Raising a Gifted Child With ADHD

Published on
March 01, 2021

“Mom, I don’t understand what my teacher wants me to do. I don’t know if I can do this.”

By Jillian Johnson

I sat down with my son, who looked visibly frustrated, and took a look at his homework. Despite being placed in Honors classes and testing at the highest levels in most subjects of any of the kids in his class, my son’s diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Asperger’s Syndrome still make doing the work difficult. The two conditions combined make it harder for his brain to both comprehend the instructions and to break them down into steps. This can lead to frustration, feeling overwhelmed, and eventually, he will shut down.

Author, Jillian Johnson and her son.

This time, his Honors Language Arts teacher wanted him to write an essay about one of the poems they had read in class. The instructions said to summarize the article and to describe how a theme in the story related to a recurring theme in modern times. I knew that the vagueness of the instructions would overwhelm him and cause him to shut down, so I sat down and helped him formulate an outline for his essay. I helped him break down his essay into separate paragraphs, each with a separate point attached to it. This way, he could do the work without becoming overwhelmed.

I know my son’s struggle all too well. Not just because I am his mother, but because I have ADHD as well. However, I remained undiagnosed until adulthood. Throughout my adolescence, I faced similar struggles with learning, even though I was a “straight A” student and placed in gifted programs. When an assignment had instructions that weren’t broken down, or I was not present to see how something was done (i.e. a math problem), I had a very hard time completing the work. I would become overwhelmed. My struggles were often dismissed or overlooked, however, because I was considered “gifted” and I did the work. It wasn’t until adulthood that I was able to overcome some of these obstacles. Even then, I still sometimes have to ask for direction in some cases when I can’t figure it out.

Fighting for an IEP

His diagnosis didn’t happen overnight, either. It took seven years of behavioral issues, missing assignments and military doctors dismissing my son’s struggles as “just being a boy” for my son to finally be evaluated and diagnosed with ADHD and ASD. After his diagnosis, he was placed on a 504 plan, which his teachers scarcely followed, at best. I soon learned that, along with an inability to focus and sit still, my son had trouble with his executive functioning as a result of his ADHD. This means that his working memory and ability to think outside the box are impaired. I would find completed assignments crumpled in his backpack without his name on them all the time, as well as progress reports and other communications he “never got” from his school. He had a lot of trouble staying organized, which resulted in him losing and even forgetting that he had done an assignment that his teacher told him was missing.

About a year after he was placed on a 504 plan, I found out through a local special needs group on social media that I had the right to request an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting based on his diagnosis and continued struggles. However, the school denied me an IEP meeting twice based on his “academic competency”, meaning his test scores were well above average and he didn’t require any “educational” accommodations. Apparently, the inability to focus, stay organized, and no working memory didn’t impede his education. I was furious, and knew I had to try again. This time, though, I would be armed with knowledge regarding federal law. Thank God for Google.

The third time I asked for an IEP meeting, about six months later, I went in with knowledge of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and quoted what I learned as to why they couldn’t legally deny me. My request was granted, and I was able to get my son on a behavioral IEP, despite the misgivings of the school psychologist. His 504 plan was transferred to his IEP, with implementations that require regular communication from his teachers, and strategies to help him with his poor executive functioning. 

My and my son’s experiences have taught me that learning is not “one-size-fits-all.” My son’s test scores, and academic prowess based on his participation in class made it to where his other struggles were overlooked for years – just like mine. My own education experiences have equipped me to better help my son overcome the lack of executive functioning that often impedes his ability to perform the way he should. They have also given me a louder voice to fight for him to receive the help he needs from a flawed system that continues to overlook kids who have similar difficulties. I will continue to advocate for children like us well after he graduates, because every child deserves to be seen, heard and have a quality education.

Jillian Johnson, writer, military spouse & EFMP mom.

Jillian is a proud Air Force spouse, Slytherin, and all-around creative soul. She’s a California girl adjusting to Southern life with her husband, three kids, and three fur children. She’s currently pursuing a degree in Psychology with a focus in child and adolescent development, and is an active volunteer within the Robins AFB community. In her spare time, Jillian enjoys reading, music, gaming, and crafting. 

How to get help:

“Parents you have the right to have an evaluation at public expense under Part B of the IDEA Act for special education services once a year.  If you are active duty, you also can use your Tricare insurance to get a referral to a specialist (Child Psychology, Neuropsychology, Speech-Language Pathology, ENT, Occupational Therapy, etc.) for a variety of testing at no cost to you under Tricare Prime or using TriCare Standard with a deductible. 

Here is a link to download a sample letter to use to request an evaluation for special education services from your local public school district for anyone from birth to 21. It should be emailed and mailed to your principal and head of special education service at the district office. We strongly recommend you do so in writing to create a paper trail. 

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