Road to Discovery

After troubleshooting issues at school for over a year, my husband and I discovered our son had ADHD.  The path we took to reach his diagnosis was unexpected, but what followed was also unexpected … could we really treat ADHD without medication?

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Natural treatment has been an incredibly frustrating undertaking and investment, but it has also been highly rewarding.  That’s what inspired me to create this blog.  My hope is that by sharing my findings, a bit of our son’s story, and the choices we made, I can ease the journey for other parents like me.

The story began in kindergarten, where our son had a tougher time transitioning from daycare to public school than anticipated.  He had a hard time adjusting to the rules at school and he had to spend a lot more time sitting still.  I knew he didn’t particularly like to sit still, but I didn’t realize it would be a monumental task.  He was continually receiving poor behavior reports due to his lack of self-control.  I was concerned because he didn’t have behavior problems in day care, so I corresponded with his kindergarten teacher to see what, if anything, I could do.

Despite his poor behavior reports, the teacher cared for our son and enjoyed sharing stories about him.  She was highly complimentary of his creativity, sense of humor and attention to detail.  She observed that he had a strong moral code, which caused him to feel upset with himself when he lost self control.

To reinforce positive behavior in the classroom, clothespins with the children’s names were clipped to a picture of a stoplight.  If a child’s clothespin was on green they had good behavior for the day.  Yellow indicated a minor error.  Red indicated minor errors that had added up or one major offense.  Our son’s was usually on yellow or red.  Typically he would get in trouble by loudly blurting things out or being unable to stay in his seat, or he would get too physical and someone in his line of fire would get hurt.   The teacher told us he moved the pin down to red by himself one day.  That was the first time she had ever seen anyone do that.  At one point our son became particularly frustrated with his behavior he said he wanted to kill himself.  The teacher was alarmed by this comment and informed me right away.  I wasn’t sure what to think.  He had never made that type of comment at home and we hadn’t heard a report like that from his daycare.

I received a phone call in the spring from the school counselor.  She relayed an incident reported by our son’s teacher along with her assessment.  Another boy and our son had gotten too rowdy and disrupted class, so they were told to sit in their chairs and lay their heads on their desks.  They complied, but soon my son was back up again.  The teacher found him sitting against a trash can in the hallway with his hands crossed and stuffed up his sleeves like a straight jacket.  He told her he was a piece of garbage and belonged in the trash.  After meeting with my son, the counselor was suspicious he could have childhood depression.  I doubted that because most of the time he was bouncy, happy, humorous, inquisitive and energetic.  But I didn’t want to be the mom who ignores the signs, so it was time to do some investigation. 

I followed up with our family practitioner who referred us to a family counselor.  The counselor was insightful and gave us valuable information about our son’s personality, but the lingering question was: is he depressed, and are these visits curing him of some form of depression?

The visits continued into the next school year. He didn’t seem to have issues over the summer, and as a first grader he seemed to understood the rules better.  Although he still had bouts of silliness, he was coming home with better behavior reports.  We figured he had grown to appreciate school after spending the summer at his old day care with very small, boring little children.  

But there was a new problem now.  He was absolutely, completely, utterly irresponsible.  He was always forgetting his homework, his backpack, and misplacing his things.  

During class time when his new first grade teacher gave direction, everyone in class would do as she said, except our son.  At the fall parent teacher conferences she told us he would space out at his desk, appearing to be clueless that his classmates were deep into the next task.  He would miss simple directions and his lack of responsibility would cause delays in class schedules.  All the kids got the hang of homework and the new first grade system, except our son.  It made me wonder if we had raised him to be particularly irresponsible.

I spoke to another counselor about him.  She was exposed to ADHD through her own kids and said what I was telling her sounded familiar.  She recommended us to a doctor who performs special screenings that determine intelligence levels and pinpoint areas of trouble in cognitive function, such as ADHD.  The counselor told me that if our son didn’t have ADHD, the intelligence level findings would help us understand him better and we could adjust our parenting style to his needs, which ought to help his situation at school.  

I figured I had nothing to lose so I scheduled the necessary sessions with the screener.  Usually the the tests are taken in three visits, but they had to be split into five based on our son’s lack of attentiveness.  By then I was suspicious of what the diagnosis might be.

The screener gave my husband and I the official report, which was that our son had high intelligence levels (including an IQ in the 95th percentile) and he had ADHD.  He was absolutely, positively NOT depressed.  He told us, “When a child is depressed you can feel the sadness coming off of them.”  This simply wasn’t the case with our son.  Instead he explained, “He does frustration at 100%.”  The wild, shocking outbursts about killing himself or being a piece of garbage were coming out in the explosive fashion that is typical of ADHD.

However, he warned us that if our son’s ADHD went untreated he could eventually become depressed.  That made sense since he was perpetually reprimanded at home and school.  At home he couldn’t even stay in his seat throughout dinner.  I was repeating simple instructions over and over.  I kept wondering, “Can he hear me?  Am I getting through?”  How could this little guy who only wanted to please people glitch out and ignore simple instructions so frequently?  It made sense now.  Something in his little brain was sending him into a tailspin, making him incapable of staying focused on simple goals and tasks.

I wondered, how much of our son’s behavior was due to ADHD and how much of it was typical kid behavior?  It had been particularly draining to take him to places like restaurants, stores or the library.  It wasn’t because he was a rotten, whiny, screaming, spoiled kid.  It was because I was constantly giving the same orders, which included but was not limited to: stop touching things, get off of that, stay near me, stay in your chair, get out of that person’s way, and get up off the floor.  As you can imagine, the constant irritation of having to repeat myself meant that I haven’t always had the most positive attitude toward my son.  I have gotten downright ugly with him, and I have certainly been “that mom” in public places.  But I didn’t think there was anything abnormal going on.  I was a first time mom and to me, this was normal kid behavior.  Mine just happened to be exceptionally active.

ADHD can be tough to spot.  A lot of people don’t get diagnosed until they’re adults, which makes me feel blessed that we found out while our son was as young as seven.  I didn’t see it.  The daycare didn’t presume he had it; it wouldn’t have been obvious in that environment.  The kindergarten teacher agreed with the counselor that something was wrong but neither could put their finger on it.  His regular counselor didn’t see it because the sessions were one-on-one, and his restlessness is most obvious in a formal group setting.  I just happened to speak with another counselor, and she just happened to be a mother of kids with ADHD.

But what was the next step?  The screener recommended a low dose of medication that was to be determined by our family practitioner, and told us the dosage usually had to be adjusted to larger amounts as time went on.  He gave us three book suggestions, and told us to feed our son a special brain-optimizing diet that involved boosting proteins and lowering sugar intake.

When we got home from the doctor’s office, my husband said he would like to try treating our son’s ADHD with the brain-optimizing diet, not with medication.  He reasoned that since only a small dose was suggested, we could try a specialized diet first and fall back on medication if we needed to.  I was open to the idea because I had heard different natural treatment success stories from people at work, but I was hesitant because of the amount of effort and money it required.  Somewhat reluctantly I agreed that we should try the natural route first, because neither of us were eager to put our 7-year-old on medication and there was no race to “cure” him immediately.

Through research we learned that food sensitivities can be a factor in ADHD symptoms, so I scheduled an appointment with a nutritionist who could pinpoint what, if any, sensitivities our son might have.  As we waited for the appointment, we revisited some suggestions the screener had made about organization.  He told us that people with ADHD function better when large goals are broken down into smaller, more visual tasks.  I implemented this idea at home by creating colorful lists with pictures for bedtime and morning routines.  As it turned out, our son loved them.  Mornings and evenings, which were incredibly stressful in the past, were a lot easier to handle now.  My husband and I were starting to see that we could manage our son’s ADHD naturally with more than just diet.  Non-diet natural measures were effective, too.

As we researched the diet portion of our son’s treatment, we learned (based on research from the Feingold Association of the United States and Daniel G. Amen, M.D.) that if we removed preservatives, nitrates and artificial colors from our son’s diet we could reduce symptoms.  We also took the screener’s advice to reduce sugar and increase protein.

When we visited the nutritionist’s office she reassured us that she had seen other children with ADHD benefit from avoiding food sensitivities.  We discussed what our son was currently eating and she encouraged us to continue with the changes we had already made.  In addition she told us to add healthy fats and remove as many processed foods as possible, going mainly organic.

She took blood samples for a food sensitivity panel.  The test results wouldn’t come back for several weeks, so she told us to take it slow implementing her diet recommendations while we waited for our son’s test results.

The weeks between learning our son’s diagnosis from the screener and receiving the food sensitivity test results from the nutritionist were particularly tough for me (but somehow not for my son! ~ Even though he waved goodbye to some of his favorite foods he’s had an awesome attitude the entire time).  I had very little clue what I was doing in the nutrition realm and I was NOT feeling good about the cost of additive-free foods.  I kept reminding myself that this was a transition, and like any transition it would be hard.  But this was really hard.  Like sit in your vehicle in the parking lot of the grocery store and just cry hard.  It sounds a bit over-the-top, but I was spending every last moment and available dollar on this a diet for one family member without any idea what they pay-off would be.  And although there was no deadline to figure out a treatment plan for my son, as his mother I felt that I owed him relief from his symptoms as soon as possible.

As time got closer to the food sensitivity grand reveal, I had become more knowledgeable and confident about nutrition.  I read quite a bit of suggested literature from the screener and nutritionist.  I was implementing all the natural treatment measures I knew except for becoming completely organic, and had added a DHA supplement to my son’s diet based on what I read in a book the nutritionist recommended, Grain Brain, by David Perlmutter, MD.  My attitude was becoming more positive, and I was eager to tackle the last part of the diet – my son’s food sensitivities,  to get this natural treatment thing nailed once and for all.

The panel revealed a whole slew of sensitivities, more than I had expected (over 20).  The most notable were: gluten, dairy, soy, egg and yeast.  The nutritionist started our son an 8-week restrictive diet, which meant avoiding all the foods on his list 90-100% of the time.  At the 8-week mark, we would reintroduce a few of the foods back to his diet (the ones he was least sensitive to) to see what his system could handle.  The test results also showed a Vitamin D deficiency, so the nutritionist gave him a Vitamin D3 supplement.

The next day I communicated our son’s dietary restrictions to the teacher because I was aware that the school distributed government-funded healthy snacks to the kids.  Unfortunately many of them were on my son’s list of foods to avoid, so I hoped the teacher would intervene and replace his snack with another one if she saw a problem.  I wasn’t aware of exactly what type of snacks the kids were getting, and I realized I had given the teacher lot of information to memorize for one student, but I figured she’d notify me if it became an issue.

Friends at work would ask how our son’s treatment was going, but as the weeks went by I was underwhelmed at how he was responding to the diet.  It was hard for me to tell if it was making a difference.  Some things at home were different based on the extra organization we had implemented.  He seemed a bit more calm, but I felt like that could have been power of suggestion.

After almost a month of sticking to the diet at home 100%, my son told me that he had been eating the school’s government-funded snacks.  I spoke to the teacher and we agreed that it would be best for him to bring his own snacks from home and she would make sure he was eating those, not the school’s snacks.  I’m guessing that’s what tipped the scales, because less than a week later I noticed a change.  

I took him to the grocery store, which used to go about as well as chasing a loose cat. During this trip, he walked in a straight line, stuck by me, and engaged in the task at hand instead of spinning around in circles on the floor.  We went to the library.  No issues.  We went to the museum, which would have been an absolute  nightmare before treatment.  Still no issues.  We went to the grocery store again.  No issues.  He even (gasp!) sat still during church.  The hyperactivity portion of his ADHD had been reduced dramatically, which meant we had taken care of the part of his disorder that was most likely to cause him depression in the future (from continuous reprimands).

Focus was the final piece to manage.  While he had improved a little with diet changes, he was still not all the way there.  With cooperation from the teacher and the use of “fidget” toys, we were able to naturally manage some of his focus at school.  Fidget toys, small items that can be manipulated by the hands to keep the mind from wandering, are a commonly used strategy for ADHD.  The teacher distributed them when she noticed our son was zoning out during listening time (through cues like twirling his hair).  She also suggested adhering Velcro to the bottom of his desk to give him something tactile to mess with while listening.  Based on the teacher’s reports, the fidget system was working well.

Meanwhile, I figured out how to adjust our grocery bills and make more affordable diet options work.  Getting over the initial investment and learning curve was the toughest part.  Once I knew what I was doing, I was able to make informed decisions on purchases and create a financially manageable food plan.

At the spring parent teacher conference, the teacher reported that our son was being more responsible with school work and his silliness had gone down.

He still has moments where he loses focus (what kid doesn’t?), but overall he has improved and there has been no need to medicate him.

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There is something to be said about taking a chance on natural treatment.  I’m not against the use of medication, but I feel that if any issue can be treated naturally, that should be the first step.  Medication is not magic.  There are side effects, it doesn’t cover all the symptoms perfectly, and the long-term effects haven’t been studied thoroughly*.

I understand it’s more feasible for my son to use natural treatment because he was only recommended a small dose of medication.  ADHD cases vary from person to person and can be complicated by other issues.  But if my son was on the low end for symptoms, I wonder how many kids like him could benefit from natural treatment?  A lot of well-meaning parents go to family practitioners for diagnosis and medication without knowing that specialized screening or medication-free treatment for ADHD exists.

There’s no blood test to determine whether or not a person has ADHD.  It’s a tough call that doctors have to make.  Since the lines are so blurred, it would make anyone hesitate before trying medication.  Unfortunately natural treatment is not a well-known option and it’s tough to get the information needed to start, which makes it a daunting undertaking.

As I muddled through the new diet transition I wondered, “What are other parents going through?”  How about parents with less support, fewer resources and less time to do all this research?  What kind of incentive is there to get them on board with natural treatment when a pill covered by insurance seems so much easier?

I’d like to bring greater awareness to natural ADHD treatment by getting our family’s story out there.  I’d also like to make it easier to understand information on natural treatment by wrapping it up and pushing it out for parents like me.  I hope you find it helpful.  I’m not pretending to be a doctor.  (You should DEFINITELY talk to a doctor when you’re considering any type of treatment).  I’m just trying to bridge the gap somewhere between busy parents on a mission and the resources that are already out there.

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