WOODSTOCK – Valerie Deegan’s 10-year-old was a terror.
With Connor Deegan’s D’s and F’s in class mounting on top of bad behavior, and facing what she felt was pressure from her son’s school, Valerie Deegan signed off on an Individualized Education Program. Then, she searched for answers.
What the Woodstock woman has found, now that her son is 12 and finishing up sixth grade, is that the symptoms that seemed to scream of a behavioral disorder were something much simpler: Connor wasn’t sleeping well.
“The signs of sleepiness in children are different from adults,” said Dr. Darius Loghmanee, a pediatrics sleep physician at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “Adults slow down and drift off. Kids don’t really like feeling like that, so they kind of compensate for their sleepiness by trying to stimulate their attention.”
Connor was the center of attention – though it was hardly positive. The boy threw tantrums at home and at school. He threatened to kill himself. He said, often, that he wished he was dead.
Valerie Deegan looked for a reason. She talked to the pediatrician, sought allergy and sleep tests and a full psychological study – which found Connor was cognitively gifted but had Oppositional Defiant Disorder, a mental health disorder describing moody and irritable children.
Then, Dr. Loghmanee made a different diagnosis after a sleep study. Connor was suffering from snoring and increased upper airway resistance, possibly compounded by years of undiagnosed allergies.
Connor was referred to Dr. Kevin Boyd, a pediatric dentist who acts as a consultant to the sleep medicine service at Lurie. Dr. Boyd widened the palate through protractive orthodontics, which allows the tongue to come off the back of the throat enough to provide a clearer airway. Connor’s tonsils and adenoids also were removed.
The result: a new Connor. He’s getting A’s and B’s now in class, and gone are the intense, self-destructive anger issues.
“He’s still a kid and he’s still growing and trying to figure himself out,” Valerie Deegan said. “But we don’t have the issues anywhere near what we had.”
Connor’s IED sits unused, with a year left before it expires, Deegan said.
A District 200 representative said teachers were unable to comment on the transformation because of confidentiality issues.
“District 200 is supportive of a parent’s decision to explore options outside of the school that may benefit a child in the classroom,” the district wrote in a statement. “We are pleased that the course of treatment Ms. Deegan chose for Connor has helped him be more successful in school. He has made great strides in sixth grade and we look forward to working with the family to help Connor continue on his current path.”
Valerie Deegan said the district has been less supportive of her attempts to educate other parents about treatment approaches she feels could help more families than are aware. Deegan’s request to get a flyer on airway restriction and its link to behavior distributed in District 200’s virtual backpack was denied, she said.
“I’m not saying that every child is going to see the effects of Connor,” she said. “But children could ease their symptoms, even if they do have a behavioral disorder.”
Loghmanee said he’d like to see all students who get a behavioral diagnosis like ADHD also receive a sleep test.
“That’s a real diagnosis, there are kids that have that,” he said of ADHD. “But before we go to that, we should say, ‘Are there things we can do to improve their sleep?’”
Boyd added that a case like Connor’s will go a long way toward encouraging research.
“This is brand-new stuff,” Boyd said. “Connor was an inspiration to us. We had some idea we would help him sleep and breathe better, but no idea his behavior would be so positively affected. It’s prompted a whole lot of interest in this area.”