…an interview with a mother who knows…
By Kirsteen McLay-Knopp
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a complex mental health disorder that can affect a child’s success in school and interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, the symptoms of ADHD vary and are sometimes difficult to recognize. I recently interviewed Cheryl*, a mother of three whose eldest son Thomas* age seven, was diagnosed as having ADHD last year.
What are the main identifying behavioural markers for a child with ADHD?
Some signs of ADHD include inattentiveness, lack of concentration and an inability to focus and stay focused or follow instructions. With my son Thomas, excitement is always over exaggerated. We also became concerned that, from about age four, he showed a complete lack of empathy. It was around this age that my husband and I and other members of our family began to sense that something was “not quite as it normally would be” with our son… we could see the differences between him and other children his age and also ways in which he was not at all like his two younger siblings, who are close to him in age.
How long did take for your son to be diagnosed as having ADHD?
It took 6-8 months to get Thomas’ diagnosis– we were told it’s never a quick thing. The experts want to be 100% certain before they tell a parent or carer, “yes, we have diagnosed your child as having ADHD.” In the past, some children have been incorrectly diagnosed. This can lead to big problems for those opting to medicate, as the ADHD meds are quite specific to the condition.
What has been the biggest challenge since your son was diagnosed with ADHD?
The empathy thing bothered me. Other kids fight with their siblings, but Thomas was really unremorseful and inconsiderate of the feelings of his younger siblings or other children. He cried as a baby, but never really cried much past about 18 months old. I remember him crying over getting a bee sting and that’s about it, I don’t remember him crying many other times at all, not even if he fell over… I thought that was odd for a toddler.
I also remember that, from quite early on, Thomas would do what we call the “octopus run”. It was basically a wild, crazy run which didn’t stop and his arms would be swinging out everywhere like an octopus. He wouldn’t ever sit down and play with toys… he couldn’t seem to. (He was a kid with “added value”… I heard that from a lady in my ADHD support group). 🙂 But it was hard to take him out to other people’s places or in public with him flailing around like that, especially when we had two younger children to watch too.
Is ADHD genetic?
Not enough research has been done yet to know for certain whether or not ADHD is an inherited trait. It’s a bit similar to the case with asthmatic children, it’s not known for certain what causes ADHD (or asthma).
Is ADHD more common in boys or girls?
Kids with ADHD tend to be predominantly boys, no one is quite sure why. There are definately girls out there with ADHD too. ADHD presents differently in different children and ADHD markers in girls are often (but not necessarily) a bit more muted than in boys.
What do you think life is like through the eyes of a child with ADHD?
You know how it is when you get flustered… like if several people are trying to get your attention all at once, so you can’t take in what anyone is saying… well, that’s what it’s like for kids with ADHD all the time. Their brains are wired faster than most people’s, so much so that they try to process everything very quickly and all at once, leading to overload. Some opt to medicate after a diagnosis.
How does having ADHD effect Thomas’ behaviour now, at age seven, both at school and at home?
At school and at home both it is hard for him to pay attention. Thomas is “busy” all the time, probably the only “quieter” time he has is when he’s asleep. He’s also very unpredictable… you never know when he’s going to be angry. As his Mum, I find it hard to get him to stop and hear what I’m saying, to “pull him back into focus.” His teachers have also struggled with that. His concentration is now up to 3 minutes, which we’re thrilled with, as prior to diagnosis it was only 3-5 seconds. I was actually delighted when Thomas was diagnosed… I know some people don’t like to label their kids, but for me it meant we could move forward. Before the diagnosis I’d been blaming myself for his challenging behaviour. Afterwards I was able to link in to helpful resources so our family could relate better to Thomas… and vice versa.
We joined a local ADHD support group which has been an immeasurable help. The group organiser talked about teenagers with ADHD who use it as an excuse, saying things like “I’m unmanageable”. I find it helpful that the ethos of the group is that “ADHD is not an excuse for bad behaviour. ADHD is a part of life.” I like that: it gives power back to Thomas… his brain may process some things differently from those who do not have ADHD, but he is still responsible for his behaviour. He is receiving as much help as we are able to give him, he has an RTLB [Resource Teacher for Learning and Behaviour] at school, who spends time with Thomas’ class teacher (so that she is up to speed with what it means to have ADHD), as well as with Thomas. A routine and structure have been put in place for him and we liaise with the RTLB so we can create similar patterns for Thomas at home. When he’s at home, Thomas does need more supervision that the average kid, just to keep him on task. That can be hard when I have my two younger ones to think of as well.
At school part of Thomas’ routine is being constantly reminded of what’s coming up. One way of doing this is that his RTLB teacher has created a “visual timetable” with pictures of him doing particular activities like writing or eating lunch. If your concentration span is only three minutes, it can be easy to get off task. The visual timetable always has the three simple categories “Now, Next and Later”, so Thomas always knows where he’s at. Reading and writing are a constant struggle for Thomas. Since the diagnosis, we also have a health care worker come into our home for three hours a week to help Thomas with his homework.
One of my favourite resources from the group we joined was the book All Dogs Have ADHD by Kathy Hoopmann. I particularly like this book because it is aimed at the children who have ADHD, to help them understand and take responsibility for their own behaviour… and it seemed to resonate with Thomas from the moment I gave it to him.
The book talks about how ADHD kids often have a “special interest” which can help them maintain focus and create opportunities for praise and encouragement. Thomas’ passion at the moment is Lego. The Pediatrician told us not to take Thomas’ Lego away as a form of discipline (which we had done before), but that other methods like quiet time were more effective. Thomas also needs instant rewards or praise when things have gone well and if we want to encourage more positive behaviour in the future. We can’t just tell him that we’ll take him out somewhere nice “in the weekend”, he’ll have completely forgotten the whole thing by then.
I guess it’s about “channeling him” into positive activities he’s passionate about and making his energy a plus. Thomas is still quite impulsive, if he sees something which interests him (like a cat, he loves cats), even if it’s on the other side of a busy street, he’ll run across without thinking about any possible consequences. I know lots of people will say, “My child doesn’t focus, my child would run out into traffic like that,” but this is constant, it’s part of a typical day for us.
Thomas struggles to remember things and makes the same mistakes over and over again. He laughed when he saw the dog in the book that does that and I laughed too. Now there’s a shared understanding of the behaviour in our family.
I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work with Thomas now. One of the most basic things is that, when I’m giving him instructions, he needs to be totally focused on what I’m saying. If he hasn’t “got my eyes” (I mean if he isn’t focused and looking at my eyes), he won’t hear what I’m saying. That’s not because he’s malicious, it’s part of the ADHD… it’s who he is.
Through our support group, we have met a number of teenagers and adults with ADHD. I found that helpful, particularly seeing how, with the right help and strategies, these people have been able to manage their lives. The young adults, I noticed, are past doing things like “the octopus run”… I think some of the hyperactivity mellows with age. But they still speak very quickly and “fiddle”… one young woman had some beads she was playing with, which seemed to help keep her focused and grounded during group discussions.
Aside from the book you’ve mentioned already, and your group, what other resources have been useful to you?
I’ve learned a lot from other books and also from the Internet… some useful links are listed below. Another book I’ve found useful is 123 Magic by Thomas W. Phelan. 123 Magic is a general parenting book and helpful for anyone, but there’s also a lot in there specifically about ADHD, as one of the editors has a child with ADHD.
Does ADHD mix well with computers?
In general, it’s not thought to be good for children with ADHD to spend time on strategy and fighting-type computer games. I know with Thomas, he’ll see something like that just once and then act it out EXACTLY for the next week or so. Again, many parents may comment here that this is what their non-ADHD child does, but with Thomas it’s all the time, just seeing a game like that once will ignite “fireworks” in his brain and he will “be” the game for days afterwards. If Thomas gets on an “energy high” like this it requires high energy from me to focus him on the real world. He’s like having twins when he’s in this kind of phase. I don’t believe in banning kids from computers all together though, they are part of the world we now live in. In Thomas’ case we just have to be selective in what he does on the computer: “learning” type games seem to help him come to grips with things taught at school, they’re definately a better option for him.
Do certain foods effect Thomas’ ADHD at all? Did you make any changes to his diet after the diagnosis?
It’ll be different for each child, but we learned early on that we can’t give Thomas fizzy drinks… not at all. He’s quite unmanageable until they come out of his system. Anything with too much sugar isn’t great. Of course it goes through his system and he settles down again afterwards, but it’s a very unpleasant experience for anyone having to deal with him in the couple of hours before this happens.
How does ADHD effect Thomas’ friendships with other children?
Although he’s seven, Thomas’ behaviour is in many respects similar to that of a three year old. He’s well known but not well liked at school and he doesn’t very often get invited to play at friends’ houses. Boys Thomas’ age seem to like things like sword fights, board games and dress ups. Thomas is behaviourally still at the “parallel play” stage many three year olds are at. Rather than the activities I’ve mentioned above, Thomas will prefer something like playing with cars on his own. This can isolate him from his peers.
He does have one friend at school, but they have a kind of “love/hate” relationship. His friend is on the autistic spectrum and, like Thomas, can have very erratic behaviour. I personally believe both boys need a teacher aid all the time, but there aren’t the resources available for this. Anyway, I think Thomas definately tends to gravitate towards other “special needs” kids.
What advice would you give to a parent or carer who suspects their child may have ADHD?
If you’re ripping your hair out and need help the best thing, in my opinion, is to get a diagnosis, because help then follows. Groups are great, the one I go to is monthly and there are also Tuesday morning teas in our area for mothers of children with special needs. “Special needs…” that’s a term I’m getting used to. Initially I didn’t like the idea of calling Thomas a “special needs” child… but his needs are different to those of children who don’t have ADHD, particularly in the classroom. I’m still learning as we continue on this journey with Thomas. Sometimes I wonder which behaviours of his are part of ADHD and which are just normal “kid behaviours”. If the behaviour is related to him having ADHD, I then wonder to what degree I can modify it and slowly replace it with more “normal” behaviour. For example, if he’s doing his “octopus run” and speeding wildly across the room, to what degree can I change that, particularly if it’s part of his genetic makeup? If anyone out there has any ideas about these kinds of questions, particularly based on experience with ADHD kids, I’d love to hear from you!
*NOTE: Names have been changed to protect the privacy of Cheryl and her family. Many thanks to Cheryl for sharing her son Thomas’ story with “The Forever Years”.