There are many topics within the child psychiatry community that are controversial. How many kids really deserve a diagnosis of bipolar disorder? Which type of therapy works best? Is cannabis a gateway drug? The existence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as a legitimate psychiatric entity, however, is not one of them.
Despite this fact, there remains considerable controversy in the public about how “real” ADHD actually is. Social media, blogs, and even entire books have been written that disparage the diagnosis and even suggest that ADHD was fabricated by the pharmaceutical industry to sell medications. Although these publications and posts generally ignore the scientific literature or at least twist it beyond recognition, there are several aspects of ADHD that legitimately cause more confusion and less confidence about the diagnosis, relative to other common pediatric problems. This column attempts to describe and contextualize these elements so that pediatricians can be more fully informed when they are called to respond to some of the allegations against ADHD that often are brought up by families.
Hunter is a 6-year-old boy who presents with his mother and father for “behavioral concerns.” He always has been an energetic child, but the school has been having increasing difficulties with his behavior. Hunter struggles to stay in his seat and take part in quiet activities. His teacher needs to give multiple reminders per day about not interrupting others or speaking out in class. Without redirection, Hunter typically loses focus in class and does not complete his work. Because of these difficulties, the question of ADHD arose during a recent parent-teacher conference. While Hunter’s mother acknowledges these behaviors and notes similar ones at home, the father is resisting any further evaluation, claiming that Hunter “is just being a boy.” The father notes that he acted similarly as a child and “turned out okay.” When the mother tried to research ADHD online, she encountered several sites that claimed that the diagnosis of ADHD was “made up” by drug companies wanting “to turn kids into zombies.” At the appointment, the parents state that they want their son to succeed and be happy, but are concerned about some of the things they have read on the Internet.
This example represents a common dilemma for parents who encounter so many mixed messages when doing background research on ADHD. Although the legitimacy of ADHD has been supported in literally hundreds of research studies that have examined areas such as genetics, neuropsychological testing, and brain imaging1,2, some of the lingering doubts about ADHD validity are rooted in characteristics of the diagnosis that do differ from some nonpsychiatric diagnoses. At the same time, however, further inspection reveals that these qualities exist for many other entities that have received far less public criticism. Three of these main qualities include the following:
1. ADHD is a dimensional rather than binary entity. Despite the fact that the current nomenclature continues to frame ADHD as an all-or-nothing diagnosis, there is now overwhelming scientific evidence that it is much more accurately conceptualized as a dimension3. As such, there is no clear-cut boundary between what should be judged as “typical” levels of attention and activity and ADHD. As written in a previous column4, in some ways the label of ADHD is a lot like the label of someone being tall, with some individuals clearly falling into the category of “tall” or “not tall,” while many others could be considered in-between. However, many of the most common nonpsychiatric conditions such as hypertension and hypercholesterolemia also exist this way without high levels of public controversy.
2. ADHD lacks a specific known neurobiologic marker that can be measured by a lab or neuroimaging test. As mentioned, there is a vast literature supporting the idea that the brains of people with ADHD are different from those without ADHD, but these differences tend to describe quantitative differences in regional brain volume, cortical thickness, activity levels, or connectivity rather than a discrete “thing” that a radiologist can point to on a scan. Given the dimensional nature of ADHD and the broad brain processes required for complex functions such as attention and motor activity, the lack of a specific and universal “lesion” underlying ADHD is to be expected, yet it still remains easy ammunition for those who criticize the diagnosis. Again, very similar cases can be made for other entities such as autism or low intelligence, which few argue are not real but also have no reliable biomarker to support them.
3. Medications often are used to treat ADHD. The diagnosis of ADHD would probably be far less controversial if one of its primary treatments did not involve psychiatric medications. While it is probably fair to say that the many nonpharmacologic approaches to ADHD are quite underutilized, it seems a stretch to use potential overreliance on medication as a legitimate reason to question the validity of a diagnosis. Opiate abuse also is a problem in this country, but that doesn’t mean a person’s pain doesn’t exist. As a practical tip, it can be reassuring for families to hear explicitly from their physician that “zombification” is not considered an acceptable medical outcome and that the prescribing clinician will promptly deal with any side effects that might occur with treatment5.
Understanding these aspects about ADHD and how they are misinterpreted in the media can help families make more informed and comfortable decisions about their child’s care in collaboration with their pediatrician. It also is important for pediatricians to be proactive in distributing reliable and science-backed material to the public in this new age of information overload.
The pediatrician hears the family’s concerns and discusses the evidence supporting the scientific legitimacy of ADHD, as well as some of the qualities of the diagnosis that have led to its controversy. The parents are reassured but would like to proceed carefully and cautiously with further work-up and treatment. The pediatrician sends the family home with some quantitative rating scales to be completed by Hunter’s parents and teacher. She also makes a plan to begin monitoring several health promotion areas that could be impacting Hunter’s behavior including sleep quality, physical activity, screen time, and nutrition.
4.. Pediatric News; published online Aug. 27, 2014.
Dr. Rettew is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine, Burlington. Follow him on Twitter @PediPsych.