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I originally wrote this seven years ago for Today, on the first day of school, one of our friends has a child with ADHD and needed a little reassurance that everything would turn out OK.  I am republishing this for her and all the parents struggling against a school administration that does not try to understand that each child is unique and has a unique way of learning…

I knew there was something bothering her. My daughter is usually a happy 12-year-old but as she approached my car she had a look on her face that was more serious than I had ever seen.

“Daddy, I think there’s something wrong with me.”

I said what any good father would say: “Honey, are you sure this isn’t something that you should be discussing with Mom?”

“No, Dad,” she said with that frustrated teenaged girl tone that she had developed over the last few months “It’s not a girl thing. It’s about my Bat Mitzvah! I am weird — all the other kids complain about their lessons, but I like them. Is there something wrong with me?”

After explaining that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her, I began to realize how far she had come, and how profoundly proud I am of her. You see, there is something in my daughter’s brain chemistry that makes her a little different and causes her to be distractible, unorganized and impulsive. It also gives her a high IQ, a wonderful creative mind, and a sense of compassion that goes way beyond kids of her age.

She needs to work extra hard at tasks just to get started, but her intelligence, resourcefulness and work ethic enables her to surpass most of the kids her age. Most nights she has to work on her studies till 9 or 10 pm and because of her hard work and intelligence, she has been on Honor or High Honor Role every semester since her entrance into Junior High School. Not bad for a kid with ADHD.

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) is not rare. It effects between 7 and 8% of all kids, yet it has been my experience that most adults are insensitive to the people who are affected by the problem.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard ADHD or “Hyper” used as a derogatory term to describe any child with behavior problems. Some insensitive adults even describe themselves as ADHD on a day when they are not performing at their usual levels. Those comments are as hurtful as they are untrue. Most of the ADHD kids that I have met are sensitive, smart and no more rambunctious than other children.

Unlike what some uneducated people may say, ADHD is real, it is not the “disease of the month.”

ADHD does not mean that a child cannot pay attention; it means that sometimes they pay attention to the wrong thing. Some say it is a genetic remnant of the “caveman” days, when man was not only a predator, but prey. The disorder is actually a gift. It allows their senses to be more in tune with the world around them; they are open to sensory stimulation.

With ADHD you are much more likely to “stop and smell the roses.” Of course it is also harder for a person with ADHD to stay focused and return to the task at hand (like cleaning his/her room). Yet in times of crisis they are able to hyper-focus, concentrate on the task at hand better than anyone. My wife says my daughter has “eagle eyes” because she can find the needle in the haystack.

From the first day of kindergarten, school has been an every day struggle in our home because most teachers and administrators can only deal with kids who conform to their vision of a student. It is easy to develop a program to help a child that can’t read or add. But we have found that school systems are unprepared to help a very bright child with needs. The school administrators I have dealt with see my child as doing well enough so she doesn’t need help; wrongly, they don’t necessarily see the purpose of  education as enabling her to achieve her potential.

We always thought it important to share my daughter’s needs with the teachers and administrators, but often they just don’t get it. I can’t tell you how many times I have been frustrated at seeing a report card that commented that my daughter was distractible or exhibited a lack of organization. As Homer Simpson would say “DUH!” Those same teachers wouldn’t say to a parent of a child that needs a wheelchair, “You need to get your child to run faster.”

Raising a child with special needs requires you to constantly fight for your child. This has been a full time job for my wife. She has questioned, begged and pushed to make sure that my daughter is given the opportunity to reach her full potential. In many cases, she has taught the school district about new resources available to kids with needs.

Because we ask questions and do not take no for an answer when it comes to our child’s needs, we are known in the school district as the parents from hell. We always wonder about the other parents, the ones who don’t know that they can’t take everyone at their word, who don’t know how to ask questions or realize that they need to fight for their kids.

It’s not that school administrators are bad people, most of them truly care about kids. The fact is schools are like any other business — their job is to get the job done using as few resources as possible. To cover things up, administrators want teachers to paint a beautiful picture, telling parents that everything is going smoothly, when it isn’t, just so mom and dad don’t ask for more services.

Untenured teachers have been fired for being honest with my wife and I about the services my child needs. Tenured staff have been transferred or disciplined for letting us know more about our child.

Along with her ADHD, my Daughter has visual-motor issues and fine motor problems (to this day she has to type everything). In a conference, an administrator once tried to answer a question for an occupational therapist. I reminded her that the therapist was the expert in the area, and maybe we should hear his answer. The therapist answered honestly and was removed from the district the next school year. We went through three occupational therapists in three years that way.

Having needs that no one understands can be even more frustrating for my daughter. Once she came home from school complaining that the teacher sat her next to a child who was throwing paper clips. “Mom,” she said, “the teacher put me, someone with an attention problem, right next to the most distractible kid in the class. What was she thinking?”

Often she will come home relating to us that a teacher doesn’t understand her issues. Part of growing up is to learn to advocate for ourselves and my child is beginning to learn this. Often, though, a teacher who doesn’t fully comprehend her issues stumps her. This is compounded by her desire to be respectful for authority. We are working very hard at trying to teach her that it is okay to respectfully advocate for her needs. When that doesn’t work, my wife and I (known to the school as the parents from hell) quickly go to the school or the district office to straighten things out.

ADHD can lead to social problems. We all give out body language and other physical signals to the people we interact with. As you may expect, people with ADHD don’t always recognize the signals. For example, because they are caring and impulsive they are more likely to invade personal space or commit some other social miscues at an older age than other children. Friends can be hard to make, but when people give her a chance they find her to be a fun and fiercely loyal companion.

God willing, in six months my daughter will be having her Bat Mitzvah. She is already making comments and asking questions about her Torah portion that make me scramble for the nearest Chumash so I can catch up with her insights.

With the advent of her Bat Mitzvah, she will begin to be responsible for herself and will be looked at as an adult in the Jewish community. In actuality, she is just beginning to make that long transition from adolescence to adulthood. Like any parents, my wife and I spend lots of nights worrying about both our kids, hoping that we are doing the right thing, enabling her to reach adulthood, not only achieving her potential as a person but to be a healthy human being with a good heart and the right values.

As she reaches her Bat Mitzvah and begins that transition, despite all the sleepless nights, I see her disorder as a gift from God. She has learned that nothing comes without working very hard, that it is important to speak up for yourself (respectfully) and that you don’t take good friends for granted.

But most importantly she is becoming someone for whom values are more important than popularity, and someone who can appreciate the things around her better than anyone I know. I am already very proud, and very thankful. Now if I can just get her to clean her room.

Just a note, seven years later my wife and I are still fighting the administration and their stupidity. While my daughter is in college and is advocating for herself, now we are fighting for her younger brother, who like his older sister (and father) has been diagnosed with ADHD. His problems have been exasperated by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA). Because of the pain of JRA he regularly misses 25-33% of the school year. My daughter has grown into a beautiful young lady with a good heart, she is in college and at the same time, is working for a congressional campaign —- and her room….. well…lets just say we are still working on it.

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