My kids have both autism and learning and thinking differences, and it’s complicated

I have three children. Two of my kids have autism, two have learning and thinking differences, and one has neither. That sounds like the beginning of a brain teaser or a logic puzzle, but it’s not. It’s just my reality.

Recently, my younger son was diagnosed with an in addition to his and . I’m still in shock from his autism diagnosis. And my shock surprises me. That’s because he’s not my first child to receive an autism diagnosis.

My older son was diagnosed the other way around — first, and then we learned later he has , too. I didn’t struggle with his autism diagnosis. In fact, I was relieved when he was finally diagnosed.

Before he was diagnosed, we didn’t have a way to frame his struggles. It was a years-long process of evaluation and of him struggling in school before we had some answers. So I was relieved that he could finally get the supports and services he needed.

I was also relieved because none of us had to feel so alone anymore. There was an entire community of parents like us and kids like him.

Why was I relieved with our older son’s diagnosis, but now reeling with our younger son’s?

Our younger son’s autism diagnosis came two years after he was diagnosed with ADHD. I felt like we’d already found our place with him in the learning and thinking differences community. But then autism was added to the mix. Now I’m not sure which community I relate to.

There’s definitely some overlap of symptoms between his autism and learning and thinking differences. For instance, we’re not sure if our younger son’s sensory issues are related to his ADHD, to his autism, or both. His issues with impulsivity and social skills could be a sign of either, too. But some things, like his intense interests in everything about cars and trains, are clearly traits of autism.

I don’t know if I’d feel this way if he had, say, ADHD and asthma, like Understood blogger Kerri MacKay. She has both and is an advocate in both communities. But that seems much more clear-cut and easier to sort. Asthma-related symptoms are caused by asthma. ADHD symptoms are caused by ADHD.

People send me links to all the cool stories and research studies about autism because they think it might interest me “as a parent.”

They also send me links about learning and thinking differences because they think it might interest me “because of what you do for work.” (I’m a former teacher and early intervention specialist, and a parent advocate.)

But it’s not that simple. My sons are uniquely themselves. They have challenges that create challenges for me as a parent — challenges that other parents have faced and might be able to help me through.

If I’m looking for help, it doesn’t matter if the resources and support I find helpful are autism-specific or ADHD-specific. If it works, it works. If people understand me, they understand me.

I don’t want my kids to have to leave pieces of themselves behind. I want them to find support wherever people understand them.

I don’t want to have to choose one community over another. And even though my experience is unique, I know there are other families like mine. I don’t want any other parents to feel like they have to choose, either.

I think making that happen starts with greater understanding that kids can have both autism and learning and thinking differences. They can have two very separate conditions that need different interventions. But they can’t separate out the different pieces of themselves and put them in neat categories.

It would be so much less frustrating if we could sort our kids’ symptoms into an “autism box” and a “learning and thinking differences box.” But we can’t because they blend together.

I have three children. Two of my kids have autism, two have learning and thinking differences, and one has neither. Three of them have the ability to make me laugh, make me proud, make me cry, and make me crazy. And they all deserve to belong to any group of kids like them, even if they don’t fit neatly into any one group.


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