Is ADHD an excuse?

Just the title of this post will raise people’s ire, I’m sure. I heard it over and over again as a teacher, I heard it as a parent, and I’m reading about it in newspapers and magazines.

Yesterday’s New York Times posted an article that began, “Nearly one in five high school age boys in the United States and 11 percent of school-age children over all have received a medical diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to new data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

One in five. One in five???

Full disclosure: My son was diagnosed with ADD years ago (he is now a college student). He exhibits all the signs that my husband – an adult who has been diagnosed ADD – exhibits. It’s blatantly obvious with my husband, not so much with my son, but the signs are there, and I don’t dispute them. There is no doubt that both focus better, are more organized, and more on-task when they take prescribed medication,but my husband never takes his and my son only takes his when he has a huge study session or test ahead of him. My husband chooses to deal with the extra struggle without any help. My son accepts help from medication sparingly. Both probably do so because they don’t like the stigma of having to take medication to concentrate.

But according to the NY Times, there should be no stigma, since so many kids (boys) are diagnosed. What do you make of this? Is this a real, legitimate problem treatable with meds, or have we lost patience with children and become unwilling to deal with those who don’t fit into the traditional mold?


11 thoughts on “Is ADHD an excuse?

  1. I believe ADD/ADHD exists because performance on tasks changes quantitatively in double blind placebo tests, not just observation. But I also think it is over-diagnosed, like many personality and mild learning disorders. As in your “Do teenagers..Apathy label?” post, perhaps a more engaging environment would move much of the pathology to personality and interest? If a school environment is sick, then a healthy child may not be able to adapt. –a Psychology teacher who has been diagnosed with ADD and self-medicates with Starbucks.


  2. Oy. ‘What is ADD/ADHD anyway?’, I often ask myself, and bear in mind I am a psychotherapist. For that matter, what is a real ‘diagnosis’? I think the treatment of what are purported to be ‘mental health issues’ in the U.S. often involve medication, sometimes multiple medications or ‘polypharmacy.’ And sometimes this turn to medication obviates other possible more holistic interventions, like diet, exercise or perhaps a little less XBox on school nights. Having treated plenty of people, I can anecdotally report that these meds are a godsend to some, a nightmare for others, [sometimes that’s the same medication], but I’d like to see a little less focus on meds and labels, and a little more on individualized, holistic treatment that recognizes the needs of the kid in his/her environment.


  3. I don’t think it is an ‘excuse’ outright, but many use as it an excuse to be lazy. We all get thrown a few curveballs in life, and how we deal with them determines our character. We can cope (your husband) and overcome, get by with a little help from our friends (your son), or do nothing but make excuses and become reliant upon family and government to get us through life.


  4. I think that the answer to your last question is “yes” –it is a real, legitimate problem AND we have lost patience.

    I agree with BethAnn (no surprise) that we focus on labeling and medicating, rather than recognizing differences in learning and attentiveness. As a parent of school-age children, I wonder if we are less tolerant of kids who have shorter attention spans or who need to move more during the day or who learn in a more experiential way. It seems that there is an increasing emphasis on standardized testing, and I worry about the connection between that and how we see attentiveness. Do we think that our children are learning better because their medication makes them better able to perform on a test? Once we label a child with ADHD, what is the baggage that that child now carries? Does that label change expectations for teachers, parents, and even the child? Does it become a self-fulfilling “diagnosis”?

    As a physician, I see the desire for a pharmacologic answer in many situations—obesity, anxiety, substance abuse. Lifestyle and behavioral changes are time-consuming. Psychotherapy takes time and can be expensive. Doctors are pressured for time and have little training in how to achieve some of these changes or coach patients through them. Direct marketing to consumers adds to that pressure.

    I know that there are children and families who have benefited from pharmacologic therapy for ADHD, and I don’t dispute that. However, the changes in criteria for diagnosing ADHD will likely increase the number of young people being diagnosed—and medicated. As a doctor and a parent, that has me concerned. I think that we need to look at issues of education and attention from a broader perspective.


    • ” Does that label change expectations for teachers, parents, and even the child? ”

      Yes! Babad (1982) did a study on this in which teachers were provided information about students and then were videotaped teaching said students. When observers watched the tape – with the sound muted, so they were unable to even hear the teachers’ voices – they were able to identify the teachers’ feelings about the students from body language alone! So yes, our pre-conceived notions about other people absolutely affects our treatment of them. Now, some people do better with this than others, but for many, it’s a subconscious reaction. On the other hand, knowing ahead of time that a child has been diagnosed with ADHD can really help to tailor instruction or other methods to meet a child’s needs. So, to be trite, it can be a double-edged sword.


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