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When a Learning Disorder Is Misdiagnosed
Q: My son has recently had questionnaires filled out by his teacher and me to attempt to pinpoint a problem area in his schooling. The school staff now thinks that he may have borderline ADD; he is not hyper but has a hard time focusing. I feel very strongly about not starting Ritalin and would like to seek other alternatives, as well as a better diagnosis. My son is nine years old and in 4th grade. Am I being hard to work with, or rightfully concerned with the jump to medications? My main concern is that the school is jumping to the conclusion of ADD, when in fact there may be other contributing factors causing similar symptoms. The other thing that concerns me is that medication may ease the problem by masking the actual cause. I would love to also hear any response from your readers.
A: I really empathize with your dilemma. Unfortunately, millions of children (mostly boys) in this country are being labeled and misdiagnosed with learning disorders. There are many ADD and ADHD scales that are given to parents and teachers in an effort to rate their children and students. Probably the most popular is the Parent's Revised Conner's Questionnaire and the Conner's Abbreviated Teacher Questionnaire. This teacher's questionnaire basically inventories 10 ways in which children frustrate and bother teachers. Neither of these scales should be used to justify any clinical diagnosis of ADD, let alone offer a reason to drug your child!
Your questioning of the professional standards used to tell you that your son has "something wrong with his brain that a drug will fix" is a most appropriate questioning. Your son is exactly the age where school systems, aided by psychiatrists, start telling parents that their boys need drugs (usually Ritalin) in order to succeed in school. Drugs should be the last alternative explored to help your son have a better educational experience. You are absolutely correct when you suggest that there are other factors that need to be explored before drug therapy is offered up as a solution. You are also intelligent enough to suggest that "medication may ease the problem by masking the actual cause."
No long-term studies have demonstrated that Ritalin has any positive long-term effects on behavior or academic performance; even the maker of Ritalin, CIBA-Geigy, admits in its own literature that, " Long-term effects of Ritalin in children have not been well established." But parents aren't told this! If you would like your son evaluated, call around to find an educational psychologist or social worker who works with kids like your son and who he would get along with. Make sure before you bring him to anyone that they do not recommend drug therapy as a choice in helping your son. There are many areas that need to be explored (family, teachers, self-worth, etc.) when trying to help a child in school. As I have often said before, usually schools fail children, children don't fail schools. You are to be applauded for being such a wise, loving advocate for your son. Stay in his corner and don't be bullied by people who want to drug away any problems your child might experience in school.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.