Q. Our son, age 8, has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. His IQ is well above average but his actual performance in the classroom is problematic. He has difficulty paying attention and finishing his work. We got him a tutor – an older retired teacher – this year. He worked well with her, but that really didn’t solve the classroom problem. The tutor said he was easily bored with third-grade work and needed more of a challenge. She recommended moving him out of public school or even homeschooling. At home, he’s respectful and obedient. When we ask him to explain the problem to us, all we get is “I don’t know.” We don’t want to put him on the drug that’s been recommended, but we’ve been told it will correct his biochemical imbalance and help him concentrate. What should we do?
A. As a leading psychiatrist has admitted, the term “biochemical imbalance” is, in his very words, “nothing but a useful metaphor.” In other words, it has no basis in scientific fact.
To speak credibly about an imbalance in a system, one must first quantify the system’s state of balance. Concerning the brain’s chemistry, that has never been done; furthermore, it may be impossible to do. Is it not fascinating that mental health professionals frequently claim that certain children have brain-based biochemical imbalances, yet do so on the basis of no physical examinations whatsoever? No biopsies, blood sample analyses, MRIs, nothing. And yet they claim to know that these kids’ brain chemistry is out of whack. Nothing short of amazing or, more accurately, nothing short of hocus-pocus.
The drugs used to “treat” ADD/ADHD are stimulants. They do not correct the fictional imbalance; rather, they create one. Furthermore, they have never reliably outperformed placebos in clinical trials but unlike placebos (e.g. sugar, bicarbonate of soda) they have verified side effects like anxiety, depressed appetite, headaches, even psychotic reactions. Not that every child taking these medications experiences such side effects, mind you, but the risk is significant.
As is the case with all other psychiatric diagnoses, no one has ever proven that someone “has” attention deficit disorder. One can “have” leukemia or some other verifiable physical disorder or disease; one cannot “have” what is nothing but a theoretical construct.
In the absence of scientific evidence that your son “has” a brain-based disorder that prevents him from paying attention and finishing schoolwork, I’d place my bets on the tutor’s explanation. She is an experienced professional educator. She has worked directly with your son. She knows him fairly well, much better, probably, than someone who’s only given him a battery of tests (that have their own problems, by the way).
The tutor says your son is bored, meaning he can do the work, but it’s not challenging enough for him. He’s a smart kid; he needs to be challenged. I’ve been witness to lots of kids diagnosed with ADD/ADHD miraculously cured of metaphorical hocus-pocus by simply being moved to different schools, the worst side effect of which is a period of adjustment.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com.