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A Family Affair


I once had an educational psychologist look me in the eye and say, “You are the poster family for ADHD.”
This memory was triggered by my colleague Nicole Martinelli’s story on certain Italian schools’ treatment of what is often a controversial diagnosis, even in this country.
We were sitting in the psychologist’s office as a result of the behavior of Heir 1 in his first grade class. He had a habit of falling out of his seat. Well, not falling, actually. More like dropping himself out of the seat whenever he got bored.
And then there was the talking. A lot of talking. Even for a Jackson, and that’s a lot of talking.
It all began when Heir 1’s first grade teacher took us aside on Back To School Night. In a very low voice, her eyes darting frantically around, she took us to the furthest corner of her room, away from other people.
“I’m not going to put this in his record, because I don’t want him labeled,” she whispered furtively. “I think you ought to have (Heir 1) checked for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But don’t do it through the school system.”

This last was said through gritted teeth, after which she handed us a card of an educational psychologist. The school had a vested interest in “diagnosing” as many kids as possible as “learning disabled,” she said, since this resulted in more state or federal funding. In addition, she said, the school had a tendency to label any behavior problem they couldn’t deal with as ADHD.
“But this child is not a behavioral problem and he is certainly not learning disabled,” she insisted, still scoping the room for school tattle-tales.
And so began our quest to find the ideal and least guilt-inducing way to get our son through life. We read all there was to read, from groups that insisted that a magic pill would cause all to be well to others who looked upon drugging children as child abuse. There were books and articles stating that ADHD did not, in fact, exist at all since these children just needed more discipline. There were “experts” who blamed what the mother had eaten during pregnancy. Others insisted it was the chemicals in food or the chemicals in our laundry detergent.
The information that is out there, even now, 12 years later, is conflicting, overwhelming, sometimes overly judgmental, sometimes over-reactive, and more often than anyone wants to admit, dead wrong. For instance, ADHD is not a “new” condition, nor is it confined to spoiled-rotten Americans. Just because you don’t call it ADHD, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
We opted for a middle-of-the-road approach and, after a search through several pediatricians, found one who wasn’t condescendingly telling us we just needed to “tighten up the rules and regulations a bit,” wasn’t suggesting we dose him with enough Ritalin to bring down a t-rex or wasn’t suggesting we should do nothing at all during bad behavior that might “crush his spirit.” We started with a low dose of a mild stimulant (very similar to giving him few cups of coffee) and, as one extremely wise pediatric nurse said, “Use the times he has just had his pill as a window to teach him strategies to be off the pill.”
Only one time were we persuaded to increase his dose and that was in response to a growth spurt. For an entire day we had a boy who did not once interrupt us, who didn’t fight with his little brother and who read quietly without feeling the need to stop every ten minutes to relate what was going on in the book, what he thought was going to happen and what he thought should happen if he were writing this book. For an entire day we had the perfect child.
But we didn’t have Heir 1. We cut him back to his original dose. We are, as a rule, a noisy people. To be otherwise would make him suspect at family reunions.
We never increased the dose again and in a few years began to decrease it. By the time he was ten he’d learned to cope with the truly life-threatening aspects of ADHD: the thoughtless risk-taking, the temper swings and the more extreme forms of disorganization.
Once we got an official diagnosis from our psychologist, we thought we would inform the school system, just to let them know we had matters in hand. And, since he would have to take his other half-pill during the school day, they had to be notified anyway. I didn’t expect or require anything more. Unfortunately, they were determined to control the situation.
“We’ll write up a plan for him,” the school counselor informed me.
“A plan?”
“Oh yes. For instance, he can’t be expected to sit through what the other children sit through.”
Hmm. That was when I asked the last question I would ever ask of a public school employee (and also why my mother used to call me “Acid Tongue”).
“Oh, how nice! And are you going to also accompany him on job interviews when he’s 16 and explain to employers about this special treatment they are required to give him? And how about when he goes to college? I assume you will go with him to each class to keep up on the information he’s got no self-control to stick around for?”
I think I was still babbling as Dirtman pulled me away. Shortly thereafter we began homeschooling.
I, personally, have a problem calling ADHD a disorder. I’ve seen too many good things come out of it. When he was seven Heir 1 didn’t want to watch the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory after he’d read the book Charley and the Chocolate Factory because “it would ruin the pictures I already have in my head.” From the time he was four or five, the pictures he drew were always from odd angles, never straight on, displaying depth that was eerily accurate for a child so young. He understood literary elements in books before he knew what to call them. And he can spot a phony a mile away.
But we know he’ll never be viewed as anything but an under-achieving odd-ball in a conservative public school system where test scores and extra-curricular affiliations are the benchmark of success. But he has learned to control his distraction, at times, he’s said, better than the “normal” kids who haven’t learned focusing strategies.
And there are those among us who are very empathetic to his plight.
This brings me back to the educational psychologist, who had us pegged immediately, though she politely waited to share her findings until she’d tested Heir 1 and talked to him at length. As we sat in her office her gaze rested on Dirtman fidgeting in his seat, simultaneously listening to her and reading the Washington Post, his leg bouncing up and down.
“There is strong research to suggest that ADHD is genetic,” she said.
Of course, this is Dirtman’s fault, I thought. I mean, look at him, for God’s sake. You can’t finish telling him a story before he’s interrupting you to tell you his story. How many times did I want to tell him about my day, like that one time when I was driving to the grocery store and both Heirs started screaming like Cujo was trying to break into the car. That was that dog’s name, right? Cujo? The Stephen King novel with that lady who married Steven Spielburg after he dumped Amy Irving, who was vastly prettier, even if she did have the hots for Barbra Streisand in that movie…
“Mrs. Jackson?”
“I asked if you’ve ever discussed Heir 1’s distraction with your pediatrician.”
The doctor looked tired. I could understand how exasperating it is to hold Dirtman’s attention for longer than five minutes.

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