My 17-year-old ADHD-Inattentive son has recently returned from his summer job at a Boy Scout camp, where he lived a glorious eight weeks in the wilderness with other teens who didn’t care that he has a disability. Probably didn’t even notice. He would spend his entire life there, if he could.
Now, it’s a brand-new school year with the same old problems. There are new teachers to initiate into his world view (me). A new IEP to fret about (also me), and the anticipated plunge into hopelessness that happens around the end of second term (both of us). I meet every year with new hope, summoning all the energy I can to talk about him without sounding like that parent. If you are also that parent, you know what I go through.
I wish I could gather up everyone he will ever meet and explain that he is not the problem. He is a new hope with undeveloped talent. Stop telling me what his problem is and face yours. I’m happy to talk you through it.
But first, one more round of my lecture, ADHD for the Disbeliever. ADHD is real and isolating. It doesn't get better with age. No one grows out of it when they turn 18. They grow up, leave home, and try to survive in a world that doesn't believe in or understand who they are. They leave home with a greater risk of depression, anxiety and suicide than neurotypical kids. They leave home with their pockets full of failures and a moral compass that will be thoroughly tested. We are not making this up. Who has the time? We’re busy dealing with people who don’t understand it. End Lecture.
I've run out of time to fix the world that my son is leveling up to. Thoughtless and disbelieving people will grow impatient with him. He'll find his tribe somehow, like he did last summer. In case that isn't enough to steer him toward a meaningful adulthood, I am offering the following expert advice for those who may encounter my ADHD son.
- Make sure you have his attention as his face is mostly concealed by his long hair. You need to see at least two-thirds of one eye to confirm.
- Don't start any conversation with a question such as, "Hey, watchya doing?" Or "What's going on, bro?" There are far too many potential answers and he'll shut down like an overcharged battery.
- Offer a Dr. Pepper as you approach. Be aware he will feel obligated to repay your kindness tenfold.
- If you prefer to skip formalities, ask him what he thinks of any of the following: PewDiePie, the element Bismuth, 1970s heavy metal bands or V-sauce. Those are great icebreakers.
- Be patient if it takes him awhile to respond. Even though he might, don't stare or fidget.
- Be aware that you have just met an extraordinary person who can do his own laundry, fry eggs, cook spaghetti and microwave frozen potpies. Don't expect tidiness and organization. You're getting precision and thorough quality testing.
- Be aware that he's a visual-spatial learner, better known as "Can you write that down and tattoo it on my arm while explaining the significance with a video?”
- Be specific. Present information with a detailed explanation that removes any potential doubt or ruminating. For example, "Let's order pizza" should be stated as "Pizza is delicious. We both like pizza. They have the most delicious pizza at Domino's. Domino's delivers free unlike that place you like. We can order Dr. Pepper, too."
- Tell him a joke about physicists. Speak in puns. Sing or play guitar (air is fine). Do not skip this step. You're establishing credibility.
- Tell him his mom says to send her a signal that he’s okay. Email preferred to avoid friends hearing embarrassing sobbing on the other end of the line.
This advice is aimed primarily at adults, who are impatient, stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted (admit it.) But kids with learning disabilities are thriving alongside your kids who have morphed their world into one of astonishing tolerance. There’s a good chance your kids don’t really care about what makes my kid different. Grown-ups, hand over the keys to the new generation. You’ll see a wonderful thing happen when every single child, no matter who they are, is met with kindness and dignity.
Susan Krause is the author of BACKGROUND NOISE: A Novel About Twice-Exceptionality. She blogs about books for gifted and 2E kids at backgroundnoisebooks.com.