We all have gotten so much wrong.
The doctors and hospitals. The teachers and parents. All of us.
When it comes to diagnosing ADHD and working with these kids in a way that positions them to succeed, we have clearly been out to sea in many ways, for many years now.
I see it firsthand in my work as a pediatrician and ADHD specialist. In a sense, much of the damage has already been baked into the cake. Even if we do, as I urge, take urgent action to flip our entire system of treating and working with those living with ADHD, I fear that we will have the consequences of the past with us for some time.
I have seen in my career how the word “hyper” has become synonymous with the condition of ADHD itself. I find it fascinating and quite instructive that the term “hyper” grew and grew in diagnosis during the Industrial Revolution period. What was happening during this time? For one thing, boys were being sent to factories to work on repetitive assembly lines, a far cry and a distinct culture shock from the rural lives on farms that so many previously knew. These factories were cramped, inefficient, and woefully out of date. In some ways, it sounds like I’m describing relics of a far too distant age, a less enlightened time before stronger labor productions and child welfare laws were put into effect. But in another sense, I can hear a faint echo of the classrooms today that prove so particularly challenging to endure for ADHD individuals.
This was the early start of a long shift toward more children finding themselves in environments that don’t align with their natural instincts for freedom, movement, and variety. There’s nothing wrong with our kids that they instinctively yearn to run free and breathe fresh air; what’s wrong is that at every turn, our instinct seems to be stifling that spirit.
In the 1960s, a term emerged to describe these individuals – Minimal Brain Dysfunction. This may have been the equivalent of some progress for shifting away from thinking of this condition as a brain dysfunction, but not nearly enough progress. At the very least, we began to think of ADHD less as a moral choice and more along the lines of genetic, personal wiring – the kind of condition that we are born with rather than choose for ourselves.
But Minimal Brain Dysfunction, as a term, was itself a bit of a farce; the medical community had no meaningful justification for it. The leading thinkers of the field, however, were at a loss to find another label or explanation that understood the “hyper” nature of increasing numbers of kids.
The medical science, however, eventually began shifting its understanding of hyperactivity; many began to believe that the issue stemmed not from physical abnormalities but from centers of the brain that proved weak in controlling impulses and attention.
It can be a bit disheartening to reflect back on the skewed path that misunderstandings of hyperactivity ultimately led the research and dialogue around ADHD – one that doesn’t do nearly enough to adopt a positive stance that can identify and promote the innate strengths of children with ADHD.
Today we see ADHD as a lifelong issue that can directly alter emotional centers within the brain, cause a great deal of personal and societal harm, and influence other mental health conditions.
The danger is that those real concerns have sent an unyielding message of negativity; in fact, ADHD children have been found to likely receive 20,000 more negative messages than their peers by the time they are 12. These include messages that solely emphasize financial and health concerns related to ADHD, without a countervailing emphasis on building confidence in their potential for success.
So let’s make a commitment – each of us, no matter what role we play (parents, teachers, or simply citizens). Let’s rededicate ourselves to seeing the gifts and potential in ADHD children, not only the challenges.
What has been your experience with the failures in the system for how we care for ADHD kids and prepare them for success? What do you think needs to change in this approach? I’d love to hear from you on our Facebook Page!