Health and wellness touch everyone’s life differently. This is one person’s story.
“Mom, I need to tell you something that happened at school today,” my third-grade daughter said to me at dinner one evening. “It’s really important. Can we talk privately?”
“Of course,” I responded, not sure what to expect.
Later, we walked into my bedroom, shut the door, and sat on my bed.
“Today, we were in the computer lab and had a timed math test,” she began. “I couldn’t answer the questions. I got really nervous because we were being timed. So, I walked over to Mrs. G and told her that I couldn’t do this if I was being timed.”
A smile spread across my face. At just 8 years old, she’d successfully advocated for herself, something even many adults are unable to do.
“I want you to know that not being able to take a timed test is part of your ADHD,” I explained.
Although she’d known about her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis for a year, I didn’t tell her about possible symptoms that she hadn’t yet experienced. For me, it was important that she shouldn’t expect to struggle with something because of a diagnosis. But if she does, she should understand why.
“Would you like me to talk to your teacher about this?” I asked.
“No,” she responded. “I took care of it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Mom. I handled it.”
Why I told them
My decision to tell both of my children about their ADHD, and other diagnoses, may not be popular. But it has benefited them since they were in preschool.
My son lives with both ADHD and developmental coordination disorder, commonly referred to as dyspraxia. It’s a neurological disorder, and the best way I’ve heard of to describe it is: Your brain takes the scenic route to provide information to your body. How dyspraxia affects children varies, but for my son, it’s his speech, general oro-motor strength, fine motor planning, and handwriting capabilities that are affected.
When he was just a baby, he couldn’t crawl. Instead, he scooted around on his bottom. Through early intervention services, a physical therapist taught him to crawl, then walk, jump, skip — all of the things most children learn to do on their own.
And because he wasn’t speaking at all— no babbling, no sounds — then came speech therapy. I had taught him baby sign language to communicate, and he picked it up quickly. At around 16 or 17 months, he said his first word, “up,” based on a song his speech therapist taught him.
When he finally did begin to speak, he was still very difficult to understand. A happy, easygoing toddler, I felt it necessary to help him realize that others had great difficulty understanding what he said. So, I worked hard to remove any frustration he had when asked to repeat himself.
I didn’t want tantrums to replace the giggles. We regularly discussed his speech challenges, and by the time he was 2 years old, he’d happily repeat himself when asked, and would also point to or pantomime what he was trying to say.
At around the same time, my daughter, who is 2 1/2 years older, was diagnosed as a sensory seeker. She also has emotional dysregulation, which is the inability to regulate your emotions. She began receiving both physical and occupational therapy to help her cope with low muscle tone, as well as a special education itinerant teacher (SEIT) at her preschool so she could learn to properly socialize with her peers.
While her peers could calm down with quieter activities, like reading a book, she’d calm herself down by spinning in a circle for several minutes, or by crashing into the furniture, or asking for an extra-tight hug.
She knew she was different. And as I did with her brother, I explained those differences to her. At 3 years old, she could tell you she was a sensory seeker and needed to jump on the sofa to feel better. This understanding gave her power. While she was too young to control her impulses, her ability to express her needs helped reduce adults’ anger at some of her behaviors.
A little help from Harry Potter
My children are now 9 and 6, and both of them have received an ADHD diagnosis.
As my children have been diagnosed, I’ve shared the news with them, because I believe that understanding their strengths and weaknesses will help them accept and advocate for themselves. While both experience some general anxiety related to their diagnoses, this choice has proven to be a good one for them.
For my daughter, understanding that her inability to focus in the classroom, poor organizational skills, and difficulty with emotional regulation weren’t her fault — but rather a result of the way her brain works — has been a tremendous confidence booster. As she learns more about herself, she understands that while these areas may be a challenge, they aren’t impossible. She simply has to work harder than others to achieve them.
For my son, who was recently diagnosed, the ADHD was easier to understand and accept, but dyspraxia was something we both needed to study. Together, we’ve researched the disorder and discussed what it means for him now and in the future.
This was hard for him at first. He felt like an outcast with this rare diagnosis. But once he learned that Harry Potter himself — actor Daniel Radcliffe, the celebrity he most admires — also has dyspraxia, his outlook changed. He recognizes he can do anything. He simply just has to work harder than others in some areas of his life.
Dealing with the criticism
My decision to be open with my kids hasn’t always been popular. I’ve been judged and criticized by others.
On the day that I finished writing this, I attended a school meeting to hear updates about the school-based services my son receives because of his diagnoses. The woman in charge of the program asserted — more than once — that “he knows way too much.”
I’ve also had parents tell me I shouldn’t compartmentalize my children at such a young age. And a child psychologist explained that attaching labels to my children makes them focus on what’s wrong with them, instead of what’s right.
And there have also been other, subtler comments from other parents, who tell me that their child isn’t old enough to understand, or they don’t want them to know that they’re different.
I always listen to what each person has to say, taking in their opinions, advice, and comments.
But my own experience has shown me that educating my children about their strengths and weaknesses has actually helped remove the stigma that’s frequently attached to labels and diagnoses. It empowers them to self-advocate.
As G.I. Joe famously said, “Knowing is half the battle.” I agree, and so do my children.
Gia Miller is a freelance journalist living in New York. She writes about health and wellness, medical news, parenting, divorce, and general lifestyle. Her work has been featured in publications including Paste, Headspace, Folks, HealthDay, ESME, and more. Follow her on Twitter.