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Blog:  My Parent Journey

My Kids Have Both Autism and Learning and Attention Issues, and It’s Complicated

My Parent Journey blog post by Amanda Morin
May 17, 2016

Photo of the author's 3 children.

I have three children. Two of my kids have autism, two have learning and attention issues, 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, Benjamin, was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in addition to his ADHD and sensory processing issues. I’m still in shock from Benjamin’s autism diagnosis. And my shock surprises me. That’s because he’s not my first child to receive an autism diagnosis.

My other son, Jacob, was diagnosed the other way around—Asperger’s syndrome first, and then we learned later he has executive functioning issues, too. I didn’t struggle with Jacob’s autism diagnosis. In fact, I was relieved when he was finally diagnosed.

Before Jacob 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 Jacob 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 Jacob’s diagnosis, but now reeling with Benjamin’s?

Benjamin’s autism diagnosis came two years after he was diagnosed with ADHD. I felt like we’d already found our place with Benjamin in the learning and attention issues 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 attention issues. For instance, we’re not sure if Benjamin’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 attention issues because they think it might interest me “because of what you do for work.” (I’m a former teacher and early intervention specialist, a parent advocate and an Understood expert.)

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 attention issues. 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 Benjamin’s symptoms into an “autism box” and a “learning and attention issues box.” But we can’t because they blend together.

I have three children. Two of my kids have autism, two have learning and attention issues 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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About the Blogger

Portrait of Amanda Morin

Amanda Morin is a parent advocate, a former teacher and the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.

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