"History" of ADHD Does a Disservice to Families

MozartMatthew Smith, a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter, believes that authors and teachers who contend that historical figures had ADHD are misleading the public. In a talk at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) at Carleton University in Ottawa, Smith said that hyperactivity has only been described as a disorder since the 1950s. Before then, it wasn’t considered pathological. He argued that, by extending the disorder prior to the 50s, it removes the symptoms from the social, cultural, political and economic climate in which the behaviour began to be seen as problematic. There are many environments in which hyperactivity might not be a problem, or might even be adaptive. Smith was quoted in a CHSS press release:

“We need to refocus the history of hyperactivity on the period starting from the late 1950s and 60s. By doing so, we start to understand why people started to think there was a problem with children, why they thought that problem needed to be fixed, and why it became acceptable to fix that problem with drugs … If a child’s playing soccer, there’s a chance hyperactivity isn’t going to be a problem. But if they are stuck in a classroom, it is a problem … We have to look at the social and historical factors that created the idea that children were distractible and that these were pathologies that needed to be treated.”


The emphasis on education that came hand-in-hand with the American space race is one of the socio-political factors that Smith believes contributed to the widespread belief that high activity levels were problematic. Describing Mozart and Einstein as sufferers of ADHD clouds the understanding of the disorder, cutting off some lines of inquiry that might lead to new treatment options.

You can read about Smith’s talk here.

Smith’s research interests are in the area of the development of medical knowledge in the 20th century; his doctoral dissertation concerns the “rise and fall” of the Feingold diet, a controversial diet plan in the 70s that condended that ADHD symptoms were caused by food additives. Scientific examination of the diet led it to fall out of favour, but Smith believes that the studies were not clear – in fact, he says that the diet is once more being used. Obviously, if ADHD is caused by food additives, Mozart couldn’t have had the disorder! It should be noted, however, that even if there’s no clear evidence that diet doesn’t work, there isn’t any clear evidence that it does! Some researchers have found genetic links to the disorder, which calls into question the additive theory.

When I read about Smith’s work, and his concerns about “diagnosing” historical figures, it called to mind websites and advocates for dyslexia who claim that any number of historical figures had the disorder – including many U.S. presidents! The traits that led to these “diagnoses” are unclear. Although such lists of celebrities are meant to be encouraging to those with the disorder, I’ve always wondered if they muddy the water in terms of the traits that are associated with the disorder.

What do you think?

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4 Responses to "History" of ADHD Does a Disservice to Families
  1. Frank Bozzi
    September 26, 2009 | 2:17 am

    People with ADHD are conceptually oriented and not task oriented. I have ADD/ADHD but REFUSE to touch the meds associated with treatments. In fact, I don’t believe it needs to be treated. While I struggled with doing tax returns, a career as a fraud investigator is perfect for me as I pick up on patterns and can “connect-the-dots” in accounting records and people’s behavior. The school system needs to recognize people who are born like this and change their curriculum. The school system is very task-oriented and needs to allow more conceptualization, invention and creativity. I will use the term ADHD here, but I don’t appreciate the label at all. The reader of this can decide whether or not the person writing this has a “disorder.” Children with ADHD do NOT have a disorder; the school system has a disorder in curriculum to adjust for these smarter kids being born before our eyes. The sciences and mathematics should be a strong part of their curriculum. Some steps are already under way in the school system to do this from what I have read.

    This “disorder” enables me to generate ideas, have good instincts about people, ability to read people’s non-verbal cues, separate the forest from the trees, etc. I am also more sensitive than most people. I couldn’t be a mechanic like my father for that reason, but I could develop ideas that surprised him and everyone else.

    For most children born with ADHD, there is a pattern of very large, striking eyes with a wide-eye separation when they are born. Also what looks like “extra” skin around my eyes. My newborn picture was strikingly different than those of my siblings. They develop prominent lines under their eyes at a much younger age than their peers. In black and white photographs of me, I have these very dark ridges under my eyes. I believe it is genetic. My grandfather was built like this too. Not only do I bear a resemblance to how he looks, but also how he went about his thinking, mannerisms, behavior and good insights into people and their behavior. Please look at pictures of these individuals on Wikipedia or Google their pictures. I don’t think Newton had such a horrific disorder for the ideas he was able to develop:

    Musicians:
    -Mozart
    -Handel
    -Neal Peart, the drummer and lyricist for the Canadian rock band, Rush, who’s lyrics are very conceptual, and, not coincidentally, I was attracted to those lyrics at a young age, because we both have ADHD

    Scientists:
    -Newton
    -Tycho Brahe

    Actors:
    -Gary Sinise
    -Andrew Lawrence

    Baseball players:
    -Nick Swisher of the New York Yankees

    Edgar Cayce was not a psychic. He had ADHD as well and had solid intuition, but also had a big imagination.

    Then please look up their Myers-Briggs personality classification-the trend is more introverted as children and young adults for these individuals with high intuition. I attended a forensic accounting class in 2008 and found that the shape of many of their eyes was just like mine. Not surprisingly, forensic accountants are typically curious people with high intuition. My Myers-Briggs personality classification is INTP-I took a long test for it at a community college in 2008 when I was deciding on a career change. Newton was INTP or INTJ, depending on whose opinion you read. This is a measure of how people process information, not aptitude, and I am by no means comparing my math capabilities to Newton. However, the fact that all these individuals rely so much on the same thinking process and intuition should cause the reader to pause and investigate whether something genetic is at work here.

    Did the reader ever take those right-brained versus left brained tests? I did back in high school and also took tests which on a general level, seemed to evaluate how balanced I was in my thinking processes. I came up nearly right in the middle each time; I believe people with ADHD are not born right-brained or left-brained-they are “whole-brained” and allow them to pursue a large variety of career paths. I was in my opinion, born wide open with no preference to the right or left side of the brain. Perhaps the corpus callosum is more opened for people with ADHD, as is speculated for musicians. Please review the corpus callosum entry on Wikipedia.

    As most people get older, they become more idea-oriented/conceptually oriented/big picture and less task-oriented. People with ADHD are born idea-oriented from the very start. How is that a disorder? The school system needs to adjust. Animals evolve. Humans evolve as well and our school systems need to catch up.

    I suffered with Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder most of my life partially due to ADHD. ADHD helps to generate ideas but focus is difficult. I obsessed in school and work in order to focus and burnt myself out often. After my Myers-Briggs results were presented to me, I was told that I was more an idea generator than a task performer. I was also told that I would burn myself out trying to be a “doer” instead of a thinker. I was a “square peg” trying to fit in the “round hole” of the American school structure. School was difficult for me and for a couple of friends because I believe the curriculum didn’t allow for more creativity.

    Humans evolve just like all other living things and we need to recognize that this is a part of evolution. Does a blue jay have a disorder because it isn’t red like a cardinal?

  2. Dr. Brian MacDonald, C. Psych.
    September 26, 2009 | 8:09 am

    Like any disorder, ADHD is only a problem if it causes you problems. I have a friend with the diagnosis who took medication to help her at school, but didn’t feel that she needed it after she started working. She chose a job that didn’t require her to sit at a desk all day; she gets bored easily, though, and changes positions often. However, she has found an environment where her disorder doesn’t cause her too much trouble, so she doesn’t feel that she requires treatment.

    Although there is evidence that ADHD is inherited, I’m not aware of any research indicating common physical characteristics of those with the disorder. Matthew Smith believes that by “diagnosing” historical figures with the disorder, it interferes with our understanding. If changes in the school curriculum in the 50s and 60s made it necessary for students to sit and attend for longer periods, could those new expectations have caused difficulties for some students? It’s not even possible to consider this if you include Mozart among those with ADHD!

  3. Frank Bozzi
    September 26, 2009 | 6:40 pm

    I appreciate your response Dr. MacDonald.

    Without getting into too much detail on the internet, I experienced a “breakthrough” moment some years ago, so that is where my understanding of psychology comes from and invite you to please consider the following.

    Newton was independently wealthy and an only child. This allowed him creative freedom. He attended college, but had socioeconomic advantages that allowed him creative freedom outside of his formal education to invent calculus.

    Mozart was home-schooled in music at a very young age by his father who understood his creative talents at a young age and organized a “curriculum” if you will to suit his son’s talents rather than having a school structure imposed on him.

    In both these situations, the above individuals had the creative freedom outside of our current school structure. Therefore, I believe it is valid to contrast the creative freedom of their situations to the current school structure. They also had the behavior pattern and physical characteristics of these individuals:

    http://kryon.com/k_37.html

    I know you probably don’t give much credibility to the website, doctor, but let’s just say I was born in 1974 and very much understand the behavioral and physical characteristics these individuals speak of.

    Best Regards to you doctor and thank you so much for your reply.

  4. Dr. Brian MacDonald, C. Psych.
    September 29, 2009 | 12:02 pm

    We don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but I am in total agreement about the need to foster creativity in schools. As a psychologist who works with students who have a variety of learning styles, I’m keenly aware that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to learning. Tailoring instruction and evaluation to the student is an endeavour that is being emphasized by the Ministry of Education in my area, and hopefully in others as well.

    I attended a presentation in the summer about “inquiry-based” classrooms. This instructional technique has been shown to be effective with a variety of learners and seems particularly relevant to the science curriculum, as you discussed. Here’s a site that talks about the inquiry-based teaching style: Concept to Classroom

    Thanks for your interest in our material – discussion is never a bad idea, especially when we can find common ground.