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Some people say ADHD is not a real disorder. What do you think?

Some people say Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is not a real disorder. What do you think?

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a real disorder. While not all people with ADHD are hyperactive, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-IV)
1 identifies the three subtypes of ADHD as:

  • ADHD: Predominately Hyperactive-Impulsive Type
  • ADHD: Predominately Inattentive Type
  • ADHD: Combined Type

Some so-called “experts” are trying to convince the lay public that ADHD is
not real. And frankly, I’d also like to avoid the term “disorder,” preferring something like “Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Dividends” or “Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Differences.” Those diagnosed with ADHD have a different brain structure and function. They approach life — work, play, and school — differently, uniquely.

Don’t be misled by those who try to convince you that ADHD is a diagnosis being foisted upon an unsuspecting public by psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies so they can make money. Some believe this conspiracy theory, as discussed in US News and World Report in an article titled “Pushing pills on kids? Lawyers claim a conspiracy to oversell Ritalin.”

Yet in a well-publicized case involving the detractors and proponents of ADHD diagnosis, a group of physicians claimed it would make as much sense to throw out the diagnosis and proven treatments for ADHD as it would to do so for schizophrenia or epilepsy. Further, denying that ADHD is a real diagnosis of a real condition may be potentially dangerous to the people who live daily with this disorder.

Nevertheless, criticism about the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD is repeated on Web sites, on the radio, in TV and magazine ads and stories — not to mention many popular books. One example is the book,
Talking Back to Ritalin: What Doctors Aren’t Telling You About Stimulants for Children.3 According to the author, Dr. Peter Breggin, national organizations that advocate ADHD, pharmaceutical companies, and even government institutes that fund ADHD research are conspiring to drug school children. Breggin, like many of the conspiracy theorists, never explained how this complex plan could be so well organized and remain so secret.

Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D., Director of Psychology and a Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at University of Massachusetts Medical Center, concludes, “[Dr. Breggin’s book] appears to be a carefully and cleverly crafted piece of artful propaganda against the diagnosis of ADHD and its treatment.”
4 Worse yet, “Breggin’s view must be taken for what it actually is — a not-so-subtle form of parent bashing that lays the blame for ADHD and other complex developmental and mental disorders at the feet of the child’s parents, family and school.”

Barkley points out what parents of ADHD kids already know: critics of ADHD “. . . instruct parents to seek outdated, unscientific, and ineffective pop-psychological views of disorders and their treatment.”
6 “What was so dismaying to me,” Dr. Barclay concludes, “. . . was the knowledge that Dr. Breggin took an oath as a physician to ‘first do no harm.’ In my opinion, his book has violated that sacred oath.”

Others have questioned whether ADHD is a “pathologic” disorder or merely one end of the continuum of age-appropriate behavior.
8, 9 For example, one psychologist writes:

There seems to be a continuum of people all the way from those linear thinkers who are highly structured, intently focused, able to block out external stimuli, organized, and who even thrive on their attention to detail, to those analog thinkers who are hypersensitive to all stimuli, creative, always putting things together in new ways, and are more focused on the process or pattern of what is going on than the details involved in accomplishing the tasks. These are the two extremes of the continuum, with most people falling somewhere in between.

On the surface, that ADHD is simply normal behavior seems somewhat reasonable. But to deny that ADHD exists flies in the face of an incredible volume of medical and psychological research. No doubt it’s helpful to understand that your child is wired differently and that he or she will not fit well in the more linear or detail-oriented world. No doubt if we try to mold a child into someone he is not, not only can we harm his spirit, but we can also damage his self-esteem and block any chance he has of becoming the person he was created to be.

It’s been helpful for my patients with ADHD kids (or ADHD themselves) to understand that the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD has more science and research backing it than the majority of the medical problems that occur in childhood. This research, along with an understanding of how to unlock your child’s special potential and gifts, can help you, as your child’s “health care quarterback,” choose the best health care providers and the best treatment options for ADHD, to gain the dividends from your child’s special and unique differences.

Bottom line? Parents with ADHD kids know it’s real and they need help. Those of you who have a hyperactive, easily distractible youngster, you know that ADHD is a
very real condition.

1. American Psychiatric Association.
Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.

2. Shute N. Pushing pills on kids? Lawyers claim a conspiracy to oversell Ritalin. US News World Rep 2000 Oct 2;129(13):60.

3. Breggin P. Talking Back to Ritalin: What Doctors Aren’t Telling You About Stimulants for Children. Courage Press. 1998.

4. Barkley RA. Book Review: ADHD, Ritalin, and Conspiracies: Talking Back to Peter Breggin.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Diagnosis and treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). National Institutes of Health (NIH) Consensus Statement 1998:16(2):1-37.

9. Carey W. Problems in diagnosing attention and activity. Pediatrics 1999;103:664-6.

10. Weiss L. Give Your ADD Teen a Chance. Pinon Press. Colorado Springs, CO. 1996:51.

If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Focus on the Family Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care (book)



Related Resources


Prestonwood Counseling Center – Specialize in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of ADHD.

Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (CHADD) – This organization works to better the lives of individuals with ADD and those who care for them through resources for parents and teachers of ADD children, as well as for ADD adults.



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