Neurodiversity, Play, and the So-Called ADHD Child
This 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.