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Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD & Ritalin: What's a Parent to Do?

adhd medication

Will my daughter need medication for attention deficit disorder?

When my daughter was just two years old, her Montessori teacher told my husband and I that something was going on. She wasn’t sure what it was, but based on her decades of teaching she could see that my sweet girl wasn’t interacting in the classroom the way other 2-year-olds did. Rather than getting her hands into everything, making a mess, touching and manipulating things, she’d head off to the far corner of the room and bury her face in a book.

It’s hard to know exactly what is going on with a two-year-old girl who isn’t quite able to express her frustrations or feelings. What we did know was that Madden had always had trouble sleeping, was fairly restrictive with her eating, and avoided doing anything that required fine motor work. She wasn’t interested in scribbling or using utensils or anything of the sort.  At first I thought she was just quirky, but when her teacher shared her concerns, it was time to find out more.

We took Madden to see an expert developmental psychiatrist who spent time observing her and said she did not have autism or Asperger’s, but that it was likely she did have sensory processing disorder. The psychiatrist said that our daughter needed occupational therapy, and that we would have to wait until she grew older to see if there were any other issues we’d need to pay attention to.

Madden has been going to occupational therapy for sensory processing disorder ever since, and she’s now almost six. Many things have changed for her, including sleeping great, eating well, and writing and drawing like crazy. She’s a great reader, one of the best in her kindergarten class even though she’s also one of the youngest children. Truth is, most people wouldn’t know she has any issues at all. I’m so grateful that OT has helped her, and I feel very lucky that her SPD seems, at the moment, to have little effect on her.

The only thing that seems to still be an issue at this point is what I guess you would call focus. While she knows how to do all of her work, it takes her much longer to do it than her peers. She can’t complete her work on time, even though I know she is fully capable of doing it. This has led me to wonder whether she has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

I’m not one for labeling kids. I don’t want to forever doom my children to the boxes in which they’ve been placed. What I am for is understanding each child as an individual, with different strengths and weaknesses. My kid is fantastic. She’s smart, witty and loving. She makes me laugh, she’s very creative and I love her curiosity and interest in learning. She’s obsessed with the show Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman on PBS (please bring back that show, PBS!) because she loves figuring out how things work. She loves school and is a good student. As of right now, she has one real issue: putting what is in her brain down onto the page and being able to focus her attention while doing it.

What will this mean for her down the road? Will we find out she has an attention deficit disorder? Will it get worse or better? Will she need special accommodations to finish her work, or will she grow out of this? Will she be able to develop the skills to retrain her brain, or will she need medication?

My current focus, and that of my daughter’s occupational therapist, is to help her develop skills and methods that better allow her to focus on her work and not be overwhelmed or distracted.  She just started wearing, for example, noise-canceling ear muffs in class — she loves them because I ordered her a hot pink pair — and she’s excited to do it because she says the noise in the room always bothers her.  She wants to do her work. She wants to do well in school and she’s willing to try new things to help get her there.

Yet, if that and other exercises and interventions don’t help her as she continues forward in elementary school, at some point I would at least consider medication. I’m not one for medicating kids, which is ironic since I’m an advocate for those who struggle with anxiety and depression, including those who take medication for mental illness. I take an antidepressant myself.  Yet I would consider it. No doubt.

I share this because I read a great piece by KJ Dell’Antonia, columnist for the New York Times‘ Motherlode, about an author who condemns parents for taking the medication route. She writes that experts who are against medication need to, “… leaven their criticism of the status quo with understanding, and with an appreciation of the desperation of a parent whose child needs help to function in environments that don’t challenge other children. These aren’t parents trying to get — as Dr. Sroufe puts it — ‘off the hook.’ They’re parents trying to to do their best for their families.” I agree with her. I will do whatever is best for my girl.

Maybe my daughter doesn’t have ADHD. I’m not sure what is leading to her issues with executive function. I’m someone who spends every day thinking about the brain and how it’s processes affect lives, yet I can’t claim to understand much at all about sensory processing disorder or any of these related illnesses. I don’t know what causes attention deficit. It’s not for lacking of trying. I’ve read lots of books. I ask questions. Still, I can’t fully comprehend why she has trouble getting something from her brain to the page. I can’t visualize where or how the circuits go awry.  She gets her addition and subtraction right 90% of the time. She’s reading nonstop. I don’t get why she falls to the floor in a heap when she’s handed a worksheet with work that is new to her, given that she’s been able to learn and master everything else that has ever come her way.

I don’t get it, and yet there it is.  There it is, and we must help her with it. And don’t think for one second that I won’t do what is necessary to help her, drugs or no.

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