Distractibility and all that

Ah, holidays! I’ve been looking forward to this two-week break for a while now but now that it’s actually here I’m struggling to get anything constructive done. I have a talk to prepare on “Managing ADHD in the classroom” for when we get back and it’s taking away the fun of my free time (that is, the time that’s not taken up with child-minding). What’s particularly un-fun about this talk is that it’s my first chance to address the whole staff in a detailed way, and it’s also scheduled for my birthday.

In order to prepare I’ve been reading up on the topic, surfing the net and watching YouTube videos. There is so much material out there on the subject that I would need several solid weeks in order to prepare properly. The main book on the subject seems to be Driven to Distraction by Ned Hallowell. Hallowell is a well-known child and adolescent psychiatrist in the U.S. and he suffers from ADHD and dyslexia himself. He starts off by describing the epiphany he had during his psychiatry training when he heard about ADHD and realised with one of those “Aha!” moments that it fitted him perfectly. I’m a little sceptical of those religious-conversion type experiences because I know from experience that they obscure as much as they reveal.

ADHD, in Hallowell’ book, becomes both a biological imperative and an identity. Emotions are secondary to biology, as are relationships. As I read further and further, I started feeling more and more uneasy. For millions of people (children and adults) apparently, they were being misunderstood and misdiagnosed and then along came the diagnosis of ADHD, and more importantly, the magic drug to treat it, methylphenidate, and their lives were turned around.

Anyway, I’ve found it helpful to read it with a critical eye. I’m not a great fan of the diagnosis. I can see how it can be very helpful, life-changing even, to parents and teachers who struggle to contain the distractibility, impulsivity and high activity which characterise children with this condition. But I’m also quite resistant to fashionable diagnoses. Ned Hallowell is careful to point out that ADHD is not a catch-all diagnosis and shouldn’t be over-diagnosed. But then he does exactly that. He sees ADHD everywhere — in narcissistic men, in couples, in alcoholics and people addicted to risky behaviour, in people with Borderline symptoms, in people suffering from depression and anxiety, and especially in children with behavioural problems. And a lot of this is actually pretty convincing. I started thinking that maybe ADHD is the answer after all.

But then I returned to my healthy scepticism and I’m also reassured in this position by the scepticism of people like Ken Robinson, the education consultant with those inspiring TED talks. Robinson points to a map of the east coast of the United States and shows how the prescription rate for Ritalin increases dramatically as you move eastwards towards Washington D.C. He calls ADHD a ‘fictitious epidemic” and likens it to the fad to take out children’s tonsils a few decades ago. He says that Ritalin anaesthetises children and turns them into zombies. Our job as educators, he says, should be to wake kids up and get them to focus on their emotions. All very well, I hear the teachers say, but it’s not waking these kids up that’s the problem. It’s getting them to calm down and focus.

I’ve heard Robinson describe a case where the mother takes her daughter to the doctor complaining that the girl won’t sit still and that she doesn’t focus. The doctor leaves the daughter in the waiting room with the radio playing and then takes the mom into his consulting room and listens to her story. After a few minutes they take a look to see what the daughter is doing. Sure enough, she’s moving around the room to the music and the doctor says to the mom, “Your daughter doesn’t have ADHD, she’s a dancer.” It’s a good story, especially for those teachers in the Arts who have to struggle to see their subjects taken as seriously as Mathematics and Science. But it’s precisely the subjects such as Maths which are the problem for these kids. They can’t focus well without a lot of help, and the teachers and parents just don’t have the time to sit with them individually and guide them every step of the way.

I’m also interested to see that Hallowell says very little about the miracle drug itself. I’d be interested in reading more about Ritalin, but a balanced account. These debates get very polarised.

Enough about ADHD. I thought I’d post a pic of our little one taking delight in her lego. (Taken at Betty’s Bay a couple of months ago.)


She is a real joy, that is when she isn’t giving us near heart-attacks at 4.30 in the morning by setting off the apnea alarm by rolling to the corner of her cot. L and I were both pretty fast asleep when we heard the loud beeping noises of the alarm and L made it to Leah’s bedroom in about two seconds with me close behind. As soon as I heard that Baby F was breathing I slowed down. That adrenaline surge is horrible. I understand the need for it but it pretty much ruined our morning. Well, the first part of it anyway.

L’s car is being fixed so all three of us made the trip to the hospital where L works and then it was off to the granny for tea and porridge and a walk with the dog.

Me: “That’s the whole point of the walk, in order for her to fall asleep.”

Granny: “No, we go for a walk for some fresh air and to see the birds and flowers.”

Me: “Well, we go for a walk so that she can fall asleep. Which is why we need bunny.”

And then to Leah, “silly old granny. I don’t know why she has to be so difficult”.

Granny had to laugh at that. But of course we did it her way.


2 Responses to Distractibility and all that

  1. litlove says:

    Yes, it’s tricky about these new learning disabilities, isn’t it? My mother last weekend was feeling unsure about dyslexia and saying that effectively it just meant some people weren’t so good with language and that was the way the cookie crumbled. I guess there is a sliding scale in all these things, and what is simply a personal characteristic in some people can become a disorder in an exaggerated form in others. I see a lot of students who are borderline manic in one way or another, but then we live in a culture that encourages almost frantic activity on a daily basis. It is a difficult one to call – but it’s certainly not the answer to everything. I know how that goes with research though – you get hooked on the ideas of oh say Lacan, and suddenly everything you see is influenced by them. Often makes life very interesting for a while, but just as Freud said we shouldn’t be seduced by analogies, we probably shouldn’t be seduced by the pervasiveness of disorders, either.

    Your little girl is adorable! Ach that stage seems so long ago now. Anxiety inducing and exhausting but tremendously rewarding.

  2. doctordi says:

    Cuuuuuuuuuuuuute photo! And I can easily imagine the terror induced by the beeping monitor. We opted not to have the bed sensor thing – I knew in my own case it would mean constant anxiety because apparently they do just go off at random – I figured the heart attacks I could live without! Of course, NOT having one means regularly checking on him anyway… either way I hear you!

    So interesting re ADHD. It is over-diagnosed and over-prescribed here in Australia I’m sure. Good luck getting your presentation done so you can enjoy your break and your birthday!

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