The mind of an ADHD child

It was a beautiful song. All the orchestral instruments were playing as one, the music swelling at just the right moments. But as the song progressed, I noticed some weren’t quite in sync. I could hear certain instruments lagging behind the tempo, and others racing along, ahead of the conductor. 

I’m not sitting in an audience, however. I’m imagining my son’s song/ the one playing inside his head. As phenomenal as I think my son’s instruments are, something seems out of balance. This is a simple metaphor for what’s happening in the mind of a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but I think it’s powerful. 

As parents, that’s one of the last things we want to hear—our child struggling to play their own unique song. It’s not what I wanted in 2010 for my then second grader, Hayden. He was beginning to struggle in the classroom, unable to focus. It was apparent that something was at sea with the instruments in his personal orchestra. So on his teacher’s encouragement, I moved forward with tests given by both the school and his pediatrician. The results came back—a diagnosis of ADHD, with an emphasis on hyperactivity. 

Swell. Not THAT label. I didn’t like any label foisted upon my son, let alone one that would probably require a medication. I didn’t know a thing about ADHD, but that was about to change. 

ADHD affects millions of kids and often persists into adulthood. 

A brain-based disorder, ADHD can include various combinations of issues, such as difficulty sustaining attention, impulsive behavior, and hyperactivity. Wait a second. That sounds like a lot of kids, right? But it goes deeper than that, as I would find out with time. 

Disconnected kids

“Suddenly we’re looking at this worldwide, massive problem,” explained Dr. Robert Melillo, author of Disconnected Kids. “Seventy percent of all prescriptions are for ADHD alone. From 1990 to 1995, Ritalin was up 250 percent, and in the last 20 years, it’s shot up 2,000 percent.”

Yes, that’s not an accidental zero on the end of that number. Two thousand percent! 

Dr. Melillo is no stranger to this song. He’s a world-renowned neurologist, professor, and researcher into childhood neurological disorders. He’s also the brain behind the Brain Balance Program and director of Brain Balance Achievement Centers. His program not only hones in on ADHD, but Autism, Dyslexia, Tourette’s Syndrome, Asperger’s Syndrome, and other disorders. 

“It always starts with that question,” says Melillo. “What is it? If you’re a parent, you know the frustration I’m talking about. What is really happening in my child’s brain? What is going on? Even doctors are completely overwhelmed. I lecture to doctors all the time. I could ask them to raise their hands and tell me what is happening in the brain of an ADHD child, but they can’t answer that. They are using a compensatory model, and can only try to manage the symptoms with medicine.” 

Every child is different

But how do you recognize the symptoms initially, and how is ADHD diagnosed? All children are different, and all act impulsively, get distracted, or struggle to concentrate at one time or another. That’s youth. That’s why ADHD can be so hard to diagnose. Perhaps the child seems constantly out of control or just loses interest in things more quickly than his or her friends. It may seem the child has a constant motor running and can’t sit still, not even to eat. 

Often, it’s the teachers who notice the symptoms first. 

“I know within the first week,” explains a Blue Heron elementary school teacher in the Centennial School District. “The classic signs—they are scattered and cannot organize themselves. They miss simple two and three step directions. If we have a fire alarm, it completely stresses them out—any sensory stuff like that. And the whole ‘motor running’ aspect. They just can’t sit still to save their souls. There are also indicators like penmanship. But not every child interrupts, and not every child has anxiety. Every child is different.” 

This elementary school teacher has over 25 years under her belt, and ADHD is nothing new to her. In fact, some of her own children have it. Of her students, she says, “I’m able to get to them really quickly. I’m on it,” she explains. “Because I know. I ‘get’ them, and I understand their rituals. I don’t always share that with the parent; you have to wait it out a bit. 

I know that this particular child needs a motor break; I know that this one needs to chew gum. This one needs to go to the ‘motor room’ and this one needs to sit on the perimeter so he can have movement.” 

No single test can diagnose ADHD. 

A licensed health professional will gather information about your child, and his or her environment and behavior. Possibilities, such as certain events, situations, or health conditions that may cause temporary ADHD-like behaviors in a child are ruled out. Hayden’s pediatrician worked closely with his school’s mental health specialist and they both ran a series of tests that took a couple of weeks. It was an in-depth process, but necessary. 

Diagnosis and control

So once the results come back, then what? How are the symptoms controlled? It’s no secret that medication, especially Ritalin, is a go-to partner. I wasn’t a big fan of the medication route, but Hayden’s pediatrician suggested starting him on the lowest dose possible, to see how it worked. My son’s medicine has a name so long it barely fits on the label of the pill bottle—Methylphenidate HCL (Concerta). It’s an extended release medication, which means it is released gradually in a controlled amount over a period of time. It’s also a stimulant, and although I thought it was strange to treat ADHD with a stimulant, it instead calms. There are many types of stimulant medications, and for many kids, the medications reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity and improve the ability to focus, learn, and work. After a week of being on his low dosage meds, Hayden could sit quietly and put together a LEGO set, something that never would have happened before. 

I also tried other remedies as part of a “team” approach, such as creating a structured routine. I’ve discovered that my son does well with regularity and structure to counter his natural tendency toward chaos. This means consistent times for homework, exercise, eating, bedtime, waking up, etc. I also found that scheduled relaxation time works well—just five to 10 minutes right after school, when he’s at his most over-stimulated. Other experts explain that massage can be beneficial, as well as diet and nutrition. I tried to cut out the hidden sugar, refined foods, and various foods with chemical additives...but it’s difficult. Cooked vegetables and whole grains are the best, although it’s still a battle to get my son to eat them. I’m also trying an Omega-3 fish oil vitamin/ I’ve found the Barlean’s Organic Oils’ Omega Swirl (lemonade flavor) is the one he gives “thumbs up” for taste. Omega-3 fatty acids purport improved focus and concentration in kids with ADHD, so I’m willing to give it a whirl. 

What happens if no remedies are tried? Will the problem diminish with time? As much as we’d like that to happen, it’s not likely. Experts tout that non-treatment could lead to lifelong problems that will affect not only the child, his school, and grades, but also the family as a whole. It could also lead to unfavorable school and social experiences for many years, which could result in low self-esteem. 

While experts agree it’s best to treat ADHD, it’s definitely a trial and error process being it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. And meds can bring on side effects such as decreased appetite and sleeplessness. Also, as they get older, adding height and weight, the dosage may need adjustment. Something I have to remind myself/ the medications are part of my plan of attack, but they don’t cure ADHD. 

“Medicating kids will help with the short term symptoms,” reminds Dr. Melillo, “[but] there is no long term benefit.” He says the disconnection is the problem to focus on. “The idea is, there’s a disconnection. There isn’t any injury, or anything wrong with the brain per se, but a breakdown in communication between the areas of the brain. The two halves.” 

Right and left

Motor characterizations of a left-brain delay include poor or slow handwriting, immature handgrip when writing, or stumbling over words when fatigued. Motor characteristics of a right-brain delay include poor coordination, repetitive or stereotyped motor mannerism (like flapping the hands or arms), or excessive fidgeting. “Just like we all have a dominant right or left hand, we do all have a dominant brain, and some are balanced, while others are more extreme,” says Dr. Melillo. “An ADHD trait is an extreme left-brain domination. With some left-brain skills, kids can have genius level skills. But if something interferes with the right brain, it creates too much of an imbalance.” 

Enter the symphony metaphor. We all have instruments on the right side and left side of our brains. Together, they play beautiful music if the proper notes are played at the proper time. If any of the instruments are interrupted or not in sync, the music sounds a little cacophonous. “Let’s say the conductor can’t pinpoint where the problem is,” explains Dr. Melillo. “Then everyone needs to play a little louder and a little faster, and drown out the ones that aren’t playing right. Ritalin makes the whole brain play a little faster and a little louder. It compensates for that area. But it doesn’t address the problem.” 

Dr. Melillo stresses that what experts should do is go into the room where all of the instruments are housed. Identify those not playing fast enough, or too fast. Give them support and stimulation with the other instruments. “When you do that,” he says, “You correct the problem.” 

It’s an on-going journey for my son and I. There’s definitely terrific programs out there to support the cause. Programs such as Dr. Melillo’s are available through the Brain Balance Achievement Centers, two of which are in Minnesota, located in Excelsior and Woodbury. And the LearningRx programs, also focused on brain training, now have six locations throughout the cities. There’s also a music therapy program available at the MacPhail Center for Music, which focuses on cognition, reasoning, and attention, as well as sensory processing, planning, and acuity. 

Working with your pediatrician, as well as your child’s school, is also an important part in the whole process. •