade the daily life of an entire family. It really is so much easier to assume a child is defiant, to watch him at the playground dumping sand over everyone no matter how many times he’s reprimanded, to see him running wildly away from his mother into a parking lot while she runs after him calling like a maniac. Then to witness that kid doing the same thing again the next day and the day after that; same kid, same behavior, different day. 

How many of you have seen that child and that parent? How many of you have secretly thought, “What a terrible parent—she can’t keep her kid under control,” or “Won’t that kid ever learn?” and even, “Note to self: steer clear of sand dumping kid.” Stop and consider this for a second: Do you really truly think she wants him to continue to do these things day in and day out? That it’s so much easier to let him just behave that way? That she hasn’t tried everything, everything in her power to help him control himself? That every time she goes out in public with him she considers where the potential pitfalls lie?

It’s time to look harder, to start understanding this mom is dealing with a medical diagnosis, just like the mom of a child who has diabetes. It’s not fair of me to say something like that? Diabetes can cause lifelong health issues and potentially death, whereas ADHD is only a behavioral issue? Guess what, the lifelong effect of social anxiety, depression and poor self-esteem are pretty significant too. Being unable to maintain a job as an adult or to function successfully in society is a colossal problem. Being unable to have the vigilance to participate in a hobby or learn a subject matter that truly interests you is a colossal problem. Having potential difficulty making friends and maintaining friendships while feeling isolated, lonely and misunderstood is not insignificant; it’s an important factor in development and the person they grow up to be.  

I will not begin to tell you there are an infinite number of parents whose kids have medical diagnoses far more challenging than this. I’m in awe of these families, and I give them the full respect they deserve. However, facing a diagnosis most people think is made up comes with its own set of unique challenges. 

It’s time to stop hiding, put the kibosh on the unnecessary shame. The more we bring this into the open, the more we help our children.

Follow this journey on Man Vs Mommy.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability, disease or illness. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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To the People Who Think an ADHD Diagnosis Is ‘No Big Deal'

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“If you would just focus, you could do this.”

I remember being told this throughout my school years.

So I have to focus, focus on getting the work done. But then I begin to think about focus — why can’t I focus? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this? They said, “If I just focus,” but how do I do that? How do I focus? So now I’m focusing on focus and trying to figure out how to focus. It’s like a never-ending horse race of wondering about focus. Horse races are in circles. Me focusing on focus. So I wonder who won the Kentucky Derby last year? That’s a big horse race. I remember going to Derby parties as a kid.

Wait… Focus!

But man, those were some good parties. I miss those kind of parties. Focus… that’s right. I need to focus on my work. Yes, math work. Damn that’s a lot of work. But all I have to do is focus. No, I’m not going to do this. I will do it later. Look, there’s a squirrel climbing the tree. I wonder what he’s doing. Looking for food? Is it a male or female? How do you tell on a squirrel? Focus on math. But the squirrel is over there and he’s cute.

That’s how my brain works about 85 percent of the time. Never does one thought not lead in 10 different directions. I’ve gotten better at reining them in, but there are days it’s exactly like the paragraph above.

So if you think ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder, formerly called attention deficit disorder) is no big deal, that it’s an excuse or a copout for being lazy, please read the above paragraph. Imagine that every single day of your life with every single thought you have during 90 percent of your waking hours. Then you might get a tiny glimpse of what it’s like to have ADHD or ADD.

My brain never stops. Sometimes it overwhelms me, and I get depressed. Depression is commonly linked with ADHD/ADD, as is as anxiety disorder. I happen to suffer from all three of those. It’s hard for people to understand how depressed it makes you feel to know you are smart enough to do something, to know you could do it, but your brain can’t and won’t stop enough to let you do it. I could’ve made straight As in school. I was more than smart enough, but my mind wanted more — it wanted different than the school gave me — so I did the least amount to get by so I had time to dive into what my brain wanted. It’s never stopped, ever. Even as an adult, I still do the same thing.

If you know someone who has ADHD, please don’t discount that diagnosis as “no big deal.” A person with ADHD can struggle just as much with their own mind as some people struggle with real physical pain. It challenges those who have it in ways most people will never understand. Just the fact that our brains won’t work as we want them to can make us sad and feel alienated.

So when we look like we’re listening, but we really aren’t, it’s because our brains might be about 100 miles down the road on 10 other topics. We aren’t being rude, but our brains, well, they have other plans.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability and/or disease, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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