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The Thing About Raising a Kid With Autism and ADHD

Photograph by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez

My son, Norrin, was 2 years old when he was diagnosed with autism. Three years later, Norrin was given a secondary diagnosis: ADHD. Like many kids with autism and/or ADHD, Norrin has his fair share of behavioral issues. Is it autism? Is it ADHD? Is he just being a 9-year-old boy? Trying to determine the cause of behavior is a never-ending guessing game.

Norrin is a bright kid with a fun personality and a dimpled smile. But he can be impulsive, he has difficulty focusing and is easily distracted. He doesn't always know how to answer a question and often gets confused between things like "how are you?" and "how old are you?" If he doesn't understand the question or what you're saying, he simply tunes out. He still requires assistance with things like dressing, bathing and toileting.

We work on social interaction with his peers. Loud sounds are so painful that he often walks around with noise-canceling headphones. He is anxious and gets easily upset. And while he has an understanding of basic emotions, he cannot always express why he is feeling a certain way.

However, one of biggest challenges of having a child with special needs has nothing to do with the disability. It's having to deal with everyone else. Having a kid with autism and ADHD somehow leaves you vulnerable to criticism. Because people don't see how the disability impacts the child, they just see "bad" behavior and poor parenting.

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In a recent article in USA Today, a mom shared the challenges of raising a child with ADHD:

"Many in the Latino community (and elsewhere) believe that childhood behav­ioral and mental health disorders are the imaginings of anxious helicopter moms who are eager to pathologize bad behavior. And they aren't shy about telling them so."

When you have a child with an invisible disability, everyone assumes the parent is the root of the problem. There is always that one family member or friend that believes one weekend with them will straighten a "problem" kid out.

I get it. Before I was a mom, I had all the answers too. I'd look at other kids acting out and think, "Oh hell no! If that were my kid, I'd..."

But I know better now. I try not to judge because I've been judged before. And it doesn't feel good.

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My kid isn't a bad kid. He's just having a bad moment. We all have them. Some people handle bad moments better than others. Look beyond the moment because you have no idea what other people are going through.

A few years ago, I was at a friend's house with Norrin. My friend had a cat and a dog. Whenever we visited, the dog would bark. The barking scared my son and it usually took some coaxing to get him to go inside the friend's home. (Our building complex doesn't allow pets and Norrin hasn't had many opportunities to interact with animals.) And whenever we'd visit this friend, Norrin was never really comfortable around the animals. Long story short, by the third time Norrin hit the cat, my friend was fed up and threw us out of the house.

When I tried to explain, I was blamed for Norrin's misbehavior. "You have to teach him," my friend said.

As if teaching him is that easy. Norrin isn't the kind of kid that gets it the first time.

This person wasn't a stranger to my son (or his disabilities) but it goes to show how little is tolerated especially as my son gets older. And I thought if a friend is capable of treating us this way, well... anyone can.

When Norrin was younger (and smaller) some of his behaviors were seen as age-appropriate and acceptable. But a 9-year-old not listening after being told "no," not following a command or having a major meltdown on an airplane? Not so much. Just because he's growing up doesn't mean he's growing out of his disability.

The older Norrin gets, the less acceptable his behaviors become.The perception is he should know better. And if he doesn't, it's only because he hasn't been taught better.

If you don't know what autism or ADHD looks like, it's easy to see an interaction between my son and me and assume I'm the problem. But here's what I want outsiders looking in to know.

I'm a good mother. I'm doing the best that I can. And my kid: he isn't a bad kid. He's just having a bad moment. We all have them. Some people handle bad moments better than others. Look beyond the moment because you have no idea what other people are going through. And maybe it's not always about me teaching my kid to know better; maybe it's about me teaching other people to be a little more understanding.

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