In this video, part 2 of my series of videos on my book The Myth of the ADHD Child, I look at how we can use a developmental perspective to make sense of ADHD symptoms (rather than explaining them by seeing them as due to a medical disorder). I’ve included the transcript to the video below for those who would like to read it and/or take notes or quotes from it.
”Hi, I’m Dr. Thomas Armstrong. This is part 2 of my 12-part video series on The Myth of the ADHD Child, where I describe ways of viewing ADHD symptoms that don’t rely upon the existence of a medical disorder In this video I talk about taking a developmental perspective.
In my book, The Myth of the ADHD: 101 Ways to improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span without Drugs, Labels or Coercion, I suggest that one explanation for the rise in ADHD symptoms in the U.S. and elsewhere, is the change in developmental expectations for children’s behavior over the past fifty years.
All infants have ADHD symptoms. They’re impulsive (this kid just hauls into the cake on this slide without thinking about the consequences). They’re hyperactive, moving here and there on a whim. And they’re distractible, having their attention turned toward any noise, voice, light, movement, or other change in the environment. To say it again, ADHD symptoms are NORMAL in an infant. Or to put it another way, all infants have ADHD. The brain is undergoing a lot of changes at this time with brain connections and brain insulation being wired just like the interior of a house under construction.
Over time, the nervous system of the child and teen matures, and the young adult eventually develops the ability to control their attention and behavior to fit more closely with cultural norms. Instead of ploughing his head into this cake, this young man is keen on celebrating the significance of the event with sparklers that he’s careful to hold away from him. His nervous system has matured.
The thing is, not everybody develops neurologically at the same rate. Just like plants, we all have our own timetables for growth and development.
Recent research has pointed strong to the fact that the brains of kids diagnosed with ADHD develop LATER than typically developing kids – in some cases 2 to 3 years later. And its important to note: their brains follow a normal pattern. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with their brain development, they just mature somewhat later than neurotypical kids. This isn’t a disorder, it’s a different pattern of development. In a society that allows for differences in rates of behavior, this would mean that kids labeled ADHD would not be seen as having a medical disorder at all. That’s one reason why I say that ADHD is a myth.
This graphic [slide 7] shows the areas of the brain where the most delay is found in the brain of the child diagnosed with ADHD. Of particular note, are the areas of the frontal lobe that are still developing (the smooth rounded part of the two small brains depicted). The frontal lobes control executive functions like delaying gratification, following rules, and remembering things. These are areas often seen as problematic in kids diagnosed with ADHD. But we can see here, it’s not because of any miswirng or defect or disorder, but because the brain connections are still being built according to their own temporal timetable. It reminds me of the slogan I’ve seen on badges and signs: ‘’Please be patient with me, God isn’t through with me yet!’’
When we see a child who acts younger than his peers, we often fall back on terms like ‘’immature’’ and ‘’delayed.’’ But the interesting thing is that some of our greatest geniuses had some of these same behaviors. For example:
Albert Einstein – who said that he never really grew up – and once told a colleague: ‘’ “People like you and me never grow old. We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.”
There’s a term that refers to this quality of remaining childlike as we grow up.
The term is ‘’neoteny.’’ This is Latin for ‘’holding youth.’’ It means the retardation of maturity. Just think of the song ‘’fairy tales will come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart.’’
You can see neoteny on a purely physical level in these photos. You see a baby ape and an adult one. The baby ape looks very human-like, but those traits are lost in adulthood. So, no neoteny. No retention of childlike characteristics into adulthood. On the other hand, you see a young Phil Donahue (I was on his show once in the 1980’s and this is from a book that he wrote called The Human Animal). You can see that even though he’s matured in many ways, he still has the same basic features, the same shaped forehead, the same curved chin that he did as a child. That’s neoteny – ‘’the holding of youth.’
The thing is, most people have never heard the term ‘’neoteny’’ but it turns out to be one of the most significant aspects of being human. As the evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane says ‘’a major evolutionary trend in social beings is greater prolongation of childhood and retardation of maturity.’’
There are a couple of books that go into this subject [Growing Young, and Ontogeny and Phylogeny]. These books are out of print now sadly but they’re really interesting. Stephen Jay Gould was a paleontologist at Harvard, one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century, and he suggests neoteny is so critical to evolution because it provides ‘’flexibility’’ to human behavior, which makes it possible to adapt to changing environmental pressures.
Ashley Montagu was an anthropologist from Princeton and his book Growing Young is even more relevant to the topic because he says that there are psychological neotenous traits as well as physical ones.
Some of the neotenous traits of childhood Montagu mentions in his book include curiosity, playfulness, imagination, wonder, creativity, and inventiveness. He suggests that these are vital traits that need to be preserved into adulthood to keep us evolving, creating new ideas, and developing new ways of being so that we don’t blow ourselves off the planet.
There hasn’t been much published lately about neoteny, except for (ahem!) my latest book, a novel called Childless. Neoteny is a key theme in the novel. The book is about a childless child psychologist who tries to foil a US. government plot to have childhood declared as a medical disorder and eliminated from the human genome. Military geneticists are essentially going to do away with childhood and make it so that a person is born and then within a matter of seconds pops into adulthood (I call these people ‘’Popcorn Adults’’). But I also have a second group of individuals in the plot that are busy trying to develop a genetic fix for prolonging childhood into late adulthood and that’s where the neoteny fits in. You can buy the book on Amazon, only $2.99 as a Kindle or ebook.
So, it turns out that the neurological delays of ADHD are not only okay, they’re better than okay! We should all be so lucky! We need that childlike spirit that these kids give us – and calling it a disorder is a disservice to these kids, and also to the human species in general.
The problem is that we’re making this situation even worse by the schooling practices we engage in. I’m going to be going into the educational perspective in a future video, but for now, let me point out that studies have revealed that kids who are young for their grade (who just make the cut-off for age in order to be enrolled in a specific grade) are more apt to be diagnosed with ADHD and medicated, as you see in this New York Times article. These are not ADHD kids when they go into the grade, but they are by the time they leave. And from a developmental point of view, we can understand why this is: they’re younger than anyone else in the class, they already have a brain that’s developmentally delayed, and there’s one more feature that really breaks the camel’s back, and that’s that we’re requiring kids to do rigorous academic work at earlier and earlier ages.
What we used to require first and second graders to do, we’re now requiring kindergarteners to do. A survey of kindergarten teachers that was done a few years back indicated that in 1998 only 31% of kindergarten teachers agreed with the statement ‘’most children should learn to read in kindergarten.’’ Twelve years later, 80% of teachers believed that kindergarteners should learn to read. I’ve heard teachers say, ‘’you know, I don’t like giving these worksheets in nursery school, but it gets really rough in kindergarten next year.’’ So, we’re pushing down the academic pressure onto learners at younger and younger ages. This isn’t good for any child, but for a child whose neurological equipment is less developed than their peer, this adds insult to injury.
A key feature of what’s been going on with our more academic attitude toward early childhood is the loss of play. Kindergartens used to be places where kids spent most of their time playing (keep in mind that the word is German for ‘’children’s gardens’’). Now to suggest that kids spend most of their time playing in kindergarten (or even nursery school) scandalizes a lot of parents and teachers, and yet according to neuroscience Jaak Panksepp, play may actually diminish ADHD symptoms. So why do we say a child has ADHD if it’s just a matter of letting him play more so that he can be symptom free. I hope you can see that this is another reason I don’t see ADHD as a medical disorder.
Play is one of the most significant activities that human beings engage in. To lose the ability to play means to calcify the spirit. And by play, I don’t mean soccer or video games. I mean child-initiated adventures guided by the imagination and improvisation to create new worlds..
For more in-depth information about this developmental perspective, and other themes of this video series, see my book The Myth of the ADHD Child: 101 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion, available through online stores like Amazon, national chains like Barnes and Noble, and independent bookstores worldwide.
For educators, I’ve written the book ADD/ADHD Alternatives in the Classroom.
This blog post was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.
Follow me on Twitter: @Dr_Armstrong