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Challenge: Kids with Special Needs

When I realized my son’s behavior wasn’t just “boys being boys”

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Boys will be boys.

That’s what we used to tell ourselves. My husband and I had always believed that our son Jake was "just" a typical 6, 7, 8-year-old boy. When I would ask him to do three things and he did none of those and instead three other random, unrelated things, I explained it away as "that's how boys are".

However, we realized this might not be your typical “boy” behavior when we went to his third-grade parent teacher conference last fall. Jake isn't perfect but he is a GOOD kid - he's sweet, kind, smart, social and we have always left his school conferences feeling so proud of him. But this time his teacher seemed concerned. Jake has never liked reading but now it seemed as though he wasn’t keeping up with peers. A lot of that meeting is a blur to me but what I do remember is hearing words like "formal evaluations", "possible dyslexia" and "child study teams". A few weeks later we met with the school’s child study team to formulate a plan to understand what was going on. As the meeting was coming to a close one of the teachers made what seemed like a throwaway comment - "When I'm in the classroom, it seems like Jake can never sit still."

Um, WHAT????

Clearly the implication was that Jake had ADHD. As a mom, I instantly felt a rush of emotions - fear, concern, defensiveness and guilt. How had I not noticed this - I'm his mother, for crying out loud. My second reaction was "not my son". Not that there's anything wrong with it (ADHD that is) but he didn't fit the mold. Well at least the mold I had in my head.

Like many of us, I had a vision, a stereotype about kids with ADHD. That they are bouncing off the walls with crazy amounts of energy, running around all the time like little Tasmanian devils. And my son wasn't like that.

But here's the biggest thing I've learned throughout all of this - MY kid with ADHD doesn't look like YOUR kid with ADHD. They are all individuals and they experience this in different ways. The assumptions I made, the labels I had put on kids with ADHD just didn't fit. ADHD isn't one size fits all.

If you don’t know a lot more than I originally did about ADHD before Jake’s diagnosis, here is some more information: As defined by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), “Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.” There are three types of ADHD: predominantly inattentive type, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type or a combination of both. A friend who has a lot of experience with ADHD, provided a slightly more “dumbed-down” definition for me:“ ADHD is a bio-neurological disorder and classified as such in the DSM-V. It is a REAL medical condition in which the synapses in the brain misfire and where the brain has difficulty processing glucose. The brain in an ADHD person is therefore always looking for a dopamine fix”

These are all very official-sounding definitions but here’s what is most important to know. ADHD is a legitimate condition – kids can’t just “try harder” to “behave better”. This is a REAL medical disorder. ADHD is much more common among males than females. It is estimated that boys are two to three times more likely to have ADHD than girls. And boys are up to nine times more likely than girls to be referred for evaluation and treatment.

Despite my original thinking that “boys will be boys”, once I started to do read, talk to others and learn more about ADHD I knew, without a doubt, they were describing my son. Jake supposedly has a “mild case” of ADHD but regardless of this he has many characteristics that fit the bill. He historically has had difficulty maintaining focus, both in school and in sports, sometimes had a hard time coping when things didn’t go as he wanted and he fidgeted…a lot. I knew we needed a plan. After much research, discussion with experts (including our pediatrician and school counselors) and, quite frankly, tears (mine) the decision my husband and I made was to do a medicine trial for Jake.

This was not an easy decision AT ALL. I don't want my child on medicine. I also don't want my son to have a condition for which he NEEDS medicine. But he does have one - and I believe that the right choice for him -and our family - was to give the medicine a chance and see if it was right for him.

Let's be clear - EVERYONE has opinions on this topic. When we first mentioned Jake's ADHD to friends they suggested (with the sincerest of intentions) that we do anything besides offer medicine. “Make him run around the house in the morning before school" or "change his diet" or "get him a trampoline". By the way, these are all great ideas for a kid with ADHD. But we did not believe these types of behavioral changes alone were going to be enough.

All medicines have potential side effects - and the medicines for ADHD are no exception. Most often they include loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, and moodiness -- and it may take some trial and error to find the right prescription and dosage for your child.

That said, I don't think drugs are the enemy. I worked for a pharmaceutical company for 17 years, a company I know works tirelessly to find cures and treatments for patients. So, I started from the position that if medicine could help Jake, it had to be an option we considered. A common pro-medication argument that really resonated for us was "if you're child had diabetes, would you deny them insulin?" Or "if your child had a problem with their vision, would not get them glasses?" This is a true medical condition which, in our opinion, required a medical intervention.

When we sent Jake to school on that Monday, I was almost literally holding my breath. Because while concentrating at home is important, the true test would come when he needed to concentrate at school, especially in areas he didn't like as much. This is often how ADHD is caught - kids are able to mask the ADHD until the work gets harder and /or they become less interested. This is why parents will sometimes say (like we did) “but he can sit for hours and play Legos” or “he can play his Xbox/3DS/Play Station and not fidget at all”. That is because these are things that hold their attention.

The amazing news is that I got an email that first day from his teacher, reporting there was a DRASTIC difference in his behavior. He was a lot more focused, but still maintained "being Jake" - which was SO important to us. This kid, who had been asking to go to the bathroom an average of 6 – 8 times A DAY, came up to his teacher at the end of the day and said “Wow, I forgot to ask all day if I could go to the bathroom!”

Unfortunately, so many people still don’t understand ADHD despite how much more common an ADHD diagnosis is today than when it was first recognized as a disorder in the late 1960s.And despite the number of high-profile celebrities, such as Justin Timberlake, Will Smith, Terry Bradshaw, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles, who have ADHD and are thriving with it, there is still (sadly) a stigma associated with this condition. People with ADHD still commonly experience shame and judgment by a misinformed public that mistakes its real, medical symptoms for bad behavior, poor parenting, or kids “just not trying hard enough”.

And with this lack of understanding often comes judgement about a decision to treat with medicine. That parents like us are just “drugging our children” because it’s easier. Trust me, fighting with your child every morning to take a pill is not taking the easy way out. Lying in bed with him until 10 pm some nights because he can’t sleep is not taking the easy way out. Making three or four dinners EVERY night to be sure he doesn’t lose weight is not taking the easy way out. There is nothing EASY about any of this, no matter what side of this argument you fall on.

What really solidified the decision for me was understanding how often children (and adults) with ADHD have low self-esteem.Kids with ADHD can struggle at school and at home and can find it hard to make and keep friends. When their behavior isn’t what others expect of them, people - adults and kids alike – can become impatient.

Being a kid is HARD. Their peers can be unkind, unpredictable and sometimes harsh, especially when someone is not like them. This won't be the last challenge Jake faces in his life, but as his mom I feel responsible for ensuring my kids have as few barriers as possible in reaching their full potential - whatever that is supposed to be. And for us, giving him the tools he needs to manage this diagnosis - yes, including medicine - is one way to help remove one of those barriers.

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