An Open Door for Learning Differences

ADHD. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Heard of it? Of course you have.

It has become a far too common household word in the past decade. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) estimates that currently over 8 million children between the ages of 4-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD by a healthcare professional. In 2003, two and a half million children ages 4-17 were receiving stimulant medication as a treatment for the “disorder”. From 1990 to 2000, world-wide use of stimulant medication increased five-fold, 90% of it being consumed in the U.S. This is not only an epidemic problem with children. If not addressed in childhood, of course this condition will continue into adulthood. The prevalence of ADHD in adults worldwide is estimated to be around 4.4% of the entire population.

OK, so it’s a problem! What is it? It is diagnosed by a chronic level of inattention, impulsive hyperactivity, or both. The child or adult may struggle in important areas of life, such as peer and family relationships, and school or work performance. Sometimes this results in reckless or dangerous behavior later in life.

It is thought that ADHD is caused by the inadequate production and absorption of dopamine (an important neurotransmitter) in the brain. When the brain isn’t getting enough neuro-chemicals, the person exhibits the symptoms of “inattention”. He is easily distracted; it is hard for him to organize or finish a task; to pay attention to details, or to follow instructions and conversations. Another theory is that ADHD results from the under-stimulation of the brain. In either case, the brain tries to find ways to adapt and find neuro-chemical balance. Constant movement, physical activity, or doing things which cause stimulation; seen as “hyper-activity” are common adaptation tactics.

Some characteristics used to diagnose this disorder in youth are: not responding when spoken to, fidgeting, impulsive behavior… This “disorder” used to be called simply normal “childhood”.

Why all the fuss?

The controversy surrounding ADHD is in the diagnosis and the treatment of this “disorder”. It is widely agreed that 75% or more of these labeled children have been misdiagnosed. Some children may simply have difficulty learning certain subjects, be bored, have dyslexia or other learning patterns, be experiencing problems at home, or frustrated with a teacher’s style which does not fit with his own. Additionally, in this era of dual working parents and busy schedules, this generation of children receives way too much of their exercise from a computer keyboard and their nutrition from a microwavable box. A quick look at any American school cafeteria reveals low nutrient food loaded with sugar and neuro-toxic chemicals. Schools often push to diagnose children with ADHD to gain funding and a more compliant (sedated) child. Personally, I believe that the term “disorder” is a large part of the problem and is a stigma which only leads to feelings of inadequacy, frustration and fear. How about using the word “difference”? A learning “difference” is open to creative solutions while a “disorder” is a closed door. There are solutions! But before we go there (that’s the really good part!) let’s talk about the bigger problem:

The drug Methylphenidate, otherwise known as Ritalin, is the most commonly form of treatment for ADHD in children and adults. Ritalin is a stimulant very similar in makeup to an amphetamine such as cocaine. Let’s say it a different way: our kids are being loaded up on Speed. In the United States, Methylphenidate is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance. Let me reiterate: In 2003, 2.5 million children ages 4-17 were receiving stimulant medication as a treatment for the “disorder”. The numbers have only increased since that time. What makes this all the more alarming is the fact that this treatment, though widely used, has not been studied for children under the age of 6 because most ADHD symptoms are considered typical of a child of this age. The CDC itself reports, “The means by which Methylphenidate helps people with ADHD are not well understood and the long term effects of stimulant use as treatment for ADHD for all ages has also not been adequately studied.” Despite this horrifying statement, a common sense prediction is eventual neuro-chemical chaos. If a potent stimulant drug is introduced into a young and constantly growing/changing nervous system, its own healthy chemical balance can never be attained. Addiction and biochemical imbalance throughout life is inevitable. Ritalin is thought to increase the level of dopamine in the brain by partially blocking its re-absorption. Another theory is that it over stimulates certain parts of the brain; therefore producing a burned-out effect. It is claimed to have a ‘calming’ effect on humans who have ADHD, however some common side effects listed for the medication, in addition to causing cancer, are: addiction, insomnia, headaches, palpitations, high blood pressure, clinical depression, compulsive behaviors, movement disorders, loss in awareness of self and risk of death. Wait a minute. What exactly are we using this medication for???

There are better solutions.

This bio-chemical imbalance causing the symptoms of ADHD is caused largely by interference in the autonomic nervous system which co-ordinates all of our vital life functions. The production of our neuro-transmitters such as dopamine and serotonin (the good guys) as well as inflammatory chemicals (which block the good guys) is regulated by these nerves. Trauma to the surrounding skull and spinal column due to birth trauma, injury or repetitive strain (such as poor posture) can interrupt normal nerve function and cause bio-chemical chaos in the body. Gentle treatments such as Chiropractic adjustments, Cranio-sacral therapy, and Acupuncture can release this nerve interference and allow the body to regulate itself.

In addition, nutritional approaches have been found to have profound effects. Essential fatty acids such as Omega 3s and DHA (found in meat, fatty fish and certain seeds) support nerve health and reduce inflammation in the body. Certain amino acids such as 5HTP and tryptophan are precursors (building blocks) to serotonin and can naturally increase this “feel good” neurochemical. Chinese herbs can aid in relaxation. Testing and avoidance of certain preservatives and chemicals in our food should also be considered. Please consult your physician about possible prescription interactions and individual needs.

Creative learning strategies, athletic activities, and individual/family counseling are crucial pieces to the puzzle as well and are provided by numerous community and private organizations.

These approaches have had overwhelming success in reducing ADHD symptoms in clinical settings; however, due to the lack of funding (certainly not obtained by the pharmaceutical companies), official “accepted” research is lacking. For this reason, these natural and very effective forms of treatment are often criticized and over-looked. If I may be so bold as to point out, this “lack of research” has not reduced the number of prescriptions for Speed handed out to our children.

There is no doubt that ADHD comes in many different forms. No one person is the same and no one treatment is effective for everyone. This “difference” can be extremely traumatic to the individual and the families.