Attention Deficit, Autism, and Parenting Difficulties

Being a parent is hard. I’ll probably start numerous blogs that way, but this one is the first.

I read an article yesterday about some adjustments being made to the ages and treatments of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. My blogging father would probably tell you that when he was a kid, this diagnosis didn’t exist. I won’t try to speak for him, as I don’t even know if he feels this way, but I imagine that it might be hard for someone who grew up without the notion of behavioral disorders in children to understand what all the fuss is about.  Before I had kids I was skeptical of the growing number of disorders being diagnosed and treatments being prescribed.

Surely, a good parent would be able to control his own child, through setting rules and appropriate discipline. It seemed to me that medication was akin to tranquilizing an animal that was being uncooperative, and surely the doctors were in cahoots with the drug companies, or simply trying to be first to jump on the newest, greatest behavioral diagnosis.

And then I had a child. A very special, extremely smart and full-of-life child who just couldn’t seem to control his behavior or impulsiveness. A child who, despite his very high intelligence, just seemed to do ridiculous things, and then, during punishment, extremely spiteful and destructive things. Off the top of my head, some of the things he’s done while being punished in his room: ripped the screens in his window beyond repair, scratched the built-in woodwork in his room, removed feces from his diaper (obviously when younger) and spread it all over the room, poked holes in the drywall with a toy, kicked the door until the frame came out, and destroyed his brothers (in a shared room) posters.  This behavior started long before age 4, probably more like age 2.

We tried all kinds of discipline tactics. Some worked once or twice, some never worked. His biggest issue was (and is) doing something impulsive without any regard for rules or consequences. Afterwords, when we talked to him, he got the connection. He understood the cause/effect relationship of his actions, but only after the fact. It was like he walked around with short-term blinders on.

After several years of trying to correct his behavior on our own, we brought him to a psychologist. He was probably around age 5 or 6. The doctor told us that he did not have any attention deficit problems because he could focus on things if he was interested enough in them. His diagnosis: the classic “very smart kid, bored in school”. Honestly, I loved that diagnosis for two reasons. First, there was nothing wrong with him. Second, hey, he called my kid “very smart”! What’s not to love?

But the problems persisted. My son was having trouble making friends at school because he was always so excited to be around them that he didn’t observe their personal space, and they would be irritated by him. There’s nothing more heartbreaking for a parent than to see your child thinking that he is playing with his friends, all the while not realizing that they want nothing to do with him. He started hiding his unfinished homework at school so it wouldn’t interrupt his playtime at home (short term thinking, here). When his teacher asked him about it, he lied to her to try to cover his tracks (short term thinking again). When she discovered the homework in his desk, a teacher who had been previously sympathetic to his quirks cracked down on him with stiff discipline, and it backfired badly. His behavior in class got worse, to where he was missing recess (something he needed to burn off some of that hyperactivity) nearly every day for in-class detention. He started hating school, where he had previously looked forward to it.

My son is now ten. He is medicated in order to help him maintain his focus throughout the day. He has still never been officially diagnosed with ADHD, Autism, or Asperger syndrome, but he definitely exhibits some characteristics of each. Most notably, slight social dysfunction, selfishness, and impulsiveness. Even so, there is no doubt in my mind that there is some kind of small imbalance that keeps him from functioning and reasoning as you would expect a person to behave after ten years of instruction and observing the world. I’m especially convinced as I watch my other three children who behave…pretty much as you would expect children of their ages to behave.

Is it hard? You’d better believe it. It’s a daily struggle to get him to focus on his tasks, control his temper, and not stir his younger siblings into a fit. We’ve been doing it for eight years, one day at a time. There are times when my wife and I just look at each other and say “what do we do now?” after it seems that we’ve tried everything. In those situations, I always hear the same words seemingly whispered to me from beyond. “Be consistent” and “Love him”.

Are these disorders real, and can they affect kids as young as four? In my experience, you’d better believe it.

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