"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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