A Cautionary Tale: When Symptoms Are Misleading

at a glance

A family’s harrowing tale of what happened when their son’s learning disabilities were not appropriately addressed and depression set in


“So, what do you think you’ll be doing when you’re out of high school?”

“Oh, I’ll be dead by then,” my son casually responded.

A social worker had posed that question to my then 16-year-old son. He was there because a few months earlier both his teacher and our family doctor had expressed concerns about his depressive behavior. This, however was the first time suicide was mentioned, sending huge waves of dread through my husband and me.

The need to act quickly was apparent, but time crawls when youre dealing with a new diagnosis of depression, waiting for antidepressants to work and trying to find the right therapist.

Darker Days

Another month, another change in medication—no improvement. His therapist suggested we place him in a day treatment center. Our son was not pleased. The long bouts of time spent locked in his room stretched from the time he came home in the afternoon until late into the night. After a week he was sent back to regular therapy.

The weeks dragged on. The therapist saw no improvement, so our son was sent back into day treatment. One morning as I dropped him off, his social worker said to me, “You know, sometimes we just can’t find the right mix of medication and treatment. He may just be depressed like this for the rest of his life, and you’ll just have to watch him.” Watch him? How? Through his locked door?

I went straight home and called the psychiatrist who suggested we start mood stabilizing anti-psychotic drugs. I also called a physician friend who said, “From what you’ve told me, I doubt this kid is even depressed. Have they checked his hormones? Do not put him on this next level of drugs until we at least do that.”

The Missing LD Link

Later the same day, I went back to pick him up at the hospital, where the same social worker who had delivered the life sentence that morning asked me if my son had ever had a learning disability. “Well, yes,” I replied, “back in fourth grade, but we’ve been assured he’s compensated for it, overcome his difficulties.”

“I’d have him re-evaluated if I were you.” And with those words, my son and I left the hospital for the last time. We checked with the psychiatrist about the learning disability and hormone theories, both of which he discounted.

The ups and downs, the months of tension, the lack of progress had so stressed our family that we made an appointment with yet another psychologist, ostensibly for family therapy.

Fresh Insights

The new psychologist listened to what we’d been through and spoke with our son alone. He then called my husband and me in and said, “I don’t think the main issue here is clinical depression. I think that his learning disability is causing a great deal of frustration in school. Let’s retest him.” And then he added, “If I were dealing with that level of frustration on a daily basis, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.”

It was now early September, a full six months since the journey had begun. We had the testosterone test done; our son’s levels were well below normal. When the physician gave him the results, he said. “This is very easy to adjust and you’re a remarkably tough young man to have been able to function with this extremely low hormonal level.” A week later, under the doctor’s supervision, our son stopped the anti-depressants.

He seemed to relax now that he was back at the small private school where he’d been for two years, among familiar surroundings and people. We told the teachers and administrators of his tenuous emotional state and what he’d been through over the summer. They were incredibly caring and attentive. There wasn’t enough they could do for him. We also told them we would be having the psycho-educational evaluation redone.

Uncovering the Problem

The retesting was done in early November. As it turned out, our son’s verbal IQ had gone way up in the five years since his first evaluation; his performance IQ had not. The result—an even more profound gap between the two scores.

He understood and could verbalize anything he was taught in a classroom. But being asked to perform with pen and paper, or to read fluently on his own caused huge problems.

He could not prove his abilities with the tools literally in his hands—pen, paper and tests—and so the frustration grew silently and insidiously as his grades plummeted. He could not possibly have understood why he didn’t do well. None of his teachers had ever heard of a nonverbal learning disability (NLD).

The Wrong School

Armed with the correct diagnosis, we told the school that the learning difference was the main issue. We should have known something was up when it took two months to schedule a meeting between our educational psychologist and team of teachers so that they could hear firsthand what our son needed from them.

It was yet another month before the teachers sat down with us and our son to talk about whether he even “really belonged” at the school any more. They offered us books on tape and a half-hour of extra time on final exams. That was it. “We’re a small school and we’re just not equipped.” In the two years since, I’ve found you don’t need all that much “equipment” to teach a bright kid with a nonverbal learning style.

Toward the end of the year, they implied that our son was in jeopardy of not being invited back. He was desperate to stay despite their lack of adaptation to his needs. He had become a vital part of the school community—485 hours of community service, a big brother to many kindergartners, a participant in Midnight Runs for the homeless and the star of the school play.

Many of his peers rallied behind him and asked the Headmaster to invite him back. So he was offered a spot for the following year but only if he would repeat as a sophomore, not take a leading role in any drama productions and only take his tests in writing and with the proviso that we would provide a daily outside tutor for any of his nonverbal learning issues. To which he replied, “No.”

The Right School

Our son moved on to another, where he thrived. He became a peer leader, a wonderful friend, an accomplished actor and musician, and a confident young man. His teachers couldn’t get enough information about NLD and were constantly asking what more they could do to help him.

Of course there are emotional ups and downs, dilemmas and celebrations. It’s still real life. The journey continues, but now we’re all enjoying the ride.

The authors name is withheld at her request.

Related Smart Kids Links

Managing LD/ADHD • Family & Parenting • High School • Our Journey • Emotional Issues