Paving His Own Path: A Mom Reflects on Raising a Son with Inattentive ADHD

My son was diagnosed with the inattentive subtype of ADHD in third grade, often describing his ADHD brain as an overstuffed garbage can the lid doesn’t stay on, with stuff falling out all over the floor. When he was diagnosed, I thought I understood ADHD — it was a disorder diagnosed mostly in boys who were hyperactive, impulsive, fidgeting, blurting out answers in the classroom, and constantly talking. My son, like most children with inattentive-type ADHD, has none of these behaviors.  

Children with inattentive-type ADHD fly under the radar at school with symptoms of inattention, forgetfulness, and disorganization. My son has been pigeonholed as lazy and unintelligent because some teachers didn’t understand his ADHD symptoms. 

I recently read a disheartening statistic that children with ADHD could receive as many as 20,000 corrections for their behavior in school by the time they are ten years old (initially reported by Dr. Michael Jellineck, Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2017 report, 9 out of 10 children with ADHD received accommodations in the classroom. 

teen boy waving
Was I pushing my son in the wrong direction? Maybe college wasn’t his only option.(Twenty 20 @ethomander)

Knowledge of ADHD by educators varies

 Knowledge of ADHD varies across teachers. Educators are most knowledgeable about the “hallmark” symptoms of ADHD, like students fidgeting or squirming in their seats and being easily distracted by extraneous stimuli.  

Since my son had ADHD, I was already more involved in practically all aspects of his life than most parents probably were. As long as there’s a stigma around ADHD, my most important role as a parent is to advocate for my son and teach him to advocate for himself.

Neurodiverse thinking can be an asset

Neurodiverse thinking can be an asset, and I wanted to make sure my son’s teachers knew how his creative, problem-solving, challenge-seeking ADHD brain worked. This included countless parent-teacher meetings and many emails to his instructors about his ADHD.  

When our son entered high school, my primary focus was getting him into college, the logical next step (or so I thought). My traditional thinking continued until I viewed a TEDx Talk by Inventive Labs founder Rick Fiery, who helps neurodivergent individuals find their path to success. 

Mr. Fiery challenged our commonly accepted views like the nine-to-five job or that attending college after high school is required. Was I pushing my son in the wrong direction? Maybe college wasn’t his only option.

My husband and I decided to encourage our son to explore alternatives to college. During his junior year of high school, he considered attending the Coast Guard after graduation. He took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), the test required for entry into the military, and scored above the 97th percentile on all measures. 

As we researched the Coast Guard, my husband and I felt confident this was the place for our ADHD son to thrive. We even pointed out that he wouldn’t have to sit through general education classes (boring for his ADHD brain), and it would be hands-on (appealing to his ADHD brain). 

Our son eventually decided to go to college

Ultimately, our son decided he wanted to go to college, despite my husband and I repeatedly telling him he didn’t have to choose that path. In our college-educated family, I think our son felt like he would be a failure if he didn’t attend college, especially since he wanted to follow in his older brother’s footsteps. My son has been an aerospace enthusiast since age three, so I suggested he apply to a small aviation and aerospace university while researching one of his interests.    

Some ADHD brains don’t like to focus on mundane tasks, like completing a college application, so my son required a lot of assistance from me. I proposed he writes his college essay about his ADHD, explaining how he could be an asset to their university with his outside-the-box thinking and willingness to explore the unfamiliar. 

My son was accepted to the university of his choosing

Isn’t college all about challenging yourself, taking chances, and finding your path? At my urging, my son submitted his applications as early as possible since most of the schools he applied to had rolling admissions, and his application would be reviewed against a smaller pool of applicants (with rolling admissions, the applications are reviewed when they are received so the earlier you apply, the better). In the fall of his senior year, my son found out that he was accepted to his top choice school, the small aviation and aerospace university.  

My trepidation over my son attending college began the day he received his acceptance letter. Although incredibly proud of him, I had worked hard to get him here. I have advocated for my son throughout middle and high school, constantly communicating with his teachers to ensure his success. 

I wondered if my son’s ADHD would ruin his college experience

I wondered if we made the right choice for him. Would his disorganized, time-blind ADHD brain be able to manage his college classes? Would he be able to make friends with his quirky behaviors and share a living space with someone despite his messiness?   

To my delight, our son proactively chose his college classes and dorm assignment. He even scheduled a meeting with the Office of Disabilities on campus (every college campus has one) to discuss accommodations for his ADHD, like extra time on tests. I began to think that maybe our son would be ok, or perhaps college was the new shiny object that his ADHD brain would pay attention to for the short term.  

Finally, the day had come to pack the stack of dorm room necessities in our upstairs hallway into the car and start the two-day drive to our son’s college. Our son had a group of incoming and current students he communicated with during his senior year of high school and over the summer, so after moving our son into his dorm, we rarely saw him. He was dining with his new friends, going to the beach, or hanging out at the student union. This was comforting to me, knowing that he wasn’t going to be alone. 

I recall my son saying in eighth grade that he was not included in an online chat group created by one of the kids in his class because he was the “weird kid.” My son’s comment about himself was heartbreaking. At this small aerospace university, my husband and I jokingly counted the number of space-themed t-shirts the students wore and knew that our son had found his people; he would no longer feel like the “weird kid.”  

Despite our son settling into college, it was still a year of challenges and adjustments for him and me. During the first week of classes, I received a panicked phone call from my son that one of his professors wouldn’t let the students take notes on their laptops. All through high school, my son had been allowed to use his laptop for taking notes per the accommodations in his 504 plan. 

I helped my son advocate for himself

However, the Office of Disabilities counselor assured my son he wouldn’t need this accommodation in college since students routinely use their laptops in class. My gut reaction was to call the Office of Disabilities to resolve the situation for my son. Instead, I helped him advocate for himself, walking him through the steps he needed to take. At the end of the week, I was elated to see a text message from my son pop up on my phone stating his accommodations had been taken care of.  

I often remind my son that I am aware of his capabilities, but it’s his execution that needs some work. This is not uncommon in those with ADHD. Although some of his previous habits linger, my son’s success during his first year of college opened my eyes to the realization that his execution is improving, with minimal input from me. He successfully navigated his freshman year (a challenge for someone without ADHD), making the Dean’s List his first semester and honor roll his second.

I find a quote by author Maya Angelou fitting for those who interact with ADHD kids:

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

Maya Angelou

Understanding my son’s ADHD helped me to be a better parent advocate and to teach him to advocate for himself. I recognized the importance of letting my son choose his path to success (which may be different than what I think it should be). On his last day of high school, my son thanked me for helping him get through school, and that’s all the gratitude I need.

More Great Reading:

My Teen Has a Learning Disability, Should He Go to College?

About Kristin Wilcox

Kristin Wilcox has a Ph.D. in pharmacology and has spent over 20 years in academia as a behavioral pharmacologist studying drug abuse behavior and ADHD medications at Emory and Johns Hopkins Universities.

Dr. Wilcox’s book Andrew’s Awesome Adventures with His ADHD Brain shares her son’s experiences with inattentive-type ADHD, and her insights on parenting an ADHD son. She has written about ADHD for Psychology Today, ADDitude, Children and Adults with ADHD, and the Child Mind Institute. Dr. Wilcox also serves on the executive board of the Inattentive ADHD Coalition. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two sons.

Read more posts by Kristin

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.