Is ADHD the New Black?

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Biology 202

2006 First Web Paper

On Serendip

Is ADHD the New Black?

Rachel Mabe



Three to five percent of all school-aged children are diagnosed with Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) ((1)). ADHD is categorized by inattention, impulsivity, and excessive motor activity. Our school systems are set up for a specific type of learner. However, there are many different ways in which a person can learn. Psychologist Riccio states that, "You may see very different things in terms of what is the expected level of activity for a child if the culture acknowledges that children don't often sit still - compared to a culture that values a more reserved disposition." ((2)). Perhaps our Western school system does not allow for children with less than "perfect" attention spans to learn effectively. American classrooms are designed to focus children's attention on isolated bits of information to use memory strategies. This focus differs in non-western learning styles.

"In no study were the [ADHD] brains considered clinically abnormal, nor is it possible to work out whether any differences seen are caused by (rather than being the causes of) different styles of thinking..." ((3)).. This means that it is perhaps the ways we are forced to learn and think that can cause a lack of attention. Therefore, changing the ways we learn could help reduce the increase in ADHD diagnosis.

Researchers have found that while ADHD has a direct impact on intelligence, it may not be that there is something "wrong" with the child, but perhaps that the types of tests assessing intelligence is what prevents children with the disorder from doing as well as children without it. ((4)). Standerized testing such as state wide tests, the SATs, and IQ tests, are geared to a "general" and yet narrow group (hence the term standerized). Individuals with ADHD may not be as efficient in taking these types of tests because their brains do work differently. Perhaps all this means is that individuals with ADHD need to be taught differently, and therefore tested differently, than "normal" children.

For example, in a recent study, children aged 4-5 were told to either play with, or memorize objects. The children who played with the items later recollected them better than those who did not (involving putting them into a number of practical situations and narrating them) ((5)). This illustrates, at a very young age, the different methods of learning and how each individual reacts differently to them. I remember doing a project in middle school that was supposed to help us figure out which ways of learning were most beneficial to each student. I suppose that this was then supposed to help us in our future studies, but what I was most struck by was that although there was so much variety, thirty (plus) students were stuck into one classroom to be taught in the same way. We were considered "normal" children; yet if we all had such different needs, how is one teacher possibly supposed to cater to all of them?

Another study tested both American and Guatemalan Mayan 9-year-old girls in remembering the placement of 40 common objects. The Guatemalan Mayan girls did slightly better. It was hypothesized that the reason for this was because American children are repeatedly taught to learn through memorization of small parts; in situations where they would be better off applying a different method, such as spatial relation memorization, they fall back on the less efficient method that they were taught. Therefore, the study concludes that it is not necessarily a "matter of a more competent information-processing system. It is also a product of task demands and cultural circumstances" ((5)). If this is known, then why is the focus not being redirected to figuring out differences in the way that people learn rather than "fixing" people through medication?

If ADHD can not be defined explicetly, cannot be found in the brain, ((7)). and if the medicine we are giving children teach ADHD behavior to them, then if they weren't ADHD before they went on the medication then won't they be afterwards? It is reminicent of like anti-depressants in our society. Yes, they may be beneficial but, anti-depressants do not "cure" a depressed person (do not take away all of the symptoms and doesn't teach that person how to deal with things in a more positive way) therefoere it is said that a person should employ combine medication with therapy sessions. However, this doesn't seem to happen on a regular basis, frequently the psychiatric appointment last just long enough for the doctor to write a new prescription every time a refill is needed. In the same way, how often are people actually trying to teach individuals with ADHD different ways of handling the symptoms of their "disorder" in conjunction with medication? It seems that most often the medication is viewed as the cure, however short the duration of its positive effects. Because ADHD medication shows no positive impact in the long-term and possibly damages the brain (shown in animals to have brain disabling effects ((3)), it seems that it would be more beneficial to look at the "disorder" in a different light.

Thom Hartmann explains ADHD in terms of "farmers" (people without ADHD) and "hunters" (people with ADHD). The "hunters" do better at hunting; they can process all the different stimulus coming in at one time, therefore able to stay alert. The "farmers" are better at farming (and therefore factory jobs, etc, after the industrial revolution) because they are able to remain focused on one thing, for an extended period of time, no matter how monotonous. He further explicates that "farmers" in present society have taken over everything and, therefore, the "hunters" have to adapt and learn a few "farmer" skills to get by ((6)). This goes further than a simple metaphor, and if taken very literally, could be the reason why people with ADHD cannot focus the way society demands.

Our society is way ahead of our bodies in terms of evolution. Our bodies were not meant to live the way we do: drive in cars, walk on sidewalks, etc. Hartmann's metaphor elucidates the idea that people with ADHD do not have something "wrong" with them, (and are a defect of society that Darwinism will eventually rid the world of) but that their brains are specialized to be able to take in much more stimulus than an average person at one time. If Hartmann's theory is right, that would mean that more stimuli are getting through to the I-functionócouldn't this be positive? Just because there are a smaller percentage of people with ADHD, does not mean that they are disabled. If our society was more open to different types of people, if our school system was reworked, if we dealt with our children's' rambunctiousness rather than sticking them in front of the TV (to receive constant, ever-changing, stimuli) we wouldn't need to prescribe medication to "fix" them. In a society where it is a sin to not be able to sit still, of course we are going to diagnose someone as disabled, if he is not able to adhere to this societal demand ((6)).

The lack of evidence for physical defect and unclear medical testing for ADHD leads to great inconsistency in the diagnosis ratesóone study found a variation of .5 to 26 percent ((3)). Therefore, the inability to have a reliable diagnosis, combined with the intolerance of less than perfect students, allow teachers in main-stream classrooms to get "abnormal" students (who are more difficult, cause disturbances, and need more specialized attention) out of the way. For the average student, the school system works; whether or not the teaching method adheres to the way they learn becomes insignificant, since they can adapt. But just because all students cannot adapt as easily does not mean that they have a defect.

The idea that an inability to concentrate is a psychological disorder, allows us to disconnect the problem from the person and blame it on a deficiency in their brain. This highlights the problem of believing that the brain equals behavior. It simplifies the problem, allowing us to clump groups of people together, even when it is obvious that there is no clear definition or boundary of ADHD. If this disorder can be fixed by chemicals, can't everything be chalked up to a malfunction in our brain, until our brains just become machines that are fueled by drugs to make us all the same super-human people? ADHD was voted into existence in the 1980's, what's next?

1) American Psychiatric Association, (1994). Diagnostic and statistaical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC.
2) Cultural And Gender Biases May Influence Diagnosing Of ADHD In Kids , an interesting article on ADHD.
3)British Journal of Psychiatry, a journal article on culture and ADHD
4)Intelligence and ADHD, question on how intelligence effects ADHD.
5) Berk, Laura. Child Development. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2003.
6)The Gift of ADHD, Positive aspects about ADHD.
7)Psych Minded, an article about the increase in ADHD diagnosis.


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