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Russell Barkley: AD/HD is No Gift

Russell Barkley, PhD  is professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, and author of more than 200 scientific articles and book chapters on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Here, he has a few words for the overzealous:

… Many people may be gifted and talented in various aspects of these other human abilities, but never attribute that giftedness or that success to the AD/HD itself … I want people to understand that while people might be gifted and talented and successful in spite of their AD/HD, it is not because of their AD/HD. The AD/HD itself may, in fact, make you less effective than other people who have equally talented areas in those human abilities.

He’s addressing the Center for AD/HD Awareness, Canada, but he aims fire at all who suggest the disorder brings talents and blessings.

Some writers propose innate distractibility is just the thing for a multi-tasking world.  Sadly, it’s not enough to shift attention rapidly among tasks. You also have to return to those tasks to finish them; difficulty doing so is criterion 1D for the disorder. Lara Honos-Webb, PhD has written several books suggesting AD/HD may bring such vague, unverified capacities as, “attunement to nature,”  and “emotional sensitivity.”  In The Gift of Adult AD/HD, she asks, “Are mistakes and sloppiness anything less than perceiving the world in a way that opens up possibilities?” The answer is yes – much less.  Creativity can involve serendipity. Mistakes and sloppiness are failures to perceive you’ve forgotten to unplug the iron or to add the most important ingredient to a dish. Her books provide helpful coping techniques, but they fall flat when they claim AD/HD is a boon. Consider its’ co-morbidity with  depressive and anxiety disorders and it  appears much more of a curse.

Funny t-shirt. See if you can find the gift in this flow of thought.

Funny t-shirt. See if you can find the gift in this flow of thought.

Barkley’s criticism isn’t aimed at optimists, but those who leave the facts behind. This blogger writes of how he loves (!) his AD/HD. Not because there is anything to love about it, but because nothing is worse than negative thinking.  Barbara Ehrenreich would disagree. In her 2009 book Bright-Sided, she uses America’s vulnerability to the Sept. 11th attacks to show how positive thinking can have drastically negative consequences:

There had already been a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993; there were ample warnings, in the summer of 2001, about a possible attack by airplane, and flight schools reported suspicious students like the one who wanted to learn how to “fly a plane but didn’t care about landing and takeoff.” The fact that no one — the FBI, the INS, (President George W.) Bush, or (national security advisor Condoleeza) Rice — heeded these disturbing cues was later attributed to a “failure of imagination.” But actually there was plenty of imagination at work — imagining an invulnerable nation and an ever-booming economy — there was simply no ability or inclination to imagine the worst.

Positive thinking encourages people to feel good about themselves, but as Ehrenreich points out, it inevitably carries  harsh, invalidating personal judgments. Are you feeling depressed, angry or uncertain because neurology makes you look like a screw-up? Drop the ‘victim mentality’, ya whiner!

‘Positive’ is nice. ‘Realistic’ is far more important. As Dr. Barkley said to patient advocates at the conference:

It’s going to be very hard for society to take you all seriously if you continue to trumpet this disorder as a gift. There is no way that we can go to Ottawa and walk the halls of Parliament arguing for accommodations, entitlements, funding of AD/HD medications on the one hand, while rah-rah cheering AD/HD as this wonderful giftedness that we have and you don’t.

What’s worse than negative thinking? Falsely boosting people’s self-esteem with unsubstantiated claims that skew public understanding of the disorder. There’s a real danger that attitudes on AD/HD could go from, “There’s no such thing,” directly to, “Why should we make accommodations for your son? Doesn’t he has the gift of AD/HD?”

@ 2013 Jonathan Miller All Rights Reserved

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