Addressing a hellish affliction


Imagine what it must be like to be imprisoned as a child within a body that can’t be still for more than a few seconds. To be constantly distracted. To be so relentlessly impulsive that you cannot concentrate on any task, that your attention keeps jumping from one thing to another.

It must be living hell. You can’t concentrate long enough to learn. You’re often in trouble because your behaviour is obstreperous. You’re frustrated a lot of the time. You’re often angry. And yet your impulsiveness never lets up. Never gives you breathing space.

The condition is called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and it can often be treated with Ritalin or some other drugs, although treatment with any of them continues to be controversial. Ritalin is a prescription drug. It’s a stimulant for adults, that seems to work in reverse with ADHD children, calming them, slowing them down.

The really scary thing about ADHD is that the number of children afflicted with it is growing by leaps and bounds, and no one is sure why.

My partner teaches special education in a primary school. She tells me that 20 years ago, there might have been three or four children with ADHD in a school of 350 students. Now, she says, there are 25 or 30.

They pose a problem not only because they can be almost impossible to teach if they are not treated, but also because they can be so disruptive in a classroom, it makes it difficult to teach other students.

Last November, a conference in Arlington, Virginia, sponsored by the Georgetown University Medical Centre, and the International Health Foundation of Jackson, Tenn., confirmed that what my partner is seeing at her school is not a local phenomenon. It is a continent-wide affliction that is mushrooming to epidemic proportions.

The organizers of the conference estimated that between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of school children in the United States suffer from ADHD, and the incidence of   ADHD is doubling every three to four years.

If these figures are correct, it means that the disorder is at an epidemic level, and the rate of increase is rising exponentially.

An exponential increase, assuming that it is indeed occurring, has the potential to cripple our education system, to say nothing of multiplying the misery experienced by children. In short, we need to come to grips with ADHD in a terrible hurry.

For more information about ADHD, a « syllabus’’ of the papers presented at the conference can be obtained for $25 (U.S.) from International Research Consultants, Alexandria, Va., telephone (703) 998-6091.

It seems that ADHD results from a hereditary predisposition that is triggered by environmental factors. These factors are suspected to include food additives, malnutrition, low-level exposure to hormone-mimicking chemicals (especially those that affect the thyroid), exposure to pesticides, and prenatal exposure to damaging substances such as lead, cigarette byproducts, and alcohol.

Given the astonishing rate of increase of ADHD, it seems only logical to assume that triggering agents are on the increase. It’s unlikely that hereditary predisposition could increase so quickly.

Among the triggering agents, childhood malnutrition is the one we can address most immediately. We know that poverty levels are disgracefully high — one in three children in Toronto lives in poverty, one in five across Ontario. And we know that poverty is a prime cause of malnutrition.

Yet the provincial and federal governments stood by while poverty rates doubled in Ontario over the past 10 years.

To learn more about the links between food and ADHD you can get a copy of Diet, ADHD, and Behaviour: a Quarter-Century Review. It’s available for $8 (U.S.) from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, in Washington, D.C., telephone (202) 332-9110.

The welfare of children in this province is the responsibility of all of us. If we favour other priorities — cutting income taxes, for instance, or handing out free Canadian flags, or offloading responsibilities — then the terrible indictment of locking children into ADHD will surely sit heavily on our individual shoulders.

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