If you know a boy between the ages of 4 and 17, there’s a pretty good chance he’s been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to a recent report by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every five male students in this age group, a whopping 20 percent, has been labeled with ADHD; two-thirds take prescribed medicine for it. That’s a 16 percent jump in just the past six years—troubling statistics for a couple of reasons.
For starters, there’s no definitive way to diagnose ADHD. There’s no blood test, stool sample, or other physical marker. Health care providers must rely on symptoms like inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. In my experience, the majority of boys exhibit these symptoms on occasion, if not regularly. If they see a girl’s braid, they’re likely to pull it. Impulsivity, or typical boy behavior? If they’re asked to sit at a desk for a lengthy amount of time, many will begin to tap their feet, rap their hands on the desk, or lose interest in what’s happening at the front of the classroom. Hyperactivity and inattention or, again, normal behavior befitting the male persuasion? I guess that depends on whom you ask.
And that’s sort of scary. Because the prescription medicine that kids take for ADHD isn’t anything to be taken lightly. It can have some pretty serious side effects, including suppressed appetite and, subsequently, reduced expected height and weight gain, as well as sleeplessness and, in some instances, tics—when muscles involuntarily contract, resulting in embarrassing facial movements or even uncontrollable vocalizations like snorting or coughing.
Without a doubt, some kids do suffer from ADHD and, for them, an accurate diagnosis and prescription medication can mean academic salvation. But it seems quite likely that scores of boys are erroneously being saddled with a diagnosis of ADHD when, perhaps all they really need is a little more recess time; more stimulating, active-style learning in the classroom; and/or consistent discipline that enables them to understand without a doubt when it’s time to goof around and when it’s time to buckle down.
Unless these sorts of recommendations are employed more systematically, we’re likely to see the number of boys being diagnosed with ADHD continue to climb.
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