When Dr. Ruth Hughes' son was young she had to create a checklist of everything her son, Chris, needed to do before he walked out of the door in the morning. The checklist had items like "Did you brush your teeth?" or "Did you grab the correct homework?" on it so he wouldn't forget. Sometimes, she would have to remind him to look at the checklist.
Chris, like thousands of children worldwide, is afflicted with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to statistics compiled by Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), the nation's largest nonprofit advocate for children and adults with the disorder, about 3 to 7 percent of school-age children and 2 to 4 percent of adults are believed to have the disorder.
Hughes, a clinical psychologist who now serves as CHADD's chief executive officer, said her story is not uncommon. In fact, during a new support group meeting for parents of children with ADHD held in Ashburn last week, several parents shared similar stories of angst and frustration and how they've come to deal with their children's' differences. Kirk Martin, executive director and co-founder of Celebrate!ADHD, an organization dedicated to equipping children and adults with ADD and ADHD for success, said he'd gotten a lot of response from parents about starting a support group in Loudoun.
"The purpose is really to provide parents with positive strategies to help their kids. A lot of times the parents really are never trained how to raise kids with ADD," he said. "They are wired a little differently in the way they learn and interact with the world. You have to learn to work with their nature instead of fighting it and making them work like everyone else."
Martin said parents provide the best advice for each other because they've lived through it together and can share lots of information on things like doctors, medication, issues with the school system and child advocacy.
AFTER INTRODUCING themselves and their situations at the meeting, parents openly discussed the struggle of dealing with children who lack the organizational, behavioral and social skills it takes to get through everyday life. Many of them expressed concerns about their child's inability to make or keep friends and resulting low self-esteem, the difficulties in explaining to teachers the best way to help their child learn and the frustrations they feel trying to get their children to do the most common sense things.
One Ashburn resident said the fourth-grade students at Cedar Lane Elementary School now have to switch classes like the fifth-grade students and it's been a source of contention for her son.
"It's great for the teachers, but horrible for a child with no organizational skills," she said.
Another issue that came up was dealing with other parents who may not understand their child's disorder. One mother said that for the longest time she was angry at her son because she felt he was constantly embarrassing her in front of her friends or out in public. Her sentiment was shared by another mother. She said she once took her son on an outing to a pumpkin patch with several other mothers and their children, and because her son was so focused on going to Chuck E. Cheese instead of the pumpkin patch, he cried the entire four hours of the trip. The parents agreed that it's hard not feeling like a bad parent when other parents ask why they don't just discipline their child and call it a day. But caring for a child with ADHD requires a more complex solution than a spanking. "ADHD affects the parts of the brain that are responsible for executive functioning — thinking through the consequences of your actions. It is so important for every person, every day to effectively function in school, jobs, and relationships. For many kids, that's the root of the impairment," Hughes said.
ADHD is accepted in the medicine and health world as a brain-related disorder. Although no causes or cures have been found, studies have shown that it does tend to run in families.
"Frequently, only when a parent has been diagnosed, do they realize they've had the same problem all their lives," Hughes said.
ADHD SYMPTOMS are consistent but can range in severity. Most people with the disorder have trouble following through with things, sitting still, paying attention and listening. They are often impulsive, sometimes aggressive, and may show signs of obsessive compulsivity. And about two-thirds of those diagnosed with ADHD also suffer from a co-occurring disorder, like Tourette's syndrome, depression, anxiety or a multitude of learning disabilities.
Children aren't diagnosed with the disorder until around age 6 because initially it can be hard to detect. Inattention is one of the most difficult symptoms to pick up, Hughes said.
"It'll often start with a parent-teacher conversation. The teacher will say something like, 'I know Susy could do so much better. She's so dreamy; she never seems to be paying attention. I'm having the hardest time getting her to concentrate on the work,'" she said.
The best way parents can tell if something is askew, she said, is to watch and see whether their child is behaviorally, socially and academically on par with other children their age. If not, they may be showing signs of ADHD.
Because the disorder is not curable, about 70 percent of children with ADHD continue to experience symptoms into adolescence and 65 percent continue them into adulthood. However, doctors and psychologists have found that a combination of medicine and behavioral intervention, like the morning checklist, help provide structure and allow both children and adults to better manage the disorder and their lives.