Correction:

An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of a medication for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The drug is Strattera, not ­Strateera. This version has been corrected.

Forget the meds and special schools: The best cure for my son’s learning issues is time off

FRANK GODWIN - The author's son Will struggled through high school, but he has now started college classes.

Everywhere I went, people asked me about my son Will. They knew he’d graduated from high school, and they wanted to know what he was doing. Smiling politely, I told them that Will had been accepted to his first-choice college. But, I always added — in case someone saw him around town — that he had deferred enrollment. He was taking a gap year, I’d say.

“So what’s your son doing with his windfall of free time? Traveling abroad? Doing research?”

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My cheeks burned as I played along, offering sound bites. A start-up venture. A film project. Independent study. Anything to avoid the truth: that my handsome, broad-shouldered son was, probably, at that very moment, home in bed with the shutters drawn, covers pulled over his head.

Officially, Will was taking a gap year. But after 13 years of school, what he needed, what he’d earned, was a nap year. Will has long suffered from learning difficulties. It took years to pinpoint a diagnosis — and even when we did, figuring out how to manage it wasn’t easy. He needed a break. So did I.

Will’s problems began to surface when he was in kindergarten. “He’s not where the other children are,” his teacher whispered to me one morning. I knew what she meant. Clumsy and slow to read, Will rested his head on his desk a lot. His written work, smudgy from excessive erasing, looked like bits of crumpled trash.

Still, his teacher’s remark stung. I couldn’t shake the image of 20 kids on the playground, climbing on the monkey bars, and Will alone on the soccer field picking dandelions. Not where the other children are.

Had I been the sassy sort, armed then with the knowledge I would later accrue, I might have joked with that teacher, told her that Will had greater aspirations. But I wasn’t there yet.

‘Just get him through’

School was torture for Will. He couldn’t take notes, failed to turn in homework, forgot when tests were coming up. Yet on standardized tests, his verbal scores consistently exceeded the 99th percentile. I wondered why he struggled, when clearly he was bright.

“Just get him through school,” his first-grade teacher had advised. Neither of us sensed what a long and painful road lay ahead. But her advice became my mantra: Just get him through.

Over the next several years, Will was evaluated for learning disabilities. While he had a superior IQ, an excellent memory and a solid grasp of complex linguistic cues, he fatigued easily and suffered from weak sensorimotor, visual perceptual and language output skills. And because he exhibited all nine symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD-inattentive type, he was slapped with that label, too.

While these evaluations provided useful information, they never answered our more pressing questions. Is there a way to determine reasonable academic expectations? How do we know when to push, when to back off?

By the time Will hit sixth grade, I’d reduced my work hours so I could be home in the afternoons to help Will with homework. Even with a master’s degree and years of teaching experience, I still struggled to reteach Will everything he should have learned at school.

“You can do this,” I would say as Will sat slumped beside me at the kitchen table. We’d go over math facts, science terms and spelling words until they stuck, and then review them again. We were like Lucy and Ethel in the factory trying to wrap candy as it sped ever faster down the conveyor belt. Some nights, my own head spinning, I sent Will to bed and completed his homework for him, that old refrain taunting me: Just get him through.

Occasionally, I could detach long enough to recognize the insanity of our situation. I kept thinking of that Einstein quote: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will believe its whole life that it is stupid.” I knew Will could swim with the fishes. But how did we get him out of the tree?

Every morning I felt as if I was sending Will into battle, and every afternoon as if I were retrieving a soldier with massive invisible wounds. Instead of whisking him off to sports practice or piano lessons, I drove Will to occupational therapy. Then we went home, unloaded the backpack, and dived in to his homework.

Medicating the problem

Eventually, we resorted to what doctors and teachers had been recommending for years: medication. I’d read enough books and talked to enough parents to know that, for some children, medication is salvation. Maybe it would help Will.

“It can take a while to find the right drug at the right dose,” his doctor warned us. Will tried various meds at various doses.: Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, Strattera, Focalin. When Will exhibited signs of agitation, the doctor added Zoloft to the mix.

We were patient, but the meds offered no benefit. In fact, they caused horrible side effects including insomnia, weight loss, and finally, tics. Will started licking his lips so much that the skin around them grew red and raw. He blinked his eyes forcefully, his whole face contorting into a kooky jack-o’-lantern. Then he would open his mouth as if he was going to yawn but he never yawned. His mouth just stayed open, sometimes for several seconds. When the tics continued for weeks after we stopped the medication, I took Will to a pediatric neurologist.

“When will the tics go away?” I asked, but she couldn’t say.

That was the moment I knew something had to change. And it wasn’t Will.

For years I’d been lurking on the Web site of a small Quaker school in a town 21 / 2 hours away. While we knew the school couldn’t cure Will’s problems, its philosophy of tolerance and inclusiveness gave us hope that, at the very least, Will’s problems would not be compounded. Our friends thought we were crazy to leave the town where we’d lived for 14 years, but it felt riskier to stay and push Will through a system that could not, by design, accommodate his needs or celebrate his strengths.

Away from the assembly-line approach to education with its tyranny of grades, Will flourished. For a while.

The school offered discussion-based classes, and students sat on couches in wood-paneled rooms that looked more like camp cabins than classrooms. Will’s subtle wit found a warm reception. While differential equations and the nuances of French grammar eluded him, he excelled in the analytical digging required of history, philosophy and literature.

Because he was gaining confidence in his intellect and inspiration from his teachers, he quickly weaned himself from my assistance. A request for extra time to complete a test or a paper was granted without a tangle of red tape.

And when Will was reevaluated by a new psychologist during his sophomore year, we learned he did not meet the criteria for ADHD. He had not grown out of it. This new school had not masked it. Will’s inattention was caused by another, primary issue. The formal diagnosis: Learning Disorder NOS (Not Otherwise Specified). This type of learning problem — loosely defined as a dissonance between thought-processing speed and higher-level verbal or visual reasoning — is fairly uncommon, affecting roughly 2 percent of the general population, according to one expert. And in Will’s case, the extent of the disconnect between intelligence and the ability to process it was especially unusual.

“If you were a car,” the doctor told Will, “you’d be a Maserati with two blown tires.” Finally, we found an expert who made sense of Will’s puzzling academic performance. No wonder the ADHD meds had not worked. Sadly, we learned, there was no cure for Will’s problem. The only way to deal with it was to give him extra time to get his work done

The interactive learning environment of the Quaker school played to Will’s high-level reasoning abilities, and he performed well until junior year, when he registered for eight academic classes, a difficult load even for typical students. The extended time his teachers granted him now merely extended his misery. Will believed that when given more time to do his work, that work had to be worthy of the extension. No one could convince him to focus his effort in a few classes and just meet the basic requirements in others. He tried to produce extraordinary work in every class, and the effort nearly destroyed him.

He could not muster energy to study, and eventually he couldn’t get himself off the couch to go to school. Sometimes when I approached, he growled. Other times I’d find him sound asleep listening to his iPod.

Ready to drop out

When Will was younger, I could coax him to forge ahead. But at 16, none of the tools in my arsenal worked anymore. Not the proverbial whip. Not the promise of pizza or Pokemon cards. I had run out of strategies and incentives just as he’d run out of steam. Will wanted to drop out of school.

I’d been trapped in an elevator once, and was now overcome by that same desperate, claustrophobic sensation. I retraced our steps, berating myself for doing too much, for doing too little. Making too many sacrifices or sacrificing the wrong things. I felt a raw, aching regret for all the mistakes I had made. All the times that I looked at Will and saw only a problem to solve.

As I found myself swallowed up by regrets, I clung to memories of Will before he entered school, a happy-go-lucky kid who once tried to crawl inside our television so he could hug Barney.

During Will’s spiral, I was enrolled in a class on mindfulness-based stress reduction. I began to realize that no matter how deeply I longed for Will to find the strength to finish high school, the decision was his. I could not undo whatever had caused his learning disability, and I could not take away his suffering. I could only remain supportive, and so I talked to him, matter-of-factly, about his career options. We discussed the GED.

And then I let him go.

On his own, Will enrolled in a charter school that specialized in helping kids who struggled in a traditional school setting. He completed his junior year there, attending classes from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The shorter day and lighter course load supported his learning disability, as did the staff of special educators who assigned homework in manageable doses. But by spring, he realized something: Just getting through wasn’t satisfying. Though he was honored for his GPA and passed the state end-of-course tests, he didn’t feel he’d really learned anything. He did learn that he’d rather wrestle with open-ended questions than take multiple-choice tests, and he missed being engaged with purposeful coursework.

So he went back to the Quaker school. Will had a successful senior year, though not without bumps. He cobbled together a support system, took the SAT and applied to colleges, but it was clear he was going through the motions, uncertain of his goals and weary.

When Will walked across the stage to receive his diploma, I felt a mix of pride, gratitude and relief. I was also exhausted. So began our nap year.

Easing back in

In August, Will attended his first college class. It wasn’t at the liberal arts college that offered him a merit scholarship. He decided to ease into higher education by enrolling in the university transfer program at the local community college. He’s taking a reduced course load and is eligible for accommodations through disability services. He’s living at home and looking for a part-time job. His nap year was over. Though he’s no closer to knowing what he wants to do with his life, thanks to Startup High, a program for budding entrepreneurs that he worked with during his nap year, he’s more hopeful about options for outliers like him.

When confronted by people who ask what Will is up to, I still struggle to explain his recovery from post-traumatic school disorder. But where he is right now, at home with us, still resting and resetting, feels right.

Lanning, a former editor and advice columnist at Teen magazine, lives in Durham, N. C. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the magazine Brain, Child.

 
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