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Sunday, July 26 2009

Raising a Family 'Of Different Minds'

Katherine Britton News & Culture Editor

Identifying your child with learning differences rocks a parent’s world. What exactly do these “differences” mean? What does this mean for our family as a whole? How do I help my child succeed in a school that doesn’t cater to him? How do we help him help himself as he gets older?Amid these challenges, family life can begin to center around the “problem” child at the expense of other children, or even the spouse.

As "Of Different Minds" author Maren Angelotti found, her son without learning differences started to resent the attention given to his siblings with auditory processing disorder, ADD and dyslexia. Meanwhile, three other children with learning differences demanded multiple lifestyle changes for the whole family. Maren recently talked with about the challenges – and the joys – of integrating what she learned for her whole family.

Crosswalk: I think your book is different in a lot of ways because you focus very much on the whole, integrated family, while a lot of books focus just on the educational aspects for the specific child. Can you tell our readers a little bit about your own journey into the world of raising kids with learning differences?

Maren: It started as a young mom, noticing things that just weren’t clicking with my kids. And it wasn’t drastic. They were just little innuendos. They started in the toddler years—we used to laugh about it because the kids would take words and just twist them a little bit, and the meanings became so different. An example would be [when] we used to live in California and we’d drive by the ocean and my oldest daughter would say, “Hey, Mommy, look at the lotion.” And we used to go, “Oh, isn’t that so cute.” Just different things like that that we would kind of laugh about in the family. But I noticed as time went on, that auditorially they weren’t processing the words correctly. And so, as I went through the school years with them, I kept thinking, “What is this?” As time progressed and we saw that reading became more difficult for them, then I finally got into understanding that, yes, we’ve got to get them tested. And it went from that little, itty-bitty kind of a thing to understanding we’ve got something a lot bigger that we have to deal with here.

CW: When you say something “a lot bigger,” does that mean you were looking beyond the educational realm?

Maren: Well, at that point it starts in the educational realm because, as a parent, that’s really where it becomes magnified. But then all of the sudden it shifts to the social. And you find that many times these kids will like to play with kids younger than themselves, because again the social issues – they’re usually about two years behind socially. So as a parent you’re treating them emotionally as the age level that you see, but in reality you need to be treating them about two years behind. And a lot of families have a real problem with that, because they’ll say, “Gee, Johnny is ten years old and he’s acting like a baby. What’s the problem there?” And so we discipline them probably inappropriately. But if we understand what’s going on in the neurological sense, it makes sense. And as a parent, we can be a lot more patient with them.

CW: In your book, you encourage parents to “do more than cope” with learning differences. What do you mean by that?

Maren: I really think it’s important for parents to educate themselves. Remember, if you have a child with a learning difference, chances are you are an undiagnosed parent that has a learning difference. So as a parent, you need to cope by understanding and educating yourself how this child learns best and what kind of an educational environment do I need to seek out for them. And it’s not always what it seems. Many people think, “Oh, I’m going to do the public school route, that’ll be great.” But this child may crash and burn in that environment. So what’s going to be best for them? And many people go to the private school sector, and think, oh that’s great it’s going to be better because they’ll have smaller class sizes and they’ll pay more attention. But in reality those teachers have never been trained to actually teach a learning different child. So it basically magnifies their situation as a learning different student in a smaller setting. So they usually have a harder time. And homeschool is a really good option but it just depends on the parent, if they have the patience to do it.

CW: In that case, what is the number one piece of advice you would give to a parent who has learning differences?

Maren: If you notice and you’re thinking that you really have a problem, then the number one thing you need to do is get them tested. Make sure that it’s a good, educational diagnostician that’s doing it. So many people go to the public school system because it’s free. But the problem is with that is the public school only does the bare minimum. They are only trying to see how much money they’re going to get per kid for that next school year. It’s not a good thing. So what you want to do is make sure you go to a private, educational diagnostician and get the full-prong battery.

And once you know what you’re dealing with, then you can take care of it. But if you’re just guessing… So many families don’t want to test because they think their kid’s going to be labeled, but that once again is your parents’ pride. It’s like, “Oh my gosh, they’re going to tell us we’re dyslexic!” It’s gosh, what is this, a brand of the swastika? [laughing] Big deal, get over it. It’s so silly. And so you say, yes, he’s got a label. Big deal. You’ve got to get on with it. Figure out what you’ve got to do and it makes life a lot easier to live.

CW: Once your realize that you have a child with learning differences, what does that mean for the family? What does that mean for how the family’s lifestyle is going to change?

Maren: The big deal – and I’m guilty of this one – is once you realize that “Oh gosh, we have a problem in our family,” then everyone jumps on that problem and they forget about everyone else in the family. So a lot of times the siblings that don’t share that [learning difference] will think, “Well, what am I? Am I just dogmeat? Maybe I’ll have to be different or act out so I get the attention or I’ll just stay in the woodwork.” And then they internalize this and think, “Nobody likes me, nobody loves me.” And then as they grow up, that’s a whole other issue or problem that the family has to deal with.

So it’s really important when you get that diagnostic that you sit the whole family down and say, “This is what we’re dealing with, and your brother has this learning difference and this is how we have to communicate with him. And if you’re frustrated with him, then come to me and let’s talk about it and we’ll work it out as a family.” Rather than just, “Oh good, this child over here that’s non-learning different isn’t giving me any grief so thank God.”

CW: What advice can you give parents who have some kids with learning differences and some who don’t have learning difference?

Maren: You need to embrace it and realize that it was all a part of God’s plan. So many times when we get married, we have this romantic vision of what family life is going to be like. It’s going to be perfect, this, that and the other. And then things throw little loops in your life. So it’s all in the attitude and how you want to perceive it. Are you going to perceive it as horrible and evil – “Oh, we’re all going to die!” Or are you going to perceive that “Hey, we can turn this around and make it a positive.” You have to have a positive attitude about it…

Nick, our number three, could not tolerate medication so he had to figure out ways to calm himself down so that he could function. He really created his own set of behavior [modifications]. We laugh at him, because to calm him down at night, to go to bed, he just couldn’t calm down. And that’s really common with people with learning differences. They usually don’t go to bed until like three in the morning and then it’s really hard for them to wake up the next day.

And so I’d say, “Nick, isn’t it about that time? I’m so tired. I want to go to sleep.” “Mom, I just need to make the rounds.” And what he would do is go to everybody in the house, and talk with them, just “How you doing, what’re you doing.” And then he’d leave the room and go to the next person and the next person. And that’s how he calmed down. He would have to make three rounds to everyone’s room to kind of settle down. We’d all say, “Is this round one or two? I’m exhausted.” He’d say, “I just have to do it one more time. Just kind of go with it.” And so we’d all go with it.” It turned out to be a positive because he knew what was going on with everybody. And everybody just knew that that’s what he had to do. So we just embraced it.

CW: From the marriage perspective, how does parenting a family with such diverse learning styles affect the relationship between parents?

Maren: Well, you have to remember that either one or both of the spouses are possibly undiagnosed learning differences themselves. So they will have a lot of issues that they’re going to be bringing to the table. One being, do they really truly process what’s being said? A lot of times it looks like, “Hey, you’re not listening to me. Pay attention to me.” And a non-learning-different spouse, you don’t understand that they might have auditory processing [problems], you think, “Oh, he doesn’t love me” or “She’s not paying attention to me.” So if you [don’t] understand that that might be a problem, then that could be a really big issue.

Typically, the divorce rate among this population is huge because either spouse will go one of two ways. They’ll either say, “I’m out of here, I don’t want to deal with this,” or they’ll say, “Okay, they’ve got a learning difference and I’ll be patient and I’ll go the distance.” And that’s what you hope will be the case but it’s not always the case. So again, you have to communicate and you have to make sure that if you’re the non-learning different spouse, then you have to remember that less talk is more. So you can’t yack, yack yack, because the person can’t process what you’re saying. You have to just say what you mean and be very specific.

CW: Do you have any other practical suggestions for how parents can work together?

Maren: You’ve got to have half an hour a day with no TV and no kids. So that usually means at night after everybody’s gone to sleep. And by that time you’re probably so tired yourself. But you have to buck up and get together and just talk with each other and get that game plan for the next day. “How are we going to deal with such-and-such today and what are we going to do for the others?” And it could be something simple. Don’t make your goals so over the top that they’re not going to be achieved.

[F]or your learning-different kid, let’s say that you have [a goal to…] do homework time from five to six. And in that time, Mom’s going to take over and Dad’s going to make dinner. … Okay, that’s a really good thing we can do today. But what about the other kids that come in and start disrupting when I’m trying to deal with that child? Dad says, “No worries, I’ve got that covered.” If you’ve got that game plan before that drama starts, then that cuts down on all of the yelling and screaming, all of the misunderstanding that can happen in that scenario if you don’t make that game plan.

CW: One thing that you mention in the book is just how important routine can be for kids that get overstimulated easily. How does that affect family life?

Maren: Well, like you said, you’ve got to have that routine. For them, their brains are taking in everything with the same intensity that you would – I’m going to give you an example – if you go outside and you’re with your toddler or young child, and actually are looking at a kid playing soccer, and the learning-different child is with you.

You’re intently looking at kid playing soccer and that kid who has the learning difference is not only looking at the soccer player but he’s looking with the same intensity at the plane that’s going across the sky, the wind that’s going through the tree, another kid next to him that’s crying because his brother slugged him. And he’s not only observing with the same intensity; he’s hearing it in the same intensity. He can’t filter out all those other sounds. Everything’s the same decibel. You can imagine how loud that would be for them and how much stimulation. And they’re thinking that’s normal, because that’s all they know. And so what happens is typically the brain gets overloaded and then they melt down. They’ll pitch a fit and the moms will say, “Oh stop it, you’re fine.” Well, they’re not fine. They need to be in an environment that is the same pretty much every day. And it has to be low level of stimuli as far as noise. That’s a huge deal. And most parents, we don’t want that. We’re listening to the radio. We’re talking on the phone. We don’t want to be quiet. If we’re quiet that means that we’re boring. It’s true – how often do you really sit and be quiet?

CW: So that’s going to involve some sacrifices and changes on behalf of the parent. I guess that’s where attitude comes back in.

Maren: It is. And remember, isn’t that what God’s calling us to do, is to be quiet and be near his realm so we can understand where he wants us to be? And how do we not do that? And so that learning-different child is actually bringing a gift to you, but you’re saying, “Ah, I don’t think so. I got something better.” We have to catch ourselves all the time.

CW: Anything we haven’t covered that you think is important for parents to hear?

Maren: The next big thing that most parents are going to freak out on is the meds. Remember, on the medication, sometimes it’s a good tool. And you can put “tool” in capital letters. Most people think that’s the cure. “Okay, we’ll put him on meds and it’ll all be good.” Or they’ll freak out, thinking, “I’m not going to medicate my child! They’ll grow a horn or something!” And in fact, the dopamine levels or the serotonin levels are too low. That’s the way God made that individual. So what we have to do is boost those two chemicals in the brain, so that these neurotransmitters are actually working.

It’s kind of like when you put a plug in the wall. You know how when it’s kind of half out and it juices a little bit. I don’t know if you’ve ever been vaccuming and you take the vacuum into the other room and the plug’s still in the other room and it comes out of the wall a little bit. So when you’re vaccuming it goes off a little bit. It’s kind of the same with kids with learning differences. Their brains are not getting a full charge. The meds are just trying to give them that full charge.

The problem is when you take them to the pediatrician, he actually doesn’t have a real background in giving these meds. They typically are just giving what the drug reps give them. And the dosages are way out of whack for a child. That’s what gives the bad wrap socially on that. … What’s happening, if we get the right dosage, is then we’re actually just putting those neurotransmitters into the “go” mode so that the kids feel like they’re on an even playing field with everybody else. So that’s the good news. An remember, if parents are considering meds, have them go to a neuropsychiatrist that specializes only in ADD or a neurologist that specializes only in that population. Then you know that you’re going to get the right dosages. They won’t over-medicate or under-medicate. Because if the kid is doing well on meds, the kid will say, “I don’t feel any different. This is so silly. I don’t know why I’m on it.” And the people that are interacting with him will see the difference, like the teachers and parents.

First published on July 8, 2009

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