Every fall I remember my son’s middle school experience of nearly being bullied by the principal and the teaching staff into taking Ritalin.
When my son was 12, my husband and I arrived for the normal teacher conference a few weeks after he started at a new school. Two teachers told us flat out that he had ADHD. All his other teachers complained of his inability to sit quietly through a lesson and that his homework was incomplete. We explained that there had recently been seismic disruptions in his life and asked that he be given time to settle in.
A month later we were called into the principal’s office and told he was ADHD and that he needed to be put on Ritalin immediately. I asked how he knew Dan had ADHD and he said that they are professionals, they work with children and they know how kids act. And Dan, he said, was “way off the charts.” The threat was strongly implied that Dan without meds would no longer be welcome at that school.
I went online and found a questionnaire, “Do You Have ADHD?” With Dan standing next to me answering the questions, the answer was conclusive — a total yes.
TikTok is full of advice and online questionnaires and self-assessments for adults, children, students and parents. Many people on social media spaces promise a new, wonderful life if you just use an ADHD medicine. Assessments are not diagnoses, they are just an indicator that you might have whatever the subject of the questionnaire. Most of the self-assessments and questionnaires on ADHD (and other conditions and illnesses) are created and distributed throughout the internet by the company that makes the pill to “cure” you.
How is ADHD Diagnosed?
I went to a specialist in ADHD, a psychologist, who gave Dan the same questionnaire and watched him play a video game for ten minutes. He wrote out a prescription on the spot.
We were still unwilling to medicate Dan. Common ADHD meds are stimulants such as Ritalin, Adderall, Dexedrine and others. Stimulants cannot improve or normalize the ability to learn or apply knowledge in everyday life.
So we hired an expensive diagnostician (we found out later that the school system would have hired one for us, but we didn’t know to ask and it wasn’t offered). The physician-diagnostician interviewed Dan several times, and Dan underwent five or six hours of tests (broken into shorter time periods). The doctor then interviewed us in our home, and went to his classroom teachers.
Sometimes Anxiety and Learning Disabilities Look Like ADHD
It took weeks but the results were educational. Dan did have ADHD, but mildly. He had several underlying learning disorders. None of the learning disorders were “bad” on their own, but combined they led to his ADHD-type behavior. And none of them would be improved with ADHD medicine.
We shared the report with the school and chose to put off giving him ADHD medicine. Instead we would focus on helping him develop skills to address his learning disabilities. It was a struggle because his tricks to avoid doing the work his learning disabilities made difficult were a hard habit to break.
Can any parent do this? Well, yes, if you have the money to hire an educational diagnostician and then a therapist; the fortitude to stand up to teachers and a principal; and if you have the time to do all that along with working with your child (or hiring a tutor). From my experience, it’s exhausting and frustrating. The progress is slow and the push back from teachers and my son was constant. The outcome? We managed. He learned to manage his learning deficits. We were able to get him cognitive behavioral therapy to address the “seismic” changes which had caused anxiety (making everything more difficult) and he’s a happy, productive adult.
My message is: ADHD behavior can be masking other issues that won’t improve with medicine alone. Anxiety, learning disorders, hidden bullying and so much more can be triggering inability to focus, need to move,
Don’t reach first for a medicine that only covers the symptoms. Dig deeper. It’s hard, but with a good doctor or teacher supporting you, your child will thrive.