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Attention Deficit Disorder: Quack Pundits on the Left and the Right
February 12, 2003
Maia Szalavitz
Right and left unite against the drugging of our kids

Since the mid-1990's, both left and right have attacked "the drugging of our kids," claiming that America is now a "Ritalin Nation," and questioning whether we are overmedicating children for an attention problem that may not even exist. The right bemoans the attention-deficit diagnosis as an evasion of responsibility for poor performance, and sees medication as an attempt to make boys more like compliant girls; the left decries the replacement of talk therapy and appropriate educational techniques with dehumanizing, potentially dangerous, oversold products of the big bad medical- pharmaceutical complex. When Phylis Schafly, Rush Limbaugh, George Will, Ariana Huffington and Hillary Clinton are all on the same page (if on different margins), something unusual is clearly going on.

Unfortunately, it seems to be a combination of ignorance of what works with genuinely affected children - and an irresistibly symbolic condition which plays to cultural fears about drugs, gender, the failings of the school system, appropriate discipline for children and attention in a media-saturated world.

In a recent issue of the New Republic, Michael Fumento  takes the conservative side to task for its denial of the research evidence.

"Many conservative writers, myself included, have criticized the growing tendency to pathologize every undesirable behavior--especially where children are concerned. But, when it comes to adhd, this skepticism is misplaced. As even a cursory examination of the existing literature or, for that matter, simply talking to the parents and teachers of children with adhd reveals, the condition is real, and it is treatable. And, if you don't believe me, you can ask conservatives who've come face to face with it themselves."

Fumento's article is a classic of myth-debunking that speaks volumes on the dangers of quack pundits lecturing the public on medicine. For instance, he notes that those who claim attention deficit disorder simply doesn't exist because there is no lab test for it, ought to be equally skeptical about the existence of headaches, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's, which all tend to be diagnosed from symptoms and not through laboratory tests. Conservative columnist Mona Charen, who has an eleven-year-old with the disorder, tells him, "I'm sure I would have been one of those smug conservatives saying it's a made up disease if I hadn't found out the hard way."

He dispatches the idea that Attention Deficit Disorder is a feminist conspiracy to turn unruly boys into proto-girls by noting how Christina Hoff Sommers, conservative author of "The War Against Boys," is often cited as an opponent of attention-deficit disorder and its medication on these very grounds - even though she decided not to include reference to it in her book because she found the medical evidence for its existence to be utterly convincing. Fumento then rips apart the idea that ADD/ADHD drugs are the equivalent of "kiddie cocaine," a popular accusation that manages to coexist with the claim that the same drugs supposedly turn kids into compliant zombies who do just as teacher says.

As an antidote to such hysteria, he cites serious research showing how ADD/ADHD drugs are superior to all other therapies (adding behavioral treatments only helps if the child has problems in addition to attention deficit; otherwise, drugs alone are superior to talk therapy) Fumento also mentions research showing that appropriate medication for childhood attention disorders reduces the risk of later drug addiction problems by 50%.

Research on the question of over-diagnosis is mixed. As a reporter who has covered this issue, I have searched repeatedly for the parents who supposedly put their kids on drugs at the first sign of possible school failure or inattention. Perhaps there are some somewhere. But what I have typically found are parents who try every possible behavioral ploy, every diet, bedtime tip, discipline scheme, etc. for years until they finally give up, try the drugs and find that they actually work. The research shows that some local areas have extremely high rates of diagnoses while others have extremely low levels - so we are probably seeing over-medication and under-medication in the U.S. at present.

The New York Post, which last summer ran headlines about ADD including "RITALIN PUSHER CHANGES HIS TUNE ON SCHOOLS" (about the head of a parents' organization for children with the condition that supports the use of medication), recently picked up an editorial from The National Review (2/24/03), which cited the Fumento piece and said, "...conservatives ought to take Fumento's case seriously, lest ideology lead them to views that are false to reality."

But Fumento could just as easily have attacked the left for the same thing. As if to advertise his uphill struggle, the Los Angeles Times recycles the standard criticism this week in light of a new drug for Attention Deficit Disorder From Eli Lilly.



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