To the uninitiated, it sounds horrifying: Toddlers medicated for ADHD! They’re drugging babies!
Yet, if you understand the ADHD-associated range of physical symptoms—and physical risks—the reasons are obvious. If you still believe ADHD is a “behavior problem,” you’re vulnerable to disinformation.
The latest “clickbait” from The New York Times’ Alan Schwarz appeared May 16, 2014: “Thousands of Toddlers Are Medicated for ADHD, Report Finds, Raising Worries”. (I provide the link for background if you are unfamiliar with the paper’s reputation. But I discourage clicking; it only encourages them.)
I held my breath. Reverberations would be swift—and lasting. Perhaps the most shocking part? Many alleged news outlets once again chose web traffic over compassion, fear-mongering over science.
For years now, we’ve expected this kind of behavior from publishers focused on the bottom line. The new and shocking part is the reporters and editors joining in instead of holding the line. It wasn’t always thus.
Update: The fallout proved even worse than I anticipated. It even resulted in political pressure applied to the CDC to create new, baseless, and medication-stigmatizing guidelines. I explain more about how it came about in Part 2, including a rebuttal from Russell Barkley, PhD, and me on this ADHD Roller Coaster blog.
Key Highlights In This Post:
- Many news outlets are opting for non-science-based anti-psychiatry clickbait over legitimate reporting. If we click, even if to complain, we are voting to have more of it. Resist the click!
- In addition to key cognitive traits such as impulsivity and inattention, ADHD often presents biomedical issues. In adults and children.
- Stimulant medications improve the transmission of the brain chemical called dopamine.
- Dopamine affects far more than “reward” and “focus.” It affects physiological systems, including respiratory, gastro-intestinal, and cardiovascular functioning as well as all the senses (touch, hearing, vision, taste, smell)
- Poorly reported news stories hurt children (and parents) who are already suffering—and too often their medical care providers believe the stories.
- Please help me to educate the public and the medical community. Share this post wherever you might find it useful.
This is a long-form post. This is a complex topic. But the subheads can serve to help you skim according to your interests.
When National Newspapers Deny Science
Clickbait is king. When it comes to anti-ADHD clickbait, no paper has acted with more twisted fervor than The New York Times. Particularly the front page and the opinion-editorial section—and for many years now.
To be fair, The New York Times magazine has not climbed on that bandwagon. Notably, it has a different staff and editor-in-chief.
If you are unfamiliar with newspapers’ inner workings, the sections have different editors. Editors work with reporters in choosing stories and crafting angles; typically. They have the final say on what runs — and where.
In modern times, though, editors find themselves increasingly pressed to do the publisher’s bidding. Many good editors have quit when faced with making such compromises. That means….you guessed it: Editors with lesser ethical fiber flock to fill their places. It’s called self-censorship.
Yet it is also true that some editors — and reporters, too — operate from a bedrock of antiquated and harmful assumptions about the brain and its relation to mental health. The New York Times, for many years and with other psychiatric conditions, has demonstrated a clearly hide-bound hewing to psychoanalysis over science.
TODDLERS Taking Stimulant Medication?
Now, back to the “10,000 Toddlers” phenomenon.
A friend wrote to me:
Wait…TODDLERS? That blows my mind.
[advertising; not endorsement] [advertising; not endorsement]
How could anyone even diagnose a toddler with ADHD?
I took our 2-year-old to a storytime thing at the library. The toddlers were expected—no lie—to sit nicely in one place and listen to songs and stories for over 30 minutes.
I managed to get him to do this somehow. But he had a total meltdown afterward. I carried him home apologizing to him for not knowing what we were in for and subjecting him to such a developmentally inappropriate activity.
He absolutely cannot sit still and be inattentive for any length of time. But my armchair diagnosis for that is “being a toddler.” And that’s with the knowledge that he has two ADHD parents.
[Update: Five years later, my friend’s child definitely has ADHD and has joined his parents in treating it medically.]
Response To My Concerned Friend:
Yes, if a toddler were diagnosed and treated on that basis, that would be very wrong.
I agree with your stance on the library situation: Two years old is too young to sit still for 30 minutes. Even for children who do not have ADHD. That constitutes cruel and unusual punishment! I hear about similar in preschools, pushing the developmental envelope with 3, 4, and 5-year-olds. It’s nuts.
With this article, though, we’re talking about a very complex phenomenon. It reminds us: We cannot view ADHD solely through the reductionist lens of behavior.
Nor can we assume we know the facts from reading Alan Schwarz’s ongoing screeds in The New York Times. Much was missing in that article.
Here’s how the NYT story came about:
Schwarz showed up unannounced at a state-wide mental-health conference in Georgia, at the Carter Center. (Sneaking into events is against journalistic ethics.) A CDC researcher named Susanna Visser presented unpublished data on Georgia children only.
Schwarz took numbers compiled for Georgia and extrapolated them to the rest of the country. He failed to consider complicating factors. For example, did these children have other physical health conditions? Were their ADHD symptoms severe enough to present a serious potential threat to their health and safety?
Did he fail because he knew absolutely nothing about ADHD—or because he led with his ambition? Perhaps both. He likes to brag about his abilities with statistics. And, in my communication with him, he was absolutely arrogant.
Make no mistake: His leap to conclusions was unacceptable on any level. It was beyond the pale for any newspaper, much less the former “paper of record.”
As for treating young children for ADHD, think about it: At its core, ADHD is about problematic dopamine transmission.
At its most obvious, ADHD manifests in “behavior problems.” But ADHD’S potential challenges extend far beyond behavior into myriad health challenges and risks—especially in the more severe presentations. In short, let’s examine this story with more logic than sensation.
My Friend Had Her Blind Spots, Too
The friend making comment above has ADHD. So does her husband. Both diagnosed about five years ago. She personally knows the benefits of ADHD medication. But when it comes to young children, she had a blind spot. (Update: Her child started medication a few years later and very much benefits. He notices, too.)
It’s understandable. So much about ADHD falls beyond the intuitive grasp of even well-educated people with ADHD. Especially if they’re not thinking of very sick children.
Here’s what the public largely fails to understand: ADHD involves so much more than one’s school performance, behavior, inability to “conform to society,” or whatever preconceived notion one harbors about the condition.
ADHD As BioMedical Issue, Not “Behavior Problem”
ADHD also carries with it a risk of physiological adverse effects, and these can begin very early on:
- Dopamine also controls motivation, movement, and emotional regulation.
- Dopamine affects important physiological processes, including respiratory and cardiovascular function.
- ADHD is associated with higher rates of enuresis and encopresis, asthma and allergies, heart arrhythmia, obesity, and sleep disorders.
- Finally. Guess what? There are many sick children for whom ADHD is the least of their problems. This includes children with spina bifida and others. Each year, about 1,500 children are born in the U.S. with spina bifida alone, according to the CDC.
As first a print journalist in my career and now an ADHD author, advocate, and educator, I must counter The New York Time’s ongoing anti-psychiatry campaign. It is too influential a paper to ignore.
Hence, this two-part blog post, with Part II here. I address the paper’s poor choice of opinion pieces on ADHD but also a well-known figure in ADHD world who reacted to the headlines with attention-grabbing misguided advice.
Heads up! It is not a quick read. You’ll need several examples and much context to truly understand this phenomenon But if you make it to the end, you will possess rare knowledge that could save someone’s life and help to move us all into the 21st Century.
Skewed News Harms Children
One thing was clear: The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Consumer Reports, The Today Show, and other “news outlets” that glommed onto the “10,000 Toddlers” meme were not interested in ADHD’s medical reality. Their interest was plainly boosting web traffic. I share a few screenshots of the headlines below.
Theirs was a split-level nonsensical angle:
1. On the one hand, children with ADHD are out-of-control “brats” with ineffective parents. It’s clear in the illustrations, typically photos of screaming, angry children. (For this post, I chose more compassionate and accurate photos of these children.)
2. On the other hand, they depict these children as the captive pawns of Big Pharma and the Industrialized school system. Making children into drones and little boys into little girls. “Pathologizing childhood.”
Not Schwarz’s Or Paper’s First Attack on ADHD
The 10,000 toddlers story marks at least the second time that Schwarz, a sports reporter with no apparent life-science education, reported on AHDD in a shockingly sensationalized manner.
The first that came to my awareness was in 2013. The front page featured a highly irresponsible article about Adderall abuse, including one young man in particular. I provided a wider view in this post—for years since my most popular: The Tragic Truth of Adderall, or Madderall.
The opinion and editorial pages have long sought notoriety with contrarian nonsense from fringe figures peddling a book or a platform. The editors should be soliciting timely opinion pieces from legitimate experts. Instead, they sit back and wait for PR firms to hand them a ready-to-go piece.
I wrote about one here: The New York Times’ Unnatural Opinions on ADHD
Leading ADHD experts tell me they have implored the paper’s editors to provide balance and to choose writers with legitimate expertise on the topic of their opinion. They have offered to write counterpoints. The answer was clear: No.
Also Not His Last
These are not single-shot attacks that fade with time. They do lasting damage. Especially when the reporter has built his bully pulpit on the backs of children with ADHD—first with these articles and then with a book that basically regurgitates them.
The title? A.D.H.D Nation. Schwarz made the usual well-funded PR campaign splash on NPR shows. The book made a splash and then faded. But we saw him resurface again with the horrible Netflix video Take Your Pills. (Netflix’s “Take Your Pills”: Anti-Science and Mean)
Also Targeted: Pediatric Bipolar Disorder
Considered this tidbit. A few years before the paper’s anti-ADHD campaign, its target was bipolar disorder in children. Perhaps you read and remember the series of articles in 2008-9 leveling allegations of financial improprieties against pediatric bipolar researchers.
At that time, Benedict Carey and Gardiner Harris were on the “public health and pharmaceutical” beat. As such, they furthered Senator Chuck Grassley’s (R-I) agenda in making pariahs of two highly cited pediatric psychiatric researchers in particular.
The backstory and the players involved make for a fascinating (if scary) story. I won’t go into the details here, about what happens when a newspaper forms an unholy alliance with a grandstanding politician whose major campaign donors include insurance companies and anti-psychiatry agitators. But let me assure you: it was manipulative, ugly, and unjust.
I’ve spoken to those targeted researchers and others caught up in Grassley’s dragnet. They told me of FBI agents showing up at their offices, unannounced, and demanding lab notebooks from 20 years ago. One whose family escaped the Holocaust said, “I never thought I’d see in the United States the same kind of anti-education, anti-science propaganda my parents’ described of early Hitler’s Germany.”
“Bipolar in Children, Gina? Seriously?”
I wrote to Carey and Harris, pleading for more balanced reporting. One responded with arrogance. I called him on the phone.
He said, “Bipolar in children, Gina? Seriously?”
“Yes, bipolar disorder in children,” I said. “Why not? Why wouldn’t this brain disorder with strong genetic links manifest in childhood? The emerging science means we must update outdated notions.”
”Gina,” he said, dismissively, “these children aren’t blowing through credit cards and having promiscuous sex.”
Yes, he said that. He failed to understand that most psychiatric conditions appear at “developmentally appropriate levels.” That is, the symptoms differ among young children, adolescents, teens, and adults. It is important to recognize bipolar early before the symptoms intensify and pose a great danger—and to distinguish bipolar symptoms from that of ADHD, depression, or other neurobiological conditions.
I find it interesting to note that historically, ADHD and bipolar have suffered from opposite misconceptions.
- With ADHD, it was for a long time assumed that because children outgrew physical hyperactivity, they outgrew the condition. Over the past four decades, we have learned that no; with maturity, the symptoms become less physically overt, more internal and affecting cognition
- With bipolar, it was long assumed to be only a condition of adulthood. These days, medical experts know the symptoms can appear much earlier—if we know how to recognize them. Gardiner and Harris were not interested in updating their assumptions.
August 2019: Gardiner Harris recently left the paper to become communications director at a venture capital health fund based on “Big Data.”
Gina, Surely You’re Being Hyperbolic?
I get it. The New York Times and all the copycat news outlets are wrong and I, a journalist turned ADHD advocate, am right? I must be paranoid and fanatical about ADHD, right?
Actually, no. I am a diligent reporter who was well-trained to research primary sources and vet experts for interviews. Plus, I have no bottom-line minded publishers breathing down my neck. (Been there. Did that. Got the three repetitive-use injuries.)
I can explain this in only one way. The front-page editors and these reporters represent the belief system commonly seen in the far-left leaning population. They view psychiatry as a tool of “big pharma”. They assert that mental illness (except perhaps in its most extreme examples) is caused by poverty and oppression and childhood trauma. A slew of charlatans (who might even possess PhDs and MDs) reinforce this simple-minded narrative. It goes over well with the anti-science public. Yet, it also keeps them stuck in dysfunction.
Journalists are by nature skeptical. That’s mostly a good thing. But when skepticism hitches itself to science illiteracy, all reason is lost.
The Outdated “Blank Slate” Theory
The skeptics I’ve spoken with assert this antediluvian notion: Children who survive birth are, de facto, mentally healthy.
Somehow, they believe that the brain—that most vulnerable of organs—is alone protected from all that can impair the heart, lungs, limbs, and every other organ whose complexity pales in comparison. Protected from genetics. Protected from in utero distress.
From this perspective, “society” inflicts the damage. Oh yeah, mothers, in particular. Some call this the Blank Slate theory or Tabula Rasa. The scientific facts have long told us otherwise. (Remember when autism was blamed on “refrigerator mothers”?)
Some children with ADHD are extremely impaired. It is up to the evaluating physician to decide how the child should be treated—not sports reporter Alan Schwarz or anti-pharmaceutical reporters Carey and Harris.
Where is the compassion for sick children? Where is the science?
Aiming for a Pulitzer — on the Back of ADHD
With Schwarz’s second article, it became obvious: He was aiming for a Pulitzer and writing stories to be collected in a book. Yep, that book turned out to be A.D.H.D. Nation: Children, Doctors, Big Pharma, and the Making of an American Epidemic. A “yellow journalism” title, if there ever was one.
The book was published in September 2016, only two years after his 10,000 toddlers diatribe. When I checked in 2019, Amazon ranked Shwarz’s book at 362,000. That is so low as to be off the radar entirely. Today, late 2022, it’s 740,000! Turns out, all those PR-placement NPR radio interviews where Schwarz practiced his breathlessly dramatic storytelling failed to make a lasting impact. At least insofar as book sales and popularity. But the damage to the legitimacy of ADHD was severe.
By contrast, Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? came out a decade ago without NPR talk-show round fanfare. (I’ve always rejected pharma industry funding, unlike a book that followed mine. It’s author was featured in The New York Times before the bookw as even out! That’s what high-powered PR brings you.) While A.D.H.D. Nation hovered at 750,000, my book ranked at 16,000. The moral? Write with accuracy, honesty, and compassion if you want your work to be taken seriously.
Schwarz has since left the paper. I heard he was teaching high school math. Then a friend shared a website where he was offering to sell his gripping narrative style to CEOs, to produce their bios or such.
Pulitzer-Nominated Means Little
You might have noted: he refers to himself as a “Pulitzer Prize-Nominated” author. Yes, it sounds impressive but only if you don’t understand this: Any book can be nominated. It’s the winning that matters.
You can read more at The Atlantic: Journalists, Please Stop Saying You Were ‘Pulitzer Prize-Nominated’. Excerpt from this report by Alexander Abad-Santos:
To call that submission a Pulitzer ‘nomination’ is like saying that Adam Sandler is an Oscar nominee if Columbia Pictures enters That’s My Boy in the Academy Awards.
Many readers would realize that the Oscars don’t work that way — the studios don’t pick the nominees. It’s just a way of slipping ‘Academy Awards’ into a bio.
The Pulitzers also don’t work that way, but fewer people know that.”
Example: The Insatiable, Unhappy Toddler
Now we get to the meat of the issue here. Why all those clickbait headlines were wrong.
One issue that might surprise you—but won’t when you understand that dopamine is called the “reward” brain chemical. Many toddlers and even babies with ADHD are chronically unhappy, about everything. Their distraught parents can do nothing right. That’s because the problem is not on the outside but on the inside, within the neural pathways.
I wrote in my first book about how ADHD can make some adults insatiable. That is, chronically dissatisfied. There’s never enough of anything to make them happy.
Take a minute to think about what insatiability would look like in a baby or a toddler.
By the way, the FDA acknowledges that sometimes stimulant medications can be used for young children. Click here to read the guidelines: Stimulant and Related Medications: Use in Pediatric Patients.
I’ve met babies whose ADHD makes them chronically unhappy, crying constantly. I love babies and toddlers and typically have a way with them. These kids? There was no getting through. They broke my heart. Imagine being a parent:
- Unable to console your child, despite your best efforts
- Feeling to blame for your child’s unrelenting unhappiness
- Seeing therapists and physicians who suggests your child will “grow out of it” or “take a parenting class”
Example: The Sleepless Toddler
Moreover, sleep is so difficult for many of these children. They awaken at the slightest noise when they finally get to sleep (and that can be extremely difficult). They climb out of their cribs and become a danger to themselves. In the crib, they begin the lifelong sleep debt that will plague them for the rest of their lives. I’ve met adults who once were these children.
This will come as news to some “attachment theorists”: Some of these babies cannot sit still long enough to nurse. They cannot direct their gaze long enough at their caregiver to form that all-important connection. Uninformed critics are always yammering that the babies “need more than medication.” But what if nothing else will work until the medication is in effect? And that is exactly what study after study suggests.
Their young lives are miserable. Anyone with a heart can clearly see it.
- What kind of start in life is this?
- Who cannot feel compassion for such a child?
- Who wouldn’t want to help instead of inflicting the worst kind of ignorance on the child and family?
Example: Toddler Turns Blue—and Faints
Several moms of children with ADHD have told me of a “hyperactive” fetus—constantly kicking. ADHD is also associated with a higher rate of prematurity. In other words, the neurobiology can make itself known early on.
Those babies can and often do grow up to be toddlers who will walk out the front door and into traffic, or crawl out of windows. They die or become maimed or brain-injured.
There are even toddlers whose emotional dysregulation is so severe they develop a type of pediatric syncope. That is, they turn blue and faint. I’ve witnessed this. I found it horrifying— to feel so helpless at a child’s severe distress. What kind of long-term impact does this feeling have on the child?
I learned about this fainting phenomenon while seeking to help a friend’s child. My friend is an incredibly attentive, empathic, loving, and patient mother. She’d done everything “right.” Still, her baby had hardly ever been happy, hardly smiled, and had tremendous difficulty sleeping. Now that he was walking, the fainting began.
Mothers in my online ADHD communities told me about the same phenomenon among their ADHD children. Their physicians were clueless. Even at “famous” clinics. There are other potential reasons for pediatric syncope, but this association deserves attention.
Example: Sleep Apnea
We know that dopamine is involved with adult sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening disorder common among adults with ADHD. Why would it not also affect newborns, toddlers, and young children?
Another friend and her husband (who has severe ADHD, now well-managed) were grief-stricken when their newborn displayed what appeared to be sleep apnea. Little Henry simply stopped breathing at the hospital. Who wouldn’t be apoplectic? They could afford to hire a round-the-clock nurse to monitor when they brought the baby home.
Let me make this clear to NYT reporter Alan Schwarz: The parents didn’t worry about the baby misbehaving or speed-learning differential equations. They worried about him breathing and surviving!
The Lifesaving Role of Dopamine
No one suggests cavalierly giving stimulant medication, which acts on dopamine neurotransmitters, to a newborn or baby for ADHD.
Yet, guess what? Vulnerable babies are given dopamine itself (the neurotransmitter targeted by the stimulants) in the hospital!
Consider this 2011 tidbit from Nature: Brains Breathe: Dopamine’s Role in Preterm Infants.
A 2009 paper published in the journal Intensive Care Medicine reports that dopamine, widely used to maintain blood pressure in very preterm infants, facilitates flow-metabolism coupling in the preterm brain.
In other words, dopamine apparently aids in keeping preterm infants’ cerebral oxygen demands in touch with cerebral blood flow.
Do you read sensationalist headlines about other health interventions for young children—blood transfusions, surgeries to repair holes in the heart, organ transplants, cancer treatment, etc..? No, in fact, we see national scandals made of parents who refuse these medical interventions.
Unfortunately, the stimulants often don’t even work that well in young children, but it can be critical to try.
When the public blindly reacts to click-bait from The New York Times or some other self-promoter with an agenda, however, it hurts children by scaring away desperate parents and poorly informed physicians.
“They’ll Grow Out Of It”
Typically, my friends’ pediatricians didn’t understand the many ways in which ADHD can manifest in young children—the sleep and sensory disorders, the hearing problems, the poor motor coordination, and the like. The physicians would head pat and reassure, “The child will grow out of it.”
Here is what actually happened: The behavior often morphed into a more developmentally appropriate expression of the same problem as the child grew.
For example, when it came to pediatric syncope, the pre-verbal toddler who got so frustrated that he fainted became the verbal four-year-old who yells and screams in frustration. On it goes up the developmental ladder. The pediatric syncope (fainting) didn’t go away; it simply moved to a more developmentally advanced mode of expression. All this is to say nothing of the neurocognitive problems that form the more universal experience of ADHD.
Unfortunately, however, the ADHD diagnosis comes much later for many of these children. It comes long after so many bad habits and failures and blows to self-esteem have taken root. It comes long after years of sleep disorders and perhaps injuries that have further circumscribed their lives.
When Pediatricians Fail to Make Connections
The mother of a 17-year-old boy told me this: He has long had problems with both enuresis (involuntary urinating, as in “bed wetting” and sometimes “pants-wetting” at school) and encopresis (involuntary defecation; read more at Elimination Disorders and Encopresis in Children).
Her San Francisco-based pediatrician explained the problem as a “small bladder” issue and a “bowel disorder.” This same pediatrician dismissed any concerns about ADHD as “mild at most” and said the greater problem was “auditory processing disorder”. That despite APD being a common “side effect” of ADHD and one that often responds to medication.
Yet, all it takes is one (more) sensationalistic story from The New York Times, quoting low-level clinicians and publicity-hungry fringe players. And, suddenly there is the SHOCKING story that 10,000 toddlers are being given ADHD medications!
“10,000 Toddlers” is Only A Guesstimate
How many U.S. toddlers are medicated for ADHD? We don’t have a firm number.
It’s important to understand: That 10,000 figure was only an estimate. Schwartz simply extrapolated—from the preliminary Georgia state-based figures provided by CDC official Susanna Visser to the nation. In other words, he reported his own amateur analysis of the CDC data and tried passing it off as professionally parsed. [Where was the front-page editor?
As an aside, I spent a long time talking with Visser at a conference. I was shocked at what I perceived as a very superficial understanding of pediatric ADHD.
Veteran Journalist Calls Out NYT’S Schwarz
No, it’s not my “ADHD zealotry” that motivates me to spend so much time—uncompensated, rejecting pharma support—educating the public on this complexity.
Veteran journalist Paul Raeburn questioned the first occurrence at the M.I.T.Knight Science Journalism Center’s Tracker (“peer review with science journalism”) on April 3, 2013:
The story, by Alan Schwarz and Sarah Cohen with reporting contributed by Allison Kopicki, did not say that the figures came from an announcement or publication by the CDC. It said that the Times had “obtained the raw data from the agency and compiled the results” itself.
That’s tricky. The CDC could make a mistake compiling and interpreting its own data; such things happen. But for my money, I’d rather have the CDC doing that than entrust the job to Schwarz and Cohen.
Where did they get the data? What form was it in? What did they have to do to come up with the figures they report? Did they enlist a scientist from the CDC or elsewhere to check and validate their analysis?
We are not told.
The first quote in the story comes from a Yale neurologist who says he is “floored” by the rise in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD. It’s not a terribly insightful comment; I suspect most readers did not need an expert to tell them that the statistics were remarkable.
The story, published on March 31, now has a string of corrections appended to it. It picked up its first correction on April 1, another yesterday, and another one today. Each of the corrections fixes a misstatement concerning the statistics.
If Schwarz had told us more about how he got that data and what it looked like, and if he’d brought in a scientist to help him analyze it, perhaps he would not have made those mistakes.
Back To The Main Story
Thanks to The New York Times and the worldwide copycat media who picked up the story, readers grabbed their pitchforks. They prepared to hunt down Big Pharma, the doctors doing the prescribing, the lazy parents wanting the “quick fix,” and every other villain involved with “drugging children”.
Based on such misinformation.
Without any of these facts, without
knowing exactly how many young children
are diagnosed and treated
vis a vis the estimated prevalence,
without even knowing if the
treatment is working, we know
absolutely nothing at all.
Strangely, what seemed to enrage readers the most was that the children receiving the medication were on Medicaid. At the Times’ companion piece (the Motherlode column entitled “The New Inequality for Toddlers: Less Income; More Ritalin”), they reacted with fervid blaming of “lazy” parents and “schools drugging children.”
The New York Times columnist KJ Dell’Antonia writes about her children in a blog called “Raising Devils” (ahem). She claimed that the children Schwarz reported upon were being “drugged” only because they were poor.
NYT Blogger Questions Basis for ADHD
Neither Dell’Antonia nor the readers commenting (including a self-described pediatrician) seemed to understand one critical point:
ADHD is a risk factor for poverty. These children might be suffering from the most severe ADHD symptoms, compounded by their parents’ ADHD and other risk factors such as substance abuse disorders.
Understanding this context would require the kind of sophistication missing among bloggers such as Dell’Antonia. She writes: “Particularly given that there is still a debate among practitioners and researchers regarding whether ADHD has a biological basis, or is a label given to a collection of symptoms.”
With so many good journalists out of work, how do such uneducated, unsophisticated individuals get hired?
Data Remained Unexamined
You can download mention of Visser’s Georgia presentation in the minutes of Georgia’s Behavior Coordinating Council for 2014 here.
Absolutely nothing is publicly known about what kind and how much medication these alleged children are receiving, and what other services or interventions.
Until the CDC decides to share with the tax-paying public, consider these Medicaid enrollment figures from a factsheet on Medicaid published by the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- 30.6M infants and children through age 18 (that represents 50.2% of all Medicaid enrollees, 38.9% of all US children through age 18)
- 2.4M infants (4.0% of all Medicaid enrollees; 56.6% of all US infants)
In light of these huge numbers, 10,000 children being treated medically for ADHD—as having ADHD severe enough to merit treatment at a younger-than-average age—no longer seems so “outrageous,” as one headline put it. Does it?
We know absolutely nothing at all on this topic without knowing critical facts, including:
- How many children are diagnosed and treated vis a vis the estimated prevalence?
- For how many children is the treatment working?
- How many of these children have other health conditions that are highly associated with ADHD, including neural tube defects such as spina bifida?
Yet, the online world is bursting at the seams with the scurrilous headlines. This is what happens when reckless papers and other news outlets self-medicate with provocation, without thinking of consequences.
Newsflash: ADHD Can Create Entrenched Poverty
Left unaddressed over the generations, ADHD can result in miserably entrenched poverty, substance abuse, and more.
In other words, the people suffering the most adverse effects of ADHD are often stuck at the lower rungs of society; Neurogenetic nature and environmental nurture compound the trauma generation after generation.
Yes, absolutely. No question. Our economic structure is further oppressing these people. Head Start programs have been cut. Yet, they’ve been shown to be beneficial and cost-effective, not to mention humane. And all the rest.
This fact remains, however: Even with better circumstances, many of these young children will still have ADHD. Their parents will have it. Most likely, their grandparents will have it, too.
Having a “hand up” is important. Improving pre-conception and pre-natal nutrition is important. Yet, a certain percentage will be unlikely to make good use of opportunities until their ADHD and commonly co-existing conditions are managed. This is as true for highly impaired children in the lower rungs of the socioeconomic strata as well as those in the highest rungs.
The Bottom Line:
There are legitimate reasons for treating very young children medically for ADHD. Moreover, we simply do not know the particulars behind this story—how many children at what ages are being medically treated and for what reason. We only have Schwarz’s cherry-picked report and the intended ensuing hysteria.
The only thing we know for sure is this: Our most disadvantaged children who have ADHD deserve comprehensive help, including screening the parents and providing treatment for them, too (the “genetic donors” so they can best help their child and break the generational cycle.
These children and parents also deserve that you, me, and alleged journalists counter hair-trigger emotions and make a sincere attempt to comprehend what is truly happening. These children deserve better than shameful self-serving and Olympic-sized leaps to the conclusion that lead only to more disastrous consequences.
Less Clickbait, More Biology
Mostly, we need news outlets to care more about these people than they do their own “clickbait” profits and fame—not to mention reporters who have at some point have taken a biology class.
Alan Schwarz would not dare to publicly bully children born with heart defects, malformed lungs, and limbs, vision problems, diabetes type I, hemophilia, or asthma. Yet, when it comes to the most vulnerable, delicate organ of all—the brain—and the most documented psychiatric condition of childhood—ADHD—he finds it fair game.
Update 2019: the next we heard from Schwarz was his appearance in another piece of self-serving sensationalism: “Take Your Pills,” a “documentary” from Maria Shriver and her daughter on Netflix. Shriver claims that her daughter took Adderall to complete her education. Now that she’s out of college, though, her career path is anti-ADHD evangelizing. I wrote about it here: Netflix’s “Take Your Pills”: Anti-Science—and Mean
Continued in 10,000 Toddlers Medicated for ADHD? Part 2
I welcome your comments. Gina