Over the course of three years, I was approached by three teachers who had all expressed similar concerns about my son’s behavior. They described his behavior using different language, and citing different examples, but looking back, I see that all of their concerns aligned with the criteria for ADHD. My initial reaction was one of fear. Was I a defective parent? Did I have a defective child? Did they want to drug my child and suppress his personality with stimulant medication? I had a lot of anxiety and no real answers. I did what many parents do; I blamed the teacher.
This was easy to do because I happened to be a teacher. I knew the common criteria upon which teachers were evaluated. I used these criteria to evaluate, judge, and dismiss each teacher who approached me with concerns. I felt exceptionally justified in doing this because I had given workshops on behavior management and I had observed many teachers whose behavior management skills were substandard.
I told myself that it was the cultural norm and not my son’s brain that was disordered. His behavior wasn’t really all that atypical; he was simply a victim of a culture which placed undo emphasis on sedentary functioning. In a different time or culture his behavior might have been viewed as spirited or boisterous. He was being punished for an evolutionary adaptation which had served his gender quite well throughout most of history. This is what happens when you take a hunter/gatherer and give him a desk job, I lamented. If only the educational environment was designed to meet his unique needs and provide an outlet to channel his creative energies.
This line of thinking consoled me for a time, but after three years the evidence began to pile up. Was it possible that all three of his teachers had been incompetent? I was an experienced teacher who had given workshops on behavior management and I wasn’t faring much better at home.
My personal experience working with students who had been diagnosed with ADHD was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had firsthand experience with a handful of students whose transformation had been nothing short of miraculous. One little boy had required constant redirection, an enormous amount of my time and energy, and had been an ongoing source of frustration. Within days of taking medication, he was able to sit still for an entire lesson, and he possessed a placidity which seemed almost surreal. Maybe my son, like that little boy, needed medication to address some imbalance in his brain chemistry.
I felt that it was time to put my fear and assumptions aside and trust the experts. I had been given a superficial education on ADHD in my college classes, but I couldn’t write more than a paragraph on the disorder. I began to look over the research and I learned that ADHD is much more than just a deficit of attention. At its core, ADHD robs a person of the ability to stop and think before acting. This hallmark symptom of impulsivity significantly impairs functioning in almost every area of a person’s life.
The pervasive and debilitating impairment of untreated ADHD has been meticulously documented in a longitudinal landmark study known as The Milwaukee Study. The Milwaukee Study, which began in 1977 and is still running, employs a comprehensive array of data collection, including police records, medical records, educational transcripts, work histories, driving records, and spousal interviews. The study found that people with untreated ADHD had significantly more problems in educational and occupational functioning; drug use and antisocial behavior; health, lifestyle, money management and driving; sex, dating, marriage, and parenting, as well as the psychological adjustment of their offspring.
A couple years after my son began taking medication for ADHD I was confronted again with concerns about ADHD. Through the course of a standard checkup an exceptionally astute doctor commented that I displayed the classic symptoms of ADHD. Although I was skeptical I agreed to begin taking medication. My own symptoms of procrastination, disorganization, and impulsivity were almost immediately arrested. I felt as if I had been given a pair of glasses which I had needed my entire life.
The treatment of ADHD involves more than medication. Studies show that treatment is most effective when it is multi-modal involving a combination of medicinal intervention, accommodations, and ongoing education. However, for most ADHDs, medication is the bedrock of an effective treatment plan. When I think of all of the parents, children, and teachers who are struggling directly or indirectly with ADHD, I wonder why. The most pervasive and debilitating outpatient disorder is also the disorder which responds best to treatment. Let’s spread the good news; there is hope, there is help for ADHD.
Carter Norman has a Master of Arts in Special Education and over 20 years of experience in the field of education. He’s taught both regular and special education and he’s taught at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary level. Mr. Norman serves on the Minnesota Department of Education ADHD Advisory Council and as an adjunct faculty member at Bethel University.