It just didn’t add up. I knew my daughter Lauren, then 11, was very smart, but her grades — some of them anyway — didn’t show it. She had three Ds on her report card, the result of missing homework, incomplete assignments, and, I thought at the time, her laziness.
“You should have her tested, Heather, I think she’s gifted,” said my friend Elaine LaFuria, who teaches exceptional kids at Harbor Creek High School. I snorted and said, “Let me show you her report card, Elaine.”
“Grades aren’t the only measure of intelligence,” LaFuria said. “Kids like her fall through the cracks and get labeled bad students. Get her tested and then you’ll know what’s going on.” I requested that her school do an intelligence evaluation. This is a formal process in public schools that involves the school psychologist doing interviews with teachers and the child, as well as intelligence testing.
Ninety days later, the school principal, psychologist, gifted teacher, and my husband and I sat clustered in a small office where I learned that, indeed, Lauren had a high IQ. I also learned that she exhibited many of the classic signs of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. It felt like a gut punch. I felt everything from relief and vindication to guilt and anxiety.
I took her to a licensed psychologist in Erie who did his own evaluation and confirmed she had many of the symptoms of ADHD, except the last D. He didn’t think it was a disorder. After living with her and the diagnosis and reading volumes of information over the past year, I agree. I don’t think ADHD is a disorder. I think it’s a difference. It’s one that doesn’t fit well into our school systems where all children are expected to learn the same way, but there are things that you can do to help both you and your child to be successful.
Here’s what I’ve learned in the past year.
Girls exhibit ADHD differently than boys. The “hyperactivity” part in girls with ADHD is often exhibited not through physical activity, but talking. Girls with ADHD are the chatty Cathys, the daydreamers and the scatterbrains.
Kids can be good at hiding the symptoms of ADHD. Shame and fear drives kids with ADHD to hide symptoms and lie to avoid punishment. If they have a high IQ, they can often hide it for years until the wheels fall off, usually when greater autonomy is expected in junior high or high school.
ADHD = late and disorganized. One of the biggest challenges facing kids with ADHD are “executive functions,” which include things like planning, organization, remembering things and prioritizing tasks. This is the greatest source of frustration for me as a parent and I’m sure for Lauren’s teachers, too. Case in point: Her bus has come at 6:42 a.m. for the last six years and every morning the bus’s arrival seems to come as a surprise to Lauren, who runs out the door disheveled without a coat, hands full of shoes, books, homework and a hairbrush. It doesn’t matter how early I get her up.
She doesn’t think like I do. Her mind makes connections differently than mine. For instance, if I need to remember to take something to work, I’ll write myself a note and put it by my purse. If Lauren needs to remember something, she’ll toss a pillow in front of her door or a pair of dirty socks on the TV stand and then she’ll remember she needs to do X, Y or Z. It doesn’t make sense to me, but it’s perfectly logical in her mind. Fine (but I draw the line at dirty socks on furniture).
Make teachers your partners. Unless you have a formal special education plan (we opted not to do that), your child’s teacher(s) may or may not be aware of her intelligence evaluation. I told Lauren’s teachers that she has both a high IQ and ADHD so they know that she is capable of completing assignments but may require some additional redirection or reminders.
Offer guidance, but not micromanaging. Lauren needs more help prioritizing and organizing her schoolwork than most kids her age. I don’t go through her backpack every day like I did when she was in elementary school, but I do ask if there’s anything she needs to give or show me. I also ask her teachers to alert me if she’s missing a bunch of assignments or has a big project she should be working on at home. I try not to get involved until I need to because I want her to develop her own self-management skills.
Socially, they don’t always fit in. Some peers (and adults) find kids with ADHD annoying. In Lauren’s case, she’s fortunate to have some great teachers and a tight circle of good friends who accept and appreciate her for who she is.
She has a “Ferrari brain with bicycle brakes.” ADHD specialist Dr. Edward Hallowell perfectly explains ADHD in a YouTube video in which he said he congratulates kids who have been recently diagnosed and tells them “The good news is that you have an amazing machine in your head. It’s a Ferrari brain. But you’ve got a problem. You’ve got bicycle brakes. You can’t stop when you need to.” It takes a while for them to develop their brakes and steering system.
Extremes are where they live. Lauren’s report card is a mix of high and low. If she’s interested in a subject and/or likes the teacher, it’s all As. If she finds the class boring or it requires a lot of paperwork, it’s all low Cs and Ds. I’ve learned to celebrate the As and insist she get a passing grade in the other classes. If you saw her reading grades, you’d never believe she’s a voracious reader who devoured “2,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in one weekend. She just isn’t going to do well in that kind of class.
They tend to overreact, and it’s not their fault. This is the most important thing I learned last year. Those with ADHD are flooded with stimuli, including emotions. It’s not me. It’s not her. She’s not a spoiled brat. When she feels something, she feels it so completely and is so overwhelmed with that emotion that she cannot see beyond it. Five minutes later, logic and reasoning return and she apologizes. Remember, Ferrari brain with bicycle brakes.
They can hyper focus. When Lauren is into something, like science, she’s completely into it. She enjoys hands-on, experiential learning (most ADHD kids do). Encourage those interests. She was a superstar on her school’s Science Olympiad team, and organized and led a team of classmates in a local environmental science competition.
Shut the door. I hate clutter, and I prefer my home and office to be neat and organized. Lauren finds comfort in chaos. Her bedroom makes me twitch, but I’ve learned to shut the door and let her have that space.
They hear everything. Those with ADHD have trouble filtering out or ignoring conversations around them. This is why they are easily distracted by talking classmates or someone clicking a pen. Moms, this also means they can hear you talk about them from two rooms away. Trust me on this.
Timers help. ADHD kids cannot keep track of time and often don’t transition well. This spring, I instituted the use of a ticking kitchen timer that she carries with her in the morning to keep her on track. It worked well because it’s both a visual and audio reminder.
Confiscate all electronics at night. Kids with ADHD typically have trouble shutting off their brains to sleep. I learned it was imperative to collect her iPod, tablet and cellphone because she’s bad at self-regulating and will stay up all night building new Minecraft worlds or binging on Netflix. Then, she’s a nightmare at 6 a.m.
ADHD is not something to be ashamed of. The more research I do on ADHD, the more I think people who have it actually have an advantage over traditional straight-A students. ADHD kids are the creative ones. They’re the game-changers. They are the ones who will accomplish incredible things, if they don’t acquire the real disabilities of shame and low self-esteem.
Answer the medication question for your situation. Every parent and child needs to make this decision for themselves. I was adamantly opposed to it at first. Then, I talked to some other parents who were candid with me about their experiences, and I changed my mind. Here’s why: I thought what if I’m denying my child access to something that can help her be successful because of my personal or moral convictions? Would I deny her insulin if she were diabetic? If you do decide to try medication, you’ll need an official diagnosis before your doctor can prescribe anything. It’s common for most to try several different medications and dosages before finding one that works well for them. ADHD medication can be quite costly, even with insurance.
They are in good company. The list of accomplished people with ADHD is long and includes people like Michael Phelps, Walt Disney, Agatha Christie, Mozart, Whoopi Goldberg, John Lennon, Thomas Edison and JFK. Visit http://psychcentral.com/lib/famous-people-with-adhd/ for an impressive list.
Parents can set the tone. How I frame this “disorder” can set my daughter up to succeed or fail, to have confidence in herself or not. We choose to look at the positives of ADHD (and there are many) and find ways to help her strengthen the brakes she needs to control that Ferrari brain.