Why My Son’s Dyslexia Made It Hard to See My Daughter’s ADHD

My son is dyslexic. I am a teacher. Unfortunately, even with a teacher mom, my son wasn’t identified early, nor did he benefit from effective reading instruction. Back when he was a child, in the 1990s, it was uncommon to identify dyslexia until after third grade.

I beat myself up about that. But those painful years also inspired me to become a fierce advocate for my son and for others like him. I wrote articles about dyslexia. I joined advocacy organizations. My family helped make a high-profile documentary about dyslexia. And my new focus on learning differences led me to teach younger grades.

My second child, my daughter, seemed to be my son’s opposite in school. Everything came easy to her. She was an early and fluent reader. She was a clever and productive writer. Four years younger than her brother, she frequently, and graciously, helped him with his homework. She was a talented artist, singer, actor, athlete and school leader. It seemed that there was nothing that she could not do, and do well.

It wasn’t until middle school, when expectations and work at school increased, that my daughter started to have challenges of her own. Her teachers told me she was straining to pay attention during class, and failing to complete assignments and tests on time.

Being savvy educators, they even suspected that all her hand raising during class discussions was an attempt to stay engaged. All too often when they called on her, she’d lost track of the conversation.

They probed me about her time management skills and the state of her bedroom. Both were disasters. Two of her English teachers also noted that her natural writing talent was now overshadowed by her lack of stamina when revising.

This is where my story gets super sad: I dismissed all these thoughtful observations and concerns. At the time, I didn’t have the mental space to worry about my daughter’s B’s. And I certainly did not want to be one of “those mothers”—the ones who think their child’s every challenge needs an explanation or special attention.

More shamefully, I decided that all her struggles boiled down to one thing: her flawed work ethic. My daughter simply wasn’t trying hard enough. If only her brother’s struggles were that simple.

I decided that even if my daughter did struggle with an attention issue like ADHD, my son’s more serious school struggles needed more of my focus. Her struggles lacked the same urgency. I also worried that trying to address both dyslexia and ADHD might hurt my efforts to have either one (or me) taken seriously.

When my daughter came to me sobbing during her sophomore high school finals to say that she didn’t have time to finish any of her exams, I finally woke up. That was enough. I knew that it was time for all of us to learn more so that we could prevent anything like that from ever happening again.

My daughter was evaluated. Not surprisingly, she was diagnosed with the inattentive type of ADHD. If I had needed factual proof of her struggle, I had it now. According to her evaluator, she was severely impacted, “a poster child” for the condition.

Happily, the end of the story is better than the beginning. My daughter and I now have a better understanding of her learning and thinking differences. Over time, she’s learned strategies and skills, like planning and self-advocacy. Now in college, her endless lists help her to handle a demanding course load, as well as a mountain of other activities. (I’ve always thought it’s amazing that she manages her local radio station!)

help, too. Extra time on tests and assignments gives her the chance to show what she knows (her noisy brain simply processes information more slowly). And she has grown her stamina for writing as well.

Despite her attention struggles, she is not only surviving college, but thriving. She has also generously forgiven me for making a false choice between the needs of my two children.

The mistakes I made with my second child made me a wiser mom. They also made me a better teacher. I’m now better at identifying and supporting students with attention issues. I no longer consider daydreaming in class to be a sign of a poor work ethic. I’m curious rather than judgmental when students are forgetful or easily distracted.

Finally, I take the time to explain attention issues to parents. The signs of ADHD can be complex and hard to spot, sometimes even invisible. That’s why it’s so important to understand the signs and how to support kids who have them.

Get tips for managing more than one child’s learning and thinking differences. Watch a video about how a family addressed two siblings who were struggling in school. And learn more about accommodations for kids with ADHD.

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