Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Like many ‘90s elementary school kids who ran through the recess yards, I was a bespectacled theatric and a “bit too much to handle.” At least that’s always how my behavior was explained by well-meaning adults at family gatherings and parent-teacher meetings.
That lasted until the third grade. I had a really gentle, patient teacher whom, like many of the boys in that classroom, I probably gave more than a few white hairs. Then again, when does it ever occur to a class full of 27 nine-year-olds that a class full of 27 nine-year-olds means one giant pain in the ass for an underpaid educator?
Maybe within two months of that school year, my parents received a memorable phone call. Their conversation repeated three letters that would overshadow the interpretation of my every action until adulthood.
They were three letters that would be whispered in Christmas Eve parties and parental gatherings of every sort. The kind where everyone thinks they’re speaking quietly enough around the kids not to be heard.
I spent the next three years on Ritalin medication. Whatever else it did, it principally made me feel uncomfortable in my own skin. Sadly, I always felt like less of the bespectacled theatric, and a little bit more like someone who could never think of the right thing to say. It was like being suffocated from the inside by invisible hands, and no one can see you running out of breath.
When I decided to give up Ritalin, suddenly every kid in my class now had “ADD” just like me, or its interchangeable successor, “ADHD” Parents and teachers were convinced of the students suffered, principally because they weren’t excelling in their studies.
While I remember my own diagnosis – in which I was taken into a big, shiny building where I went through multiple days of psychological testing by a panel of doctors who concluded I displayed the proper symptoms – the spreading attention-deficit phenomenon seemed different.
I don’t mean to sound melodramatic or negative here. I don’t look at this part of my childhood as unfortunate, so much as weird and unnecessary, though these memories should establish my bias for making the following claim.
It’s not so much that I’m convinced that ADD is, as academics such as H.G. Frankfurt may say, “bullshit.” Certain children’s brains exhibit a slight neurological difference that accentuates a set of particular behavioral traits and produces some conflict on social surroundings.
I do, however, completely disagree with the idea that this very neurological difference should be considered only an ineptitude by mainstream psychology. Even if one were to argue that it isn’t, I would say the last “D” in the abbreviation cannot possibly have a positive connotation.
When critics began to push back against the initial science behind what was originally called “Attention Deficit Disorder”, the infamous “H” that was added got to the core of the problem that the medicine prescribed was meant to solve: “Hyperactivity”. Because really, nothing else about ADD is worthy of being interpreted as a pejorative, because nothing else about it presents a problem for authority.
As a child diagnosed with only “ADD,” I was given literature which warned me against using the disorder as a “crutch” to excuse myself for exhibiting unacceptable behavior — a way that so many of my classmates ended up taking advantage of in its over diagnosis years after I received mine. But, given the parents and teachers who attempted to cope with the crazier ends of the individual personalities, the children weren’t the only ones who treated their diagnosis as a crutch.
A recent study found that 1 million children may have been misdiagnosed with ADHD because they were born later in the school year. Subtle signs of systemic problems with their behavior would surface, but in many cases students lacked attention because the curriculum being taught was almost a year beyond their intellect. The youngest of which were more than two times likely to be prescribed stimulants that we don’t let Major League Baseball players use, entirely without need. Once again, we see prescriptions used so quickly to solve problems that appear individual but are actually institutional.
Since it’s difficult to differentiate the symptoms of ADHD from other developmental issues, medication not only becomes a helpful tool for those with extreme cases, but more over as a way for institutions to insulate the damage that they’re causing. After all, why investigate a problem that could get you in trouble or shake up the status quo when it’s so easy to get kids on perscriptions?
Even with accurate cases of ADHD diagnosis, let me go one step further — in so far as ADHD can be an excuse for lazy school kids to explain their mediocrity, it is equally the excuse of a lazy society rationalizing its role in their development with our philosophy of perscribing first and asking questions later.
In sociology this has been called the “medicalization of deviant behavior.” It was used then to differentiate children who were diagnosed but didn’t show debilitating symptoms (ADD, what I was diagnosed with) from those who did (those oh-so-intolerable hyperactive children).
Which if this wasn’t the case, we’d never consider it a handicap. Instead we’d begin to see how science is coming to understand ADHD now, as having the “mother of all upsides” that ought be groomed to its full potential, lest it go wasted.
In that same ADD educational literature I mentioned, its authors listed several famous intellectuals who were afflicted with a deficit in attention whether they realized it or not, for instance, Albert Einstein, John Lennon, and Dustin Hoffman. Back in the 90s, parents could look at this list and say, “well I guess it wouldn’t be so bad if you turned out like that.”
Today, though, new studies show a more direct correlation between ADHD and creativity. Most promising of all, the research emphasizes a relationship between those diagnosed and what is called “divergent” thinking.
“Divergent” thinking involves an ability to think outside the box. Subjects tend not be satisfied with the easiest solution, and aren’t afraid to, say, “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks”. Unlike convergent thinkers, divergent thinkers may not perform so well on standardized exams, especially the SATs. However, the latter may later excel in places our economy and society depend on innovative ideas: in the boardroom, the laboratory, the editorial desk, or the think tank.
If we can agree that there are extreme cases of the condition and that these individuals need help to control what is potentially a greater gift than it is a burden, then why are we giving them medicine to treat it like it’s a disease? The role of both Adderall and Ritalin is to diminish effects of what is considered a disorder. But if we know that a child could not just survive the pursuit of happiness despite their ADHD but excel because of it, would an ethical society then seek to “treat” away use of their gift?
Before there were such hopeful signs in research, I was often told as a child: “You’re a left brained kid in a right brained world.”
Currently, as an adult who has gained a rather fulfilling living from personal characteristics that are considered “symptoms” of the disorder, I’ve concluded that this is more the world’s problem more than it is mine. Though, I understand perfectly why we think this way and are so slow to correct ourselves.
Exploring alternatives is costly, plus society faces bigger problems to tackle. But the truth of the matter is that the institutional solutions to the real challenges ADHD poses are only profitable (read: “made easy”) only where we think of children as the ones with the problem.
Otherwise, at school, the solutions could involve reforming education to be a little softer to the touch, definitely more malleable, and at least better equipped to utilize creative potential for intellectual stimulation. Parents could help at home taking greater responsibility to better foster personal discipline and a consciousness of self within the child.
In other words, to do what psychiatrist recommend families do when they can’t afford the pills to make it easier.
Asking public primary schools to act more like private colleges which hone and focus certain abilities over others may not be realistic, especially in a society that prizes equality along with individualism. Part of the solution then might require a willingness to let children sink or swim, while society provides a safe, non-future-threatening way to let children learn from failure so they understand the necessity to succeed.
Any adult still making sense of their childhood attention-deficit diagnosis will tell you that’s the only way they’ve been able to turn their “disorder” into an asset. Further, not even a psychiatrist will tell you that taking a daily dose of an amphetamine will ensure anyone “suffering” from ADHD of that success – or insulate them from the preceding failure required to find it.