6yo with “Ferrari engine, bicycle brakes,” poor social intuition

I’ve had so many struggles with my son, now 6. Toddlerhood was great though exhausting for me—I think in part because I was willing and able to give him enormous amounts of attention. But around 3 things became really challenging. Summing it up, I think the biggest problems are:

  1. He gets too wild and/or intense with touch—e.g. bumping into us, pushing or pulling way too hard, or doing random unwanted things like jumping up and bopping us on the head. At least once every few days he gets into a mode where he runs around the house making us worried he is about to break something or hurt someone. Or he’ll randomly toss a large/hard object to get it out of the way. Even when not in this wild mode, he seems to crave stronger touch, like nuzzling heads together so forcefully that it hurts me.
  2. When he has momentum for doing something (wild energy, or just a strong vision for a project or game), he barrels onward regardless of others’ feelings and requests. At other times he can be thoughtful toward others—e.g. he really wanted me to have a good Mothers’ Day, and worked hard at that! But my feelings have distressingly little power to stop him when he’s in motion. I read the phrase “Ferrari engine, bicycle brakes” somewhere in reference to ADHD, and think of that a lot.
  3. He seems to be very low on intuition about others’ feelings and helpful responses. Things like saying sorry when you bump someone, or asking what’s wrong if they look sad—his little sister does those things spontaneously at 2, and he had to learn them much later, like a second language. There are still many moments where I feel like there is an obvious social response he should give, and he just doesn’t.
  4. He is also relatively easily triggered to very intense emotion, and has a really hard time calming down. Loud sounds, frustration (something he’s trying to do that isn’t working), and waiting for attention can all send him off the rails. 

I’d be grateful for any suggestions, perspectives, or advice! I have often felt like we need more help, but I’ve been too immersed in the daily struggle to figure out what help to get. Things we’ve read about ADHD have seemed to help make sense of home, but he has no such problems at school (I do get the sense that school is effortful for him, and he comes home with little in the tank). 

Many thanks in advance for any ideas!

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You sound like a really wonderful, attentive and caring mom. Bravo to you for patiently making it thus far with a sometimes-challenging (and I'm sure also awesome) kiddo! I suspect beyond ADHD that he has some sensory processing issues - the hard/heavy touches, the sensitivity to noises, the hard time calming down...all sound like SPD. There have been several posts on BPN lately (and in the past) for with info about testing and recs for OT, which I think may be of great help to him, and you! Good luck!

I’d recommend asking his dr for a referral to a developmental pediatrician who can do screenings that may pinpoint certain things that can help or services he may qualify for. Additionally, he may like access to certain things that can help increase/decrease sensory input like noise cancelling headphones, scratchy brush or back scratcher for his skin, yoga ball, hard massages from parent, swing/hammock. 

Sounds like he may have some combined type of adhd or  sensory processing issues -- adhd is not just hyperaxtice or inattentive-- my son late diagnosed for that exact reason. He is verg high performing (scored in the 99th percentile on the hspt) but he can br hyper at times or spacey and sit and not so anything for an hour. I would suggest trying to make an appointment with Dr. Sandford Newmark at UCSF Osher center. He usually has a year long wait list so it may be good to get in now and they take most insurance. Hes in integrative medicine so he looks at diet, environment and other factors and is not quick to medicate. We eventually did meds and my son also does swim team. I would see if hes into a high impact sport because after a high intensity workoit most kids have a period of high focus.

Sounds exactly like my kid at that age. He has sensory processing issues and ADD. Occupational therapy with Full Circle in Oakland was enormously helpful with the SPD. Did not help with the ADD; medication was the only thing we tried that has ever helped with that.

Hi - it sounds like your son is sensory seeking and would greatly benefit from Ocupational Therapy. OT can also give you guidance on how to handle his sensory needs at home. However, gettin insurance to pay for OT or for getting support while he’s at school, getting a diagnosis is likely required. An evaluation from a Behavioral & Developmental Pediatrician is best. You can also get a no cost assessment from the Regional Center of the East Bay but they will provide an official diagnosis, at least not at the first assessment.

Hi, I have a son, now 16 with ADHD, who we didn't get diagnosed until middle school. Looking back there were signs; impulsivity, missed social cues, especially when having some fun and building and building to when it becomes too much for others. With school the issues didn't really surface with academic performance until middle school. At 6 your son should be old enough to start learning ways to help him process his environment, and I agree with the other poster that it looks like he might have some sensory issues. Fidgets can be great, and CBT or DBT therapies help our neurodivergent kiddos find coping strategies. You are an amazing mom! This can be challenging, just know there are resources out there and the sooner you get involvement at school as well the better prepared you will all be.

I see another response suggesting sensory processing and I wanted to second that! I would highly recommend looking for an Occupational Therapist who specializes in sensory processing (in my experience, not all do). Good luck!

This all sounds familiar. My son, entering 6th, may have SPD too.  We are in line for testing.  A diagnosis and OT will be great, but there is no magic solution.  We have coped by: 1) getting our child outside as much as possible where can get all the sensory input that he needs. Climbing trees, hiking, running clubs, beach visits to the calm Tomales Bay area, sand toys. 2) Sports: our kid loves athletics. Before team sports, we went to Athletic Playground for parkour time.  Swimming lessons and any pool time. 3) We got a dog which he has to walk and feed.  4)  Time alone with one parent really helps. It's tough on the couple, but worthwhile.  He's going to need to trust you completely going forward to be there for him.  As they get bigger, the pushing and shoving can get intense.  Look at huge beanbags, punching stands if you have a yard, huge squeeze balls, and ways for him to exert himself that don't involve you.  Just keep showing him that you're going to help him understand himself. 

A lot of what you're describing also sounds like autism spectrum disorder, rather than ADHD. For a long time, my child (different profile but some overlap) was given provisional ADHD diagnoses from different providers, but I didn't think that was correct and wanted them to be considered for ASD. I would say that it's hard when kids are still young, when they present some symptoms that are easily (though often wrongly) dismissed as 'what kids do' and as your child develops further, there will be clearer differences from their peers, regardless of the type of neurodivergence they have. OT is a really great step, since so much of what you're describing is sensory seeking and sensitivity, which OT can support. 

I would encourage you to reframe your statement about your child's 'response he should give' -- since this starts from a neurotypical frame, and in order to truly support your kid, understanding that we all have different perspectives, regardless of our neuro-status, is important. 

I love the blog Missing the Mark, and its associated (limited to 4 episodes) podcast. As a parent it's easy to feel isolated and overwhelmed. Figuring out your needs and how to advocate for your kid will serve you for a long time. I would also encourage you to request an IEP, which the school district must assess for if you've requested it. Do not let them tell you that your child wouldn't qualify or other nonsense. You are going to need as many resources as you can to ensure your kiddo thrives, and when it comes to educating your kid, he also needs to be emotionally well-resourced in classroom settings to learn well. 
Wishing you luck and perseverance! You aren't alone.

I concur with the other responder that sensory processing disorder may be a part of that. The lack of discernment around other people's experience and not picking up standard social cues may indicate Autism spectrum, as well. My daughter has all of those things, plus anxiety...it was hard for us to recognize because she is very intelligent and highly verbal, but once we started coming to terms with it and getting appropriate supports in place (meds, therapies, iep, regional center, family structure, and different expectations) we felt like we were going in the right direction, even if it isn't always an easy or straightforward path. She is 12 now and doing great. 

I encourage you to get your son evaluated for autism.  He sounds sensory seeking (wild/intense with touch, running around, throwing), low sensitivity to others' feelings but capable of deep empathy, missing social cues, big reactions to what neurotypical people perceive as small problems, long hangover and refractory period from emotional meltdowns.  I am not a doctor but I strongly recognize each of those traits in my autistic-diagnosed child.

Your child sounds like he needs more heavy sensory inputs, which is not uncommon for kiddos this age. Does he have a friend (or friends) that can play rougher with him that you can set up playdates with? How much outside time does he get? Adventure Playground in Berkeley is a great place for kids this age to get out their energy. He can build, and climb, and there is a great zip line!

Highly recommend working with a family therapist! We've learned a lot from Dr. Carmelinda Mann, who we see in person in her Oakland office (although she is also available virtually) to help with parenting/family struggles. Good luck! https://carmelindamannphd.com/

So much of what you've written here reminds me a lot of my son. Just lots of intensity. Physically too intense and difficulty stopping himself. Quick to rage (though thankfully calmed down fairly easily). Ultimately, in 2nd grade he was finally, much to my shock, diagnosed with ADHD, both types. I was super wary of meds. But we learned a lot (through Kaiser) and I felt much better about them. We also had a relatively easy road, hitting on meds that worked well for him on the first try.

Ultimately, we've tested him on & off meds over the years. He has assessed (and so have I) that they have been pretty life-changing for him, especially at school, where things were difficult. He's wicked smart, and he thinks really deeply about stuff, but school was such a drag. And the good news and the light, in our case, is that now, as an almost 16-year-old, those behaviors, especially the physical ones, are a very rare occurrence. I do think many boys eventually grow out of those physical behaviors. Believe me, it was HARD to live through. His struggles with ADHD are still here, but show up in different ways (other than physical). He gets support to help him stay on track in high school and is doing well. He's still on same low-dosage of ADHD meds as he was since 2nd grade, and they are still very helpful.

I hope you find some things that work well for you. Assessment is definitely something to consider, and then if diagnosed, lots of education & support for you, as well as possibly meds and support for him. I wish you all the best. It can be very challenging but it does get better!

I hope everything's going better for you. In case you're still working towards a more peaceful parenthood, we've had a lot of luck following advice in two books: "How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk" and "hunt, gather parent." They both have strategies for understanding the mindset of your kid, creating fun practice scenarios where the kid can practice calm appropriate behavior outside of their highly emotional moments, and channeling their energies into other activities around the house. I don't think they are replacements for therapeutic or medical treatments if those are truly necessary, but I think they have gone a long way with our high-octane little guy. Also taking him to the swimming pool goes a long way towards burning off that energy!