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The Therapy Sessions
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The advantage of ADHD

When I used to teach chemistry at Villanova, I was annoyed by a growing problem in universities today. I wrote a piece on it and published it in the college paper, and I got myself in a little hot water.

Here is the piece, and there are footnotes at the bottom:
On the first day of class, one of my students spoke with me privately. I must give him fifty percent longer than his competition on tests and quizzes, he told me. He has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I must keep this secret. If the other students find out, they are likely to feel cheated at the special advantage he gets.

They should.

Learning Disabilities (which increasingly include disorders as benign as “Test Taking Anxiety”) are becoming common at the college level: Currently, anywhere from three to five percent of students claim to have ADHD or a similar learning disability(1), and the number is growing (2).

These students are entitled to special privileges: extra time to take tests, free tutoring, private (sometimes unmonitored) testing environments, exemptions from standard disciplinary rules, personal note takers and, in some instances, laptop computers (3). Some psychiatrists even believe ADHD students should have special access to calculators and reference books on tests (4). All of these “accommodations” are given confidentially, and no mention of this advantage is made on their transcripts. When these “special” students take the SAT, MCAT, and LSAT (the medical and law school admissions tests), the tests are un-timed and can be taken privately (5).

It is a chilling thought: This college student, who today can’t take a timed test or gets nervous trying to think in a room with other students, could tomorrow be your child’s emergency room doctor.

I don’t deny that ADHD students are different. They are. And learning disabilities like dyslexia are very real. But despite all the opinions from the “experts,” I continue to be an ADHD agnostic.

Psychiatrists look down on people who, like me, suspect that most of these “learning disabilities” might – just possibly - be symptoms of undisciplined home environments. They know - they just know - that such thoughts are the prejudices of unwashed commoners, people unblessed with advanced degrees in psychiatry.

But even the psychiatrists have their doubts.

In 1998, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommended “a more consistent set of diagnostic procedures and practice guidelines (6),” and added that “further research is necessary to firmly establish ADHD as a brain disorder (7),” leaving open the possibility that ADHD might be an environmentally determined problem. The ADHD explosion is clearly a largely American phenomena (8), and its “sufferers” tend to be male, and richer and whiter than the general population (9).

But psychiatrists have been busy since then, and ADHD diagnoses have increased alarmingly (10).

Fearful of lawsuits from parents (11) who can’t understand the academic sluggishness of their undisciplined children, schools plunged in headfirst. Society’s bill for special education was $40 billion in 1995(12), much of that coming because of the new learning disability trend. To pay for these expensive, mandatory federal programs, districts turn to the only revenue source available: They raise school taxes (13).

The money is often wasted. As the NIH sadly concludes: there are “consistent findings that despite the improvement in core symptoms” due to Ritalin and expensive therapy, “there is little improvement in academic achievement or social skills” in children treated for ADHD (14).

A joint report from the Progressive Policy Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation laments that the education community now “attempts to serve an ever-growing population of youngsters with an ever-lengthening list of problems and difficulties, some of them ambiguous in origin, subjective in identification, and uncertain as to a solution…particularly in the LD (Learning Disability) area (15).”

These students are now filtering into our colleges, where they often receive the same unfair advantages they received in high school. Sadly, very few academics have been able to bring themselves to an amazingly simple conclusion about knowledge:

The ability to concentrate on a problem and solve it quickly is not an optional aspect of competence.

It is an integral part of competence.

But what happens next? Is there really any demand for workers who, because of their documented inability to concentrate will take, say, fifty percent longer to do the same job as their peers?

Of course there isn’t.

An employee who takes fifty percent longer to do a job is going to be fired, especially if he plans to bill his company for the extra time. These people will learn to work as fast and as well as their peers, some say. But if they can do this, it calls into question whether this disability was ever a disability at all.

I have a grimmer view about the future: I believe that when these “special” people are fired, they’ll sue, claiming discrimination. You can already hear the lawyers licking their lips.

We can only hope they lose: The productivity of our nation depends on it.

One of my students failed a test the other day. She has to study, I said. She told me confidentially that she think she has a problem concentrating on tests. She’s going to talk to some people about getting this documented. She wanted me to know.

Oh brother.

1. ADHD claims: NIH statement (point number 3) on ADHD, November 1998 available at this web address: ( http://consensus.nih.gov/cons/cons.htm ): search by date (This web address doesn’t work when I try to copy the link) November 1998 = ADHD report). This fact is in the intro (pg. 8 of 45).
2. ADHD growing: pg 46/371 (this is 371 pages long when opened as Adobe Acrobat file. This is page number of 28 of the report) (middle of page) in the report written by the Progressive Policy Institute/ Thomas Fordham Foundation. Available at this website: http://www.edexcellence.net/fordham/foreports.html
click “Rethinking Special Education for the Twenty First Century.)
also: Running on Ritalin by Laurence H. Diller, M.D; Bantam Books.1998 Pg. 2.
3.accommodations: pg. 48/371 (Page number 30 - bottom of page) PPI/Fordham report
4.. E. Hallowell and J. Ratey. Answers to Distraction. Pantheon Books, NY 1994 (see accompanying faxed sheet, pg.36 of this book)
5. SAT: 48/371 PPI (page #30 - bottom of page)
LSAT: http://www.lsat.org/LSAC.asp?url=lsac/accommodated-testing.asp
MCAT: http://www.aamc.org/students/mcat/about/accommodations.htm

6. NIH (November 1998) report in Conclusions (pg. 3 of th report, pg. 7 of 45 on Adobe Acrobat) .
7. NIH (November 1998) report in “1. What Is the Scientific Evidence To Support ADHD as a Disorder?” (top of page 7) 10/45 on the Adobe Acrobat Reader
8. American: page 8 middle of the page (pg 11 of 45) NIH
9. Richer, whiter and wealthier: PPI/ Fordham 49/371 (page 31 top of page)
10. alarming increase: 46/371 PPI/Fordham (page 28 top to middle)
11. lawsuits: 51/371 (page 33) PPI/Fordham – top of page.
12. $40 billion 21/371 PPI/Fordham (page 2 top of page)
13. taxes 344/371 PPI/Fordham (top of page 336)
14. Not effective for ADHD Page 10 NIH)13/35 NIH
15. PPI quote 347/371 PPI/Fordham (pg. 339 middle)

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