A year ago, psychiatrist Leon Eisenberg, considered to be the “scientific father of ADHD,” was quoted in a last interview before his death as saying that “ADHD is a prime example of a fictitious disease.” His comment certainly has caused an uproar not just among the medical community, but with parents, too. And this is easy to understand given that the number of children diagnosed with ADHD has seen a dramatic increase in recent years.
According to this article in the World Public Union, “in the United States every tenth boy among ten-year-olds already swallows an ADHD medication on a daily basis.”
And the numbers are rising. In fact, the CDC recently released data from a 2011 – 2012 study that showed that an estimated 6.4 million children ages 4 through 17 have received an ADHD diagnosis.
Complicating matters is the fact that the diagnosis of ADHD is mostly subjective; there is no definitive test. Instead, doctors rely on the testimony of parents and teachers that fit certain criteria that may in some cases simply be a result of poorly-developed impulse control and self-discipline and other factors such as developmental stages and sleep disorders.
Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the CDC, was quoted in this New York Times article as saying: “The right medications for ADHD, given to the right people, can make a huge difference. Unfortunately, misuse appears to be growing at an alarming rate.”
Further studies also show that medical professionals may be misdiagnosing because they do not know the whole story. Back in 2010, Todd Elder, a Michigan State economist said in a Science Daily article that nearly 1 million children in the U.S. have been misdiagnosed as a result of the “relative age effect.” His statement has since found additional support from researchers from the University of British Columbia who recently studied the medical records of 930,000 children as they explored the relative age effect and its relation to ADHD diagnoses. The relative age effect states that the youngest children in a classroom are frequently misdiagnosed as having ADHD when in fact their more active behaviors are related to the fact that they are simply in a different developmental stage than their older classmates. The researchers found that 30 percent more boys and 70 percent more girls who were the youngest in their class were likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. The numbers are astonishing.
Other disorders, such as sleep disorders, may also be misdiagnosed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. According to an article in U.S. News and World Report, Kevin Smith, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Mercy Hospitals, published a study last year that revealed children who suffer from “sleep-disordered breathing—including snoring, breathing through the mouth, and apnea, where the child seems to stop breathing for several seconds at a time—had a higher incidence of behavioral and emotional issues such as hyperactivity, aggressiveness, depression, and anxiety.”
Similar results were observed in a separate study of teenagers with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). It is especially interesting to note that the article shares another study that found that half the number of children who were diagnosed with ADHD were declared to no longer suffer from the disorder a year after having their tonsils and adenoids removed to alleviate OSA.
Some doctors are concerned about the ADHD misdiagnoses and worry about the future impact on a child’s health given that the long-term side effects of the treatment medicines are not known.
If you are a parent who suspects your child might be suffering from ADHD or if you’ve had a child recently diagnosed with it, carefully explore all the possibilities and get a second opinion — just in case your child has been misdiagnosed.
Monica Olivera Hazelton, NBC Latino contributor and the founder and publisher of MommyMaestra.com, a site for Latino families that homeschool, as well as families with children in a traditional school setting who want to take a more active role in their children’s education. She is the 2011 winner of the “Best Latina Education Blogger” award by LATISM.