Three Times the, um, Fun

One mother asks, “Did heredity and prematurity cause my triplets’ ADHD? Or should I blame sibling over-stimulation?”

I wasn’t the most relaxed young mother, but who could blame me? With three at once – triplets – I found it hard even to catch my breath. Then again, it also took me a while to work up a worry fit. That didn’t happen until Lily, Max, and Sam were three-and-a-half years old.

One Sunday afternoon, my children’s pal – I’ll call him Juan – came by with his parents for a playdate. For half an hour or so, the four kids romped like puppies. Then, as my kids kept romping, Juan sat down to play with some Playmobil figures and furnishings that I had stored in an old shoebox. After 10 minutes, I noticed that he had created a little living room, complete with couch, lamps on end tables, and “Grandpa” sitting in his teeny rocking chair.

I was stunned. I had never seen my children engage in focused, orderly play. Did kids really do this? Was Juan – an only child, older than my kids by three months – precocious? Or was something amiss with my own wild bunch?

Watching for signs of trouble

I began watching my brood, hoping for signs of organized play. Initially, I was relieved. Lily, Max, and Sam were not engaged in a free-for-all. There was logic in their play – rooted in negotiation and dynamic, creative collaboration. Even better, while their play frequently gave rise to rivalry and anger, it just as frequently produced high spirits and laughter.

For years, their favorite focus of activity was an elaborate play kitchen on our front porch. The stove, pots, dishes, and pretend-foods gave rise to a restaurant, which naturally called for waitstaff, cooks, and customers. Max tucked a notepad into the waistband of his blue corduroys, brandishing a pencil to scribble orders (and to write parking tickets in his spare time). When Lily wasn’t assembling food on plates as a boisterous short-order cook, she was putting little dolls into plastic teacups. Sam, sometimes in the role of cook, but more often cast as a customer, would noisily pretend to consume the culinary creations – or, when he was feeling especially full of himself, demand that the waiter return his meal to the kitchen.

I was delighted to see that their play wasn’t insular. My trio ingeniously involved others in their hijinks. Kids visiting the house would be swept into the game as customers or line cooks. Adults were always relegated to customer status, with the children catering to their every whim.

Never a quiet moment

Their imagination reassured me that my kids were OK. But I saw signs of trouble. Lily, Max, and Sam rarely gave each other a moment of peace to engage in a quiet, contemplative activity.

I had art supplies on hand, but no one ever sat still long enough to paint, draw, or sculpt. Nobody ever assembled kingdoms from their herds of stuffed animals – or built imaginary worlds with Playmobil figures.

When Lily tried building something with blocks, Max would “accidentally on purpose” knock them over. If Max grasped a piece of chalk and approached a blackboard, Lily swirled around him, providing the temptation to chase her rather than to draw. Sam could sit poring over a picture book, smack in the middle of the action. Oblivious to the hurricane around him, he would look up, stunned, to see that it was time to duck-and-cover.

As I read to them each night before bed, all three rolled around on the floor and slid off the couch. Somehow, each was able to answer my questions about what I had been reading.

Finally-a diagnosis

Once they were in elementary school, it was clear that something was amiss. I knew how funny and bright my children were, but their schoolwork failed to convey either wit or intelligence. They were disorganized, lost things, and couldn’t marshal their thoughts to write coherently. They couldn’t sit still in class, take notes, or find the main ideas in written materials. All were blurters; they couldn’t wait their turn to speak.

I consulted a neuropsychologist. Sure enough, tests revealed that all three have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder(ADD ADHD), and that Lily is dyslexic, as well. Why didn’t I catch this? It was hard to tell that something was “off” with any one child when my entire sample group shared the same disorder.

As we struggled to come to terms with the diagnoses, Lily asked the $64,000 question: “Is it because we’re triplets that there’s so much… stuff… in our family?” Was there something about triplet-hood that created the disabilities… or was it just bad luck?

Lily’s question spurred me to read up on ADHD. I learned that preemies are much more likely than full-term babies to develop ADHD, and that triplets are more likely to be premature. So, in a sense, the kids’ triplet status did predispose them to ADHD. I also learned that ADHD is largely hereditary. Peering through the branches of our family tree, I identified several forebears who seemed to have had undiagnosed ADHD.

Yet, even with heredity and prematurity as clear causative factors, I couldn’t help wondering what role “nurture” had played in my children’s development. ADHD is about the way the brain responds to external stimuli. Since Lily, Max, and Sam had been over-stimulating each other since conception, I wondered if the true “deficit” had been the fact that they’d never experienced life calmly and quietly, had never really been alone.

Accepting and embracing

Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t answer Lily’s question. I needed to view Lily, Max, and Sam’s lifelong group play as a source of strength – and worry less about their relative inability to ever play (or work) alone quietly.

At a time when my husband and I were pulling out our hair, inspiration arrived, inside an enormous box of Playmobil figures I had ordered from eBay. I pulled out the box during a blizzard and produced the Romani Circus. Within minutes, all three kids were drawn in by the high wire, nets, and trapezes. Hours flew by as they focused and got down to the kind of play that Juan had engaged in as a three-year-old. “If only they could do this in school,” I told my husband. “Exactly!” he said, laughing.

Then we got serious. We found schools that allow the kids to rely on the dynamics they’ve shown from the get-go. They are learning in small classes, where their teachers encourage cooperation, negotiation, lively debate, and participation in hands-on group projects.

In these settings, Lily, Max, and Sam stay focused. They’re motivated to work hard and use the organizational strategies that learning specialists have suggested. At 14, they are not likely to wind up on the wrong side of the teacher’s desk.

Ironically, the kids are doing this in three separate schools, where they are part of groups that don’t include…each other.

Photograph by Eve Gilman. Action figures courtesy of Playmobil®.

Catherine Corman is the co-author of Positively ADD. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, and is the mother of teenage triplets with ADHD.

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