Attention Deficit Deception

Don’t be too quick to believe an ADHD diagnosis for your child
Steve Weigl

At the beginning of last school year, Kyle’s* second-grade teacher told his mother that he had ADHD. She said the eight-year-old Charlotte student had behavioral problems and she suggested he should be on medication. Kyle’s mom was unconvinced, but took him to their family doctor. After a battery of tests, it was determined that Kyle, now a third-grader, didn’t need medication and certainly did not have ADHD. Actually, in light of Kyle’s higher-than-average IQ, his family doc called him “gifted” and attributed the acting out in class to his not being challenged enough in school. Now Kyle attends special classes at a school tailored for gifted kids.

Gaffney, S.C.-based Dr. Frank Barnhill the author of the recently released Mistaken for ADHD (iUniverse) says this kind of misdiagnosis happens frequently. He estimates that 40 percent of all ADHD diagnoses for kids in the U.S. are erroneous. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 3 percent to 5 percent of children have ADHD, a behavioral disorder marked by difficulty paying attention, impulsive behavior, and hyperactivity. “ADHD shares symptoms with several other disorders,” says Barnhill, who is not Kyle’s doctor. “Diabetes, dyslexia … just because a parent or teacher sees a behavioral problem, these days they’re quick to assume ADHD and assume medication is the answer.”

In the last decade there’s been more media coverage of the disorder, prompting, says Barnhill, an awareness that isn’t all good. “I’ll get moms telling me they can’t take their child to the mall because of behavioral problems or they tell me their kids have bad grades. Very often there is something else going on.”

Dr. Shana Wallace, a pediatric neurologist in Charlotte, says there is definitely a degree of misdiagnosis and that there are also often simpler ways of treating ADHD than medication. “I think where things have really gone awry is that a lot of kids are solely medicated and there’s no attempt at any other type of intervention,” Wallace says. “Sometimes it’s a matter of moving their seat in the classroom. If a child has a short attention span, don’t put them near the window where they’re easily distracted. Class size can play a role, too.”

Barnhill calls the regularity of ADHD misdiagnoses a crisis, saying the label can hurt a student’s progress and ultimately affect the whole family. “An ADHD diagnosis impacts a child’s emotional health, physical health, his school performance, his family and classroom.” He says the stigma of having a learning disability can be an unnecessary emotional and financial burden.

The good news is that even those properly diagnosed with ADHD often grow out of it in their college years. Kyle’s mom says she’s grateful she doesn’t have to wait that long. Her son is excelling in his third-grade class—where he sits at the front of the room.

*The child’s name was changed to protect his identity.