Published in ADDitude magazine in Sept. 2021: https://www.additudemag.com/understanding-adhd-journey-accept-child-diagnosis/
by Megan Taylor Stephens
My husband and son make an annual short climb up Black Butte in central Oregon. Usually, they ascend the little mountain easily — it’s just over 6,000 feet in elevation — and it’s clear skies for miles.
Not long ago, however, they found themselves in white-out conditions. They lost the trail and had no winter clothes or water, so they had to turn back just short of the peak. I had carefully packed an emergency backpack for them, but they had left it in the car. They came back home a little beat up, quite frozen, and slightly rattled. They learned their lesson that day: Always expect the unexpected. And that’s generally how we have approached raising our kids, notably our son.
A Spirited Child – and Cheerful Denial
As an infant, our son was in a perpetual state of motion and agitation. He was constantly spitting up and wriggling in discomfort. He only slept in short bursts, and had trouble nursing. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, they weren’t kidding when they said babies are intense.”
He was also able to run at 9 months old. I remember thinking this was an auspicious sign that he’d grow up to be sporty, just like me. I also noticed that he was so much more spirited than other babies. They sat like placid lumps of dough on their parents’ laps in the play groups we’d attend. He did not.
When I had my second child, a girl, I thought to myself, “Wait, is my girl calm or is my boy active?” Their energy levels were so different. I wondered if something was wrong with one or the other.
When my son was 3, we had to lock away all the dining room chairs because he had stacked them up, climbed over them, undid the many locks on the front door, and escaped for the great outdoors. “Geez, toddlers definitely deserve the bad rap they get — what rapscallions!” I thought. On my shopping list, I wrote: Baby locks for cabinets. Safety plugs for outlets.
The daycare teacher said our boy was a handful. But friends and acquaintances said that that’s just how boys are. I taught in schools myself and could think of many calm male students. But which was the exception: the calm ones or my decidedly not-calm kid?
A Pre-K parent was upset when my son intentionally stepped on his child’s fingers and made him cry during playtime. I had my kid apologize, but I secretly thought that the other kid seemed unusually sensitive.
In kindergarten, the teacher said our boy was a busy little beaver, always building things with blocks and needing encouragement to play with others. I thought, “He a creative little genius, that’s why. And the other kids are probably boring.”
In the first grade, the teacher told us that our boy never followed directions, behaved recklessly, and was otherwise far from her behavior expectations for the classroom. What did we do? We got him out of that “rigid school.”
Climbing the Mountain
Though we eventually and reluctantly brought up these concerns to the pediatrician, he insisted that it couldn’t be ADHD. He’d seen ADHD, and this wasn’t it, he said.
But at around age 7, our son started to say things like, “I’m not a good listener. I’m a bad learner.” Our hearts dropped at these comments. Something was wrong. We had seen and heard enough concerning behavior, and we had to turn this around.
We brought him in for testing at a specialized clinic, and the results confirmed what had been glaringly obvious. He “passed” these screenings with flying colors and got his ADHD diagnosis.
I’ve seen quite a few other families, both professionally and personally, whose path toward enlightenment about ADHD has been equally full of detours, dead ends, and road construction signs. Some of them were told to go down the trail of, “It’s not ADHD; it’s sensory integration disorder. Or food sensitivity. Or “maladaptive daydreaming.” Or bad parenting.
Though these could explain some of what was going on for them, ultimately, all roads led to ADHD. And I think the years it took to get the diagnosis did a degree of damage to the psyches of the families and children alike. Without an appropriate diagnosis, you grasp at straws for how to make life easier and better for everyone involved.
I try not to proselytize about ADHD, but I certainly try to explain its symptoms when it comes up because I’ve found that people’s understanding of it is often incomplete. They erroneously believe that any kid who can play videogames for hours couldn’t possibly have ADHD. They think that if a kid is intelligent, that must counter-indicate ADHD. Or they believe that their girl doesn’t have ADHD because she doesn’t have glaring behavioral problems.
Reaching the Summit
I am thankful that we got a fairly early and accurate diagnosis for our kid. It turned around his poor self-esteem and helped him understand that he’s not damaged; he’s just neurodevelopmentally unique. Of course, it’s not all rosy. He is quite aware of the challenges that come with ADHD. That said, for many years, he has worn his ADHD badge with pride. He thinks it gives him superior curiosity, determination, productivity, and enthusiasm. He is not wrong.
We wear our “Parents of an ADHD Child” badge with pride as well. We’ve been on quite a journey. We can look back with amazement and humor at all the bush whacking we tackled through overgrown paths and all the times we had to give up and turn around just shy of some summit. We still find ourselves in white-out conditions at times, but our map skills have improved over the years, and we don’t leave behind our emergency supplies. We may be a little cold, scraped up and mud-splattered, but we have made it to the mountaintop of understanding.