Diagnoses are the on the rise, but the disorder has more than one form, and the symptoms aren't always obvious.
Children with an ADHD diagnosis can seek individualized education plans (IEPs) or 504 plans that allow school accommodations under the civil rights law that protects people with disabilities. An IEP is a formal, written plan with stated goals and strategies for special education, whereas a 504 grants more targeted interventions, such as extra help with reading outside of the classroom, extra time taking tests, or even something as simple as a desk that’s located in a spot with fewer distractions. Public schools are required by law to make accommodations for students who have a diagnosis. Private schools generally do so as standard practice.
Yet parents say proving their child needs these supports is sometimes a challenge, particularly when faced with prejudices from teachers and others who don’t consider ADHD a medical problem. (“Why can’t he just sit still?”) Girls, in particular, are socialized to not be disruptive, so their symptoms may not be on display when teachers are watching. And not every family has the ability to fight for their child—especially if it means taking time off work for a slew of meetings and evaluations.
“There are kids not meeting their potential because they are not causing enough trouble,” Grant contends.
Asef-Sargent remembers one teacher giving her daughter Chloe a hard time for having her mom’s help with dictation and transcribing. Hoping to change that mindset, she now sits on the Arlington Special Education Advisory Committee, as well as Arlington Public Schools’ ADHD and Mental Health Services task forces.
School support can make a big difference, says clinical psychologist Saylor, given that students with ADHD may be 10 to 15 percent behind their peers in developing executive-functioning skills.
Still, parents may not be inclined to request an IEP or 504 right away. Grant says she waited four years to ask for a 504 for her son James. At first there was no urgency because his teachers were already giving him the informal support he needed. That changed the day he came home from ninth grade with a test from a teacher who had declined to give him extra time to finish. He had answered every single question correctly—until the clock ran out and he left the last page blank. The “C” grade hit hard, Grant says. He clearly knew the material.
“When he gets that extra time he gets A’s,” she says. “When he doesn’t, he gets a C. That just seems wrong to me.”
Now that he’s in high school, James manages his accommodations himself. He doesn’t want his peers to know he needs the extra time, so he arranges with teachers to take the first page of a test before school. When the class starts, he’s already on Page 2.
James also works with an outside tutor, Kristin Linder Carpenter, founder of Linder Educational Coaching in Arlington. Private tutoring at Linder is available, or kids can attend a group after-school program with coaching. His mom says it’s a worthwhile investment.
Working with Carpenter, James has learned to use study guides and developed strategies for remembering to turn in homework and planning long-term projects. He now keeps a separate homework folder that doesn’t get lost in his backpack, and he uses a calendar to keep track of his assignments.
Cognitive behavioral therapy—a form of talk therapy that helps patients understand the connections between their thoughts, emotions and behaviors—can also be helpful for children with ADHD, particularly those 10 and older, says Debra Brosius, a clinical psychologist in McLean.
In CBT, a therapist (usually a psychologist) may focus on teaching self-regulation, compensatory strategies, social awareness, time management and planning skills, as well as coping strategies for dealing with negative attitudes from the outside world.
Asef-Sargent says she wishes she had started CBT earlier with her daughters: “That has helped immensely. You’re thinking, as a parent, Oh my God, I can’t spend this money. But in a lot of ways, you can’t afford not to.”
At the same time, the steps she and her husband did take—after following those trails of breadcrumbs—have made all the difference for their girls. Chloe is now enrolled in community college, where she isn’t required to sit still for seven hours a day.
This fall, Adriana heads to Eckerd College, a Florida school with fewer than 2,000 students. Small classes will allow her to build relationships with teachers and advocate for herself.
Susan Brown’s kids, meanwhile, are thriving at Yorktown High. Both are taking intensified classes and Amber has straight A’s. Looking back on her own childhood, Brown says she has a newfound perspective on the kids who sat in the back row shooting spitballs. She suspects many of them had ADHD.
Lots of people do—including more than a few highly successful ones in a wide range of fields. The ranks include athletes Terry Bradshaw, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles; business magnate Richard Branson; chef Jamie Oliver; and entertainers Justin Timberlake and Jim Carrey.
Kids with ADHD often struggle and are late bloomers, says Martin of Celebrate Calm, “but they’ll rule the world.”
*Pseudonyms used for privacy