Worried about ADHD

I think I’m slightly paranoid about Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). For some time, I’ve been wondering if my son has it. Ben is 8 years old and does on occasion have difficulty concentrating on things that he’s not particularly interested in, like homework. He also likes to endlessly and somewhat absentmindedly whistle, hum or sing little ditties to himself to the frustration of his older brother Josef. Sitting still all the way through dinner poses a challenge now and then, too.

So, like many other parents with kids who at times seem to have enough energy to power a small suburb but can barely muster the attention span of juvenile guppy, I worry about ADHD. The problem is that there’s been so much hype and controversy around this condition that it’s hard to know what to believe.

ADHD is described as a developmental and behavioural disorder that afflicts children who are consistently more hyperactive, impulsive and inattentive than is considered normal for someone of their age. A generation ago it was barely heard of. Today ADHD is one of the most common chronic psychiatric disorders and has been diagnosed in 3 to 5% of all kids worldwide. In the USA alone several million children receive prescription medication to counter the symptoms.

Medical researchers believe that ADHD is linked to abnormally low levels of certain chemicals, especially one called dopamine, which control the transmissions of impulses from one nerve to another in the regions of the brain responsible for things like attention, learning and concentration. The causes are thought to be mostly genetic, although environmental factors such as exposure to alcohol and tobacco smoke during pregnancy may also have an impact. Others have suggested that certain food additives, including artificial preservatives and colourants, as well as unrefined sugars may cause ADHD or at least increase the symptoms.

After letting my ADHD worries simmer for several months, I recently took a thorough look at the diagnosis and symptoms of ADHD and was relieved to come to the conclusion that Ben doesn’t, in fact, have ADHD. I think he’s just a thoughtful, if somewhat preoccupied little boy with a few slightly annoying habits.

And that’s where some of the controversy around ADHD comes in. A number of the symptoms appear to describe perfectly reasonable human behaviour. Take this one, for example: someone with ADHD may “become bored with a task after only a few minutes unless they are doing something enjoyable.”

Critics, including some medical professionals, have voiced concern about the increasing rate of ADHD diagnosis in children. Some claim that ADHD isn’t actually a disorder at all and that the so-called symptoms simply represent the extremes of the full range of human behaviour.

To me this begs the question: to what extent are kids diagnosed with ADHD simply because they don’t quite fit into our standardised routines, our accepted ways of doing things and our one-size-fits-all schools? Are they merely being victimised for being different?

One major reason for my worries about ADHD is encapsulated in a single word: Ritalin. It conjures up rather disconcerting scenes from Village of the Damned: throngs of emotionally dead and crazy-eyed children everywhere. Of course ADHD isn’t only treated with medication - a number of alternative interventions exist - and Ritalin isn’t the only drug used, but it’s certainly the one that has received the lion’s share of critical attention.

My paranoia wasn’t dampened by listening to an interview with American writer and journalist Elizabeth Wurtzel recently. She was prescribed Ritalin as part of her treatment for severe depression. An ardent experimenter with social drugs, Wurtzel soon discovered that when crushed, the pills could be snorted like cocaine and had virtually indistinguishable effects. She ended up addicted to the drug, snorting 40 pills a day. Her point with regards to Ritalin use for ADHD: “You’re giving this to a 6-year-old. Now obviously they’re not snorting it, but would you give a pill of cocaine to a 6-year-old?”

I’m not qualified to pass final judgement on either ADHD or Ritalin and the last thing I’d want to do is belittle the lot of anyone who has been diagnosed with the disorder, but as parents, I think it’s our responsibility to find as much information about ADHD as possible, to talk about it with other parents and to consider all possible treatment avenues.

More information about ADHD:

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