energetic childThis blog post of mine originally appeared in Gail and Paul Dennison’s new website Hearts at Play, on Thursday, August 29, 2013.   The Dennison’s are the co-founders of Brain Gym® which has helped so many kids with learning difficulties achieve success in school, home, and life.  I am happy to connect with them on this very important topic of the misdiagnosis of millions of children as ADHD:

In May of this year, the American Psychiatric Association released a new revision of its “sacred text”—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—used by mental health professionals, insurance companies, HMOs, and other power brokers in determining whether a person has a psychiatric disorder.

In the DSM-5, they have expanded the criteria for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to include children who began showing symptoms of ADHD as late as twelve years old (the previous criterion was seven years old). This is going to open the floodgates for many more children to be identified as ADHD, and millions will be diagnosed and stigmatized with a negative label (the label has three negative words in it: deficit, hyperactivity, and disorder).

While it’s true that these kids do have neurological differences when compared to typically developing children, these are developmental differences only. The best research we have suggests that the brains of kids labeled ADHD mature on average three years later than the norm (Shaw et al., 2007).

This finding from neuroscience makes sense. Kids diagnosed with ADHD generally seem to act younger than their years. Among other things, they’re more playful than kids their own age. The larger question here should be: Is this such a bad thing? Play, after all, is one of the most important activities that human beings engage in. Great scientists, artists, and thinkers have frequently compared their own creative process to that of children at play.

When children play, they inhabit the fertile world between actuality and possibility. They take something that is from their own fantasy (say, a trip to the moon) and combine it with something real in their environment (perhaps an empty cardboard box), and out of that encounter they create something new (like a “rocket ship”). This is the creative process. And the fact that kids diagnosed with ADHD hold on to this playfulness for a longer period of time than the average child should be regarded as a mark of strength, not disability.

Recently, I’ve been writing and lecturing on the topic of neurodiversity, and I think this new idea is tailor-made for making sense of the abilities of so-called ADHD children. Neurodiversity says that we should look at brain differences such as ADHD, learning disabilities, and autism in the same way that we regard diversity in nature or diversity in culture. Instead of using a disease-based paradigm focused on deficits, we should be using a strength-based approach that regards these kids as part of the wonderful diversity of life.

This approach puts the emphasis on the positive. In this instance, it places the focus on the playfulness, curiosity, imagination, and other childlike characteristics that kids with ADHD seem to hold on to for a longer period of time than “neurotypical”’ kids. There’s actually a term that’s useful for describing this youthfulness: neoteny. It means “holding youth’” and refers to people who act younger than their age. Eminent thinkers like Harvard University evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and Princeton University anthropologist Ashley Montagu have pointed out that neoteny is a positive evolutionary step in humanity. It’s the direction toward which evolution is moving. These children identified as ADHD are not disabled; they’re actually the vanguard of our species!

With play being under attack these days from a culture steeped in too much technology (kids sitting in front of a screen instead of out playing cops and robbers), too much testing in the schools (tests don’t reward students for creativity or playfulness), and too much fear of litigation (playgrounds are getting more and more minimal because of fears of lawsuits), we need the playfulness of kids to renew us, to keep us flexible, to bring us alive. It’s only a testament to the times we live in that we take the very children who are the most alive and playful, slap a medical label on them, and say they have a disorder.

The disorder is in our culture, folks, not in these children. We need a paradigm shift so that children who are being labeled ADHD can be recognized for the amazing kids that they really are. We should take the cue from them and learn to be more playful in our own lives, whatever our age. We should regard these kids not as disordered but as wonderfully diverse children who can wake us up from our dogmatic slumbers and transform the society in which we live.


Shaw, P., et al. “Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is characterized by a delay in cortical maturation.’’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 4, 2007, Vol. 104 No. 49, pp.19649–19654.

For more information about the value of play for children diagnosed with ADHD, see my book The Myth of the ADHD Child, Revised Edition: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion

This article was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

Follow me on Twitter:  @Dr_Armstrong

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For more information about the importance of play in the development of the child, and the need to incorporate it into school life, see my book If Einstein Ran the Schools:  Revitalizing U.S. Education.









This post brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com

Follow me on Twitter: @Dr_Armstrong

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12 Responses
  1. Margo O'Connell

    When a significant portion of a population shows a specific trait, it is no longer a disorder, but merely a difference. In this case we put children into artificial environments, restrict their movement and chatter, demand production, and pathologize those who resist institutionalization. In a more agrarian society, they might learn through hands on apprenticeship. Reading through the comments here, I am struck by how many educators agree our system is broken.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Margo. I’ve often pointed out that in an agrarian society, the kids diagnosed ADHD in our society would probably be the gifted ones. Thom Hartmann’s work has been helpful in this regard (his metaphor of people diagnosed with ADHD as ”hunters in a farmers world.”

  3. JM

    What a load of ill-educated tripe.
    From someone with significant ADHD, your “advocacy” is neither needed nor appreciated.
    Essentially your argument here boils down to “this disability is cute and reminds us all about the value of childlike wonder so maybe it shouldn’t be considered a disability at all!” Hooray!
    You’ve decided to focus on ONE (percieved and unverifiable) aspect of ADHD that MIGHT happen to be positive. After which you throw in some wonderful anti-technology, nostalgic, noble savage, woe-is-our-culture cliche’s as if they justify your intellectual point.
    This is your blog, so I’m guessing this comment wont show up on here for long (if at all), but I’d like to give you a window into how this article reads to someone who has struggled his whole life with ADHD.
    You got ONE thing right when you used someone else’s research to say that ADHD brains often develop at a later age than an average child’s. What you left out is that for half of us (or roughly 4% of adults in the US) that late-stage development doesn’t happen at all. Which means that those same failings of executive function that you find so adorable in ADHD children, linger on to affect half of those kids into adulthood.
    Adults with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD are ten times more likely to attempt suicide, ten times more likely to be involved in an unwanted pregnancy, and 78% of them suffer from anxiety or depression in a given year (compared to 51% of normal adults). So pardon me if I remain unmoved by your dismissal of this disorder under the guise of “childlike playfulness”.
    Go watch this:
    and take notes so that the next time you go out for a speaking engagement or write another feel-good book to prop up your academic credentials, you might realize that you’re talking about a group of people who DO exist, DO have a disorder which challenges them every day, and DO care when you dismiss them or co-opt them as your personal mascot.

  4. Thank you for your passionate response to my blog on ADHD, play, and neoteny. I understand that the issue of ADHD is a very complicated one, and that people who are diagnosed with ADHD represent a very heterogeneous group. The developmental dimension that I focused on in my blog post is only one of a much larger collection of issues that need to be reckoned with in the grab-bag term ADHD. Another important issue relates to links between ADHD and emotional distress, familial adversity, comorbidities, and trauma. And there are other threads as well. I am working on an update to my book The Myth of the ADHD Child, and while I don’t believe you will be happy with the book when it comes out (sometime next year), at least you’ll get a broader picture of what I am aiming for in trying to help parents who have kids that receive a diagnosis of ADHD. I am sorry that you did not feel seen or heard in my blog post. I can understand your anger, inasmuch as I suffer from a mood disorder and would probably be livid if someone tried to make light of that disorder (although in my book The Power of Neurodiversity I actually DID write about the ”up-side” of depression – it was very difficult to write about since I was in the middle of a major depression at the time.

  5. Cindy Kohutek

    I love…love this article. Thank you!

    I love working with those “ADHD” students. They make me excited about their possibilities! I love the challenge!!

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