Listen: Collett Smart busts some myths about ADHD/ADD.
ADHD isn’t just a symptom of a modern junk-food diet. And it’s not a cop-out label used by lazy doctors and parents, either. And that Facebook post saying there’s no kids with ADHD in France? That’s a myth.
These are just some of the things adolescent psychologist Collett Smart will tell you, if you get her started on the topic.
Collett has researched the area of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and its sister condition Attention Deficit Disorder, for 20 years now in her professional practice. She’s also got postgrad qualifications in special educational needs, so is not only well-read in the area, but has years of experience with ADHD children and their families, too.
On top of that, she has kids and adults in both her immediate and extended family who have ADD/ADHD themselves.
So you might say she’s qualified to speak about it.
In a chat with Hope 103.2’s Emma Mullings, Collett said ADD/ADHD is “grossly misunderstood”, and she’s passionate about removing guilt from parents of children who are diagnosed.
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ADHD: Not ‘Just a Label’ or a ‘Scapegoat for Bad Parents’
One of the biggest myths surrounding ADHD, Collett says, is that it’s simply a label to let bad parents off the hook.
“ADHD is often seen as a label, which leads people to think, ‘They must be bad parents’, and ‘They must be allowing their children to behave badly somehow’,” Collett said. “But we’re not just labelling children here. It frustrates me when people say ‘we’re just using it as a label’.
“We don’t tell the parent who has a child with diabetes, ‘It’s a parenting problem’.”
“Actually, some labels are very helpful. We’re happy to label a child who has diabetes or who’s anaphylactic, because we know that it will help and support the child. And we don’t tell the parent who has a child with diabetes, ‘stop giving your child insulin, it’s a parenting problem: feed your child better!’ Yet we somehow blame parents when we hear their child has ADHD.
“We often see only one child out of three [diagnosed]. So it’s certainly not a parenting problem.”
And while Collett admits that the condition is overdiagnosed to an extent, she points out that many other conditions are overdiagnosed, too—but that doesn’t mean those conditions don’t exist.
Don’t Blame it all on Diet or Parenting Style
An article in high circulation on social media, titled Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD, has done a lot to spread the ‘bad parents’ myth. The article, written by a social psychologist columnist in Pyschology Today magazine, claims that French children are better behaved and ADHD-free because they’re raised in a less indulgent way than many American kids, and because their diet is much lower in additives.
It’s misleading, says Collett. In fact she goes as far as calling the article ‘a lot of rubbish’. A quick Google search of the phrase “French kids do have ADHD” reveals plenty of articles refuting the claim.
“You will see all the psychiatrists and psychologists in France dispelling the myth, saying it’s not true,” Collett says. “There’s actually a lot of children in France who are undiagnosed or underdiagnosed. So they’re falling through the cracks.”
Kids With ADHD Have Differences in their Brains
While there are ADHD detractors who believe the condition is ‘all in the mind’ or ‘all in the parenting’, neuroscience is now proving that the brains of people with ADHD are physically different to others.
“The ADHD brain is very different to the neurotypical brain,” Collett said. “It’s showing structural differences in MRI scans. There’s less white matter; boys and girls with ADHD have a 3 to 4% smaller brain than children without ADHD; there’s a smaller frontal lobe; and the brain activity in MRIs of ADHD brains are very different.
“So there is actually medical proof.”
Diagnosing a child with ADHD is a very thorough process, involving interviews and forms to be filled out by both parents and teachers.
Doctors look for symptoms like a short attention span, inattention, dreaminess, missing of important instructions at school, gaps in the child’s school work, hyperactivity or impulsivity, and difficulty with sitting still.
“They watch TV laying upside down on the lounge, they fidget a lot, and some school children will have a jumpy knee right through assembly,” Collett said. “They get in trouble with their mates and their teachers because they speak or act before they think.”
Those are just some of the indicators. But Collett was quick to point out that not all of these symptoms need to be present for a diagnosis; and also that not all children presenting in these ways necessarily have ADD/ADHD.
Many Families Flourish After an ADHD Diagnosis
In Collett’s professional experience, many children and families have begun to flourish after being given an ADD/ADHD diagnosis, “because they now have tools to better manage themselves”.
“It isn’t just they’re a ‘badly behaved person’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘dreamy’ [any more]; there actually is a medical reason for it,” she said.
“I encourage parents, if they’ve been wondering if their child might have ADD/ADHD, don’t rush into a diagnosis, but go and see an educational psychologist, see your GP, and see if you may be right.”
When Adults Discover They Have ADHD, Too
ADHD is now known to be a genetic condition, meaning that it’s hereditary. So a frequent phenomenon that now occurs is that when a child is diagnosed, one of the parents will be diagnosed, too.
“In many families that I see and psychiatrists see, suddenly an adult will say, ‘Oh that looks like me – I remember those behaviours as a child!’ “ said Collett. “We are now starting to see adults being diagnosed in their 30s and 40s.”
“So adult ADHD is currently said to be underdiagnosed.”