“We Affix Labels to Things We Don’t Understand”
We did not fear the ADHD label. Following my daughter’s assessment at age 18, we were desperate for answers. What we found was even better — an understanding of how her brain works, and the confidence to know that incorrect labels can be removed.
On the heels of our daughter Laila’s graduation from high school (thank the Lord!), I found the leading learning disability practice in our area and sent Laila for an eight-hour behavioral assessment.
She drove to the North Side of Chicago and participated in the assessment herself. It was a summer day filled with sunshine and promise that we could finally get answers to explain why Laila struggled in certain areas. My wife, Laila, and I returned to the specialist’s office a few weeks later to review the findings of the assessment.
The very first finding was that Laila had no idea her brain worked differently than 80% of the population. Another light bulb moment. In a previous blog post, I talked about the Pareto Principal and how a colleague of mine in education explained that 20% of people learn differently. Like Laila, those in the 20% rarely realize their brain is wired differently — expanding the divide of understanding even further and making them feel they’ve somehow failed.
People in the 20% may not be able to vocalize how they process information or how they learn. (So, for example, if someone talks really fast in a meeting and someone with a learning deficit is taking notes, they may get really frustrated and quit taking notes altogether. But what if, instead, they could ask the person to slow down for a win-win outcome?)
The psychologist started by asking us some of the assessment questions.
Data varies, but one study estimates that 55% of children with ADHD have at least one parent with ADHD. For me, past conversations were recast in a completely new light.
The psychologist told us Laila was not hyperactive. Instead, focus was her challenge; her head was like a living room with 17 TVs on at the same time, all tuned to different shows.
“Mr. Taylor,” he said in a patient voice, “imagine you go to one of your clients and your client says to you, ‘The next time you come here, turn your ears green. Literally. Don’t paint them or color them, turn them green.’ How would that make you feel? That’s impossible, right?”
I nodded because, after all, he was right on that point.
He went on to say that every time Laila faces executive decisions, she feels as if she’s being asked to do something impossible. The assessment was profoundly beneficial. Understanding another person’s story equips you with empathy, patience, and knowledge. At least that was my experience finally, after all those years, deciphering my daughter’s truth.
Unfortunately, there’s a barrier to the assessment for a lot of people — and that barrier is price. The assessment cost $2,500 without counseling. If recognizing the problem is barrier No. 1, the cost of entry is barrier No. 2.
So What’s Next? Here’s Where You Come In
What if the 80% shouldered some responsibility? This group (of which I am a card-carrying member) oftentimes mistakenly labels the 20% without hesitation, which does nothing but exacerbate the problem.
Case in point: I was talking to Laila like she was not intelligent, like she was lazy and indifferent. The real problem, though, was attention deficit. When you have to make decisions and employ executive skills that are weak due to neurological differences you neither choose nor control, there is a gap. The world sees the gap, but it doesn’t always stop to ask why it’s there. So we label.
I labeled. Not all, but some of Laila’s teachers labeled during her grammar school and high school years. Maybe employers labeled or friends labeled. These labels come in the form of judgments: if she would “just put in a little more effort ” or “just do the homework on time” or “just ask for help when she needs it” or “plan better so she wasn’t always late,” and on and on.
The good news: The brain is a muscle. We can all learn to think differently about one another and ourselves — with practice.
Laila’s Perception Changed, as Did Mine
After Laila was diagnosed with ADHD, her life changed.
The psychologist gave her regimented ideas and exercises to help her organize her approach to schoolwork and conversations based on the way her mind works.
Suggestions included a day planner so she could physically write down and “see” deadlines 1 (not on a device) and to-do lists all in one place (writing by hand trips a “reading” circuit in our brains that enhances memory. Who knew?). A backpack, which historically had served as a bottomless pit for papers, was replaced with a bag that would neatly fit file folders, color-coded to match notebooks for each class. Floor piles became an accepted form of organizing but tamed by rubber bands and paper clipped groups of papers. The phone had a “home” in a certain tray or pocket of her purse, much like a car’s home is the garage. She started wearing a watch.
All this helped Laila put herself in the driver’s seat.
Medication is one alternative for people with ADHD. About 62% of children ages two through 17 take medication according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology 2. For some, this works. But I don’t think medication is a one-and-done solution. Behavioral changes, family support, school accommodations (like longer testing sessions and oral tests) give people with ADHD a chance to take these tools all the way to adulthood.
The biggest change I saw in Laila after the diagnosis was a surge of self-confidence, the kind that comes with self-awareness. She and others with ADHD have fewer dopamine receptors in the reward center of their brain. Basically, they have to work harder not to get bored (this is why they procrastinate or are attracted to risk; it gives them a thrill).
Today is a New Day
Today, Laila does not lack confidence. Our family is more knowledgeable, and she is more self-aware. Clearly, the Greek philosopher who wrote “know thyself” was onto something. Most people know their strengths, they might know their passions, but most of us really struggle recognizing our deficits. You know that blind spot in your side mirror? We all have one (or more). I’m excited for my daughter and proud of the young woman she has become. The journey, while not always easy, has led us to a better place.
1 Englehardt L, James KH. The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education. December 2012 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211949312000038
2 Danielson ML, Bitsko RH, Ghandour RM, Holbrook JR, Kogan MD, Blumberg SJ. Prevalence of parent-reported ADHD diagnosis and associated treatment among U.S. children and adolescents, 2016. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. 2018, 47:2, 199-212.
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Updated on June 11, 2020