ADHD… real disorder or figment of the imagination?

One of the interesting things about the ADHD issue is how polarizing it is.


On the one hand are those who think that all children should conform to an arbitrary standard of behavior that is largely determined by a school system designed in the 19th century to produce factory workers. Good children sit still, pay attention and do what they are told. Children who struggle within this system are deemed to be defective and the remedy is medication.

On the other hand are those who think that any standard of behavior is confining to a child’s “spirit”. Qualities like impulsiveness and hyperactivity are seen as assets rather than problems and if only adults, particularly their parents, would be more accepting and compassionate the children with do just fine.

Clearly there is a major disconnect here. One group thinks that a large percentage of all children have a disorder and the other thinks that it’s a figment of the imagination. I propose that they are both wrong.

[callout title=All ability]…including the ability to focus your attention, is the direct result of brain development and organization.[/callout]

For the past 37 years I have spent my life working with the development of the human brain. I have done so with children and young adults who span the range of functional ability from no ability on one end of the spectrum (coma) to above average ability on the other end. It is through the lens of brain development that I look at all human ability, including the ability to focus attention.

The human brain is really a most extraordinary thing. It controls everything you do like walking, talking, thinking and imagining; as well as those things you are generally unaware of doing like breathing and controlling your heart rate and blood pressure. All ability, including the ability to focus your attention, is the direct result of brain development and organization.

How well the brain does any of those things is determined by how well developed and organized it is and how well it is functioning at any given time. A high level of brain development and organization results in a high level of ability. A low level of brain development and organization results in a low level of ability.

Children come to us with many, many different diagnoses – brain-injury, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism, Down syndrome, ADHD, etc. At first glance they seem like distinctly different problems. Most people, particularly most professionals, view them as totally different from one another. This is because most people think of these conditions in terms of their symptoms.

When we look at symptoms, the child diagnosed with cerebral palsy is different from the child diagnosed with autism. The problem with this is that when we focus on symptoms we lose sight of the cause of those symptoms, which always lies in problems in brain development and organization. If instead we were to focus on the cause (the brain) we would realize that these very different children have much in common with each other. Indeed, they have much in common with me too!

And guess what? They, and I, also have much in common with the child who has difficulty focusing attention. The common thread is brain development and organization. All children sit somewhere on a continuum of human development.

At one end of the continuum is the child with virtually no organization, the child in a coma. This child has no functional ability and no options. At the other end is the child with a high level of organization. This child has exceptional intellectual, physical and social ability and an infinite number of options.

You and I are on that continuum too! The important point relative to the ADHD question is that the ability to focus attention on a specific task is an ability that is developed. And the good news is that one can move up the spectrum of human development towards higher levels of ability. Which brings me back to the question of whether the ADHD epidemic is for real or a figment of the imagination.

There really are children who struggle with attention problems. Sometimes the cause of the problem lies in family dynamics and not in the child. Sometimes the problem lies in brain organization. Babies are not born with this ability. It develops in the same way as the ability to see, hear, understand, speak and walk. Which is the say, it develops in an orderly progression as a result of the development of the brain.

Parents, more than anyone else, have the biggest impact on a child’s developing brain. Whether the issue in a particular child is family dynamics or brain development, parents hold the key to the solution.




10 Responses to ADHD… real disorder or figment of the imagination?

  1. In many years of research and knowing their was something different with the childs mind can be noticed as early as fifteen months. I worked with two young males in day care before and noticed that the other childern were happy playing with item for a matter of time, but with two young childern with ADHD they seemed to get bored earlier and needed more stimulation with toys or wanted to changed to another area in shorter time. This went on while child caring this childern. Not disagreeing with the fact that it is genetics. As time went by found out one parent had bibplor disorder and the other parent had ADHD also but she stated during that parents time these diagnosis did not exist. Other parent stated that school system knew that their were other issues but did not have the funding or parents did not have monetary resources to find out what was wrong with her as child too. Things in the 70’s and 80’s had just started research on the mind and could not describe the disorder yet. Now here we are today with people and research and skeptism to make diagnosis who are learning more and more everyday of the mind and genetics. Knowing more over time we come to more a conclusion and better reports of the brain and disorders. Financial issues in the world and medicine and therapy will always colide until we get the funding to help people in the world with their diagnosis.

    • Julie – thanks for your thoughts. A few things come to mind. First, if we know what to look for we can tell if something is amiss in brain function at birth. No need to wait until 15 months. Regarding the children you mention, there is nothing in what you say that shows that these boys had a genetic problem. The fact that one parent was diagnosed with bopolar disorder and the other with ADHD means nothing. There are a hundred reasons why these boys may have had attention issues that have nothing to due with their genetic endowment.

  2. True, the ability to focus attention on a task depends on brain development and organization and this ability is spread over a wide spectrum of human development. Also the reality is that handling attention deficiency does pose challenges to parents as well as teachers.Both need to be equipped to practice patience, understanding, sensitivity and also come up with multiple ways of engaging children in various tasks. This is not an easy job. Parents need support of extended family and support groups. At school the school management must subscribe to a policy and programme which is inclusive and provides for children with diverse needs. Teachers need to be given opportunities to build skills, provided support and guidance from councellors.

    • Nalini – I appreciate your comment. There is no question, sometimes children with attention and behavioral issues can be very challenging. This is all the more reason why professionals need to truly search out the causes of those issues and work as a team with parents to give the children the help they need.

  3. Adults are known to respond really well to antidepressants and other stimulants. Psychotherapy is a known treatment for adults with ADHD. The normal over the counter drugs for ADHD are also used. There is an excellent Homeopathic remedy for ADHD that works very effectively without any side effects.

    • Aditya – adults are also known to respond very poorly to antidepressants and stimulants. I watched them turn my mother into a non-functional zombie. Even when these drugs have the desired effect, relieving depression or improving ability to focus, we must always ask the question… at what price? Often the price in terms of wide ranging side effects is very high. For that reason I am always happy to consider the inclusion of homeopathic remedies as part of the overall approach to helping a child. My bottom line is that I reject the ADHD diagnosis as used by the psychiatric establishment while acknowledging that there are children and adults who struggle with attention issues. There are many, many factors involved in the development of a mature ability to focus attention and control behavior under all circumstances. For this reason there are many potential causes when there are problems. And that means that the solution is sometimes simple and sometimes complex. But in the end it must always involve measures that improve brain organization, development and function.

  4. ADHD is not just a matter of attention. It is a way more complex series of features that differs from person to person and in degree of severity. Many children and adults are greatly troubled by their inability to do certain things no matter how hard they try. As a person with ADHD I don’t think it has anything to do with conformity. Since our brains are plastic we can, of course, learn new things all the time and make changes. However, that doesn’t mean there is a “cure.”

    • Sydney – thanks for the thoughts. You make a few important points. The truth is that ALL human ability, as I have said, lies on a continuum that ranges from no function to ideal function. The beauty of the human brain is that our place on that continuum is not fixed. Brain plasticity holds the promise of increasing brain organization and improving brain function and as a result each of us has the potential to move towards the ideal end of the continuum. As for the “cure”, since I don’t believe in the diagnosis, I see no reason for a cure!

  5. Yay! Finally found someone who believes this! You mind if I cite your article for research paper? If yes, may I know your last name please? I couldn’t find it anywhere…

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