Your Attention, Please

Journal / Saturday, June 2nd, 2018

We took my son in for some evaluations, and it’s official: he has ADHD—the kind that makes him bounce around the room like a rubber ball. He’s always been high energy, so this isn’t a huge shock, but having it in black and white is a bit intimidating.

He’s also apparently smarter than hell. Some of his test scores are scary high—numbers like 97 percent floated around the room. I guess the fact that he’s really bright isn’t news to other people who know him, but I’m his mother, so this was a surprise to me because I think everything he does is brilliant anyway.

People who have this combination of challenges and gifts are called “twice exceptional.” It’s a nice term that sums up a kid who can, on the surface, seem like he’s pretty typical for kids his age, because he’s using his intellect to compensate for his difficulties with focus.

This diagnosis at first filled me with dread. Oddly, I felt less awful about the ADHD piece, which I had suspected for a while, than the very high test scores. I should have known how smart he was, I heard myself thinking. A good mother knows her child better than that. I thought I was paying more attention.

Here’s the thing: My father is brilliant… and he feels he never amounted to much. He’s always been a voracious newspaper reader, fascinated by history and politics. In his twenties, he was in a PhD program for political science which even took him to Italy, where he stayed three years and learned the language (his third), but he “ran out of steam” on his doctoral thesis and wound up “only” getting a Master’s degree. In his eighties, his psychiatrist diagnosed him with ADHD (a relief, since he thought he was going senile), and a couple of years later, he self-diagnosed with Asperger’s (now called ASD).

Now, as I read up on this thing called twice exceptional, I realize I have a father who’s already been through this, but without any diagnosis. He’s an amazing person, has led a fascinating life, and overcame a difficult childhood to raise me in a loving, stable home, but he still feels like a failure.

My son is just starting to suspect that something about him isn’t quite working the way it’s supposed to. He’s the one who asked to have his sight and hearing checked because he felt he was missing things. Right now he’s generally a happy guy, excited about lots of different things, chattering endlessly about his favorite subjects, throwing himself around the room with glee and abandon. But I can already see signs that he is worried. When he makes a mistake while reading to us, he flops dramatically onto his back on the carpet, slaps his forehead, and growls in frustration. Sometimes when I gently remind him of a task I’ve asked him to do, he shouts at me and gets upset. Once on a school paper I found, in his writing (and typical bad spelling), “I am stoopid.”

It’s hard not to compare my father and my son, and worry that the seven-year-old will one day feel about his life the way the 88-year-old does. Intellectually, I know that we are more tuned to my son than my father’s parents were to him. It’s a pretty safe bet that one or both of them were also on the autism spectrum. (Although I barely remember my grandfather, this would certainly explain some odd things about my grandmother.) My grandfather himself was raised without a stable mother figure, and was abusive to my father.

I also recognize that the simple fact that we understand more about ADHD in the 2010s than we did in the 1920s, and that we’ve diagnosed my son early, is a huge boost. My son will benefit from all of the research we can dig up about living and growing with ADHD—and all the resources we can use to help keep his supercharged brain engaged.

More than anything, what I want my son to know is that I love him the way he is. I wouldn’t trade him for a calmer, mellower kid (although I admit I enjoy his sick days a little because he actually sits on the sofa with me and lets me cuddle him). Even when I’m exasperated with his nonstop motion and his difficulty remembering and tracking tasks, I also treasure his enthusiasm and his brilliant mind and his caring heart.

I believe there are places that will be perfect for the high-energy, high-octane intellectual my son will become as an adult. My job is to get him there, to guide him through a world that is not always tailored to his gifts and challenges, to help him see his differences as strengths as well as (sometimes) weaknesses.

As I read through the common personality characteristics of twice exceptional people, I realized there is another person who fits that description whom I’ve been living with: myself. I haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD, and I don’t think I have it full-blown, but there’s no question that my anxiety levels are currently and have often affected my executive functioning (my ability to decide what to work on first, break down my tasks into steps, and execute those steps). And I’ve always felt bad about not accomplishing more, because I am smart and I know it, but I don’t always know how to apply it because I am also easily overwhelmed.

I don’t consider myself a failure, although I am struggling right now and sometimes feel like I should be further along in my career, on my book that I’ve put back in a drawer, on social justice issues that draw my heart and overwhelm my brain. I’m further along in life than my seven-year-old son, and not as far along as my 88-year-old father.

The truth is, I understand myself better, and have more compassion for myself, than my father does for himself. What I hope is that I can take some of the struggles I’ve faced, as well as some that my father has faced, and use them to teach my son how to live with the gifts and challenges he has.

What is a successful life, really? Is it just about intellectual output, generating influential ideas, rising high in your field? Or is it also about giving and receiving love, discovering what makes you happy, contributing to your community by helping people in it? By that measure, my father has not failed; I am not failing; my son will not fail. We are already succeeding. What remains is to keep loving our lives—to keep paying attention.

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