I have two kids with ADHD (one of my sons is also Autistic). The challenges that ADHD brings to our lives are very real, but every week I read articles that dismiss ADHD as an “imaginary illness,” dreamed up by “Big Pharma,” lazy parents, and overworked teachers in order to drug kids into submission.
Before I had kids, I thought this way too. I mean, seriously—is ADHD really real? Some kids just have a lot of energy, trouble focusing, and get the wiggles in school. It isn’t that big of a deal, right?
I have learned a lot about invisible disabilities in the last few years, and here is what I wish people knew about ADHD:
1. It is not a mental illness
ADHD is not a mental illness, like depression or anxiety. Rather, it is a neurological disorder. The brain of a person with ADHD literally functions differently than that of a neuro-typical person, particularly, the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that affects memory, communication, impulse control and more.
2. ADHD is not caused by…
I read so many articles that argue, “if parents would just stop feeding their kids sugar and red dye then they would cure their child of ADHD!”
That’s not how it works.
A person with ADHD may be affected by certain foods/dyes/etc. but those things do not cause ADHD.
Just the way too much TV, video games, or bad parenting do not cause ADHD. Outside influences may exacerbate the issue, but ADHD is caused by internal issues, not external stimuli.
3. It is not diagnosed willy-nilly
Many people think that the ADHD label is slapped on any and all children who are too active or have trouble paying attention in school. Or, a parent takes their child to the doctor, says “Johnny’s been distracted lately” and the doctor says, “ADHD” and writes a prescription for Ritalin.
The real process is not like that at all.
First, for ADHD to be diagnosed, the child must experience noteworthy challenges in two different settings, such as home AND school.
After a full physical exam (including blood work, hearing, and eye exams) to rule out any physical issues, our pediatrician gave us questionnaires to fill out about sons. We also gave the questionnaires to our sons’ teachers.
After everyone filled out the questionnaires with dozens of questions, the doctor met with my husband and me for over an hour to discuss the results and talk about options, one of which included medication. The decision to choose medication was entirely in our decision as parents. There was no agenda, push, or marketing scam.
The whole diagnosis process took about 6-8 weeks with all the appointments, coordinating with teachers, and paperwork.
4. Medication does not make a child a zombie
So many articles about ADHD state false claims about ADHD medication, claiming that medication makes kids “zombies,” has horrific side effects, is as addictive as meth, or “forces” kids to pay attention.
ADHD medication does not make kids “zombies.” It may make kids tired and if so, that is not the right medication for that child.
The most common side effects, actually, are that kids have trouble falling asleep (for our son, two sleepless nights when he first started taking it) and that it suppresses the appetite. My son didn’t have much appetite for lunch while he was taking medication but ate a good breakfast and dinner. Our doctor monitored him closely to make sure he didn’t lose any weight (he did not).
ADHD medication is not addictive. In fact, the extended-release brand we chose wore off around 3-4pm every afternoon. By the next day, it was completely out of his system.
Our son didn’t “crave” the medication but he said that he felt better when he was taking it.
I have asked my son what it is like inside his brain. He has told me that it feels like his brain is going a million miles an hour, with so many thoughts that he can’t focus on one.
He also lacks a filter for background noise or other sensory stimuli. While most people can tune out the air conditioner hum, the birds singing outside, the smell of pizza cooking in the oven, or the scratch of a tag on clothing, Micah cannot. He hears, feels, smells, and especially sees everything at the same volume or intensity—loud and strong. Can you imagine what it is like to experience the world like this?
Medication doesn’t “force” a child to do anything, nor does it take a child from “super scattered” to “super focused.” It simply helps to bring a child up to a “normal” range. The medication helps to give him the choice to focus, or not, just like most people have the choice to focus (or not) on a daily basis.
5. ADHD affects communication and relationships
Healthy communication requires both effective speaking and listening. The person with ADHD often struggles with both. Communication is my biggest challenge with my sons and causes daily frustration for me and for them.
Often, my sons cannot remember what I have told them, even 5 seconds after the words have left my lips. I usually have to repeat myself at least twice (usually more).
I cannot ask them questions if they are in another room. I have to call them to me, have them stand in front of me, and then ask, “What do you want for breakfast?”
They struggle to follow instructions that are more than two steps.
Having a conversation on a singular topic that is more than 3-4 exchanges (2 comments for each person) is rare.
Their short term memory is a challenge; they have a very difficult time recalling conversations or events that just took place (“How did your brother get hurt?” “What did you do at school today?”).
They struggle with “internal voice.” Most people will repeat instructions silently to themselves in order to internalize it for memory or contemplation. At our house, though, conversations often go like this:
“Please put on your shoes.”
“You want me to put on my shoes?”
“Yes. I want you to put on your shoes.”
This version of echolalia (or repetitive language) is a coping technique for the lack of internal voice—and I get that. But it still is frustrating, especially if my son forgets the initial instruction 10 seconds later and we have to go through this exchange again.
These are just a handful of communication challenges that we experience on a daily basis. Communication is so foundational to building strong relationships with family or friends. ADHD can make communicating extremely challenging due to memory, distractibility due to external stimuli, and the inability to focus.
There is so much more I could write about what I wish people knew about ADHD but I will close with this: ADHD is very real and very challenging for both the child and for the people who love that child.
I wish people (and news articles!) would not dismiss ADHD as being an imaginary ailment, but instead, take time to get to know people with ADHD, and ask questions so that they can love the person with ADHD in the most supportive and educated way possible.
PS. More ADHD posts here:
Should I medicate or NOT medicate my child for ADHD?