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ADHD: who’s failing who?

A child playing on a swingUniversity of South Australia lecturer and research fellow, Dr Brenton Prosser, says it’s time for a broader understanding of ADHD.

I have heard a lot of heartbreaking and inspiring stories while working with young people with ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – and their families. Over that time, it has become ever clearer to me that there is a need for a broader understanding of the condition.

It seems what we now call a disorder could be blamed, at least partly, on a mismatch between the natural diversity of human behaviours and a world that has changed so much in the last 30 years that these behaviours no longer fit.

As blue-collar work has dwindled, there is less space for people who abound in physical energy, are intuitive rather than logical, and work through challenges by doing rather than reflecting. The new benchmark for behaviour in our classrooms is increasingly based on the traditional model of the hard-working, studious female student; and because schools are primarily geared towards a one-size-fits-all standard of success, success means students need to be passive and compliant.

Outside of school many of the avenues to "let off steam" once available to young people are disappearing within the urban landscape, with parents too afraid to let their kids go to the local shops alone. Increasingly, adults are more likely to be at a workstation than a worksite, and young people are safer at a PlayStation than in a playground.

Our competitive workplace now wants employees who are not only smart and creative, but focused and compliant as well. With such huge social and technological shifts in such a short time, it’s a big ask to expect all human beings – diverse as they are – to adapt to these new rules in less than one generation.

Some look at the recent growth in ADHD and conclude that the disorder is a just a modern myth. However, ADHD is our best medical explanation for the cause of hyperactive, inattentive and impulsive behaviours in our young people (mostly boys). It is also true that there is no objective medical test to show who has ADHD, which has inevitably led some to question the existence of ADHD. Yet what stands out above all the "black and white" views on ADHD is the reality of the challenges that face these young people and their families.

If we only ask medical questions about ADHD, we will only get medical answers and more drug treatment. In response, we need a new view of ADHD and an even broader explanation that answers the educational, cultural and social questions that the medical explanation alone cannot.

If we accept that some of our children are physically different in such a way that contemporary social preferences see them fail at school and work, then as a community we need to decide how we will respond to that failure. I believe that leaving these challenges for doctors and drug prescribers to solve is effectively "shrugging and drugging".

As a community, we all need to take some responsibility for the growth of ADHD. Instead of just asking how children with ADHD are failing in our society, we should also be asking what it is about our society that’s failing them.

Dr Prosser’s new book ADHD: Who’s Failing Who? is published by Finch Publishing and was launched last month in Adelaide by Senator Natasha Stott Despoja.