ADHD: Peter's story
BY YVONNE BEYERS for YOU Pulse magazine
Every day it becomes more obvious that your child is not like his friends. He gets the shakes from too much pent-up energy, becomes unruly when he should be concentrating, does impulsive and dangerous things and has been hurt so often his tiny body is black and blue.
You're sick with worry. Is your child suffering from something serious? How do you distinguish between natural boisterousness and a condition that plays havoc with your child's thoughts? And if he has an attention deficit or hyperactivity problem, is Ritalin the answer? What should you do if medicine does not offer the relief for which you and your child so desperately yearn?
'We didn't realise there was a serious problem'
Sitting in a Cape Town coffee shop, Judith* remembers the first time she had to face the possibility her nine-year-old son, Peter*, suffered from attention deficit disorder. Seven at the time and in Grade 2 he suddenly burst into his parents' bedroom one night, crying and tugging at them to wake up.
Between sobs he revealed the truth. "Mom, Dad, I've been lying to you. I can't hide it any more. I can't read like the other children."
Judith was astonished. She had no inkling that the clever little boy who recited his homework so confidently in the evenings was petrified of the letters and numbers that resembled ants crawling across the page in unintelligible patterns. "We hadn't noticed he was reciting his lessons by heart. He had always been a busy little bee who struggled to concentrate but we didn't realise there was a serious problem.
"We thought his brother, Daniel*, was the quiet, shy type, and Peter the happy-go-lucky one who acted too impulsively." Judith swallows back her tears.
She blames herself for her youngest having to suffer in silence for so long. Should she not have noticed something a long time ago?
Even when he was tiny Peter rushed into dangerous, life threatening situations.
"Once he took a dive from the balcony. My husband, Simon*, caught him by the ankle at the last moment. Another time he opened the car door, dangling on the outside while we were travelling at 100 km/h on the highway. "He has put his hand on a hot stoveplate countless times even though I regularly warn him against it.
"About two weeks ago he almost got himself killed again. He took a wild dive across the bed and his head went straight into the wall." You sense defeat as her hands lie limply in her lap. "He doesn't know how to stop."
After a long night of listening to their son cry Judith and Simon decided to act. They took him to a child psychologist who diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
'Mom, I feel like I want to hurt someone'
What's more, Peter also had a reading and learning problem, often associated with this disorder. The specialist prescribed Ritalin. Peter used it for about 18 months and although it helped him focus and do his homework it made him depressed and aggressive. "From time to time he said in desperation, 'Mom, I feel like I want to hurt someone'."
Eventually Judith could no longer watch the vitality being drained from her child. She heard of a new medicine called Strattera and asked the specialist to prescribe it.
Peter initially took the medicine in the morning but it made him nauseous and took away his appetite, causing the already slender boy to lose several kilograms. "Nowadays he takes his tablet before he goes to bed and it works much better.
"It still makes him nauseous occasionally and every now and again he says to me, 'Mom, what you're giving me is poison! Would you drink this?'
"Do you have any idea what it does to a parent to hear your child say that? It breaks my heart. But what should I do? It's an impossible choice: either Peter takes medicine that sometimes makes him feel sick or he struggles at school and feels inferior to his friends."
Judith has taken the extremely difficult decision to continue giving Peter the medicine for the time being. "He gets anxious in class if he has to read or write something.
"He'll do something naughty just to distract the teacher and the other children. Or act like a clown because he can't meet their expectations. A number of times he has said to me, 'Mom, you're sending me to school just to embarrass me'."
She looks away, talking softly. "He has even hidden in the dog's basket because he's so afraid of going to school. He's so ashamed, he feels stupid..." She has arranged for Peter to study with an expert educational therapist, Dokka Swart.
Reading therapy, combined with the Strattera, helps him to concentrate on his schoolwork - so much so that his marks have improved from one to three out of four this year.
"Peter was always petrified of opening his report. I can't describe the feeling when he brought it home and his marks had improved." He still struggles to read simple sentences and after repeated efforts even a basic word such as "the" sometimes disappears from his reading memory.
"I help him learn by listening and talking," Dokka says. And he does his maths orally rather than in writing. Dokka has no doubt he'll be able to complete his education. "Everything comes right with practice, even if it takes a long time."
Judith recently changed her job to spend more time with Peter and believes the added attention makes a world of difference.
His disorder affects the whole family and his father and brother also have to make sacrifices to help him adjust.
"Recently he wrote - with lots of spelling mistakes - in his notebook, 'Once upon a time there was a little boy and his name was Peter. He thought for a long time about what it was in life that he could do and decided it would be fishing'.
"He sits next to the water, fishing, for hours on end,'' Judith says. ''It's the one thing he can do without losing concentration. He doesn't mind waiting for a fish. He knows what he's waiting for."
Her approach says a lot about Judith as a mother. She still believes even if it takes a long time, even if every word, every line, every social code has to be drilled into his imaginative young mind, it will be well worth the effort.
* Not their real names.
This article was compiled with the assistance of Professor André Venter, Dr Adri van der Walt and many scientific papers. It is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the September 2007 edition of YOU Pulse / Huisgenoot-POLS. The current edition is on sale now.