Thursday, March 27, 2014

Helicopter Parenting (not mine) and ADHD - A Long Rant

"Children with ADHD also tend to be less skilled in the use of complex problem-solving strategies and the organizational skills needed for solving intellectual or social problems." (Taking Charge of ADHD, Russell A. Barkley, PhD).

My good friend and neighbor, who often ends up being the go-to mom in the neighborhood for the kids, wrangles all of the various trolls and ferries them home from the bus stop each day, (a God send to every last one of us) had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of a complaint about Liam. Because I am never at the bus stop in the afternoon - I have to work until 6 PM - the bus driver spoke to my neighbor about Liam "using inappropriate language" and asked my neighbor to speak to me about it.

The offensive language? Liam was telling another little boy about how he used to call [the vehicle] Hummer a "humper. "

I'll wait a minute while you pick yourself up off of the floor due to the shock that I would possibly allow my 11-year-old son to use such inappropriate, profane language.

For the record, Liam has no idea that a hummer is a euphemism for a blow job. I'm not entirely sure what a "humper" is, except that it has the word "hump" in it, and that's possibly why it was so inappropriate.

What bothers me is the complete overreaction of the bus driver. If she had paused for just a second and thought to ask if Liam even knew what the words meant, she would've discovered that he was telling a story about word slip-ups, much the same way that I tell stories about how cute I thought it was that both of my sons called bananas "blannas" and how, to this day, I still call them that. Instead, she freaked-the-fuck-out and made my kid feel like he was being persecuted FOR TELLING A CUTE STORY.

...Way to kill a kid's spirit, helicopter parenting!

So my friend, good soul that she is, calls me at work to tell me about the situation. I started to chuckle about it and explain what Liam was actually talking about. She would hear none of it. THAT just about floored me. She kept saying things like, "well, if he doesn't know what the word means, he shouldn't use it. He needs to set an example for the younger kids."

/insert "da fuck?!" look here

She then goes on to tell me that Liam wanted to walk home and she made him get in the car so she could talk to him. When she pulled into my driveway, Liam hopped right out of the car and tried to go into the house. She tried to stop him and he threw his backpack and hat at the wall.

... The tantrum was a little over the top but, not for nothing, the kid was giving off all of the "I'm losing my cool" and "leave me alone so I can process" cues and she completely ignored all of them. I might've thrown my backpack, too.

After regaling me with that part of the story, she proceeds to tell me that Liam needs to "learn better coping skills" because, if he doesn't, "he's going to be in a lot of trouble later." I tried to explain that the ADHD brain doesn't really facilitate learning things like, "how to cope" quickly or easily. She cut me off and said, "I know about learning disabilities! People can overcome them all the time." Yup. They can. ADHD isn't a learning disability.

And that's part of the frustration of finding out your kid has this disorder. Firstly, it's almost always diagnosed after the child experiences profound delays in achievement at school. Usually, the testing is initiated by the school district and is followed up, after formal diagnosis - which can be made by the school psychologist -  with a 504 educational plan.

...But it's not a learning disability. It's a behavior disorder that impacts a child's ability to learn.

Those are different beasts, my friends; they're not synonyms.

ADHD is also not a behavior disorder in the same way that anxiety or depressive disorders are. Anxiety and depression are the result of fluctuations and imbalances of brain chemistry - specifically norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. You can take pills to adjust those things. ADHD is a disorder of the brain structure:

"In general, the studies in [abnormal brain development in children with ADHD] have found that the prefrontal region, especially on the right side, several structures in the basal ganglia...the midline anterior cingulate cortex...and the central area in the cerebellum, again, more on the right side, were significantly smaller and/or less active in children with ADHD than in normal children. These five brain regions are usually involved during tasks requiring inhibition, holding information in mind to guide behavior, and other executive functions. All of these results have led scientists to the conclusion that ADHD arises from delayed or impaired maturation of these regions...than is typical of normal or non-ADHD individuals." (Taking Charge of ADHD)

Fortunately, ADHD changes with development, but typically presents with one or more other behavior issues. In Liam's case, the comorbidity is ADHD and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder). The ODD, which is really, really mild, is manageable and can be dealt with. However, with difficulties that present with ADHD - impulse control issues, decreased executive functioning - make learning coping skills (as we "normal" folks would talk about them) downright fucking impossible.

But here again is the problem of explaining ADHD to a world that thinks it's all shiny squirrels and college kids hooked on Ritalin: the world thinks you can just "willpower" this shit away. The kid seems like he can act normal most of the time. He behaves himself here or there. He's good with other kids. Sure... all of those things are very, very true. But those are also less emotionally charged situations.

In most cases, they're novel situations - a break from the routine that is the bane of an ADHDer's existence - and the ADHDer can certainly navigate those waters. But present an ADHDer - whose frontal lobes are smaller or less active - with a difficult emotional situation, such as being wrongfully accused of being inappropriate, and he can't physically process the flood of feeling hitting his brain because his brain is short on space. "Dealing with it" is not part of an ADHDer's emotional vocabulary.

But the kid doesn't look brain damaged. Well, he's not. His brain is just developing more slowly than a "normal" kid's brain. However, in order to get across the gravity of what we're dealing with here, the only way I know how to express it is to say, "Liam's brain doesn't work correctly." The wiring is there; it's just hooked up oddly.

Truthfully, Liam's brain actually does work correctly. It just operates on a plane that isn't considered "normal" in certain situations. Because of that, Liam will be expected to modify his behavior - rewire his brain, so to speak - to accommodate a world that thinks there's nothing wrong with him... simply because he doesn't have a big neon "I have a disability" sign flashing on his forehead.

The thing that most "normals" don't get about ADHD, either, is that it's not black and white. ADHD is all shades of grey. I can teach Liam how to cope tomorrow. The day after that is a different story. The best analogy I can think of is to say, "I have an old computer. Today, I'm only processing word documents one at a time and my computer can totally handle it. Tomorrow, I'm going to visit a web site with a lot of Flash, while I listen to music and write four papers simultaneously. My computer is going to move super slow and probably crash."

The really messed up thing with that analogy is that we'd get frustrated with the computer, but understand that it didn't have enough RAM to process everything. We'd adjust our behavior to accommodate the computer's limitations. Yet we don't hesitate to make the ADHD kid adjust his behavior instead of shifting our own expectations of his capabilities and letting him thrive in his abilities. We make the ADHD kid a victim of his disability. We're more humane to our hardware than we are to our children.

Liam does indeed need to learn to navigate the world at large because, as much as *I* think he's a mastermind of spoon bending capabilities, able to contort the world at his whim, the world doesn't agree with me. What his village - those of us that have made a commitment to help this child grow into adulthood - needs to do is adjust our teaching methods. Things like, "teaching him better coping skills" and "telling him he needs to make different choices" need to be stricken from our collective vocabularies. WE need to figure out how to help him learn to use what processing abilities he has in his immediate control - which means that we need to rewire our own brains.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

I went to #SXSW and all I got was this lousy beard.

I've actually been back from SXSW for about a week now. It's taken that long to actually process my peripheral experience there.

I should mention two things before I begin:

1) I went to scout the show for work - specifically, the vendor room.
2) I only had a film badge, so didn't get to take advantage of the full buffet that is SXSW.

Here's what I took away from what limited time I had there:

Hipsters! OH HOLY MOTHER! The hipsters were everywhere. Hipsters action packed full of being meaningful and making meaningful stuff and being so occupied with being the next big alternative thing (but just big enough not to lose their street cred) that they completely forgot about basic niceties and manners.

...Really? Saying "excuse me" is so difficult?

The hipster faction actually made me feel incredibly old. I felt like Grandpa screaming at kids to get off my lawn. I felt like I should've been walking with a cane and sipping from Metamucil tinged water, because I was certainly reminiscing a great deal about the good ole days.

I miss the days when Robert Mapplethorpe was considered shocking.
I miss the days when you could still see bands like Radiohead and Nirvana in small dingy clubs.
I miss when wearing a Grateful Dead shirt wasn't ironic.
I miss the days when beard wearing was reserved for hermits and hippies - un-ironically.

I miss when irony was pure and not part of some advertising campaign.

I miss the innocence of microbrew beers. I miss when MTV was full of music videos. I miss the purity of social movements. I miss when charities didn't get their start on Kickstarter.

Because I am old enough to remember some of the last great movements.
I'm old enough to have seen the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd.
I'm old enough to have inhaled nitrous balloons and to pass up free hits of acid.
I'm old enough to remember that crack is whack.

I don't know what this says about SXSW. But I know that the fact that Mapplethorpe is no longer shocking speaks volumes about the society we live in.

We're no longer genuine. We're no longer novel. We're not even controversial. All the great themes have been used up and turned into, not necessarily theme parks, but tongue-in-cheek ads for Oreos and Google.

We need genuine controversy. We need genuine movement.

I want to start the anti-movement movement.

Kill your television.
Put down your phone.
Tune in. Drop out.
Be genuine.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Treading Water - Thoughts on redefining normal

When you find out you're pregnant for the first time - and you're actually going to keep the child - you read every book that was ever written by anyone who has any kind of experience with children. You're nervous. You fret about everything you ingest. You absorb all the horror stories. You try all the advice. You know... typical new parent stuff. Then you realize that babies are, for all intents and purposes, pretty unbreakable. They're these beautiful clean slates; moldable and malleable. Sure, you have to contend with genetics and all that, but nurture has to have some effect, right?

As I may have mentioned, Liam (The Nugget) was recently diagnosed with ADHD. In my quest to understand everything I can about what's going on in his head, so I can help him navigate the waters of life, I'm reading everything I can get my hands on. The more I read, though, the more guilty I feel. It turns out, despite my best intentions, my boy had the chips stacked against him from the outset.

First, let's talk genetics. The Ex is ADHD, too. He never really outgrew it, as a goodly percentage of children with the disorder won't, but he seemed to have learned how to cope in life. Aside from a severe Peter Pan complex he seemed fairly normal. Or maybe I was just young and stupid, and didn't know any better.

Now let's discuss womb environment. So, Liam already had a potent cocktail of genetics working against him. I'm not proud of this, but I smoked during all three of my pregnancies. I cut way back, but I still smoked. While pregnant with Liam, I was down to no more than four cigarettes a day... until The Ex decided to leave me while I was  7 1/2 months pregnant with Liam. I immediately went back up to a pack a day.

Did I mention that, early in the pregnancy, I contracted bacterial meningitis? Theoretically, the placenta filtered the bad stuff out, but nobody really knows for sure that he wasn't affected.

Now let's get back to the stress and depression I felt during the latter part of my pregnancy. I couldn't eat. I could barely consume liquids (depression does that to you). I ended up losing weight. Combine that with a nasty smoking habit and Liam's womb environment was less than ideal.

When he was born, his APGAR scores were damn near perfect. There was no oxygen deprivation (he was as pink as the shrimp I was so fond of while pregnant with him). The delivery, via c-section, went without a hitch. He was smack dab in the middle of the weight and height ranges. Nothing indicated that he wouldn't be perfectly normal.

So what was different? My pregnancy. The Monkey had the same genetic cocktail to work with and yet he is, at least as far as I can tell, unaffected by ADHD. Hell, I didn't even cut back as much on the smoking while pregnant with The Monkey (which accounts for his birth weight being on the lower end of normal), and I definitely drank a ton of coffee with him. But I hadn't contracted meningitis and I wasn't suffering from a broken heart.

There's nothing I can do about any of this now, short of building a time machine. And I'm all out of plutonium at the moment. What I can do is try to help my boy navigate the waters of life in the context of our new definition of normal.

But the spectrum of normal has shifted a great deal for me. I freeze when I need to address a discipline issue because I don't know what the right move is. I am wracked with guilt and this guilt tinges almost all of my interactions with Liam. My thought processes are frozen in a constant loop of "you did this to him. you did this to him. you did this to him." I want to help him, but I don't know what helping him means anymore.

Intellectually, I know this is bordering on insanity on my part, and probably the result of internalizing far too much of what I'm reading right now. But emotionally, I can't help but feel like I'm treading water.

When you get a diagnosis like this for your child, it doesn't come along with a bunch of handouts about what to expect with your ADHD kid. No. Instead they send you off with the test results and a 504 plan with calm reassurances about reevaluating him again in a year. They don't explain how to intercede when outbursts at the supper table just won't stop happening. They don't explain how you're supposed to be able to tell how much of the behavior is " imperfection in the brain that causes the... poor impulse control..." or how much of it is your kid, who is abnormally perceptive anyway, trying to use his ADHD as an excuse to be an asshole. They don't explain to you how to explain to your kid that it's not OK to hug strangers, no matter how much you want to, because other kids will make fun of you. Because, guess what? ADHD kids have a really fucking hard time processing future consequences. In fact, future consequences don't exist in the ADHD world. They don't tell you that part, either.

No map. No directions. You're a foreigner in a new land and you don't speak the language.

So how do you parent that? How do you guide your child through the rapids when your child sees the rapids as just any other body of water. Oh and your kid can't swim, either.

Where's the fucking manual for that?