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<p>Oslo Davis</p>

Oslo Davis

Does Ritalin free children, or fence them in?

Confessions Of A Mum Packing Meds

Parents are promised that drugs like Ritalin will improve their children’s grades, mood and social skills. One mother explains the choice she made when her son was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder — before this week, when new research pointed to the potential side effects for boys on ADHD drugs.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

— Philip Larkin, ‘This Be the Verse’

LARKIN TAPS INTO a truth universally acknowledged. Even the most admirable parents know their child will not escape unscathed from the inter-generational damage of childhood. Forty years after the British poet penned that verse, though, the range of options for potentially fucking up your kid has immeasurably broadened. For one thing, we can fill our children not just with our own shortcomings but with psycho-pharmaceuticals.

There has been an explosion in diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Australia and around the world — predominantly in boys — and a corresponding rise in the medication of children. These conditions, characterised by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, may lead to poor performance in school. Counter-intuitively, the stimulant Ritalin is the pharmacological treatment du jour for the fidgety legions of the educationally damned.

In Australia and the US, official figures indicate between 5 to 10 per cent of children have been diagnosed, but anecdotal evidence suggests the syndrome is even more widespread. Who doesn’t know a child who wears that ubiquitous acronym?

In my son’s case, as I’m sure for most, it was a slow, fitful road to diagnosis; misgivings still plague me. My intuition, if you like, persistently told me something was not quite right; though I’m still unsure if this is wholly about him or something more systemic. There was a bewildering gap between my son’s capacity and his performance: the child I know, and the education system’s measure of the boy.

<p>Oslo Davis</p>

Oslo Davis

It’s another truism that most parents are blindsided by the elemental sucker-punch of maternal or paternal love. They consider their offspring to be in some way exceptional, or at least have the time and interest to see their kids as fully rounded individuals with unique repertoires of talents and skills. Count me in. If you indulge me a few excerpts from my vast archive of parental humble-bragging, they will become relevant soon.

He’s the kind of kid who can often be found hunkered down in his room, bashing out scripts like a little Barton Fink, or devising elaborately illustrated cartoon strips. He has a prodigious memory for songs, images and movie plotlines — not so much Rain Man, more hipster with a bulging mental Rolodex of cultural references. At age 11, he considers animals worthy of serious moral consideration. He renounced meat five years ago and hasn’t faltered. He’s also can be remarkably adroit in high-stakes interpersonal situations. For example, when asked in an admission interview for a private high school if we — devout heathens — go to church, he answered: “No, I don’t go to church, because I don’t believe in god. However, I do believe in peace and kindness and I generally have an open mind.” (Mother mentally punches air: that’s my boy!)

If the education system rewarded creativity, diplomacy and emotional intelligence, he might have a shot at magna cum laude.

But it doesn’t. And he doesn’t. His classroom teacher observed that he was somewhat disruptive in class — “he’d be the class clown if I let him” — chatting to his friends, twisting around in his seat, placing his feet up and generally comporting himself in a way which is verboten and interferes with class discipline. He had difficulty sustaining attention long enough to check his homework, so his assignments were riddled with errors when they needn’t have been. He would jiggle, look away, start up a comedic riff when I asked him to pay attention. An avid reader from early on, he struggled to spell. His results didn’t reflect the boy I know.

His little friends are likewise incandescent with life, energy and ideas. They pour their creativity into inventing games, drama improvisations, devising linguistic tropes and private languages, generally raising hell — and, yes, extracting the maximum screen-time they can from their beleaguered parents, especially on Minecraft (you know, the game parents worry less about, as it’s allegedly creative, even allowing junior geeks to code). They are articulate, with refined emotional capacities and an exceptional grasp of humour and irony — indicators, I always thought, of acute intelligence. And they’re good people, with social consciences. For example, he and his friends are intuitively offended at the idea that anyone could have ever been harmed or discriminated against for being gay, and baffled as to why gay couples are not allowed to marry (“Doesn’t that say that they are less than mothers and fathers?”). None of them is setting the academic world on fire. Several carry labels along the ADHD and learning disability spectrum.

But what really did it for me in terms of my son’s diagnosis was something his maths tutor said. He is a registered psychologist, and he specialises in working with boys. My son idolises him, and I greatly respect his opinion. “You know, I’m not saying E has ADHD,” the tutor told me, “but if you took him to a developmental psychologist they would say he does”.

<p>Oslo Davis</p>

Oslo Davis

So I took him. And they did. The clinic — one of the longest established in Sydney, headed up by a guy who wrote a book on ADHD — pulled out some dazzling diagnostic ju ju, including administering an electroencephalogram, which revealed “an excess of slow brain wave activity, which is a marker for ADHD”. The closer was the medication challenge. They had him do an IQ test, take a dose of Ritalin, and then re-sit the test. We were told that kids with ADHD would expect to see an improvement of over 15 per cent after medication. E’s result shot up a startling 67 per cent.

This apparently made him the model candidate for pharmacotherapy. Despite my deep scepticism of psychometric testing, of reducing intelligence to empirical results, of the ADHD industry, of the troubling cosiness of big pharma and the medical establishment — of pretty much everything about this — I caved. I came out clutching a script for a small dose of Ritalin, to be taken on school days, and a handwritten page of notes from the consultant, who, to his credit, had accommodated my questions and doubts. In his flamboyant hand, underlined, were the words “Ritalin. No long-term side effects.”

I told E’s class teacher about the diagnosis. He’s an energetic and highly capable up-and-comer, but hampered by an underfunded public system in obvious decline and an over-subscribed classroom. He could barely contain his relief at the prospect that E might be drugged into compliance.

We had tried all the usual behavioural therapies as a matter of course. I had some thinking to do.

It’s a mercurial and complicated beast to wrangle, ADHD. Theories abound on its social, medical or psychological origin, some more or less pernicious than others. As one might expect, ‘‘blame the parent’’ is a recurring motif. A particularly virulent intervention was made recently by psychology professor L. Alan Sroufe, who wrote in The New York Times last January that ADHD was the product of bad parenting, “including patterns of parental intrusiveness that involve stimulation for which the baby is not prepared”. His example? “A six-month-old baby is playing, and the parent picks it up quickly from behind and plunges it in the bath,” thereby “excessively stimulating and also compromising the child’s developing capacity for self-regulation”.

<p>Oslo Davis</p>

Oslo Davis

Guilty as charged. But who knew that when I picked up my infant son to bathe him I was condemning him to a chronic neuropathology with its own entry in the infamous Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders?

Needless to say, in the view of this particular expert, “putting children on drugs does nothing to change the conditions that derail their development in the first place”.

I do share, and strongly, the reservations of those who question the medicalisation — and medication — of children’s behaviour. But that’s not because I think my bathing technique caused my son’s condition, though I know I’ve failed him in countless other quotidian ways. Rather, I wonder if ADHD’s not so much, or not only, about a boy and his individual “mental disorder”, but in more subtle ways systemic, sociological, and somehow structurally endemic in our times.

The past decade or so has produced a sub-industry of pop-psychology calling time on traditional models of masculinity, the “boy crisis”. They have titles like The End of Men, The Demise of GuysWhy Boys FailWhat’s Happening to our Boys?, and Raising Cain. They marshal voluminous evidence to show that the double-X is everywhere in the ascendant, while men and boys languish socially, educationally, in their emotional development and in their employment and career success. They blame, variously, the decline in traditionally male industries and sectors as the West changes to service-based economies; the ubiquity of online porn and computer games; the absence of strong male role models with the rise in single-parent families; the predominance of female teachers; and the entrenched, negative view of masculinity that prevails in contemporary Western culture.

Pop culture is in on the act. Mainstream TV and film are a fools’ parade of village idiots, slackers and dupes — almost without exception male. I’m talking about you, men-boys of Apatow, almost every character Adam Sandler has gifted to film, that delusional Office narcissist David Brent and his sorry, cubicle-dwelling drones, and the daddy of ’em all — Homer Simpson and his famously academically underachieving son, outshone by his intellectual prodigy of a sister.

While Bart and Lisa Simpson are outliers at their respective ends of the academic spectrum, their relative performance is reflective of a deep and growing trend. Consistently in Australia, as elsewhere, girls are trouncing boys in final school exams, even in traditionally male-oriented subjects such as engineering , as boys fall farther and farther behind on all the key indicators of academic success. Here, for example, boys complete high school at much lower rates than girls, and the education gap continues into adult life, so that young men between 25 and 29 are significantly less likely than their female counterparts to have a degree.

<p>Joe Raedle/Getty</p>

Joe Raedle/Getty

Ritalin can improve a child's mood and grades, but might come with a cost.

What is going on?

There seems to be compelling evidence of a fundamental disconnect between education — at least as it’s conducted in mainstream schools in economies such as Australia and the US — and boys. According to some psychologists, brain science has elucidated deep physiological differences that orient the sexes to different learning styles. In short, boys are oriented to learning experientially, through physical interactions with the world — an evolutionary hangover from hundreds of thousands of years of hunter-gatherer life where the educational milieu for young males was the natural environment. The square classroom, which confines boys indoors behind desks for hours on end completing repetitive, rote tasks, is the antithesis of this. (It does seem to me to be a miracle of modern pedagogy that kindergarten boys forced to sit still all day do not self-combust.)

ADHD traits are seen as “maladaptive” because we are not wired to learn by sitting all day in a classroom. The restless energy and expansive, exploratory impulses characteristic of ADHD may have been essential traits in communities that needed to adapt continually to changing circumstances, and explore to survive. Translated into the modern classroom context, though, where the goal is not to innovate but to passively absorb and reproduce existing knowledge, these tendencies are viewed as problematic.

An appealingly straight-shooting insight into the epidemic comes from psychologist Phillip Zimbardo. As he calls it, excessive internet use and video gaming, and in older boys, high levels of exposure to online porn, mean that boys’ brains are quite literally being digitally rewired for change, novelty, excitement and constant arousal. As a result, he says, boys are completely out of sync in traditional school classes, which are analogue, static, interactively passive.

WHILE WRITING THIS, I came across a blurb for the recently Booker-shortlisted Will Self novel Umbrella, set in the 1970s. It features a protagonist who has been immured in in a mental institution for many decades. The blurb asks: Is the character’s “diseased brain … a microcosm of the technological advances of the 20th century”? It continues, most intriguingly, if the character “is ill at all — perhaps her illness is only modernity itself”. It struck a mighty chord. Might ADHD, likewise, be less a disease and more a sign of the times?

We know that epidemics of psychopathology erupt at certain historical moments only to eventually disappear — hysteria, for example, a uniquely “female” disease that emerged in the late 19th century, shaped by now-discredited assumptions about women and the neurophysiological dogma of the day. There is an argument put by writers like Ethan Watters, one which to me at least seems highly credible, that the “neuropathology” of ADHD is, similarly, an expression of deeper cultural currents now confluent in the West, such as those sketched above: masculinity in transition, reconfigured by sweeping social and gender-role transformations, and by the pervasive exposure to digital media that distinguishes our era from every other period in human history. Throw in the underpinning predisposition of boys to experiential learning, slap them in a 19th century pedagogical straitjacket, and you have a sure-fire formula for behavioural disorder.

How history will view ADHD, and the chemical behavioural modification of children, will by definition become apparent only in retrospect, when it is too late. I imagine that, as is the case when we appraise antiquated medical treatments from the distance of time, our own crude pharmacotherapeutic interventions will be the object of horrified fascination. So, I suspect, will be our schooling methods.

<p>Oslo Davis</p>

Oslo Davis

I do know this for sure: schooling is not expansive, in the sense of accommodating and nurturing the mix of predilections and abilities my boy and others like him bring, but reductive, confining. It requires a very particular kind of performance, and its instruments of measurement are blunt. They lack the sensitivity and nuance to identify and illuminate, let alone develop, capacities outside of a bell curve or a bandwidth of capabilities that are deemed academically legitimate or curriculum-relevant. My kid, like many of his friends with various attention and learning “disorders” — freaks and geeks, quirky clowns, dreamers, nerds and oddballs — does not easily fit the achievement-shaped boxes churned off the educational production line.

Trouble is, if the kid doesn’t conform, over time he is systematically winnowed out of important pathways of opportunity. The process establishes its own momentum, building on itself and becoming chronic and inexorable. Idiosyncrasies are repeatedly red-carded, and proclivities fall on fallow ground. Educational and life choices are limited as the child’s behaviour — let’s say his way of being in the world — is pathologised and punished with poor grades, which amounts to the same thing. The open stream of near-boundless potential available to the child is narrowed to a few rocky trickles.

A parent is left with a choice. What to do? With all due respect to Larkin, when it comes to the administration of pharmacotherapy to your child, it is hard to tell if fucking him up is a matter of omission or commission. I do not know how the future man will judge me, especially as our cultural fix on ADHD is modified by the crystalline clarity of retrospect. I hope he will understand that my decision was born out of love, however flawed and complicated, however inflected — infected, might Larkin say? — by my vicarious ambition for his to be a good, fulfilling life, lived authentically and to the extent of his potential.

Reader, I medicated him.

After a slightly rocky start — “Mum, what’s wrong with me that you are trying to fix?” (that damn insight again) — my son says Ritalin is fine, and he feels it helps him “a lot”. Three weeks after beginning the medication, he arrives home with a gold-embossed certificate of achievement that had been presented to him that day at school assembly: “To EL, for an outstanding improvement in classroom focus.” Bittersweet doesn’t quite capture it.

Around the same time, another friend texts wanting the number of E’s specialist. Her school counsellor has reported that there is a greater than 90 per cent likelihood that her son has ADD or ADHD, and has recommended she get him professionally assessed.

34 comments on this story
by fredn

I was faced with this question 15 years ago, told my farther, a doctor, suggested I sue the doctor that suggested it, would destoy my sons life was his words. This is not new news.

January 23, 2013 @ 6:44pm
by Joh

As a secondary school teacher who has now left the profession, I could cry reading this. I'm sad that a child's natural curiousity and restlessness needs to be dampened by drugs to fit into a classroom. The activities your boy loves to do ought to be part of his curriculum. If you read the VELS document, those interests could be highly rated learning behaviours with the right assessment. I love what you have written and I believe you have made some excellent observations about where the problems lie in this conversation.

January 23, 2013 @ 8:20pm
by Dean

Congratulations on being a wonderful parent. Regardless of your choice to medicate your son or not, the fact that you agonised over the decision the way you have means that you care deeply about your son's wellbeing and he will come to understand this. It is not a decision to be taken lightly as his personality will completely change while medicated.

As a pharmacist I can tell you that the "textbook" management for ADHD is everything you have wished for above, and if that fails then medicate. However, given that the time and resources to implement this properly do not exist, very few children who start down this path are successful. Some (the minority) are successful with minor adjustments to diet or through behavioural therapy so they are worth trying (just don't read some super mum's book and expect miracles) but most get to the point of medicate or put up with their behaviour.

Being completely mercenary and taking all emotion and ideology out of the situation, the children that are medicated end up with greater opportunities in life. At the end of their schooling if they no longer need medication because they take up a trade or job that better suits their personality then great. But because of their use at school they will have retained more of what was taught and more importantly, but also unfairly, other people will treat them more favourably than someone else with poorer grades and a history of behavioural issues (self fulfilling prophecy). That said, keep up the behavioural therapies (medication complements, it does not replace them), and only give the medication when your child needs to meet the unrealistic expectations of others.

I wish both you, and your son good luck for the years to come.

January 24, 2013 @ 10:17am
by Barb

Wow- a touching and sensitively written story. The thing that comes through is that your son sounds like an exceptional young man. I hope he finds a niche for his talents.

January 24, 2013 @ 1:32pm
by James

what an awesome article as it truly reflects what so many are experiencing in our schools. I am scared too as the brain is developing so much in those years what the affects of pharmacological drugs will do to our children. it seems hard to trust the system anymore as they really don't know what the long term affects will be. It seems to make more sense to try a couple other things before getting the drugs out so quickly, like getting them regularly checked for subluxation by a chiropractor, i am no longer a teenager but i find after an adjustment my ability to focus and concentrate is greatly enhanced. My chiropractor has helped many people get their lives on track by re- establishing proper communication in the nervous system

January 24, 2013 @ 4:04pm
by Fran Cooper

Congratulations on your bravery in sharing your thoughts and experience. I have no doubt it will help many people wading through similar decisions.

January 24, 2013 @ 4:37pm
by Jane

Great article. My son is now 32 having been diagnosed with ADHD when 10. Up to then, he was hyperactive and very lost within himself – doesn’t matter how much love and security at home, he didn’t know where he was in the world. Eventually he was put on Ritalin. We were later to find that the first few minutes of taking each and every tablet, resulted in depression. When the eventual stimulating effect of the tablet wore off, he experienced flatness until the next tablet. The best effect of the Ritalin was that he was calmer at school. Assessed as being very bright, he was none the less placed in the slowest classes because he didn’t read to age appropriate levels. His medication was changed to Dexamphetamine combined with a calming tablet and he felt much better in himself but we were all floundering (not to mention parental guilt at this personality changing with medication – for what?) Two things happened when he was 14. Firstly we restricted all food additives (chemical and natural – google Sue Dengate, Failsafe) and immediately there were positive changes. Secondly, simply through a series of random events, he was found to have the Irlen syndrome – we had no idea that the reason he couldn’t read, write or spell, despite having had eye tests etc, was because the words were jumping around on the page. That was remedied with tinted glasses. He started doing majorly better after these events and eventually gave up the medication.
I just don’t know what this all amounts to. I think spending 9 years at school being the awkward kid, the kid who was basically illiterate, had very long term damaging effects. I am not sure that the medication helped – just made life a bit smoother for us all in the short term. To this day he hasn’t attained his own (not ours) academic aspirations because he refuses to ask for help when he really does need support in some of the ways suggested in this article (what do you do with people who learn experientially and can’t write essays!) At one stage he was diagnosed as being clinically depressed because of all this – and was very overweight. But he hauled himself out of that, refusing medication.
Now he has no qualifications, low paid job, happy – and fairly unrealistic about his life path (like the economic necessities that go with having a family) but his partner relates to the high IQ him – she’s a very high achieving academic. So work it all out. I can’t!

January 24, 2013 @ 5:16pm
by Johnny B Gone

An insightful read. I really got a sense of your angst when face with these life changing decisions for your child. Can I recommend you read the work of Nikolas Rose, he provides an intriguing view on the proliferation of the psy-sciences in modern liberal democracies. Psychology is not medicine, not science, it's a pseudo science and it's influence in our society should be questioned at every level.

January 24, 2013 @ 5:20pm
by Margi Macdonald

Thank-you for sharing your family's experiences and insights Annemarie.
I'm glad for your son that he is feeling better in himself, and he's truly fortunate to have such a loving, thoughtful parent.
My daughter was wrongfully diagnosed with ADHD as 14 year old, and spent a couple of months medicated with Ritalin, and here's what I learned along the way:
There's an entire subculture around this drug and diagnosis, particularly among teenagers.
Teenage females will do almost anything not to be taken off Ritalin, as it's an appetite suppressant, and if your teenage daughter attends an 'elite' private girls' school ( as mine did) the pressure to be thin is unrelenting.
The drug is known by kids to be a performance- enhancer. There's a brisk and ever- hungry black market for Ritalin, particularly during exam time. Two years ago in
Brisbane, one tablet was selling for $60 in 'elite' private school cohorts.
The illicit use of Ritalin is endemic, and entrenched.
It's time schools drug- tested for it.
We don't accept drug cheats in sport, so why do we have our heads in the sand about Ritalin as an illicit academic performance enhancer?

January 24, 2013 @ 6:14pm
by Pete West

Of the many factors that we found were involved in our own sons ADD, diet played a major role. But there is a problem - the quality of food available in large areas of many Australian cities is quite dreadful. Fruit is picked in an unripe state - apples are particularly dreadful being mostly too old, and often cold stored and gassed, as well as waxed. Potatoes can be up to to a year old.

Very few fish shops sell genuinely fresh fish - it takes too long to get to the shelves. Bread is largely quite disgusting. The "fresh" bakers often seem to be fronts for reheating half cooked bread. What on earth has happened to Australian cheese? It is nearly always ruined by plastic wrapping. The milk often tastes stale

Everyone has their pet dislike in the fresh food area, but the bottom line is we need more direct supply chains from producer to retailer - the central marketing system just doesn't work, the fish marketing system is a disaster.

Schools have two opportunities each day to make sure all children are properly fed. But canteen food is mostly dreadful and there is no supervision of home supplied food. We wonder why our kids are having problems. And in case you wonder what backwater I am writing from - It's Sydney and I fully accept that Melbourn and Adelaide are nothing like as bad.

Australia needs to take a long hard look at its food supply.

January 24, 2013 @ 7:14pm
by Michelle Smith

Thanks Annemarie,
That was a wonderful read. Following on from reading the article in the New Yorker about high school, this filled a personal gap for me. I have a quirky, clever boy too. He sounds quite like your son in that he will say what is on his mind and doesn't appear to be bothered by 'authority' figures as much as were at that age. Again, maybe it's a boy thing.

'M' is only nine but we have had the last three year's teachers say he needs a professional diagnosis. We went through the public system and, just to make sure, also saw a private paediatrician - he appears to fall somewhere between gifted, Asperger's syndrome (which isn't considered a disability anymore) and ADHD - yet meets the specific diagnostic criteria for none.

Would I medicate him? In a heartbeat. Because he is suffering. I don't really care about school, I know that Max is a remarkably intelligent person and will live an authentic life - he already does. But it's as though somebody (we don't believe in god either) set the empathy level to extreme, gave him a photographic memory and a unique way of looking at the world. You made excellent points about the school system itself but I also worry about the brutal social stratifying that happens in high school.

January 24, 2013 @ 7:41pm
by Cate

Great article Annemarie, but your son didn't resit an IQ test - that was a test of attention eg the TOVA.

January 24, 2013 @ 9:05pm
by mary

And yet there are schools that don're subscribe to outdated pedagogical theories yet they're still deemed to be on the fringe. These issues with the one size version of education have been well and truly highlighted. Why is the old thinking still dominating?

January 24, 2013 @ 9:13pm
by Lara

I also have a bright son who fidgets. He is surrounded by medicated kids. He is now targeted as being "difficult and disrespectful" with behavioral issues. He has none of these things, he is just not the new norm. Out of it! Unfortunately the kids are becoming addicted to the crutch of meds to settle down, but when they have to apply for a job that required drug testing, they want to come off it, then fall apart without it! My conclusion is that it might help some boys and teachers to get through school, but is it a life long dependency? Will they ever feel life again, how does my son fit into this new drugged up world of boys, without his crutch?

January 25, 2013 @ 2:35pm
by Lori

He sounds like a wonderful kid. Don't medicate him into conformity.

January 26, 2013 @ 12:15am
by Anna

This is exactly why we chose to homeschool our son!!

January 26, 2013 @ 10:49am
by Tara

Only last night I spoke to an American who said she needed Ritalin to study and could study 13 hours straight using it.. Supposedly it's ridiculously easy to get in the states that her entire soccer team used it before taking exams.

January 28, 2013 @ 3:46am
by Luke

As a probable ADHD candidate myself. Don't medicate him.

His issue isn't that he can't sit still and concentrate, his issue is that he feels the teachers are mentally retarded and the stuff they're teaching is so damn obvious why the hell are they repeating it 3 times. What he doesn't get is that they have to teach to the slowest in the class and his disruptiveness makes that even slower.

My bet is that maths tutor had him spinning wheels around where he would normally be.

His life is going to be tough and he will have to learn skills that for others come naturally.
My advice (which is only worth a crooked penny, I am not a quack) for school is make it a competition.
Firstly - Sport, Sport, Sport every month of the year. My parents did this and I presume it was mostly to tire me out. Mostly it did, but I enjoyed it too.

See how quickly he can finish his homework - BUT every answer he gets wrong because he didn't check the question twice he has to do a chore. A 100% correct homework gets him something he wants (in the $5 range) This will be rare and frustrate the hell out of him. If he is like me checking something twice is hard, very hard, very very hard, your brain just wants to slide right off whatever it is you need to check a second time.

Every time he wants to talk in class, get him to draw a doodle that best represents the situation instead. Get him to show and explain the different doodles when he gets home. Be creative and funny as possible with the doodles, they can be abstract or concrete, his doodles, his rules but he has to say what he wants to say in class but with no words.

For study for exams - you're probably not going to win this one. I went my entire life, including uni, procrastinating, anything but actual study (It's how I learnt to juggle ). I would finally pick up the lecture book the night before (sometimes having to remove the outside wrapper first) and read it. I never saw much point in exams and only ever did enough to hit 60-70%. As a computer programmer I have found there is a technical term for it now, which I enjoy with a smile.
Just In Time Study or JIT Study
Just let him know that his JIT study has to get him slightly more marks then he needs to get into uni or graduate or pass - be clear on the result you expect. And get used to the statement "He is capable of so much more if only he would apply himself." I swear my teachers had a rubber stamp made with this statement and used to pass it around between themselves.

Oh and continually feed him new challenges, Rubix Cubes, Knots, Chemistry sets, Dominoes, building house of cards etc anything that involves both thinking and hand work.

January 29, 2013 @ 2:47pm
by Bel

Reply to Luke, many thanks for your comments.
My 8 year old son is most likely ADHD - per his teachers from his school. I don't want to put him on medication and have tried changing his diet - mostly to non processed foods & no preservatives.
I will try to implement a few of your suggestions this school year !

January 30, 2013 @ 1:44pm
by ash

seems what used to be considered the attributes of being a "boy" is now labelled adhd

it comes as no surprise that putting individuals on stimulants improves their performance - whether that attests to a medical condition, or the universal effects of stimulants is a very contentious point

if the unfortunate requirement of society is to "normalise" variation, i think we will be worse off for setting the distribution curve too narrowly

January 31, 2013 @ 9:06pm
by Ben

As a mental health specialist I have a few concerns- firstly IQ testing will not change whether you are on medication or not, this is a set and standard test which will not differ and if it does it is not properly administered. IQ is a test of ones cognitive abilities of which concentration does not account for changes if properly administered. Secondly anyone's academic performance will increase initially if they take a psycho-stimulant such as Ritalin, US fighter pilots have used it for years to increase attention. But this does not make it healthy or right. Long term effects of psycho-stimulant use are only now being published. Thirdly schools and in particular middle class state and private schools classify and grade children on attendance and following direction, not on creativity or intelligence. Any child can get A's if they sit and do the work, but that does not mean that they are any more intelligent or any more likely to be employed at a later date. Schools as institutions are outdated and not set up for the complex thinking situations that our kids are growing up in (listen or read anything by Sir Ken Robinson. If your child is happy, engaged socially and his behaviours are not creating adverse affects preventing him from doing things that he wants to then medication should not be considered. Good luck – and in any case always seek an alternate opinion as too many health professionals are more then happy to dial out the meds to get you out the door.

February 1, 2013 @ 3:34pm
by Gerri

my son was and still is a difficult personality to deal with despite being fiercely loyal, intelligent and very athletic.
however about 15 years ago i put my son on dexamphetamine for 2 reasons, (1) to shut the school up and (2) to prove to them that he was not adhd/add and so medication would not work.
it didn't work.
i was proven right and they hated me for it.
i had always been cooperative as a parent when it came to dealing with my son and continued to be so, but over this i stuck to my guns and discontinued the medication
however they made 6 months of the last year of my son's time at the school totally horrendous, hassled me continually about trivia, and only stopped when i said i had documented evidence of their bullying of us and threatened to go the dept.
i also told other parents about a local doctor with a far less medication oriented approach to child health and that infuriated the school
as a teacher i dealt every day with a wide variety of children and their parents but i still maintain to this day, that the way schools are set up and operate do not suit 75% of boys and an increasing number of girls for that matter.
i find it totally disgraceful that more and more boys mainly, are being medicated to "fit in' to school, society etc.
if medication is needed so much, then the system is broken, not the children stuck in it 9-3 for 5 days a week

February 3, 2013 @ 9:53pm
by damien

is there not a study out that indicates there is a growth arrest in children prescribed with the adhd drug.i caught a snippet of that on radio national (abc) this week.

February 5, 2013 @ 6:28pm
by Mick

Thanks for sharing your story. We have had a similar experience with our son who was attending a private Sydney school. A real teenage 'personality' who would question teachers, write and perform in his own plays and ignore homework (but get high marks when he did it). We were called in to the school counsellor and given the ultimatum of have him see a psychiatrist (with a view to ADHD treatment) or find an alternative school. We took him out of the school and he is now happier in a state school. Academically he is still failing - but we've decided that's who he is. Despite being very bright he just cannot be made to sit down and pay attention to lessons or to concentrate on completing an assignment or preparing for an exam. He'd rather be chatting and cooking up some new social event or money making scheme. He's just the opposite to his younger brother, Son B, who is studious, thorough, thoughtful and patient. Son A will do badly academically - are we being bad parents for deciding against Ritalin for him?

February 9, 2013 @ 9:04am
by Maxine Barry

I have worked in mainstream schools with young people for over 30 years, and I agree with everything the writer says - both for and against medication, for and against the diagnosis of ADHD, and finally, her critique of the failings of the education system - to which I add, the tail wags the dog. The narrow requirements of University TER rankings dictate the approach to teaching and learning in secondary school and I see them reaching down into, and increasingly stultifying primary education.

However, I have also seen what meds can do for kids who are correctly diagnosed. My conversion began when a mother of 8 came to our school begging us to admit her son to Year 8, with a history of expulsion from 4 schools. This lad did just fine with us and we never saw the crazy behaviours she told us about frankly. She had gone interstate finally, to obtain the diagnosis, after having to tolerate parent blame - not a highly educated woman, commonsense told her that it could hardly be a parenting issue when the other 7 kids were not exhibiting those behaviours!

Correct diagnosis is the key, and requires a team approach, preferably including the school's special education teacher, if it is lucky enough to have one - we are an endangered species.

February 9, 2013 @ 11:27am
by Philomena Lapsley

Why on earth would send a kid like this to a private churchie school? They don't want these kids. no matter what they promise. Talk about adding to the stress and piling on the misery

February 9, 2013 @ 1:21pm
by Simon Kreveld

A large part of masculinity is defiance. He who can stand up to the teacher, boss, bully and who can strike out and make their own path is often the man who is admired and respected. Are those who are obedient in school obedient in life and meekly submit to the commands of others? The smart arsed wit displayed in the class room may well be an indicator of the creative flair that is part a person's character and which may serve them much better in life than in the classroom. Yes we must all live within socially acceptable norms, yet drugging up boys to ensure they comply seems like a cheap shortcut. Much more difficult to harness their masculine energy and direct it into constructive enterprise.

February 10, 2013 @ 8:50am
by Chery kemp

This issue (medicating children for learning disorders) is not just a "boy" thing, and is also not confined to ADHD. My daughter was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age 5.We parents resisted medicating for a year after we were advised to when she was 7 - due to parental horror at the very thought of medicating such a young child -however at 8 her anxiety was through the roof, to the point where she had virtually shut down and ceased taking in new info, despite being nurtured in an autism support class at the time. We agreed to medicate with Zoloft. Her teacher was relieved. Her anxiety diminished to the extent she started to take minor risks - climbed trees, went "out of bounds" once at school (which the teachers were happy about in the circumstances, though they had to tell her not to do it again). At 14, she had no signs of anxiety, so the paediatrician recommended going off the Zoloft, which we did. She rocks more now she is med-free, but is otherwise fine. Sometimes parents do need to consider medicating their children when advised by experts to do so, (but the condition has to be diagnosed correctly), but the meds may not be needed forever. I have to agree also that the education system can struggle with children who do not conform - though public schools are much better with non-conformists - my daughter's year 2 teacher at her public primary school used to take her hand and lead her to school assembly so she wouldn't run off. He didn't mind - he used to laugh about it - said it made her look like the "teacher's pet".

February 11, 2013 @ 8:15pm
by Peter Sommerville

An interesting commentary on a very personal experience. Not for anyone to judge as every experience is different.

A son of a member of my own family was also diagnosed with ADHD. His mother, who actually does have some medical knowledge, steadfastly resisted all recommendations to medicate him. Instead she focussed on the consequent learning and behavioural difficulties, and took steps to manage these without medication.

That boy is now a young man. He is still a little bit dreamy, and is not likely to be an Einstein, but he will be a constructive member of our society.

But every experience is different. And thanks for the article.

February 12, 2013 @ 12:48pm
by Martina Enzo

Research discussed on a recent episode of the Health Report (ABC Radio National) shows that there are effects for boys of long term (2-3+ years) medication with Ritalin. It negatively affects physical development. Yep it stunts their growth.

February 13, 2013 @ 12:14pm
by Chrispydog

Our son has travelled the same path,(even been to the same Sydney clinic!), and has now entered a selective school for year seven. Without medication for his ADHD it's very doubtful he'd be where he is now. His early primary years, without a diagnosis, were very troubling for us and him. Our path to medication was also not taken lightly, but the transformation was clear, he was coping so much better both academically and emotionally with Ritalin.

People who've not been involved with this process talk about kids being 'drugged into submission' and it's simply not true, not in our our experience. Our son is happier, much more emotionally stable, and able to function at his very high intellectual level. As one teacher said when he was briefly 'off his meds', it "wasn't hard to tell!".

And like the author's son, he's madly into Minecraft, engineering, computing and has a voracious intellect. When he plays the piano, whether Bach or Bartok, no one could for a moment say he was 'drugged into submission', but we also know he would never have achieved what he has without some chemical help.

Annemarie, I think you've done the right thing, and if your son is happy and creative, that's all you could possibly ask.

February 17, 2013 @ 3:28pm
Show previous 31 comments
by Heather

Thank you Annemarie, this is the first article on the subject that has come anywhere near the process my son and I went down during his school years.

By the way, I don't think the decision to medicate is any more a decision to 'do it to my child' than discipline, or cutting out junk food etc - things you do for the best outcome for your child, not your immediate convenience as a parent, or to ward off ignorant social criticism.

My son's educational pathway was circuitous for the reasons you also outline, but after a few years out of from his HSC he decided to apply for university entrance (a shock given the ill-fitting structure of schooling as you describe), and was accepted. His own decision, but one perhaps he could never have made without getting through his school years with all the extra support from enlightened teachers, from the home front, and yes, from medication.

By the way, I copped all the 'bad parenting' stuff because I was a mature aged single parent and we all know what that means don't we.! Most of those judgments came from people who didn't realise I had an adult son who was well adjusted and successful in his field - he didn't have ADHD but he had the same mother.

Thank you for sharing. The decision is so bloody hard without all the usually ignorant jmedia coverage that goes along with the issue. By the way Peter, my son is 6ft 3 inches and still growing - he wouldn't mind some stunting.....

February 19, 2013 @ 11:37am
by Heather

Sorry, that last comment was directed at Martina, not Peter! Please correct.

February 19, 2013 @ 11:39am
by Chris

This is the best article i have ever read on adhd!I am a parent also feeling guilty about medicating my child too, he is so talented and funny and remembers lines to all my old school music and movies , and has a beautiful kind respectful attitude to his peers.I see the difference when he takes the meds too,he is a lot more focused and less fidgety.It would of been so hard for these kids to be told to sit still for along period at school,and then if not get told off or sent out of class for something they have no control over.I feel alot more relieved now for the decision I have made,thanks for your honesty :)And some of the best actors and musicians have Adhd.there is nothing to be ashamed of when your brain is a ferrari not a volvo,LOl

August 30, 2013 @ 12:37am
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