Consider the Drug-Free Solution: Today's ADD/ADHD Outlook
Contributed by Lewis H. Turwood
I was conversing with a dear friend a while back, and she shared with me her opinion that no matter what the situation or circumstance in life, it is possible to see either a dark cloud of discouragement in it or to view the situation through a bright lens of opportunity, opportunity that might truly enhance our levels of wisdom, patience, courage and a plethora of other enhancements that contribute to achieving full personhood.
I was intrigued by this possibility and am in this article going to make an attempt at applying her insight, her philosophy, as that might relate to one of the most negatively perceived phenomenon in today's American schools and workplaces, the ADD/ADHD diagnosis.
During the past half-century, such diagnoses have reached epidemic levels in the United States.
The international community views the United States with some degree of amazement as tens of thousands of its children and workers each year are diagnosed with these attention and/or hyperactivity disorders.
For example, we administer Ritalin to as many as 10% of the students attending American public schools in order to ameliorate their very real symptoms, e.g. lack of ability to focus on task for any significant period of time; difficulty maintaining muscular homeostasis; and disruptive behaviors.
Professional educators are aware that ADD and ADHD are not scientifically verifiable physiological or mental disorders. These conditions do not lend themselves to diagnoses of disease in the ordinary sense of that term.
Rather, in our society we use charts to identify "symptoms" the accumulation of which lead us to conclude that the individual is suffering from a malady, either physical or psychological.
Teaching personnel also realize that in a classroom of thirty students, if just three children display these charted symptoms, conducting classroom activities may become difficult; for an instructor teacher; presenting lecture material impossible.
In addition, experienced instructors are aware that, once a substance like Ritalin is prescribed for a student, that individual will nearly universally demonstrate a marked improvement in his ability to cooperate with classroom routine, as well as absorb material that before was beyond his reach.
There have been hundreds of studies done regarding ADD/ADHD.
At one time, the condition was considered simply a complication of adolescence; that people would leave the disorder behind as they entered early adulthood. For many, this is no longer the case, and we must ask ourselves why.
Dr. Mary Ann Block in her book No More Ritalin investigates a variety of possible causes for ADD/ADHD, including food allergies, abuse, and other situations not related directly to objective physical dysfunction.
Dr. Block's principal aim is to educate the public regarding the masking effects of substances like Ritalin. She contends that if we simply take the time to understand what is going on in each person's environment, thus enabling us to secure a broad view of behavioral causes, we would be doing that individual a remarkable service; a service neglected badly when we attempt expeditious diagnoses and quick fixes.
Elsewhere, in a work entitled Ritalin Nation, Dr. Richard DeGrandpre has taken a different tact with regard to the diagnosis and treatment of ADD/ADHD.
Contrary to past approaches, Dr. DeGrandpre postulates that the science involved points to a conclusion that ADD/ADHD symptoms are perfectly in keeping with the psychological adaptations that we would expect to see with increased long term sensory inputs.
That is, as sensory inputs in the lives of millions of children and adults become more frequent in number, and increase in intensity, their neural networks are designed to adapt to the heightened influx. As a result of this adaptation, the world, as the person involved perceives it, is brought back within his physical and psychological comfort zones. That is, heightened sensory input becomes environmental norm.
Stated differently, if a person is used to 10,000 sensory inputs per minute, and the inputs are raised suddenly to 20,000, the individual will attempt to adapt in order to once again achieve internal equilibrium.
For example, Dr. DeGrandpre speaks of his habit of turning his automobile radio off when driving through urban traffic. Sensory inputs tend to intensify in the city, as compared to driving in a rural setting. Once Dr. DeGrandpre has passed through the urban "chaos," he then resumes listening to radio programming. In other words, Dr. DeGrandpre automatically seeks his own comfort zone, his internal equilibrium, while driving the automobile.
Extrapolating from this simple illustration, if an individual is exposed to a household whose average sensory stimulus levels are in the high range, e.g. simultaneous personal interactions, TV, radio, video games, etc., he will adjust to that level of stimulus as his norm.
Following this scenario to its logical conclusion, that same individual is placed in a radically different, especially a lower intensity stimulus situation, specifically, for the sake of our discussion, a classroom or office cubicle, he will attempt to compensate for the slower sensory environment in order to bring the average input levels in line with his dominant life setting.
Dr. DeGrandpre's hypothesis, therefore, is that most persons who display ADD/ADHD symptoms in a classroom or office may be merely attempting to adjust their environment to the level of sensory inputs to which they have previously adapted. The restless behaviors exhibited would then become, and be interpreted as perfectly normal, having nothing to do with either physical or psychological dysfunction.
Dr. DeGrandpre asks us to notice that children who have been diagnosed as suffering from ADD/ADHD do not display ADD/ADHD symptoms when viewing the latest action films. In addition, the average adult said to be an ADD/ADHD victim will be magically "cured" of the condition if allowed to wear headphones receiving heavily sensory laden programming.
Viewed more fully from my friend's perspective then, ADD/ADHD symptoms result from our species' marvelous ability to adapt to environmental challenges. As television programming and motion pictures become ever more saturated with rapid-fire delivery in order to capture audiences; we adapt to these.
Last year's excitement becomes this year's boredom. The marketplace responds naturally by producing products with even more sensory output which, for a while, satisfies our need, until, you guessed it, the process starts all over again.
Our wonderful adjustment capabilities would in light of this approach to ADD/ADHD symptoms be interpreted as having survival value, except that in a forced study or work situation, such normal adaptations may become incongruous with societal expectations.
This means that a child or adult, having adapted to the high sensory input levels dominant in his life setting, may be unable to sit quietly in a classroom or cubicle. He may have an urgent need, albeit an unconscious one, to turn up the sound, turn up the action, turn up the colors. He may wander around the classroom or workplace. He may find ways to create sensorial enhancements in opposition to the desires of teachers or company managers; anything to restore his internal comfort levels.
The educational and medical communities have discovered at least three courses of remedial action that can be taken in cases where ADD/ADHD symptoms are being inappropriately displayed:
First, internal sensory inputs can be heightened with the use of drugs such as Ritalin which functions to speed up the internal physiological clock.
Second, students or employees can be allowed to increase sensory input levels through hands on assignments or electronic devices.
Finally, the internal clock of the persons involved can be slowed using such methods as meditation. (I am not necessarily referring to techniques associated with metaphysics here, although many meditation techniques and prayer methodologies associated with both Eastern and Western religious traditions have proven to be effective in allowing persons using them to attain rather unshakeable internal homeostasis.)
If Dr. DeGrandpre's insights are valid, as I suspect they are, children and adults that we now view as being victims of ADD/ADHD have actually adapted to the dominant sensory traffic of their milieu as a survival mechanism.
Urban children, who are generally bombarded with many multiples of the sensory stimuli that rural children are exposed to, would be expected, using Dr. DeGrandpre's thesis, to have the greatest challenge in terms of coping with the average pace of an American classroom. And, that is exactly what we do see.
And, of course, a reverse sense of confusion or disorientation seems to accrue, as expected, to a person whose average sensory input levels are relatively modest, when he is attempting to cope with, say, the traffic in a Boston or San Francisco.
Thus, we have come full circle.
With ADD/ADHD symptoms, we are seeing an attempt by our biology to adjust to its average environment as a survival mechanism.
ADD/ADHD symptoms may be signals that we need to re-evaluate where we are in terms of our society, our classrooms, and our work places, and our personhoods.
My friend would ask us to look for the opportunity to interpret ADD/ADHD behaviors in a much more positive light.