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Dr. Hallowell's Blog

ADHD: Celebrating 34 Years of Progress

Note from Ned

Since October is National ADHD Month, I thought this would be a good time to celebrate the progress we’ve seen regarding ADHD in the past 34 years.

I chose 34 years because I learned about ADHD, or what was then called ADD, in 1981, 34 years ago. In one of the great “A-HA!” moments of my life, I heard a lecture given by Dr. Elsie Freeman as part of my training in child psychiatry about a condition I’d never heard of: attention deficit disorder. Until that moment, I would have thought the term referred to a chid who suffered from not receiving enough attention!

But Dr. Freeman opened my eyes to a condition I’d been living with my whole life (I have ADHD as well as dyslexia) and now have been treating in people of all ages for lo those 34 years.

When I first learned about ADD, the best known book for the general public on the condition was Paul Wender’s book. Russell Barkley was doing his seminal research out in Worcester, at the University of Massachusetts. CHADD had not yet come into existence, and the general public had close to zero awareness of the condition. The few people who had heard of it assumed that either it was a bogus excuse to help kids get out of doing work, or it denoted some form of retardation. Ignorance and stigma ruled.

How far we’ve come! Dr. Barkley worked tirelessly to establish ADD as a bona-fide condition, while the basic science that poured in during the 1990’s including Alan Zametkin’s seminal 1990 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, established the roots of ADD in biology. Genetics, anatomy, and neurochemistry all varied in children and adults who had this fascinating condition.

Today there is still widespread misunderstanding regarding what’s now called ADHD, but we are on far, far more solid ground than ever before, thanks to the efforts of many researchers, authors, parents, professionals, and other individuals and organizations who joined the effort to help people of all ages who live with ADHD.

While Dr. Barkley and many others have proven how crippling and devastating ADHD can be if it is not dealt with properly, in my work I’ve tried to highlight how successful people can become if they address their ADHD and learn how to tap into their talents, while minimizing the damage done by the negative symptoms associated with the condition.

I’ve used the analogy of a race car. I tell people that having ADHD is like having a Ferrari engine for a brain, but with bicycle brakes. As long as you consult with a brake specialist, a doctor trained in how to help people deal with ADHD, then you can win races and live a hugely successful life. But, if you do not, then the consequences can be dire.

My message has always been, and remains today, one of hope rooted in knowledge. We have the knowledge now to help people of all ages live great lives with ADHD. While the condition can be vexing and troublesome in the extreme, there is always help, always hope. I’ve seen many, many lives turn around with the right kind of treatment, which usually includes medication, coaching, and various other interventions tailored to the individual person.

More groups and organizations are joining the efforts of the national organizations like CHADD and ADDA to help educate the public. I’ve worked with one, in particular, a non-profit organization that I highly recommend. It is called Understood, and you can mine its vast treasures of practical, authoritative, and interactive information on its website, Understood.org. Aimed at parents, the website is chock-full of everything you need to raise a child who has ADHD.

More and more doctors outside of mental health are learning about ADHD. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Peter Jensen and his organization called REACH, pediatricians are getting advanced training the in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD. This is especially needed as child psychiatrists are in such short supply.

Everywhere you turn, you see positive developments, as awareness spreads like the great good news that it is. Now, in this National ADHD Awareness Month, let’s celebrate together on how far we’ve come. There is more, always more work to do, but we’ve come a long ways.

Let’s continue the effort by each of us reaching out to one person who does not understand ADHD and educating that person, tactfully and accurately, so we can continue to shine the light of knowledge into the darkness of ignorance and stigma.

We can proceed now with confidence and joy, standing on the shoulders of the giants in the field, men and women like Paul Wender, Leopold Bellak, Hans Hussey, Russell Barkley, Virginia Douglas, Peter Jensen, Alan Zametkin, and many, many others, who brought this condition from the realm of humbug to scientific fact, helping millions of people of all ages to change their lives dramatically for the better.

In a world aching for good news, the story of ADHD is beyond good, it is spectacular.

Let us all rejoice, give thanks, and sure, why not, sing!


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