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ADDicted

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Doctors are pressured by parents, who are pressured by teachers, who are pressured by administrators.

Based on what she has observed, Collins believes that the impetus to prescribe Ritalin is hierarchical in nature. Doctors are pressured by parents, who are pressured by teachers, who are pressured by administrators who have completely bought into the traditional structure of schooling. In Cedar Rapids, Collins says, this structure still involves kids sitting in seats listening to their teachers talk--something many kids just can't do.

"You have this pressure to have very compliant, well-ordered children," she says. "So when you have a classroom of 25 children, one or two children getting up and walking around can be extremely disturbing for a lot of teachers. They'll say to parents, 'Your child may fail if he doesn't concentrate on this given thing.' The assumption is that success means completing everything your teacher tells you to do."

Thomas Armstrong, one of the fiercest critics of the ADD diagnosis and author of the controversial book The Myth of the ADD Child, shares Collins' view. The problem, he believes, lies less with the children diagnosed than with the society and schools that have done such pre-emptive labeling. He scoffs at what he sardonically terms the "holy trinity" of ADD symptoms--inattentiveness, impulsiveness, hyperactivity--saying such traits are apparent in all normal children.

Armstrong's view that ADD is actually a myth emerged from his own experiences as a special education teacher.

Armstrong's view that ADD is actually a myth emerged from his own experiences as a special education teacher in Northern California. He describes how one supervisor told him that his classroom was too unruly and that he needed to study exemplary classrooms where strong behavioral-modification systems were in place. So, in an attempt to "shape up," Armstrong visited "superior" classrooms, gathering ideas. Under one scheme he adopted, students gained and lost points for specific positive or negative behaviors. But the plan failed miserably. Already frustrated, his kids grew more so when they had points taken away. He scrapped the behavior-modification strategy for a more collaborative model in which students had a say in formulating and enforcing classroom rules. Armstrong found this approach much more productive, though it did not, he admits, make his classroom any tidier.

As far as Armstrong is concerned, stories like this demonstrate that schools are fixated on controlling behavior that could in a more open, supportive environment actually be expressed in constructive ways. Youngsters diagnosed with ADD, he says, often have an abundance of creative energy. He points out that many accomplished individuals--Robert Frost, Albert Einstein, and Winston Churchill--struggled in school. Today, Armstrong laments, such brilliant people would probably be labeled ADD.

"What really hit me," Armstrong says, "is the deficit orientation of special education, the propensity to look at kids in terms of negatives, what they can't do. Look, for example, how kids labeled with ADD are described in terms of a wayward machine--crossed wires, an airplane with no one in the cockpit. But there is no ADD brain, no ADD deficiency. In fact, there are a lot of positive traits associated with ADD-labeled people."

Armstrong cites longitudinal studies suggesting that many such people eventually become self-employed, which he sees as a highly adaptive trait in an era when corporations dismiss hundreds of employees in a single stroke. Although this sounds like a bit of a stretch-- self-employment, after all, can be a euphemism for out of work--Armstrong isn't the only one to put a positive spin on symptoms associated with ADD.

Bonnie Cramond, an educational psychologist at the University of Georgia, was studying creativity when she happened across an article about students diagnosed with ADD. It struck her that these students demonstrated characteristics closely associated with creativity; in fact, it sometimes seemed to her that ADD and creativity were the very same things.

For Cramond, as well as for Armstrong and Collins, how behavior is interpreted--"dreamy" vs. "imaginative," say--has everything to do with the orientation of the interpreter. Unfortunately, Cramond asserts, many teachers are trained and conditioned to look for disabilities rather than abilities, for problems instead of possibilities. For example, many creative children are solitary, preferring to play alone. Yet teachers trained to look for ADD--"once you know what this disorder is all about, you see it everywhere"--are likely to label a loner who has difficulty making friends as an ADD suspect.

Inattention may in fact be imaginative preoccupation. Hyperactivity may be overflowing energy.

In a recent paper titled "The Coincidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Creativity," Cramond equates specific ADD symptoms with creative traits. Inattention, she writes, may in fact be imaginative preoccupation. Hyperactivity may be overflowing energy. "The various behaviors that may induce a diagnosis of ADHD," Cramond concludes, "have also been shown to have correlates in the literature on creative behavior."

Creative work, however, demands sustained concentration, something ADD-diagnosed children tend to find impossible. But Cramond insists that many ADD youngsters can focus extremely well when they're interested in a project. "These kids are understimulated, not overstimulated," Cramond says. "Yet schools want to break information into small units, make it all routine, which is the very worst thing you can do."

Cramond lives in Atlanta, where, she says, a high percentage of children are on Ritalin. Yet very few children at her local Montessori school, she notes, take the drug. She attributes this to a classroom environment that, while highly structured, permits children to choose from a wide variety of activities that are bound to engage their interests.

But if what Cramond and others say is true, if ADD symptoms aren't really that bad and may in fact be a sign of creativity, then why do we continue to treat children who display such symptoms with Ritalin? "It's this deep-rooted thing in the American consciousness about the need for more rigorous this and that," Armstrong says. "This drives the [ADD] movement more than anything else. I do workshops around the country and see all kinds of sociological spinoffs. I actually see parents pushing to get their kids labeled ADD so they can stay competitive. They want their kids to take Ritalin to be allowed more time to take a test. Ritalin has become a kind of cognitive steroid. 'We're going to pump up your mind.'"

Critics can carp all they want about the myth of the ADD child and the drugging of children, but Cindy Shipley is unmoved. It's not that she hasn't considered their views or that she doesn't agree with them on some issues. She believes that ADD may well be "the disease of the '90s," spreading everywhere. And she worries, along with Thomas Armstrong, that ADD may be induced in part by our entertainment-crazed culture. "It's the whole Sesame Street mentality telling us that our kids have to be constantly entertained with this ever-changing format," Cindy says. "We parents feel we constantly have to entertain our kids, and as a result they've lost the ability to entertain themselves. When I was a kid, I'd be content to lie under a tree and read a book for two or three hours at a time. Now, Brent will visit my mom and call me each day, saying, 'I'm bored.' He just doesn't know how to entertain himself."


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