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The School Challenges My Son Faces Due to ADHD, Anxiety and Depression

Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

I was wrong and so were his teachers. But I know better now, and I’m using my skills as a communications professional to “school” my son’s teachers in what it’s like to be gifted as well as depressed and anxious.

Let me back up and be honest. I thought my son was bored because he is really smart. He always struggled with sitting still in class and following instructions. After he was determined to be gifted and diagnosed with ADHD, we thought advancing him from first to second grade mid-school year to give him more challenging work as well as ensuring he had an IEP in place would solve the problems. I repeated what his teachers were telling him; pay attention in class, do the assigned homework and just ask for more time if needed. This continued through grade school and junior high, so we kept pushing him to do as much as he could and turn in assignments to show he knew the materials. Teachers would say, “He’s so smart, he should be able to do this work without any problems.” And at the time, I agreed.

And then he started high school and it got worse. The teachers who understood him and his needs didn’t require homework or did verbal assessments versus writing papers or tests with essays. And he enjoyed and passed those classes without issue. But other teachers didn’t modify his assignments, got increasingly frustrated with his lack of attention in the classroom and the missing work stacking up. I’d get phone calls and emails, so I’d ask for copies of the work to sit down with him to do as much as we could in the evenings. I’d get frustrated and he’d get frustrated. Homework time was horrible for both of us. Grades continued to dip and edged towards failing. A kind person from the high school (who will always remain nameless as they aren’t allowed to have conversations like these) suggested therapy. Therapy? But he’s fine, he just doesn’t want to do the work. Or so I thought. We had a few conversations about why therapy would be helpful, so I relented and found a therapist who understood gifted kids with ADHD.

After over a year of weekly therapy (not covered by insurance and required me to drive an hour from work to home, then another hour to the office, then an hour long appointment and an hour back to home), his therapist suggested we review his diagnosis and medications with a psychiatrist versus just consulting a neurologist. Instead, I discussed this with his pediatric neurologist who added medication for depression based on some major behavior changes. Then we tried different depression medications with various dosages. The school year finished with the failing classes doubling each semester, and the therapist again suggested seeing a psychiatrist.

What I didn’t realize was that my son was both depressed and anxious, brought out by the demands of high school and traditional ways of assessing knowledge. While I was telling him to just sit down and write the paper, he was frozen by his brain struggling with starting to put words on paper while it was simultaneously running through all the “what ifs” (typically negative thoughts) over and over.

The psychiatrist drastically changed his medications, by removing one ADHD medication he’d been on for years, doubling the dosage of the current depression medication and adding another for anxiety. This also prompted me to request a meeting with all his teachers, his guidance counselor and the school social worker. I explained that while we all knew he’s gifted and has ADHD as noted in his IEP, we also now know he is depressed and has anxiety. I shared that while he may seem like he’s not paying attention because he’s looking at his phone or tablet, he really is. Just ask him. And that homework is not likely to be completed, especially if it’s asking for details. He does math in his head and writing how he came to the answer likely won’t happen. His hand struggles to keep up with his fast-moving brain, so writing is painful, in a sense. I asked for them to consider modifying assessments in ways that still get to show he knows the materials, but perhaps in unconventional ways. Some teachers jump on this and he does well. Some don’t see the need since he’s “smart enough to do the work as assigned.” Some will modify only if he makes the request himself after each assignment, but this rarely happens as he doesn feel comfortable self-advocating yet.

For the last year, we’ve changed medications every few months and we are finally starting to see some changes. He seems less self-isolating and is eager to talk about technology-related projects he’s working on. But he’s still failing many classes each semester. He made up two this summer and he’s going into his senior year with two more to retake. I worry about him graduating with his class. And I worry what after high school looks like for him — is it community college, trade school or a full-time job? Time will tell and right now, it’s time to meet all his new teachers and again explain how we can work together to help him succeed.

Getty image by Moore Media