I started noticing delays in our son’s attention to reading and writing when he was 7, so when his teacher called me to discuss I was half expecting it. Art has a twin sister and because they are our only children I tend to struggle gauging child development at ages other than theirs, I’m walking in the dark and never quite sure of what I’m doing. With twins you go through everything once, but twice, a lot of fun until isn’t. We were living in England back then and Art attended a tiny school, he had good attention on him but the school could only offer a hearing test in the local hospital and an eye test in the optician. His teacher was wonderful, a truly warm soul with such capacity for her pupils, she told me ‘Art needs time’. I wasn’t frustrated because Art was just a little lad and as far as I was concerned he could take all the time he needed, he’s a kind kid, always goes the extra distance for his friends and has a big smile. You don’t need much more than that when you’re 7.
We moved to California when Art was 9. I handed over his learning notes to his new school and highlighted he ‘needs time’, I remember shrinking a little hearing myself as I realized I should probably get some better articulation to communicate my children’s academic abilities. Within 6 months he was sitting his ERB’s and one of his tests averaged out around 4%. I still have no idea how that is even possible, I reckoned one of our dogs could have made a better fist of it. Was he even in the room?! As his sister pointed out, it couldn’t be any worse so that was a thing! The school told me he was reading and writing above grade level but he has no ability to complete work within a set time period. Yep, knew that. We were connected with a psychologist and Art set about all sorts of tests totaling 8 hours across a few days. He read, wrote, observed stuff, drew, redrew, practiced recall, responded to stuff. We waited.
When the sixteen page report came back detailing the working intricacies of his thinking brain and motor skills, I’m intrigued. It’s fascinating to me, to see how we learn these details about each other from astutely designed systems, to examine our cognitive thinking and to understand our individual neuron messages, that these chemical patterns are something we can fathom. That in the first instance a brain has worked out how to examine another brain. If it wasn’t so expensive I would definitely take the tests myself. Art is diagnosed with ADHD predominantly inattentive type. I study his report and talk with the psychologist at length. We have uncovered Art’s superpower! I learnt Art can look at a complicated picture, memorise it, draw it exactly ten minutes later, leave it and then draw it exactly again thirty minutes later, missing no details. He has the ability to stare at a screen for a long period of time yet do not much else, including interacting with the test on the screen… but very efficient with taking bathroom breaks, sigh. He can get through a whole pencil in a day because of his need to keep it point sharp. He lives in a highly organised world and will know where everything is, all the time. He notices all the little things (my favourite being he always notices when I am wearing mascara and tells me it looks pretty, thank you Art). His level of research is insane and he can read and write above expectation. Outside of the report, Art is intensely diligent to complete his homework, he understands his schedule and is yet to be unprepared or forget a school meeting or event, he is very consistent when it comes to washing his hands and face, he sets his morning alarm for the exact time every day and likes to go to bed at the same time every night. He keeps his guitar perfectly tuned and delights us with little clicking noises from the back of his throat. He will tell us he likes to use all these skills to try to be a better human, that in itself nails it. In my eyes, that makes him a superhero.
We were next sent to a psychiatrist for further review, who spent some time intensely interviewing Art before prescribing drugs to aid cognitive functioning. Even though he has a superpower there was concern he would lose track with school work because he’s classified with executive functioning issues, which basically means he is a procrastinator and bad at making concise decisions. The drugs sit on our kitchen counter for a few days while I look at them warily. I google the hell out of the ingredients and what they do. I was feeling proud before the psychiatrist yet now there is a perceptible sadness. I feel the enormity of the decision. After a couple more days I throw the pills out.
Here’s why (I speak carefully and only from the perspective of a parent to a child with predominantly inattentive type); I reckon Art’s brain is hardwired to be exactly as it is. Human intervention would be to disesteem his natural system order, and given he is not hyperactive or distracting other children we are just dealing with an Art-centric issue. Not taking meds means Art spends at least 2 hours each evening on his homework just to stay on top of his studies, 4 hours can be a regular occurrence – which in turn means he chooses not to be part of a school sports team simply based on his available hours. His note-taking detail has gone to another level as he basically rewrites swathes of text, this is improving slowly with his ability to understand what is and what isn’t important to his studies, but still. We spend a lot of time encouraging him to stay in focus and manage the amount of time he applies to work and reading, setting an alarm helps. We have to buy a thousand more pencils and several electric pencil sharpeners to manage the sharpening obsession (the eraser count is on a new high level now too). I must bite my lip enduring endless guitar tuning but very little guitar playing, and his stories are extremely detailed so sometimes we lose him halfway through narrations while he repeats himself under his breath. But these tangents and procrastinations somehow allow Art to delve deep into his brain and cultivate his thoughts, allowing him to bring a curveball and I love to hear his perspective. He sees things a little differently and most of the time I wonder who has the clearer vision.
I figure that if this boy is to get to know himself as a superhero, then he has to live with himself each day, whatever befuddled shape he comes in. It is indeed very tricky to not to flip out when he’s tying a shoelace perfectly for the fourth time while one is late for work, but operating this way keeps him happy and, well, what are we rushing for anyhow?
OK, compromise must play a part and my family is always working on the ‘living in a team is the dream’ and the age-old mantra ‘help me to help you to help others’ and so on and on (to be honest I could sometimes do with some help around this myself). My go-to thought, when it’s all wearing a bit thin, is to contemplate what this world might have been if we had medicated everyone from our textured human history whom perhaps showed signs of ADHD. Would we have seen so many luminous scientists, artists, philosophers, mathematicians or sportsmen? Is it human license to have a few oddballs about the place? People contrasting with each other is necessary; ingenuity comes from odd brains and with gutsy process, brave ideas radiate. Perhaps being encouraged to understand oneself at the get-go is a positive learning practice, assuming one is safe and happy why not attempt to manually understand and manage that little, wild, brain valve flapping open uncontrollably? What does it matter if you procrastinate 30% more than what is stated normal or get hung up on repetition? The journey is important like writing thank you notes; who cares if they are badly scribed, it’s the intention and thoughtfulness of the deed, not the style of execution that sets you apart. I think back to his teacher advocating ‘give him time’, and I wonder if this was the real prescription; patience with each other to cajole our best version?
Now, a few years on, Art is still coruscating his superpower and has researched ADHD to emphatically own it, he is working on better ways to take notes in class, he works on tools to stay focused, he prioritizes when he can’t make all homework assignments and negotiates extensions on some, if he doesn’t score well in a test he independently organises a retake out of determination to not fail, he keeps a pencil sharpener close, he joined a swim team for the love of repetition and he has claimed a position of authority in our family as fact-checker. He’s passing through life with all the successes a 12-year-old kid needs; he has love in his heart, he puts his best foot forward, he is happy.
And he is never short of a sharp pencil when I need one.