An ADHD History Lesson

I may be on the verge of going into activist mode; to the point that I’m seriously considering sending a membership check to CHADD or ADDA, or any organization that steps up and counters some of the madness that seems to be prevailing over both reason and science where ADD/ADHD is concerned. If I had the credentials, maybe I’d morph into an advocate, because somebody has to do it, before people with ADD/ADHD find their options for treatment narrowed into nonexistance.

What set me off was this post at The Black Informant, cheering the recent “black box” decision by the FDA. I should have known better, really, because the Black Informant has a rather conservative bent, and because it’s my experience that many African Americans don’t “believe in” ADD (but do tend to believe the best cure for it is a smack upside the head). But I clicked on the bottom link to the “related post” and really got exasperated, because it quotes at length a Christianity Today article as well as a host of other articles, all of which seems put together by someone who doesn’t know much about ADD/ADHD.

The post is titled “How to Make Boys Docile: Ritalin (Part of “The School System: A National Lab Project”).” I’ll get into the whole “boy crisis” matter some other time, but now I gotta address some long-debunked myths about ADD/ADHD that people tend to buy whole-cloth, against all reason. Myths like this one:

I am not saying that there aren’t any cases that justify the use of Ritalin; however, I do wonder why has the issue of high-energy children (especially boys) only been an issue within the last decade or so. Public schools have also been doing it part in recommending this drug to parents of children that seem to be hyper-active.

No one ever questions the sugar intake of most Americans as being a likely suspect in this growing number of high-energy children. [emphasis added]

Where to begin? First of all, we’re not talking about “high-energy children” that have just had too much Kool-Aid. And it hasn’t “only been an issue within the last decade or so.” Under one name or another, the characteristics known today as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or Attention Deficit Disorder have been associated with each other, observed and recorded for over 95 years.

1902 – Dr. Still, a British doctor, documented cases involving impulsiveness.  He called it “Defect of Moral Control.”  He did believe, however, that this was a medical diagnosis, rather than a spiritual one.

“Deficit Moral Control.” Kinda has a nice, nearly Puritanical ring. Doesn’t it? Unfortunately, many people haven’t even gotten as far in their understanding of ADD/ADHD as Dr. Still’s 1902 assessment. Anyway, it became known as “Post-Encephalitic Behavior Disorder” around 1922, was called “brain damaged syndrome” for a while, got treated with stimulants as early as 1937, and then came Ritalin around 1956. The point is, ADD/ADHD is not a phantom condition that didn’t exist until it was invented in the 80’s.

It’s not new. In fact, it may be more than 100 years old. At least one article I found references an 1845 children’s story called “Fidgety Philip” that may be the first account of ADHD published in medical literature.  (And if you ask me, “The Story of Johnny Look-in-the-Air” sounds alot like a kid with “inattentive type” ADD, such as yours truly.) And that’s just when it was documented and observed. It’s probably existed much longer. If you ask Thom Hartman, it’s actually prehistoric. Before becoming the focus of scientific study and observation, it was probably mislabeled much like schizophrenia was once believed to have its origins in demonic possession. But, alas, we live in an age where science alone doesn’t carry much weight when it comes up against what people believe.

 Nonetheless, let’s go on to the matter of sugar. According to the Mayo Clinic, sugar doesn’t cause ADHD.

A popular dietary approach to treating attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) calls for eliminating refined sugars. But there’s no evidence that sugar causes ADHD or that diet has any consistent effect on the signs and symptoms of ADHD. The exact cause of ADHD isn’t well understood. But it may be related to altered brain function or heredity.

Many parents have observed a brief surge in energy in their children after a sugary treat. But numerous studies have shown that children don’t react to sugar. Instead, this increase in activity may be due to the excitement of getting a treat or to the carbohydrate boost the treat provides. It’s important to note that “hyperactive” behavior is not the same as ADHD, which is a medical condition that is diagnosed based on certain criteria. [emphasis added]

This is a myth that won’t die, one that I’ve encountered as a parent on a regular basis. Give a kid some juice, and if he then proceeds to act like a kid someone is going to say that the sugar made him “hyper.” Nevermind that just being in a new setting or being in the company of other children is enough to get most kids excited in a way that adults define as “hyper.” Of course, there are studies more than 20 years old, saying sugar does not cause hyperactivity. You don’t have to believe me, though. Try the NIH.

It has been suggested that attention disorders are caused by refined sugar or food additives, or that symptoms of ADHD are exacerbated by sugar or food additives. In 1982, the National Institutes of Health held a scientific consensus conference to discuss this issue. It was found that diet restrictions helped about 5 percent of children with ADHD, mostly young children who had food allergies.3 A more recent study on the effect of sugar on children, using sugar one day and a sugar substitute on alternate days, without parents, staff, or children knowing which substance was being used, showed no significant effects of the sugar on behavior or learning.4

In another study, children whose mothers felt they were sugar-sensitive were given aspartame as a substitute for sugar. Half the mothers were told their children were given sugar, half that their children were given aspartame. The mothers who thought their children had received sugar rated them as more hyperactive than the other children and were more critical of their behavior.5 [emphasis added]

There are plenty of good reasons, health-related reasons,  not to let kids consume huge amounts of sugar. But preventing hyperactivity isn’t one of them because it’s been studied and shown that sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity. Dietary restrictions can help 5 percent of kids with ADHD. Great. That leaves 95% that are going to need something else. And if they don’t get it, the consequences are big, bad, life-long, and potentially life-threatening.

(By the way, I’m in that 95% that aren’t helped by dietary restrictions, etc. When I was trying to make alternative treatments work, and avoiding stimulants, I took an Omega-3 supplement (flax seed oil), I took an amino acid supplement, and made other dietary change as well. Whatever the benefits were, it didn’t improve my focus, or my level of function, or curtail any of my other ADD symptoms. I had to get fired from yet another job before I finally got desperate and decided to try a stimulant medication.)

And then there’s the opinion of Dr. Marilyn Benoit, a black woman, and a professor of psychiatry at Howard University Medical School.

Claims that AD/HD is not a real disorder or that it is caused by too much sugar or bad parenting are completely false and are, in fact, harmful to concerned parents trying valiantly to find ways to help their children,” reported Marilyn Benoit, M.D., child psychiatrist, assistant professor of Psychiatry at Howard University College of Medicine, and immediate past president, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Scientific studies demonstrate that the real problem is the undertreatment of AD/HD among African American children and teens.” [emphasis added]

The same article also mentions a report issued by the Surgeon General’s Office under Dr. David Satcher (a black man).

Former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D., spoke at the briefing via a video address on the impact of untreated AD/HD in the African American community, particularly the damaging belief that it does not exist. Dr. Satcher commented that while there have been assertions that children are being overdiagnosed with AD/HD, a report issued by his office in 2001-Mental Health: Culture, Race and Ethnicity-found little evidence of overdiagnosis or overprescription of medications. The report also found that the greater issue for African American children is lack of access to comprehensive assessment and to appropriate treatment options. [emphasis added]

Yet one commenter over at the Black Informant rants that treating black kids for ADHD is a “form of genocide” that will lead them to “a drug addicted future.” Nevermind that untreated ADHD is more likely to lead to drug use and addiction (which was my experience during the 30-odd years I went untreated). Even the National Institute on Drug Addiction has said that treating ADHD with medication tends to reduce the incidence of drug abuse among people with ADHD. But, again, who actually believes anything that comes from scientific study?

And Doctors Benoit and Satcher? Well, they are doctors, and part of the medical establishment. So they’ve probably been bought off, and thus have become complicit in the pharmaceutical “genocide” conspiracy against black youth, and black boys in  particular. Wow, that was easy. We got there in just a few short leaps, and it doesn’t have to be backed up with much of anything

I probably shouldn’t fight this battle. (The hubby suggested I’m jousting at windmills by arguing or reasoning with people concerning their deeply-held, wholly-unfounded beliefs.) After all, we live in an age where “gut feelings” and and things that people “just know” trumps anything that can be shown by scientific studies or backed up with evidence. We don’t need evidence to start wars, so we certainly don’t need it to deal with issues of mental health. And if doesn’t matter that Saddam Hussein didn’t mastermind the 9/11 attacks. If you say it often enough, people will not just believe it, they will know it and they will act accordingly.

I like to think that somehow, reason will eventually prevail, though it looks somewhat iffy right now. It may eventually prevail, but probably not until a lot of damage has been done through unfounded belief. Come the revolution, children with ADD/ADHD will simply be untreated, sugar-deprived, and regularly beaten. Maybe that will change after a long time, when people realize it doesn’t work. But then again, maybe it won’t.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
This entry was posted in ADD/ADHD, Current Events, Health, Race, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to An ADHD History Lesson

  1. Peregrinato says:

    Fascinating. The Christianity Today article doesn’t even seem to address — in my extremely quick reading — hyperactivity or attention-deficit disorder, as much as it does aggression and competitiveness in young males.  Talk about quoting at length from something irrelevant to your thesis! Whoever quoted from that operating from a bias. Unfortunately, they’ll use it to misinform, as you have seen happen.

  2. Duane says:

    For starters, thanks for stopping by my website.

    What puzzles me here is how you inject my political beliefs on such a topic. Last I checked, ADHD was not part of a political party.

    Second, if you are going to quote me, please do so in context. No where in my piece do I conclude that sugar consumption = ADHD. Like you, I simply quoted reliable sources (as you did) that make a very convincing argument that the increased sugar intake of our generation will in no doubt have a negative affect on the human body. As one who has children (as you) and has worked with other children for a number of years, I can tell you that I have seen the difference between children with well-balanced/low sugar diets and those otherwise. I also know of personal stories where children who were diagnosed with ADHD are rid of this "disease" by lowering sugar content. That is my evidence. Black children in particular (for many reasons) tend to have the worst diets in comparison to other groups.

    Finially, I am of the belief that whatever works for you, go for it. But don’t strike down other equally researched information just because you either disagree with the messenger politically or just don’t want to agree at all.

  3. Resounding applause from a fellow blogger with the same message!  Subscribed.

    To Duane, in respose to your protest….

    Your post leaves the reader thinking that a few adjustments to the Omega-3s and sugar intakes in the diet effectively treats ADHD.  It doesn’t.  That doesn’t mean those approaches aren’t valuable to one’s overall health and well-being, but they don’t treat ADHD.  Unfortunately, every "meds are evil ways for parents to avoid parenting" reader out there will interpret your comments that way.

    This is an unending debate that goes on and on.  Blackbox warnings by the FDA just give insurance companies a reason to exclude them from their prescription coverage, leaving lots of kids and adults out there vulnerable to the inevitable consequences of untreated ADHD. 

    Really, a more balanced approach would have helped your readers more, but I’ve learned that there rarely seems to be objectivity when it comes to this.  We’re either crappy parents or people committed to turning our kids into glazed-over druggies. 



  4. Pingback: odd time signatures

  5. The Teacher says:

    You share the truth in a personal, hopeful manner.  It’s easy to connect to your experience because you write about it so well.  I’m left recharged to better advocate for my students.  I think your activist mode worked.

Comments are closed.