Friday, September 02, 2005

The Learning-Disabled Hero

How my son’s struggle with ADHD and dyslexia inspired a fantasy novel about a regular kid with not-so-regular problems.
By Rick Riordan





I remember the first time I took my son to the psychologist.

His teacher had recommended testing. Well . . . not just testing, a full “psycho-educational battery,” which sounded to me like some sort of ground assault with number two pencils.
As with most things, my son was fine with it. I was a wreck.

‘Your teacher just wants to find out how you learn best,’ I assured him. ‘It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong.’

‘I know, Dad.’

My son Haley was seven. He was playing his Gameboy as we drove very slowly to the appointment. His brown bangs fell over his eyes. I wasn’t sure if he was listening to me or not.

‘Everybody has strengths and weaknesses,’ I told him. ‘The testing will find out how you learn best. Teachers are really very good people.’

‘Dad, you’re a teacher.’

‘Well, yes, but . . .’

But it’s different when my son is the one being tested, when I’m on the other side of the parent conference table, listening to the teacher catalogue my child’s deficiencies in class.

‘Do you have any questions?’ I asked my son.

‘Uh-huh,’ Haley said. ‘Can we get out of the car now?’

I realized we were idling in the psychologist’s driveway.

As we walked to the front door, I held my son’s hand. Usually, he didn’t like doing this if it meant putting up his Gameboy, but today he didn’t complain. I guess he knew Dad needed the hand-holding.


*

A few weeks earlier, Haley’s teacher had been very nice at the conference. Very professional. She started with positive comments about what a sweet boy he was, how articulate, how good in math.

‘But he has trouble paying attention,’ she added regretfully. ‘And his reading and writing . . .’ She paused. ‘You know, I told him, “Your father is an author and a teacher, you should love reading and writing.” ’

I managed a smile, but I was dying inside. There was nothing Haley hated more than being told he should love reading and writing because his dad taught English and wrote novels. Haley liked reading and writing about as much as needles at the doctor’s office. In the evenings I would sit with him as he did his homework. Every word he managed to get on paper was a hard-fought victory. Every page he tried to read was a minefield.

He would cry. He would get silly. He would try every diversionary tactic he could think of – sharpening his pencil ten times, hiding under the table, developing a sudden interest in feeding the cat. At school, things weren’t much better. The teachers still talked about the day in kindergarten when Haley had an anxiety attack and his teacher had to latch the door to keep him from running away.

‘I think we should look at testing,’ his teacher summed up, ‘to figure out what’s going on. He’s such a bright boy, but . . .’

I got her meaning. That but was pretty huge.


*


Several months later, we got the results of Haley’s testing. He was beginning second grade and we called a conference with his new teachers.

The diagnosis: borderline dyslexia, enough to qualify Haley for the Scottish Rite program with the school’s reading specialist. The psychologist had been more hesitant about labeling Haley with ADHD. He had attention problems, yes, but ADHD is a very subjective diagnosis. The psychologist wasn’t ready to go there.

His second grade teachers didn’t share these reservations. They already knew Haley was ADHD. They learned very quickly that they couldn’t play music in the classroom during journal time. Haley would get distracted and start humming along. They couldn’t put him by the window. He found the birds in the live oak tree much more fascinating than his lessons. The actual diagnosis of ADHD, and Haley’s first experience with Ritalin, would not come for three more years, but that didn’t make the problem any less real in second grade.

At the time, I tried to console myself with the fact that we weren’t the only family dealing with these issues. In the United States, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that two million American children have ADHD. In every classroom of 25-30 children, there will be at least one ADHD child. The ADHD UK Alliance puts the number of British children with ADHD at 7%, but adds that many children with the condition, especially girls, go undiagnosed.

The number of children struggling with dyslexia is even higher. According to the International Dyslexia Association, 15%-20% of the population has some sort of language-based learning disability like dyslexia. 70-80% of those children with learning disabilities have a deficit in reading. Most interestingly, up to 50% of all children diagnosed with a learning disability also have ADHD.

Still, statistics are one thing. My own child, my own guilt and anxiety and desire for him to do well – that is quite another.

As a teacher, I had worked with many ADHD and dyslexic children over the years, but I’d never seen what school was like from their point-of-view. Now I understood just how hard it had been for them every time I assigned written homework, or gave a spelling test, or asked them to read a chapter in a novel. I understood how a bright, articulate child could fail to write a complete sentence. It did not necessarily mean that the child was lazy.

*

As Haley struggled through second grade, his saving grace was Greek mythology. He loved those old stories. He would actually read them willingly in class. He knew I’d taught Greek myths for years in the middle school, and so every night he would ask me to tell him a bedtime story about the Olympians.

One night, as we were lying in bed for story time, I realized I’d run out of myths. We’d done all the gods, the heroes, the monsters. I was fresh out of Minotaurs.

‘Well, make something up!’ Haley said, as if this were the most obvious thing in the world.

I thought about that.

I thought about Haley’s struggle with ADHD and dyslexia. I imagined the faces of all the students I’d taught who had these same conditions. I felt the need to honor them, to let them know that being different wasn’t a bad thing. Intelligence wasn’t always measurable with a piece of paper and a number two pencil. Talent didn’t come in only one flavor.

Then I thought about the heroes in the old myths – sons and daughters of gods and humans – and all the troubles they’d had to overcome because of their mixed heritage. Off the top of head, I began a story about a 12-year-old boy named Percy Jackson, the modern-day son of the Greek god Poseidon, who among his many other problems has ADHD and dyslexia. He struggles in school. He’s constantly being labeled a lazy troublemaker. Yet Percy finds that his learning disabilities are actually indicators of Olympian blood. He is a hero – a child of the gods.

I took me three nights to tell of Percy’s epic quest across the United States to retrieve a lightning bolt stolen from Zeus. When I was done, Haley told me I should write the story down.
I took him seriously. I spent a year on the manuscript, not sure anyone except Haley would ever want to read it.

I was wrong. The story seems to have struck a chord.

To date, The Lightning Thief is being published in seven languages and the film version is underway. I’ve gotten a flood of appreciative emails from readers, many of them ADHD/dyslexic kids who usually dislike reading. It’s tremendously gratifying, and yet the book remains a very personal story from a father to a son. Like the Greek stories of old, The Lightning Thief is an attempt to explain a natural phenomenon -- a myth to help my son make sense of who he is.

And what about all the attention the book has brought our family? As usual, my son is fine with it. As for Dad . . . well, as Haley will be the first to tell you, Dad still needs a little hand-holding from time to time.



On-line parent/teacher resources for ADHD & Dyslexia:

ADHD UK Alliance
www.adhdalliance.org.uk
Hyperactive Children's Support Group
www.hacsg.org.uk
CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder)
www.chadd.org
ADDA (National Attention Deficit Disorder Association)
www.add.org
The Dyslexia Institute
www.dyslexia-inst.org.uk