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When they all look alike: ADHD, Anxiety, & SPD.

As the parent of a complicated child you strive to understand the different labels your child is given and how professionals know the difference between those labels. It is a challenging task particularly when many professionals struggle to understand themselves, passing the confusion on to parents. You can hear from one professional, "oh it’s definitely ADHD, let's medicate," another says "he is just anxious, go to therapy," and yet another says "I'm not sure what we are looking at." It is beyond frustrating. As a professional and a parent, I can relate. With this article I’m hoping to provide some information that will help us to focus on the right path.

We can all think of a child that is easily overwhelmed, has frequent meltdowns, and often appears to be lost in thought or "spaced out." Maybe this child also has poor self-esteem and has a hard time making friends or maintaining friendships because they are too loud or too close or too rough with their peers, perhaps unintentionally. Everyone has a viewpoint on what’s happening for these kids- Everyone knows a kid like this.

Oftentimes these kids are mislabeled and given the diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This happens because parents and teachers notice the child's inability to sit still at school, or that they have a hard time staying focused, or that they are impulsive, or in constant motion. I don't know about you, but I don't think many adults could sit still and learn facts for eight hours a day without feeling the need to bounce their feet or run around a little! As a parent how do you know what is developmental, what is just your "quirky kid,” and what really is problematic?

Sometimes kids worry about school, or have trouble sleeping at night because of their worries. Some kids complain of physical ailments, even when it appears nothing is wrong with their bodies. Some kids have preferences about the types of food they eat and the clothes they wear. If any little thing does not fit into their preferred experience, then BOOM a big meltdown occurs. When this happens parents are left trying to figure out why changing the child's problematic socks, isn't helping them calm down. As nothing seems to work you start looking for answers. Looking online provides even more of a confusing soup of information. Because there is no single answer, we need to learn where a child's development, neurodiversity, and mood intersect. Besides, as no parent wants, on the ground in a meltdown.

It turns out that Anxiety, ADHD, and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) all have overlapping symptoms that make it hard for a child to express their needs effectively. A lot of parents turn to physicians to fix their child's behaviors with medications or therapy to fix the meltdowns by giving the child language for their emotions. While both of these options can, and do, work for many individuals, a combination of treatments often works best. Another important factor frequently gets left out: a child with sensory challenges needs Occupational Therapy to address their needs. Occupational Therapy assesses for the various areas of body development and delays including: under and over responsivity to stimuli and how it impacts the functioning of the child. This is their expertise and they often work in conjunction with child therapists to help children learn body regulation which comes before emotional regulation.

Although the many labels your child may be attaining can be overwhelming and confusing, often it is because frequently symptoms of ADHD, Anxiety, and SPD overlap. Below you will see a diagram showing exactly how they do so. As you can see there are several similarities between ADHD and SPD, and quite a few that are included in all three diagnoses. What’s most important is figuring out what your individual child needs. Does the child need therapy? Medications? Occupational Therapy? Some combination of these? It is important to find a professional who understands the nuances of the disorders in order to help decipher these often overlapping symptoms to determine a best path of treatment for your child. Here at Olympia Therapy we have training and support parents with education and guidance on how to navigate this complex world of parenting neuro-diverse children. Some other great resources are the Star Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder & informational resources at ADDitude Magazine

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