I spent some time this weekend with an old friend whose youngest son is diagnosed with many of the same disorders as my daughter. It was nice to spend time with someone who understands the inner workings of parenting a child with mental health problems. It was comforting to sit across the table from someone who really understands my concern for, and my devotion to, my children.
While we were chatting and talking about the kids’ different diagnoses, he said he didn’t like the word “disorder”. He said “It makes it sound like there’s something wrong with my son… he’s not wrong, his mind just works differently.” It’s funny, I had never given it much thought until he pointed it out. I’ve often said “my kids don’t need to be fixed, they’re not broken”, but I’ve never given much thought to use of the word “disorder”.
The definition of disorder from Merriam-Webster‘s online dictionary is “1: to disturb the order of and 2: to disturb the regular or normal functions of”. So, do the mental health issues that my children suffer from fit this definition? And if so, how do they fit this definition? And if not, does this definition mislead people about the complexity of mental health issues?
Now, as I delve into this, I ask that you remember I am not a member of the medical profession or a professional social worker. I am a mom, my “expertise” in children’s mental health comes from my experience not from formal education and study. So my observations may not be in line with the thoughts of either aforementioned community. That’s my disclaimer – you’ve been forewarned.
Both of my children are diagnosed with ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD is a spectrum disorder. To really understand the concept of ADHD as a spectrum disorder I like to visualize a rainbow or an arc with one end of the arc being “predominantly inattentive” and the other end being “predominantly hyperactive-impulsive”. “Combined type” would be in the centre of the arc. Any person diagnosed with ADHD could fall anywhere on this arc, experiencing any combination of, or all of, the symptoms of ADHD (please see the Glossary & Resources page for links to more thorough definitions).
Both of my children present with symptoms of combined type ADHD but each child displays different symptoms predominantly. This makes parenting a real challenge because the parenting strategies that work with one child may have no affect on the other and vice versa. I hear the words “That’s not fair!” a lot in my house. In some ways the kids are right because I don’t treat them “exactly the same” which they perceive as unfair. I do try my best to parent each child as they need to be parented rather than parenting them with the exact same training methods and consequences.
I think I’ve digressed long enough so let’s get back to the main idea. My children suffer from other diagnoses that are labelled as disorders but I will use ADHD for my example since it is a more recognized, and highly talked about, diagnosis. Does my son’s inability to stay focused, penchant for wandering both physically and mentally and hyperactivity fit the definition for disorder? Does my daughter’s “hyperfocus” or inability to ignore outside stimuli, rapid thought process (others might refer to her as “flaky”) and impulsive, often explosive, behaviour fit the definition above?
If we look at it from outside point of view, like that of a coach or teacher, then, yes, their behaviours would fit the definition. After all, day dreaming, wandering around the classroom or field, bouncing in a seat or line, yelling at classmates or teammates and mentally skipping from one topic to the next ahead of the teacher or coach would absolutely “disturb the order and/or regular, normal functions” of the classroom or team environment. So, from this perspective, disorder is an excellent word to describe the often disruptive behaviour my children display.
From a more internal perspective, say the inner workings of the mind, does the term disorder accurately describe my children? Both my son and daughter are bright and creative. My daughter is quick to pick up on new ideas and concepts and my son can rhyme off the names of hundreds of Pokemon, Digimon and Chaotic characters. This tells me that their brains work just fine. I wouldn’t say they are linear thinkers, a linear thinker would follow A, B, C to get to D. My children take a more scenic route, more like A, F, X to get to D. But is that disorder as defined by Merriam-Webster? No, absolutely not. Their thought patterns may not follow a linear pattern but that’s not disorderly, it’s different and there’s nothing wrong with different.
While I agree that, linguistically, disorder certainly defines the chaos my children can create to an otherwise structured and organized environment I also agree with my friend that disorder leaves the impression that there is something wrong with my children. There isn’t anything wrong with my children, they are not broken, they do not need to be fixed. What they need is the opportunity to grow into the unique human beings they were designed to be and if that growth process takes a little longer or a little more effort than “normal” (or orderly) than so be it. In my books, different is wonderful.