Both my sons have ADHD. When I was diagnosed at 52, I learned to be more empathetic with them.

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The author was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 52.Courtesy of the author
  • I was diagnosed with ADHD in 2016, at the age of 52.

  • My sons both have ADHD and my diagnosis was a relief for them.

  • I gained a new understanding of my childhood, which made me a better parent and advocate.

The psychiatrist chuckled and said, "Let me get this straight. You were filling out an ADHD evaluation for your son, recognized traits in yourself, and then decided to go through the evaluation again for yourself, and you scored high enough you made an appointment to see me?" And then proceeded to tell me that yes, I had ADHD too.

It was true. My 6-year-old son was struggling: He couldn't concentrate, couldn't sit still, and was impulsive and reactive. In a meeting with his school, we agreed that an evaluation for ADHD made sense. I filled out a questionnaire of behaviors he exhibited. A couple of questions in I began recognizing the behaviors in myself.

I'd always been quick to react, could only concentrate on things I was interested in, and when pursuing those things, was prone to hyperfocus. I'd rather wrestle with an essay on the nature of man's soul than mop the floor.

Seeing his echoes of my behavior gave me a newfound empathy for him, as well as for my parents and the teachers, who were infuriated by the disconnect between my intelligence and the quality of my schoolwork.

I worked with my kid's school

We began to work with his school in the form of a 504 plan and later an Individualized Education Program. In meetings, as his teachers expressed frustrations, they would acknowledge a "lack of executive function" in one breath but, in the next, say "He chose not to complete the assignment."

What they were telling me, without telling me, was his ADHD was tolerable until he didn't do the thing they wanted him to do, and at that point, they decided that the kid who lacked executive function had just exercised it in a way that was deliberately uncooperative.

They complained that he needed to speak up when he became overwhelmed. I countered that when he's overwhelmed, he shuts down, and he doesn't have enough self-awareness yet to know he's overwhelmed. I know this is true for a simple reason: It's what I did. He needs help recognizing he is overwhelmed and he doesn't know how to ask for help.

ADHD makes some things harder for me

Having lived with ADHD now for 60 years, I've come to some conclusions about this condition. The first is I don't see it as a disability, and calling it a handicap smears kids for being wired differently.

Sure, ADHD has given me some serious challenges when it comes to adulting. Don't ask me how I budget for groceries. And don't ask me to organize that pile on my desk or the one next to it.

But ADHD isn't all deficits.

I believe that what is called hyperfocus in people with ADHD is a flow state by another name. That's my superpower; I disappear into my favorite activities, like cycling or writing, but I can also find flow in activities as mundane as doing dishes.

I draw upon those lessons as I teach both of my sons how to capitalize on that superpower, as well as how to manage the limitations that come with ADHD. Another of our challenges is that people with ADHD struggle with developing healthy self-esteem. I steer them into activities where they find flow so they learn the satisfaction that comes with being good at something, of facing a challenge and finding out they can succeed.

I'm more empathetic than I was 20 years ago

Had I become a parent in my 20s or 30s, I'd have lacked the self-awareness necessary to recognize my past in my son's behavior. Worse, I didn't yet know myself well enough to understand that flow was my superpower and not — as the nuns at my Catholic school called it — daydreaming.

At my age, I better understand how important it is for my sons to meet compassionate adults who see them. I'm watchful for the teachers who will help them succeed as well as the ones who will be an impediment. That's another skill I hope to teach my boys: How to identify allies.

And that psychiatrist? He wrote me a prescription for Wellbutrin, an antidepressant that gives a person with ADHD the patience not to yell at their rambunctious kids.

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