My Kids Have Invisible Disabilities, So Mind Your Own Business

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
child with invisible disability crying in the road

My child Sunny started crying when we reached the meerkat exhibit. He said it was because he didn’t want to have to wait for his brothers to finish their gardening program to get lunch, though he insisted that he wasn’t hungry. It was the actual waiting, the act of not getting something immediately, that caused the tantrum. So he wept. Copiously. Endlessly. Past the elephants, through the barn, over the bridge and on the tram back up the hill.

What kid cries like this at the freaking zoo? People stared. People glared and rolled their eyes. He was clearly too big to weep like that, and in public no less. I was clearly giving in to something, and needed, rather than to coddle him, to — I don’t know — yank him by the arm and tell him I’d give him something to cry about. To punish him for making a scene.

Except my sons have invisible disabilities. This is our normal. Punishment would not be appropriate.

So, all those people giving me dirty looks can fuck off.

All three of my sons have ADHD. This makes us privy to any number of public scenes, character judgments, and what appear to be spectacular parenting fails. Sunny wasn’t being “bad.” He has genuine issues controlling his emotions, and once he gets upset, he has trouble turning it off (and there is nothing sadder than a small child hitching his breath, covering his face with his hands and weeping, “I’m trying to stop mama, I’m trying, I’m trying, I can’t stop, I can’t!”). We try deep breaths. But these kids get so wrapped up in their emotions they literally cannot breathe deeply. So sometimes, they just have to let it run their course. That means crying all the way home from the meerkats.

My seven-year-old sometimes does this in public. My almost-nine-year-old does not. Now. But he does it at home after he’s slammed his bedroom door shut.

So there are sometimes tantrums. We’re lucky; we don’t get the defiance from them that many ADHD parents see in their children. But we do see an inability to listen to directions. Like “no sticks on the play structure.” Sticks are fun. Sticks are awesome. Sometimes, in the course of playing with sticks, my telling them to stop literally does not register, does not cut through the fun of stick-playing. So I say it again. They seem to ignore me, again. Then another child picks up a stick and starts playing, and that kid’s mommy stares at me like I’ve birthed the spawn of Satan while saying loudly, “WE DON’T BRING STICKS ON THE PLAY STRUCTURE, JADEN.” I have to get up, walk over, touch my children on whatever whirling body part I can reach, and say, “Dude, I said you need to stop playing with sticks up here.”

Jaden’s mom looks satisfied, like she was right to think my kids are headed for lifetime of bad life decisions. Mind your own, Carol. My sons are not neurotypical, and hence are acting exactly like non-neurotypical children. This doesn’t mean they need a spanking. It means they need a little extra help.

My kids also run. They run a lot, in fact. Not away from me, just — running. Ahead. Because running is something they do. Often in a pack. Often towards me. They feel a need to run. They also bob and weave and dodge. They do this without regard to other humans. We try to instill in them that they need to be aware of other people.That you should look where you are going. That you should not run over elderly ladies.

But it doesn’t help much, because their ADHD prevents them from focusing on more than what’s holding their focus at the moment, which is definitely not random Target shoppers. These shoppers are not very happy when my sons dart in front of them and their carts. They glare. They huff. They look at me like, control your brats. They mutter under their breath and think I can’t hear them (Newsflash, assholes: I can hear you).

Guess what, Ethel? My kids didn’t play chicken with your cart on purpose. It’s not a personal attack. They literally did not see you. They are not aware of others. I know that hurts your heart, in which children owe Baby Boomers all the respect in the universe. But they cannot focus on you and whatever wondrous thing they want to tell me at the same time. They can’t think about your cart and getting back to my cart at once. This is why they are not allowed near roads alone — even my almost-9 year old.

They have invisible disabilities. So give us a break. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t erase the need for empathy and understanding.

They look completely “normal.” But you can’t see their brains. You can’t see their neurological differences when you pass them in Target, when you see them playing on the playground. You have no idea what goes on in my home (you try to get three ADHD children to clean a playroom). So give them the benefit of the doubt, please. Give me, their mother, the benefit of the doubt. I’m their parent. I know what I’m doing. And I know that spanking them, berating them, or yelling at them for disabilities they can’t help won’t do a damn thing.

My oldest has dysgraphia. I don’t scream at him because he can’t write well. So why would I yell when he loses his water bottle for the third time that week? Yes, it sucks. Yes, it’s annoying as hell. I’m not discounting that their behavior can inconvenience all of us. But it doesn’t mean they need reprimanded. It means they need space. It means they need grace. It means they need some help, some understanding, and some patience. It means that as their mother, so do I.

So keep your glares and unsolicited advice to yourselves.

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