When parents hear me say that
attention deficit disorder is a myth, they sometimes become very
upset. They think I'm saying that their kids aren't jumpy,
distractible, forgetful, impulsive, or disorganized. That's not
what I'm saying at all. It's quite obvious to me that our nation's
children have probably never been so hyperactive. The question is,
what accounts for this? Is it a medical disorder called ADD (or
ADHD as it's sometimes called)? I think not. I think instead that
what we've learned to call ADD is instead a number of things all
jumbled up together under this simplistic label.
Kids can be hyperactive for any number of reasons: because
they're anxious or depressed, because they're allergic to milk,
because they're bored with school, because they have a different
kind of mind and aren't being challenged, because they're
over-stimulated from television and video games. I could go on.
The point is that the ADD label makes it too easy to ignore what
might be going on beneath the surface of things. "Oh, he has
ADD? Whew! Glad we know what the problem is now." But perhaps
we don't really know at all.
Although there is a great deal of support from the medical and
scientific community for ADD, once one looks into the literature,
things become less clear. Nobody can actually tell you, for
example, how many kids have ADD. Though the literature
traditionally says 3-5% of all children have ADD, I've seen
statistics in textbooks that have ranged from .019% (in England
where its far less common) to 10% and above. ADD is in the eyes of
Many of the "tests" that are used to diagnose ADD are
flawed. The behavior rating scales that ask parents to rate their
kids on a scale from I to 5, for instance, in terms of
hyperactivity, impulsivity and so forth, are very subjective and
parents and teachers often don't agree on what they see in the
same child. The continuous performance tests that are often used
to diagnose for ADD are a joke. One of them is a box that sits on
a table. The child is told that random numbers will appear in a
screen on the box. They are instructed to press the button below
the screen whenever a 9 is followed by a 1. What a stupid task!
Yet on the basis of this, children are being diagnosed and having
their medication levels adjusted.
As the textbooks themselves declare, "there is no blood
test (or other objective test) to tell when a child has ADD."
If this is so, then how do we really know for sure if he or she
has it? I've seen studies showing that the symptoms of ADD
disappear or lessen under several real life situations: when the
child is doing things that interest him, when he's engaged in
one-to-one interaction with someone he trusts, when he's being
paid to do something, and when he can control the outcomes of his
activities. If ADD can disappear under these conditions, then how
can ADD really exist as a medical disorder?
Many parents tell me that they don't medicate their ADD-labeled
children on weekends or holidays. Why? Because they're not in
school and they have more opportunities to behave in active ways.
If this is true, then it's clear to me that at least in those
instances, we're using Ritalin and other drugs to control children
in specific environments (i.e. restrictive classrooms). I realize
that Ritalin is very effective and for some kids it can make a big
difference in their lives. But it shouldn't be the first thing
that parents and physicians turn to at the sign of problems. On
Ritalin, research suggests that kids begin to attribute their
actions to the pill, not to their own internal effort. Studies
suggest that many child hate taking Ritalin, yet you don't see
this reported anywhere in the ADD literature. For kids who have
that wide-focus attention span (e.g. paying attention to lots of
different things rather than one single stimulus), Ritalin can
close them down to a fine point of attention, which is great for
doing a math page, but can hamper more divergent forms of thinking
associated with creativity.
Probably the thing that bothers me the most about this ADD
Phenomenon is its emphasis on negatives. We're talking here about
disease and disorder; we're talking about a psychiatric illness.
Do we really want to be handing these labels out so freely? In the
1950s, only a very few children were labeled as having these
problems by the American Psychiatric Association, and they were
grouped under the category: "organic brain syndromes."
This was a serious category, that included kids who'd had
accidents and illnesses (like encephalitis) that had dramatically
impaired areas of the brain important for attention and behavior.
However, over the past four decades, more and more children have
been drawn into the behavior and attention disorder web, kids who
back then might well have been regarded as "fireballs,"
or "daydreamers," or "bundles of energy," but
would have been seen basically as normal (or even better than
I'm very concerned that the literature on ADD has so much to
say about what these kids can't do, and virtually nothing about
what they can do. In my own informal research, I've seen countless
examples of kids labeled ADD who are musicians, dancers, athletes,
leaders, and creative in many other ways. Why don't we see these
kids as basically healthy and creative individuals who may not
function as well in certain kinds of environments (for example,
the worksheet wasteland of many classrooms), but do great when
given a chance to learn in their own way. Many kids labeled ADD in
fact do great when they're fixing an automobile, or doing
experiments in their nature lab, or performing in a theater piece.
Many kids with behavior difficulties grow up to become great
individuals. People like Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Sara
Bernhardt, Louis Armstrong, and Albert Einstein. Why don't we
start using models of growth to describe our highly energetic kids
and throw this ADD disease label in the trash basket where it