How I learned to view my son’s ADHD and SPD as a gift and not a disorder
I have a five-year-old son who is just transitioning from pre-school to Kindergarten. This past year was real tough. A lot of behavioral issues came up that my husband and I just weren’t sure how to deal. At first, we weren’t even sure if there was a real problem, no one seemed to relate to us. The usual everyday advice didn’t help. Standard parenting best practices didn’t help. Neither did many methods of discipline, incentives, rewards or positive reinforcement.
On the outside, he is a sweet and normal kid. He plays well with his friends and his teachers love him to pieces. Much of the issues below the surface came out at home or in crowded, public spaces.
The struggle was real
Some of his struggles included hyperactivity and impulsiveness. My son would carry out behavior he found funny without realizing the consequences. He would trip or punch his siblings just because it felt amusing with no remorse over the pain he inflicted. Once, he kicked out the screen of his bedroom window just because. He intentionally broke glass objects. He would also repeat himself over and over again and compulsively yell and scream things randomly. There was no rhyme or reason for the majority of this behavior.
He was also easily distracted. He couldn’t focus on one single assignment without quickly getting off task. It could be a simple thing like getting dressed in the morning. If a distraction derailed him, I had to re-direct his attention without losing my patience. Needless to say, it made daily rituals and routines complicated and exhausting.
His sleep was a mess. He would have constant night terrors or would wake too much in the evening stressed out about the most menial things.
Then there’s the sensitivity to textures and sounds. Those things are issues in themselves, but they add another layer of distraction to the attention deficit. The sensory issues irritated my son to the point where he could not move on in his day. I’m talking multiple epic meltdowns that were very scary. Times where I thought he would hurt himself, others or break something if he couldn’t calm down.
Just a typical kid?
These issues became so regular that we began to plan our days around the triggers. It felt more disruptive than normal for a family with small children, but we weren’t totally sure. I would bring this up to friends or family, who quickly dismissed it as “typical.” Kids are inherently vain, selfish and display big emotions. Surely, we were just overreacting, right? I felt like no one understood us.
Exhausted and at the end of our rope, we scheduled a meeting with our pediatrician. She reassured us this was indeed a step or two beyond your typical 4-year-old child behavior. She diagnosed him with ADHD, Impulsivity, and Sensory Processing Disorder.
Cue eye roll
Most of us are familiar with ADHD and have strong opinions its over-diagnosis and overmedication. But I can honestly say after going through the struggles this past year, I have personally witnessed a distinct difference between kids who have it and kids who don’t. I’m just saying. But if you don’t want to take my word for it, check out the research of John Gray in Staying Focused in a Hyper World, who believes ADHD is actually under diagnosed.
Now many of you may not be familiar with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), but it’s not difficult to understand. In a nutshell, SPD takes anything that just feels wrong, uncomfortable or slightly painful — whether it be sights, sounds, taste or touch — and amplifies it enough to where the person cannot function or go about their day. It produces a rage over the smallest things until the discomfort is corrected.
For my son, socks were a particular challenge. It has become almost a morning ritual of crying and screaming how much the socks “hurt” his feet. They had to be perfect. And it’s not just the seam across the toe; it’s also how they hug around his heel. They had to feel smooth and unconfining, especially when wearing shoes. No bunching, itching, nothing. These are very specific issues. I know our family will have a challenging day if we don’t first address the socks. Oh, the socks.
Another sensory issues he has is with textures in food. It goes beyond just being a picky eater or not liking something because of it’s texture. It’s an actual defense trigger when he eats the “wrong” textures; it causes him to gag so hard that he vomits all over the table. After a long day, getting through dinner every night felt like an extra burden.
The final sensory issue is with sound. It could be a train horn in the distance or noise of the heater turning on in the vents. His sensitive ears can pick it out immediately. It stresses him out.
An interesting approach
My husband, myself and our pediatrician all agreed we did not want to prescribe medication right away. We wanted to explore other viable solutions first. One surprising source of help was Occupational Therapy. You typically see this kind of therapy for kids with speech issues, motor skill delays, and autism, but they also handle things like ADHD and SPD.
Occupational Therapy (OT) specializes in helping children address specific triggers and work through defense mechanisms that are caused by overstimulation.
Our excellent therapist guided my son through a series of repetitive exercises. One would be placing the hands in a bucket of dried beans and rice to fish out a toy inside. Another was painting with shaving cream or sticky glue with his hands. He didn’t always enjoy how the sensations felt on his hands or feet, but the gamification aspect helped take the edge off. The positive incentive gave him a goal to work toward while working through his discomfort.
In the meantime, I found a temporary solve for the morning sock meltdown. At this point, we’ve gone through many so-called “seamless” socks that still didn’t meet my son’s standard. I finally landed on Smartknit Kid’s Seamless Socks that worked surprisingly well for him. They were a bit expensive, so I bought only one pair to try. After we had found success with it, I ended up buying a bunch more. They are now the only pair of socks he will wear.
The other approach was brain stimulation. It seems counter-intuitive, I know. Why would you want to stimulate someone who is hyperactive? John Gray describes brain stimulation like revving a car at a red light. You can gas the engine while not in gear to clear it out or burn off a little fuel. It’s the same with our brain. We are more calm, balanced and focused people with a well-stimulated brain.
So instead of using medication for brain stimulation, we did the following protocol:
Joint compression is something we usually do after brushing teeth at night. My son asks to do this one a lot. It’s also a fun exercise in counting.
I like to incorporate Proprioceptive Input throughout the entire day. I identify times where he needs to be calm and focused (long car rides, dinner time, school activities). Then I have him perform a series of exercises just before the focused routine. Things like crawling up the stairs or climbing the slide in our backyard playscape. He absolutely loves this.
These exercises get his mental juices flowing as well as gave him some physical exhaustion. I see an instant increase in focus and reduction in aggression and fidgeting. It helps him feel grounded.
The other thing was nutrition. A clean diet was critical. Not always easy to execute, but worth it. I already spent a two previous years following a Whole30/clean/paleo template myself, tweaking and refactoring my nutrition to recover from some setbacks in my health. I saw amazing results.
When I learned my son needed to follow a similar diet, I was thankful I already had some research under my belt. But getting him to abide by a strict menu was tough. He loves the food, but the junk and sweets at parties and school were too tempting. I had to put my foot down and even get a doctor’s note to keep his school from serving him unapproved foods. Now, we allow him to have occasional “cheats,” fully aware of the consequences. But overall, nutrition made a night and day difference.
Now we’ve been practicing all these concepts, and we’ve seen a lot of success regarding smoother daily routines as a family. But it is by no means perfect. There are a lot of things we forget to do. Being a working mom, of course, I cannot give him my full attention all of the time. Our habits slip. So we have days where we entirely miss the mark, and it does not go well. But the times when we have a grasp on things, we have some splendid wins.
The person who changed the most was me
This past fall, I listened to a lightning talk by CJ Romberger called “ADHD – The Entrepreneur Superpower”. She talked about growing up with ADHD in the 70s and 80s and what that was like in a society of “normal” thinkers. She shared how it was a huge challenge for herself and her family.
But as CJ became an adult, she learned to “harness the power” of ADHD and use it in her favor. I love how she describes ADHD as a superpower. How it gave her an edge in her professional and personal life. I was so inspired to view my son’s diagnosis as a superpower rather than a disorder.
No, I’m not blowing smoke. One upside I’ve noticed with people with ADHD is a different level of problem solving. I see it in my son. He just astounds me with his questions, with his reflections, the way he beautifully analyzes concepts most of us just accept as true. I hope he can learn to harness and wield it as his personal superpower and not feel hindered by it or pressured to “change”.
With this perspective, my challenge as his mother isn’t how to “fix” him but to massage and nurture this gift. Because that is how I see it now, as a gift. The world may make him feel like something is wrong when it is society setting an unrealistic standard. The challenge is to help him function in both worlds.
He gets it from his mom
The final stroke for me was learning this trait is genetic. My husband or I must have passed this down, and I have a sneaking suspicion it was me. Oh, how quickly we adults forget about what it’s like to be a kid. As I recall my childhood, I identify some similar issues with which I can sympathize.
Growing up, I had major issues with sweaters. I hated how they felt on my arms. Every time winter came, I had to wear sweaters. My solution was to wear a thin shirt underneath so the sweater material wouldn’t irritate my skin. It drove me insane. I had several fights with my mom when it came time to getting dressed. There was no way to articulate how debilitating and suffocating it felt. I just couldn’t function. So I get where SPD sufferers are coming from with things like tags, sweaters, and socks.
I also understand a lot about distraction. I may not have it as challenging as he does, but I have learned how to manage it. Incorporating productivity habits into my daily routine gives me freedom to flex the ADHD superpower, to whatever degree I may possess. I turned out okay, so that gives me high hopes for him.
There is hope
This past year has taught me so much about my son, but also a lot about myself, and I am better for it. If you are a mom struggling with this, I want you to know you are not alone. There is hope. Approach it with an open mind, get help and know that your child is not doomed to a life of setbacks. You just may have a superhero on your hands who is awkwardly trying to fit in a society not built around that kind of gift.