“But he’s a BOY,” my friend said, pouring us more wine. “They all act that way.”
She was trying to make light of the fact that our oldest was recently diagnosed with ADHD.
True. There is absolutely something connected to the Y chromosome that makes it easy for men/boys to tune out important sensory input when holding a remote control. (I used to joke that I could stand in front of my father while he was watching TV and shout, “I’ve just been gang-raped and the house is on fire!” And he would mumble, “hrmph” without blinking an eye, staring at whatever nonsense was on the boob tube.) And certainly, boys are more active than their female counterparts.
But that simplifies a complicated neurological condition.
The truth is, we all exhibit ADHD characteristics. We’re human beings. We hyperfocus on things that interest us. We forget why we walk into a room. We blurt something inappropriate on occasion and then look for a metaphorical shovel with which to dig a much-desired hole. But it’s a matter of degrees.
I knew something was up with my 10-year-old son when we came home from dinner at a friend’s house and pulled into the driveway. “Pajamas, brush teeth, bed,” I said.
“Can I read?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “But only if you can get in pajamas and brush teeth without my having to ask you seven more times.”
He burst into tears. “I can’t remember! You always ask me to do so many things and I can’t remember!”
I gripped the steering wheel dumbfounded. He wasn’t playing with a video game, or watching Cartoon Network. He was sitting in a dark car, in our driveway, approximately 37 steps from his bedroom. And he was crying that he couldn’t remember to do the two things we ask of him, repeatedly, every single night.
After some gentle reminders, our son was in pajamas, teeth relatively clean, and in bed reading. I sat next to him and asked, “You really can’t remember, by the time you get upstairs, that I’ve asked you to brush your teeth?” He shook his head. Let me state for the record that our house is not that big.
I asked another question. “Do you feel like there are ping-pong balls flying around in your head and you don’t know what to do first?”
He nodded. I asked if he felt this way at school, and once again, he said yes, especially in language arts when he has to write.
Oh, the writing. In 2nd grade, my son used to stay up at night writing stories. He even wrote what could be J.K. Rowling’s eighth – Harry Potter and the Bunny Ears. And then he started 3rd grade and could barely get a sentence down on paper. “More details” his teacher would encourage. “Write!” I’d say as he stared at a blank page. At the start of 4th grade he asked for a writing tutor. But still, every assignment was a struggle. And the only way that he could pen a paragraph was if I sat at the computer and typed while he dictated. The thoughts came too fast for him to write or type it himself.
On a quest to better understand my children, I must have read a dozen books this past summer – on everything from ADHD to Asperger’s; pervasive development delays to meltdowns. One book in particular really spoke to me – The ADD Book by Dr. Sears and Lynda Thompson. Interestingly enough, Dr. Sears hadn’t spoken to me a decade ago, when I was new to motherhood. On demand feedings, co-sleeping? No thank you. But now, I was listening loud and clear.
He explained that Attention Deficit Disorder is “a collection of traits that reflect the child’s inborn, neurologically based temperament.” And the way in which it appears in children varies by symptoms and degrees. He classified the main features as: selective attention – where a child operates at the two extremes of attention rather than in the middle, be it inattention or hyperfocusing. Distractibility – where the thoughts of a child with ADHD are scattered, or popping into his mind all at once. Impulsivity, or acting before thinking, which has not only academic, but social implications for the ADHD child. And finally, hyperactivity, which doesn’t occur in all children with ADHD but the presence of which makes it easier to diagnose.
Dr. Sears also spent time talking about what ADHD is not. First, it is not a deficit of attention, as evidenced by my son’s amazing ability to hyperfocus when he reads or builds legos. Furthermore, ADHD is not just about attentional difficulties, as indicated by the three other features.
What really warmed me to Dr. Sears, however, was when he said ADHD is not so much a disorder, as it is a difference – just like being left-handed is a difference. Certainly children with ADHD “are at a disadvantage due to their traits” but it’s not a “disorder that makes them abnormal.” According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately 6-9% of all children are affected by ADHD, with more boys being diagnosed than girls at a ration of 3:1.
All children daydream, get rowdy with friends or forget their homework. “The difference,” Dr. Sears explains, “is that children with A.D.D. demonstrate most of these traits, most of the time, to an extreme degree.” In order to qualify for a diagnosis, Dr. Sears informs, “the behaviors must be out of line with children of the same age and they must be causing impairment of functioning at home or school.”
Wow. The Night of the Toothbrush, as I refer to the moment in which my eyes were opened, we had been at a friend’s for dinner. Their son is the same age as mine, and when his mother called to him from another room, asking him to help set the table, he a) heard her, despite the fact that he was engaged in an activity and b) responded. I remember staring at her and saying, “How did you do that?”
Now I know - it’s not me.
My oldest son is a classic example of the combined type, inattentive and impulsive. Yet, had I not been chasing down an understanding of my middle child - who had recently been diagnosed with ADD, PDD-NOS, an auditory processing disorder and sensory integration issues -I would never have known. Save for what I thought was laziness when it came to writing, my oldest has always been at the top of his class academically. Why would I think there’s an issue? Sure, he can’t stop moving. Yes, he seems immature. But he’s a young boy, for crying out loud. A tad bossy at times with his friends, but doesn’t that mean he’ll be a leader? Besides, no teacher had ever expressed concern. As my friend said, they all act this way.
Except, they don’t.
Dr. Sears writes, “parents refer to their child with A.D.D. as being immature … This age-inappropriate behavior is the characteristic that separates children with A.D.D. from their peers.” But unless you spend everyday in a classroom filled with kids of the same age, how do you know what’s typical? This is my son, my first child. This is, and always has been, my ‘normal’.
All this time, I’ve been annoyed and frustrated and raising my voice more often than I care to admit. Coming down on my child for things he can’t help. I can look back and say that I’ve been yelling at his ADHD, that it’s the behaviors I can’t stand, while I love my son dearly. Yet can he separate the two? In his mind and heart, he is those behaviors. And my reaction to him is no different than someone yelling at a deaf person for not being able to hear. When I think about that, I want to cry.