This guest post is by licensed clinical therapist Donna Mac, author of the new book Toddlers & ADHD. An early childhood teacher, school therapist and mother to twin toddlers diagnosed with ADHD, Mac has a broad range of experience. Here she shares the surprising signs of ADHD in toddlers.
ADHD is a disorder of self-regulation deficits, which trigger inconsistent attention, irritability and impulsive, and hyperactive or aggressive behavior. In the 1-to 5-year-old age range, the symptoms can be confusing because, as you may think, what toddler isn’t any of these things on occasion?! Due to this confusion, some children have been misdiagnosed with ADHD when they are actually just expressing “normal” variations of temperament (albeit not always acceptable variations of temperament, as when your three-year-old takes off her seatbelt in the minivan to dance while you’re driving on the highway).
ADHD is a genetic condition; if both parents have the disorder, the child has up to a 90% chance of inheriting it. Currently about 5% of the population has ADHD. It actually wasn’t even until recently (2011) that ADHD became an accepted diagnosis for toddlers. The latest research shows the onset is usually prior to age four, especially in severe cases, and it can actually occur as early as infancy. If your child shows any of these symptoms on a regular basis for at least six months, and they’re interfering with his functionality, it’s recommended to see a child psychiatrist, psychologist, or clinical therapist.
1. Other toddlers don’t like your kid
All toddlers are working on basic social skills, but it’s even more difficult for toddlers with ADHD to conform to social norms. For example, toddlers with ADHD interrupt people and talk loudly. They tend to get bossy and take over activities: “I like my idea better!” Waiting for a turn is a painful experience for them, and may result in pushing and shoving.
2. He struggles to get to place he’s actually excited to go to
You might think it’s hard to get a child with ADHD to go someplace they do not want to go (which is true). However, with ADHD it can also be the opposite: If the toddler is excited to go to the grocery store, he may actually overreact so much that he can’t calm down to make the transition from the house to the car. The child may begin running back and forth, jumping on the couch and running some more. It’s as if you just told your child he was going to Disney World for the first time.
3. She doesn’t watch TV
Toddlers with ADHD actually have less stimulation in their brains, and therefore need more to get their brains to a baseline level of arousal. Watching TV does not give most toddlers with ADHD the right amount of stimulation, as would an action-packed video game an activity that involves her whole body. When people say to me, “Too much TV causes ADHD” I say, “I wish my kids would watch TV so I could get some stuff done around the house!”
4. He has the ability to pay intense attention to things he enjoys
Some people with ADHD hyper-focus. This means that if a child really enjoys an activity, it will stimulate his brain so much that he will become engrossed in it. At this time, he will probably lose the ability to pay attention to things around him, like a parent calling his name, the dog scratching at the door to go out or the doorbell ringing. (Some of us have spouses like this.)
5. She tantrums excessively
These tantrums are a combination of cognitive, behavioral and emotional impulsivity—all three kinds happening at once, so look out! Many will be triggered by seemingly minor events that same-aged peers may not even react to, such as waiting in a short line for a bouncy house or the ice-cream truck, or not getting enough of the right color crayons at the restaurant. In addition, their tantrums are more frequent and intense than their neurotypical peers. ADHD tantrums can last 15 to 30 minutes at time, on a daily basis, and sometimes several times per day. During these tantrums, kids may lose control of their bodies and all rational thought.
6. He puts small parts in her mouth, and frequently chokes while eating
Since toddlers with ADHD need stimulation, they may get it from putting things in his mouth. Even if a child is 3, an age when kids can start playing with things that have smaller parts, if he has ADHD he may frequently put small items in his mouth, which can be dangerous. He also may choke on food more frequently because of the cognitive impulsivity associated with ADHD, which leads him to rush through eating and other activities.
7. He can’t seem to get off the swings
Most people only associate running, jumping and climbing with ADHD because of the physical movement involved. Some people are unaware that swinging can be emotionally regulating for a child with ADHD, even though a toddler will not have that level of self-awareness to be able to say it himself. Twenty minutes of swinging can provide calming benefits up to four to eight hours after the child is done, because it’s a long-lasting form of vestibular input (the sensory system of movement and balance).
Obviously, if a toddler just likes to swing or just gets excited to go places, she may not have ADHD. Some toddlers with ADHD might watch TV or may not tantrum excessively. Each case is unique. Although many think that children with ADHD struggle all of the time, these children also have strengths and positive traits. If you think something’s not right, talk with a professional.
This is a post in the weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a mom who blogs over at Atypical Familia (formerly AutismWonderland).
My son, Norrin, playing with his friend, Dylan.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”- Fred Rogers
When my son, Norrin, was first diagnosed with autism he had no appropriate play skills. He didn’t even have much interest in playing with other children. Norrin was content playing by himself. I never pushed playdates because our schedules consisted of work, school and therapy. Most of the other special needs parents I know juggle the same kind of schedule. So working on socialization and playdates with peers wasn’t a priority for us especially since we knew it was being done at school.
I’ve seen Norrin at the playground. Sometimes he’ll run around with another kid but it’s never for more than ten minutes. I’ve seen him in school sitting beside a classmate but not really engaging. Watching Norrin interact with kids in his own environment was eye opening for me. Norrin was talking and sharing and wanting to play with the other kids. He even read his guests a story.
At eight years old, Norrin is finally ready for playdates. And since our little party, he’s been asking for all his friends to come over and play.
I’m no longer tied to mainstream dreams. I just want Norrin to be happy and be as independent as he can. I also want him to have at least one friend. A friendship will never form unless I start cultivating the value and meaning of a friend now.
A few weeks ago I shared that I was ready to start cutting back on our therapy. I’ve spent the last five years focusing on all the skills I thought were more important, always putting socialization on the back burner. It’s time to take play seriously.
Researchers asked 1000 mothers of kids ages 6 to 18 in Belgium and the Netherlands to complete a questionnaire about parenting tactics; 552 of them had a child with autism. Moms of kids with autism were more likely to adjust their approach to suit their children’s needs. They were also less controlling than other parents—yet more involved in problem-solving for their kids.
The results may come as no surprise to autism moms or to mothers of kids with other special needs. My son, Max, has cerebral palsy, and I’ve had to experiment to find the right discipline tactics. For years, Max didn’t yet cognitively understand a lot, and so threatening a punishment had no effect. Often the best approaches I found was to praise him for behaving well. When he said “No” instead of screeching in frustration, for example, I’d say “That’s great that you are using your words!” (Positive parenting also works well on feisty “typical” 9-year-olds who may or may not be my daughter.) What’s also worked for us in terms of setting rules is having a reward system in place. Max knows that if he finishes his homework, he is allowed to watch one YouTube video of fire trucks, one of his fascinations. Fellow blogger Lisa Quinones-Fontanez of Autism Wonderland finds it helpful to have a list of house rules (including “Walk nicely—no running” and “Listen to Mommy and Daddy”) that she can point to and go over with her son.
Recently, when Max refused to stop stomping his legs against the floor as he watched TV—a habit he developed months ago that showed no signs of abating—I decided to let him deal with the consequences. One framed photo had already fallen off the wall and broken, as a result. Then it happened again. This time, Max wailed for a long time. ”I’m sorry!” he said, again and again. And you know what? He’s stopped stomping.
Parenting and disciplining kids with special needs has its special challenges. And yet, in many ways, it’s like parenting any kid: You have to adapt your approach to suit your child.
Two sisters won the Jamfest Dance Super Nationals this past weekend in Covington, Kentucky. That’s pretty cool, but their story gets even better. Gracie Latkovski, 9, has cerebral palsy and cystic fibrosis, and dances in a wheelchair. Her older sister, Quincy, started the performance in a wheelchair, then she stood up and twirled around the stage with Gracie to the song “Reflections.” They won out over 4500 dancers from around the country. Here’s a video of the routine they did (from another performance):
The girls have been dancing for years at a studio; Gracie started at age 3. People have called the dance “heartwarming” but it’s so much more than that. The girls’ grace and emotions shine through in the video—talented dancers, both of them. Said Gracie, “I love dancing and want to show that I can do anything everyone else can because I believe in my dreams.”
“Because of Colin’s disabilities, social skills are not easy for him, and he often acts out in school, and the other kids don’t like him,” read the post on the Facebook page Happy Birthday Colin, started by his mom, Jennifer. Colin turns 11 on March 9th. “So when I asked him if he wanted a party for his birthday, he said there wasn’t a point because he has no friends. He eats lunch alone in the office every day because no one will let him sit with them, and rather than force someone to be unhappy with his presence, he sits alone in the office. So I thought, if I could create a page where people could send him positive thoughts and encouraging words, that wold be better than any birthday party. Please join me in making my very original son feel special on his day.”
Reading that, it’s hard not to feel awful for this child. And to totally understand the situation if you are the parent of a child with special needs. Whether a kid has autism, cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, he can lead a lonely existence. We parents do what we can. This mom had a great idea.
The page went up last week, and the outpouring of support has been amazing. As I write this, it has 1,735,835 likes coming in from around the world. A sorority at Indiana University made a Happy Birthday video for Colin. A police department in Texas shared their wishes. People are also sending cards by mail (Colin, P.O. Box 756, Richland, MI, 49083-0756).
I can only imagine how happy all the birthday love will make Colin. The powers of social media are mind-boggling. But I’m hoping for real-life social changes for him, ones that last long after his birthday. Ideally, Colin’s teachers will use this as a learning opportunity. Ideally, parents of the kids at Colin’s school will now encourage their kids to make friends with him and sit with him at lunch—or at least some of them will. And ideally, any parent anywhere reading this will have a better understanding of what life can be like for children with special needs, and teach their children well.