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Addressing Differences in Our Children with ADHD

Should we work to normalize the differences in our ADHD children, or should we expect others to accept those differences, and to view them as no big deal?

Here’s a provocative point to ponder that I took away from the Savarese family’s keynote address about autism that I wrote about previously: Should we work to normalize our children’s differences, or should we expect others to accept those differences, and to view them as no big deal?

The mother of a 3 year old with autism said that her child’s teachers were advising her to stop her child every time she engaged in stimming. Stimming is repetitive self-stimulating behavior, that either provides sensory stimulus to the brain, or helps the child release excess sensory stimulus — such as hand flapping or rocking. The mother wasn’t sure that stopping her child was the right course of action. Wouldn’t she be taking away the child’s ability to express herself? Isn’t stimming a part of who her child is?

DJ Savarese, a non-speaking high-schooler with autism, advised her to ignore behaviors if she wanted them to go away. Very wise. Focusing on the behavior in an effort to stop it could certainly reinforce it instead.

Ralph Savarese, DJ’s dad, argued that stimming could be viewed as a difference, but that just because it’s a difference, that doesn’t mean it’s a negative. Others could simply accept it.

He differentiated between accepting the fact that someone flaps their hands to express joy, versus the less positive side of stimming — getting stuck performing a stereotypic behavior in a compulsive manner. He also acknowledged that kids like to fit in — if it bothers the individual to be seen as different, they might want to work toward reducing the behavior.

I’d add that if you try to reduce a behavior that helps the child cope, you’d better offer them some choices of desired behaviors to replace it.

Again, Natalie doesn’t have autism; she has ADHD. How does this topic apply to ADHD? I’m often torn between normalizing Natalie’s differences, and hoping others just accept them. Take, for example, my rush to offer Natalie’s whole class an assortment of pencil grips, which I wrote about previously. The teacher’s response to my offer was that it wasn’t necessary. Let the kids ask once why Nat had a new kind of grip, she suggested, and she’d normalize it. That would be the end of it. No big deal. I agreed.

Taking ADHD medication, leaving school to go to O.T., going to the special ed room or having the special ed teacher in her classroom, having trouble with handwriting and drawing, rocking to go to sleep during sleepovers — the differences are there. Are they negatives? Positives? Are they important to address, or are they no big deal?

I’m going to challenge myself to not just react when Nat points out a difference, or when I notice something different — but to ask myself those questions.

Does your child with ADHD see himself or herself as different? If so, how do you, as a parent, react?