My son first received an IEP at the end of second grade, when the school identified him with a . At the time, it felt like we had gotten answers to our questions. Our bright son was struggling to master some very basic skills in school. Now, with the IEP, we could move on to helping him.
But things didn’t work out as planned. The interventions in his IEP didn’t seem to help. He kept falling farther and farther behind in third and fourth grade. That’s when we started to realize we needed to understand more about the learning differences that had qualified him for special education.
So when our son reached fifth grade, we took him to see a private clinical psychologist for an evaluation. And in this evaluation, we got a diagnosis. In fact, in the evaluation report, we saw multiple diagnoses: dyslexia, ADHD and other learning differences. Wait a minute, I remember thinking at the time. We’ve only discussed with the school. Could this impact his IEP?
We shared the evaluation report with the school and started talking. That’s when I first heard the terms comorbid and co-occurrence, which describe when multiple diagnoses occur at the same time. I was surprised to learn that ADHD and dyslexia often co-occur, and that many kids with ADHD have other learning differences. Becoming an informed parent takes time—just when you think you got it, you learn something new.
At this point, though, I thought I might have it figured out. By simply understanding and treating each learning and thinking difference separately, we would be able to design the perfect, fail-safe IEP for my son. But, again, it didn’t work out that way.
What I learned is that trying to draw lines between dyslexia and ADHD in one person isn’t always possible, at least for my son. Yes, they are separate diagnoses. Yes, they are measured differently. But my son’s challenges in the classroom are mixture of all his learning and thinking differences. And like cake batter, once the ingredients are combined it’s hard to separate them.
For example, we had an issue with my son daydreaming in class. Sounds like ADHD, right? Maybe we need to figure out with his IEP team how to help him refocus, perhaps by adding breaks or gentle reminders.
But wait, it turns out he was daydreaming mainly in language arts class, where the assignment was to read silently and he had no access to audio accommodations. OK then, the daydreaming might be related to his dyslexia. Maybe we need to review the reading supports he’s getting in this classroom. Or could it be that the daydreaming is the result of both dyslexia and ADHD?
There were other examples, too. At one point, my son was interrupting class lessons, asking to leave. He wanted a pass to go to the bathroom, his locker or the nurse. Looking at this just through the lens of ADHD, we might consider chunking his schoolwork or scheduling some breaks.
But then we learned that this was mainly happening in history class, where the teacher required each kid to take turns reading a passage aloud. Dyslexia might play a part in this. Maybe asking to leave is his way of escaping the embarrassment of reading. Or once again, maybe his behavior is the result of both dyslexia and ADHD.
With knowledge comes the power to help your child. Even if that knowledge sometimes brings more questions. Since being introduced to what it’s like to have a child with both ADHD and dyslexia, we’ve learned a lot. We understand so much more now about the way our son thinks, learns and reacts to the world around him. We’ve also learned to dig deeper and try to understand how and why some things work for him in school and some things don’t. We’ve used that knowledge to improve his IEP and help him thrive in school.
For our son, it can sometimes be hard to know where the ADHD ends and the dyslexia begins. But it’s still important to us to know he has both. By learning more and more about each of these learning and thinking differences, we can better support our son as a “whole child” and as a student.
Learn more about how to help kids with multiple learning and thinking differences. Watch a video about parenting a child with both dyslexia and ADHD. And read about five common learning and thinking differences.
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About the author
Kristin Kane is a family resource coordinator for the Virginia Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center.