Ratha (papertygre) wrote,

Review of /The Gift of ADHD/

My dad lent me The Gift of ADHD, which just came out. It was hyped as giving a fresh new perspective on ADD, as not a disorder but a different way of functioning which is to be respected in its own right.

I read it on my trip (specifically, at Angyl's) and my impressions are as follows. It's a short self-help type pop psychology book, full of little participatory exercises for you and your child. The premise didn't strike me as devastatingly original, since the message (that ADD may not be a "disorder," just "different") was advanced at least as early as 1997 by Thom Hartmann in Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception (this book advanced the now-semi-famous "hunter/farmer" thesis of ADD, i.e., that people with ADD are like hunters with sharp senses and mental sprinting power, but those without ADD are more like farmers with their patience and sustained concentration -- this turned traditional wisdom on its head and suggested that non-ADD might actually be the less "natural" type of mental function.) Still, The Gift of ADHD made its point well with such observations as -- why is it a disorder to be hyper-active and attention-deficit, but not a disorder to be hypo-active and attention-surplus? And in today's world where in adults, depression and obesity are epidemic, why is hyperactivity and curiosity in children demonized and medicated away?

Another astute observation in the book: If you say someone has an attention "deficit," you don't really mean that they have less total attention compared to others; you probably really mean that they aren't paying enough attention to what you want them to pay attention to. This complaint often comes from teachers who are annoyed that students won't pay attention to them or their classes, when the kids are obviously perfectly well capable of paying attention to things that interest them. (So if anything, it's an obedience or a discipline deficit, or perhaps a willpower or delayed gratification deficit, but not an attention deficit per se.) In fact, this seems to have been my problem. I was diagnosed with ADD because I wouldn't pay attention in school. But I have no problem paying attention; in fact, if I have a neurological problem, it is probably in focusing too tightly and not task-switching often enough. This may be a form of overcompensation I developed to try to fix my distraction problems and succeeded too well at, but even if so this supports my point all the more. It is also often observed that an ADD kid can be highly devoted to mastering certain video games, etc. So the case is successfully made for me that this aspect of ADD is just a form of labeling and punishing attentional rebelliousness in children.

The book claims that ADHD children are often more interested in the natural world than in canned, oversimplified lessons fed them in school. The book suggests that you find ways to let them explore nature and generate questions that they can then relate to their lessons. It also suggests that the bewilderment they sometimes express in school which gives the impression that they're totally lost may actually express a deeper appreciation of the complexity and subtlety of the underlying issues, as opposed to a pat memorization of spoon-fed theories and facts.

The book also devotes an entire chapter to the issue of lowered self-esteem due to the ADD diagnosis. Apparently some kids throw up their hands and go "why should I try to do well in school and behave? If I have ADD, then I can't ever succeed at it!" The chapter even goes so far as to suggest that ADD is actually self-created by the self-esteem complex generated by the diagnosis, i.e., that much of the negative behavior in ADD children happens because the children perceive it as permitted or even expected of them. I think this is overblown; ADD was not invented out of nothing -- whatever it is, it existed before it became a widespread diagnosis. I had the problems I had in grade school long before I was diagnosed (I was diagnosed in college as a corollary to my brother's diagnosis, and, incidentally, I count this as lucky, because he was medicated and I was not, and it seems like the medication ultimately was detrimental for him.) Still, there may be a point if you consider that even if the term "ADD" is not attached, if a kid becomes convinced through experience that there must be something different or wrong about them, it may from there become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps the most startling idea in the book is that children with ADD might actually be emotionally hyper-receptive. If a kid acts out, perhaps they are picking up on the nervousness of the teacher, or the annoyance of the younger brother, or the fear of the parent, etc. The ADD child picks up these signals and then doesn't actually know that the feelings aren't their own, so they act on them impulsively. The chapter then goes into exercises to help the child do a time-out, examine their feelings, and then act appropriately (talk about it, for example). I was pretty stunned by this idea. Perhaps, for example, my peer rejection was partly due to other kids being uncomfortable with my over-perceptiveness -- maybe it made them uncomfortable the way a mirror in a room can be distracting and uncomfortable. This is an idea I'm planning to explore more. But anyway, the general idea is that ADD people are sensitive and perceptive, an emphatically positive thing rather than the negative that you'd expect from a "disorder."

Finally, there is no discussion of ADD vs. ADHD (the book treats ADHD only and ignores the alternative, non-hyperative type). Personally, I kind of think that non-hyperactive ADD is a hack, a fake invention to try to explain a complex phenomenon more conveniently. As mentioned above, even though I am supposedly a "non-hyperactive" ADD person, I actually seem to have problems with over-focusing rather than distractibility. Also as mentioned above, perhaps this is simply an overcompensation technique that has become ingrained, but I am stil skeptical. I think there may be no such thing as non-hyperative ADD at all. But there are still enough similarities between myself and the topics discussed in the book for me to consider it an interesting and worthwhile read.

The book concludes with suggestions about alternative therapies: CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), neurofeedback (sounds expensive but very cool! I want!!), and Montessori teaching (this is currently a front runner for what I will do with my kids if I have any and can't homeschool them).

So in all, the book has succeeded in cementing my belief that ADD is not a disorder, and may even be an indication of talent. It has been suggested that with ritalin and the like, we may actually be attempting to medicate away genius and creativity in the name of convenience and conformity. I have another thought, though, which I expressed to kenoubi on the phone. The book gives a bunch of psychological exercises for you to do with your child -- for example, one where you imagine two knights, "Sir Try-a-Lot" and "Sir Why-Try", and then make up their adventures kind of like Goofus and Gallant. In this way you try to help your child overcome the hopelessness they may be feeling from an ADD diagnosis. There are these kinds of exercises for many other aspects of ADD too, like to teach ways to deal with not wanting to concentrate, etc. But something occurred to me. These scenarios seem to assume that the parent is already spending lots of time and attention on their child but that the child isn't being taught the right things, and so the exercises give suggestions for more effective things to do. However, I think that the problem is probably that the parent isn't spending the time on the child in the first place. In my case, I didn't do my homework in grade school, even when repeatedly punished for it, but I really think that if one of my parents had sat down with me in the evening, which I can't remember them ever doing, and helped me get started, you know, begin to just get accustomed to the practice of doing the homework in the evening without resenting it -- I think that such a simple action of attention and direct assistance might have been all it would have taken for me to stop rebelling so drastically. And so it might be with a lot of ADD kids -- I think people make the mistake of trying to tell kids what to do, instead of showing them. And kids need attention in the form of shared activities. Doing the little games in this book seems way over the top to me. Just spending the time with them, and helping attack some of their problems in tandem with them, seems like the way to show them how to get started and show them that it's not impossible. But if that's a major message of the book, that it's better to spend time and attention on your kids' behavioral problems and show them how to attack their difficulties rather than medicating them and continuing to look away -- then that's a valuable message and one that I definitely endorse.
Tags: books, cognition, culture, psychology
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