Let's establish one thing up front: I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. I mean, if ADHD existed as an actual disease, I would have it. I should say, I have all of the "symptoms" that the mainstream medical and educational establishment currently view as proof of a disorder called ADHD. However you want to phrase this, it's important for you to understand that I have "personal experience" here.
Personal experience shouldn't actually matter -- only the facts should -- but if I have to play that game, then this is my Personal Experience Token. I am submitting it at the beginning of this discussion, hoping that it will get me through the gate and allow me to engage with the people on the opposite side of it.
I am very familiar with the "symptoms." I've had them my whole life.
Even now, I daydream all the time. I can't sit still. I can't concentrate on mundane tasks. I get lost in my own head. I forget things. I can't stay on one train of thought for very long. At this very moment, I have four different word documents open on my computer and I am working on four different posts at the same time. Three of them will never be published or completed. Ask my wife, she'll tell you all about it. Ask my high school chemistry teacher who failed me once, made me repeat the class, then finally gave me an unearned passing grade the following year because he didn't want to deal with me again. Ask anyone who knows me. If ADHD is a disease, I have it. I have it in spades. I have the deluxe king sized version. I have ADHD Turbo. ADHD on steroids.
Except that I don't.
I have all of the "symptoms," but I don't have a disorder because there is no disorder. There might be people with legitimate disorders who get labeled with this one, but this one, this specific thing we refer to as ADHD, is a godforsaken lie. I don't care who is upset by that statement, who will stop reading me because I said it, or how many angry and disappointed Facebook comments are coming my way. ADHD is a fraud.
I'm not the only one who feels this way. Just over the past several months, we've heard from this behavioral neurologist who insists that ADHD does not exist, and this world renowned neuroscientist who agrees, and this professor and educational psychology expert who likewise concurs. That's just a small sampling of the "skeptics." If you find the time, you should also read this book, and this one, this one, and this one.
That's a pediatrician, a family psychologist, a child neurologist, and a psychological medical director all questioning the current mainstream attitudes and beliefs about ADHD. Many very credentialed people think ADHD is a scam, but their views are considered heresy by the Guardians of Acceptable Opinions, so they are silenced, squashed, and ignored.
That's what we do in America. We like to think we're better than any other country, that we embrace thought and free expression, but that's a delusion only held by people who've never said anything that defies conventional wisdom. Conventional thought is embraced. Conventional speech is celebrated. Any variation or deviation outside of that norm will be met with brutal resistance.
[sharequote align="center"]If ADHD is a disease, I have it. I have ADHD Turbo. Except that I don't. ADHD is a fraud.[/sharequote]
Come to think of it, that attitude is exactly why we have this faux-disorder in the first place.
Just look at how the National Institute of Mental Health describes ADHD symptoms:
Children who have symptoms of inattention may:
-Be easily distracted, miss details, forget things, and frequently switch from one activity to another
-Have difficulty focusing on one thing
-Become bored with a task after only a few minutes, unless they are doing something enjoyable
-Have difficulty focusing attention on organizing and completing a task or learning something new
-Have trouble completing or turning in homework assignments, often losing things (e.g., pencils, toys, assignments) needed to complete tasks or activities
-Seem not to listen when spoken to
-Daydream, become easily confused, and move slowly
-Have difficulty processing information as quickly and accurately as others
-Struggle to follow instructions.
Children who have symptoms of hyperactivity may:
-Fidget and squirm in their seats
-Dash around, touching or playing with anything and everything in sight
-Have trouble sitting still during dinner, school, and story time
-Be constantly in motion
-Have difficulty doing quiet tasks or activities.
Children who have symptoms of impulsivity may:
-Be very impatient
-Blurt out inappropriate comments, show their emotions without restraint, and act without regard for consequences
-Have difficulty waiting for things they want or waiting their turns in games
-Often interrupt conversations or others' activities.
I think most of us can look at that list and viscerally recognize it as a load of unholy bull crap. There are many reasons to view ADHD as a fraud, but let's start with the fact that at the very beginning, before you take one step into the issue, it already makes no sense. Impulsive? Impatient? These are personality traits, not medical conditions.
Daydream? Talk a lot? Interrupt? These are behaviors, not symptoms of a disease. And not just any behaviors or any personality traits, but exceedingly normal ones for children. Probably the most normal ones you could possibly name.
Now you might say, well yes, they're normal, but some kids, like, talk A LOT, and daydream A LOT, and interrupt A LOT.
To that I'd respond: yeah, still pretty normal.
Have you met kids recently? If not, I'd like to introduce you sometime. I've never encountered one who doesn't act this way, and I've encountered plenty of kids. I have two of my own, plus I grew up with six siblings, I went to public school, my mom runs a daycare, and I have nine nieces and nephews under the age of 10. I'm around kids all the time. Come to Thanksgiving at the Walsh household this year -- it's madness. Daydreaming, fidgeting, running, interrupting all over the place. And that's just me. Wait until all the kids show up.
But maybe you have kids who do these things A LOT A LOT. Beyond the normal a lot, and into the realm of REALLY A LOT. Alright, fine. So where's the cut off?
We take these behaviors that we all agree are normal, we apply them to a subset of the species -- children -- who we all agree are predisposed to exhibit them more often, and we decide that somewhere along that spectrum it goes from "OK" to "symptomatic of a mental disorder."
What? How? Why? Where? When? I mean, how specifically can you determine when a behavior crosses over from normal to not normal, and then how can you determine if the non-normalness of it is a disease as opposed to just their unique personality?
What is the standard? What is the proper amount of attention? How do you even quantify attention? If their attention is "deficient," what is the exact Sufficient Attention Ideal of which they are falling short? And what is the correct amount of daydreaming a child should engage in? And how are we all not severely creeped out that we're even having a conversation about the proper amount of daydreaming? What is this, "The Giver"? And if a behavior can be normal, how can it also be on the spectrum of a disease? How can something be fundamentally healthy and fundamentally symptomatic of a mental defect?
Why is it that the standard rules for medical procedure seem to be suddenly suspended when ADHD is on the table?
Let's look at an Actual Sickness for comparison. Let's look at dementia. There's an honest-to-God mental disease. It's also a disease that can be physically observed in the human body. You can see it quite unmistakably in a brain scan. And there are clear symptoms, like hallucinations. Notice, there isn't a spectrum where acceptable hallucinations graduate into unacceptable hallucinations. Hallucinations are always bad, to any degree whatsoever. If you have them, something is wrong. Definitely. It might not be dementia, it might just be that you're lost in a desert and suffering from heat stroke and malnutrition, but there is certainly something wrong. That's because hallucinating, unlike daydreaming or talking or feeling bored, is objectively unnatural and abnormal. It is not a part of the healthy human experience, so if you experience it, go to the doctor.
ADHD cannot be observed and its symptoms all consist of regular human behaviors because there is no proof at all that it is a psychological disorder stemming from any kind of chemical imbalance. Don't take my word for it, take it from this letter written by doctors and signed by members of the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology and members of the American Psychological Association. And don't take their word for it, take it from your own logical mind. Remember, "becomes bored with a task unless it's enjoyable" is actually listed as the symptom of a disease in children. This is nonsense. This is beyond nonsense. This is lunacy. Isn't everyone bored by unenjoyable things? Especially children? Especially children in school, which is without a doubt extremely boring?
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I asked how we know when these behaviors, personality traits, and activities cross the mysterious divide from "normal" to "CALL A DOCTOR." I was being facetious. I know the answer. It's described right here in the Mayo Clinic's fact sheet about ADHD:
In general, a child shouldn't receive a diagnosis of ADHD unless the core symptoms of ADHD start early in life and create significant problems at home and at school on an ongoing basis.
Translation: it's a disease if it turns into a hassle.
ADHD is the only "disorder" (well, besides the other ones psychiatrists have fabricated over the years) where the diagnosis relies not on what is actually happening within the body of the patient, but in how it's received by the people around the patient. It is a disease based on context.
Here's a fun riddle: If a kid has ADHD in the forest but nobody is there to be inconvenienced by it, does he still have a disease? Nope. Not according to the medical establishment.
Better question: if someone talks and runs around a lot and exhibits non stop energy on the sales floor at a busy car dealership, does he have ADHD? Nope. He's just a good salesman. That's because his job requires those traits, but school doesn't. But who says we're "supposed" to be suited for public school and not to sell overpriced cars? Who makes these determinations? Who decides how a person is supposed to be? "Talkative" and "energetic" are listed as signs of ADHD, and in the job descriptions for pretty much any position in sales, promotions, or marketing. Weird, huh?
If you can type the "symptoms" of a disease into the search bar on Monster.com and find most of them listed as necessary traits for thousands of jobs, something is wrong. Or nothing is wrong, which is the point here.
ADHD is not a matter of psychology or neurology, but of institutions. Schools can't deal with kids who act this way, parents don't want to deal with them, daycares aren't equipped to deal with them, and society at large has no patience for any of it -- so, we call it a disease and start passing out the prescription strength speed.
Does any Actual Illness work this way? If you go to the doctor complaining about bronchitis, will he ask you if the bronchitis is "creating problems at work on an ongoing basis"? No, because that doesn't matter. Bronchitis is bronchitis is bronchitis. But ADHD is only ADHD in very specific circumstances. Public school, by the way, is a very specific (and temporary) circumstance. A child's inability to succeed in that environment might be troubling for his parents, but it is not itself proof or indication of a mental defect. Why don't we ever stop to consider that the defect lies in the institution that cannot function unless millions of its students are hopped up on drugs?
I'm often informed it's a "myth" that ADHD is so vague that anyone could waltz into the doctor's office and come away with a diagnosis. But declaring it a myth doesn't make it one. The reality is that anyone really can get ADHD if that's what they want (or what their parents want). That's why parents often get viciously defensive when you question the disorder. They want it to be true because it's a nice and clean "answer" with a nice and clean (and dangerous, with the potential for devastating long term side effects) chemical "solution."
Maybe I'm being unfair. It's not quite so simple, after all. The Center for Disease Control explains that children can only be diagnosed if they have "six or more symptoms of inattention for children up to age 16, or five or more for adolescents 17 and older and adults; symptoms of inattention [must be] present for at least 6 months, and [must be] inappropriate for developmental level."
But why six symptoms? Why not seven? Why not three? Why not 10? And why does it change at 16? Why not 14? Why not 12? And why do they have to be present for six months? Why not nine? And how do you determine what's appropriate for their developmental level? And, again, how in the world can you remotely rule out the possibility that these "symptoms" don't stem from either the child's natural personality, or a collection of the following:
- Video games
- Smart phones
- Lap tops
- Fast food
- Lack of physical exercise
- Boring curriculums
- Boring jobs
- Lack of discipline
- Broken homes
- Lack of sleep
- Poor diet
- Disinterest in academics
- A government school system that only suits a particular personality type and leaves everyone else at a disadvantage
- Over emphasis on memorization and regurgitation
- Differing skill sets
As a matter of fact, a study was just released linking energy drinks to ADHD in children. Shocking. Maybe next we'll be able to link Cinnabon to obesity and alcoholism to car accidents. Who knows where this rabbit hole will go?
And ineffective parenting can't be ruled out, can it? It's not that all ADHD kids have bad parents (my parents were and are great), but as L. Alan Sroufe, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, has explained, there are certainly a great number of children on Ritalin who really just need some semblance of discipline and stability at home.
How does all of that get factored in?
These kids don't have ADHD. Nobody does. Maybe some of the kids tagged with the ADHD label actually suffer from some other psychological ailment, but I suspect that the vast majority of them have no ailment whatsoever. They are just kids. They have personalities. They have identities. Maybe that identity doesn't fit in at school, maybe it causes stress at home, but who are we to declare it diseased? Who are we to hang a disorder around the neck of a child? Maybe we are the disordered ones. Maybe our society is disordered. Maybe our schools are disordered. Maybe our homes are disordered.
I told you about my "ADHD." Well, a funny thing happened. The precise disposition that made it very difficult for me to excel in chemistry class or while working as a cashier is now the precise disposition that makes it possible for me to excel in my current career. Writing, debating, creating new ideas, trying to earn a living in the ever changing world of new media -- I couldn't do any of that if I wasn't like this. What made me a failure in school makes me extremely successful in this realm. How do you explain that?
Maybe we're so obsessed with the notion that everyone must follow one path, act one way, think one way, and do one thing, that we've forgotten what it means to be human. We've forgotten that not all humans are born to be straight A students turned 9 to 5 desk jockeys. Some are different. Maybe some aren't suited for that life at all. Maybe some people are meant to be the artists, the radicals, the philosophers, the thinkers, the geniuses, the inventors, the revolutionaries, or the car salesmen.
I don't consider myself to be any of those things, but I am a normal guy who found his place in the world without the assistance of drugs.
I think all kids deserve that chance.
ADHD doesn't exist. Human beings do. And I think we need to work harder at trying to understand them.
Contact Matt at MattWalsh@TheMattWalshBlog.com. To book Matt for speaking engagements, email him at Contact@TheMattWalshBlog.com.
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