Why ADHD Advocates Need to Think More Like Politicians – Inaugural Post
I want to thank you for taking the time to read what I have to say. I’m very excited about this new endeavor I’m embarking on. I’m very passionate about the topics that I’m going to write about, and I hope that passion is contagious!
I’ve been thinking long and hard about what to write about for this first post. I have so many different topics that I want to address in this blog, and of course I have to resist the urge to try and talk about them all at once. However, over the past few days, I’ve had a couple of brief exchanges with a friend and mentor via Facebook that made me think about an issue that, for me, is foundational to my outlook on the public controversy of ADHD. More importantly, this issue is important to how I approach the problems that I’m interested in addressing in this blog. Rather than looking at a specific controversy or example of public discussion about ADHD, this post will try to set the tone for how I approach the study of these issues. I will also try to explain the long-term goals of my project.
Some context: Before I created this blog, most of my activist work consisted of using Facebook to raise awareness about ADHD issues that I thought were important. I occasionally share news articles and other blog posts in the hope that people in my network would read them and consider ADHD-related controversies from a perspective other than the way that the media typically represents them.
Usually, I’m lucky if someone likes one of these posts, let alone actually comments on it. However, when I posted this article, my friend responded in a way I wasn’t quite expecting:
Friend: I have an idea — force our kids to focus!
Me: I think the evidence indicates that it’s more than a matter of learning how to, or “making” kids focus. In a way, that’s like telling someone that if they just ignore the voices in their head, then they’ll go away. Or, if someone would just work hard enough, then they wouldn’t be poor anymore. While I know one case doesn’t justify a generalization, my mother, grandparents, and teachers exerted a lot of effort trying to get me to focus. The best I have been able to do – even with meds – is learn how to deal with inattention once it occurs. Even that took me until I was almost done with undergrad to get a handle on.
Friend: I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate cases of ADD/ADHD, but it is entirely over-diagnosed, and in most cases, it is a matter of families sticking their kids in front of video games, TVs, and cell phones and not requiring kids to focus.
I never responded to this last comment. Honestly, I got distracted with other things going on, and then I started working on this blog. It wasn’t until I launched and promoted my blog on Facebook that the conversation started back up:
Friend: uh oh…we gonna clash on this? I like seeing you being an activist though!
Instead of responding to the Facebook post itself, I thought I would kill two birds with one post, so to speak. The short answer to my friend’s question leads to a longer explanation:
Me: Not necessarily…
I don’t think that my perspective on ADHD necessarily “clashes” with my friend’s. Instead, I think that I would differ more in degree and emphasis.
Now, before you jump to conclusions about my position, please let me explain…
Obviously, I believe that the descriptions and “symptoms” associated with what we call ADHD are real. My personal experience tells me that something about the way my brain works and the way I think differs from a lot of other people. We have certain social and cultural expectations about the way people interact and communicate with themselves (intrapersonal communication) and with others (interpersonal communication). These expectations seem to come from a common assumption that people, or at least “normal” people, have brains that are structured in a similar way (I reject the idea of a “normal,” “typical,” or “average” person – more on this in future posts). Since there is an assumption about the “typical” or “normal” structure of the brain, there are also assumptions about the “typical” or “normal” function that follows – in other words, we assume (often without thinking about it) that people typically think about and understand ideas and concepts in a similar way. It isn’t until these expectations and assumptions are violated that we notice them. For someone who has ADHD, these expectations are often violated on a daily basis – whether we notice them as such or not (often confusion is experienced as opposed to an outright recognition that an expectation has been violated). Living in a world where most people around you think and understand things in a way different from yourself makes the reality of ADHD visible in a way that someone without ADHD (or another brain difference) will never see or fully understand.
However, I also acknowledge that in all likelihood, there are instances where ADHD is improperly and incorrectly diagnosed. There are also probably times when ADHD medication is prescribed prematurely. Privately, I doubt there are many ADHD advocates or healthcare providers that would disagree with this assessment. But publically, admitting this is problematic because it casts doubt in the minds of skeptics about the ability to determine who has ADHD and who doesn’t. Or even worse, some would use this admission to support the argument that ADHD is a “made up” diagnosis. Many of those that criticize ADHD and the perceived “epidemic” already exaggerate the strength of their arguments by asserting that there is rampant misdiagnosis and pill-pushing. Many in the general public hear this assertion frequently enough that its validity is rarely questioned. (There are many other factors about the ADHD controversy that contribute to buying into this assertion – too many to address in one post. Please forgive the oversimplification.)
Many ADHD advocates often try to deflect this argument in one of two general ways: they either emphasize the people that suffer in silent confusion because they are not diagnosed with ADHD, and/or they try to encourage public and professional awareness/understanding of ADHD as a corrective. While I also believe that both of these arguments are important and necessary, they don’t sufficiently counter the original assertion for much of the general public.
And here lies an important component to how I study public discussions about ADHD: despite my belief in the validity and importance of arguments like these made by ADHD advocates, their actual validity and importance aren’t of concern when evaluating how effective or useful they are. Despite Plato’s insistence, the “truer” or “righter” argument is not always the one that ends up being more persuasive.
When thinking about how ADHD advocates should make arguments to persuade the general public, we need to think less like scientists or medical researchers trying to establish the “truth” of a biological or neurological condition. Instead, we need to think more like politicians – with the exception of their arguably unethical strategies. When politicians and political speech writers think about which arguments to make to the public, they often aren’t as concerned with the “truth” of their argument as much as they’re concerned with how persuasive the public will find their arguments. This concern applies to deciding which arguments to make, but it also applies to coming up with different ways of supporting a political position or objective to address existing beliefs of different audiences.
An example might help clarify what I mean. Think of the difference between the ways that arguments are made in a presidential primary campaign as opposed to the general election. In a primary campaign, arguments are more politically biased and “extreme” so that potential candidates of one party can rally the strength and support of the public that identify with that same party – these citizens are often referred to as that political party’s “base”. In other words, they are preaching to the choir – in a general election, the “base” will typically vote for that party’s candidate regardless of who the other party’s candidate is. Once the primary election is over, the general election campaign, and all the millions and millions of dollars spent, is mostly about appealing to a relatively small percentage of the population – independents and undecided voters. Each candidate typically changes the way that they make the same arguments to be more persuasive to a general audience.
Essentially, what I see many ADHD advocates doing is essentially running a primary campaign when we need to be focusing on the general election. Like most scientists and primary political campaigners, we’re preaching to the choir. Unfortunately, critics of ADHD have already been campaigning for the primary election for a long time. More importantly, we’re missing a crucial opportunity to engage and shape the discussion about ADHD and related problems (the role of medication, the process of diagnosis, the role of the education and healthcare systems) in a way that avoids what psychologists might call the “unintended damages” of their words. These “unintended damages” occur regardless of what a critic’s best intentions are. I believe that many of these critics are likely well-intentioned individuals who are just concerned about the health and welfare of our society and its children (of course, there are those whose motives I question as well). However, there are still consequences of these words for those that are diagnosed and experience ADHD.
Whew…sorry if that was a lot. This post probably raised more questions than it answered. And, in a way, that’s what it’s supposed to do. There are a lot of parts to this commentary that will be fleshed out and elaborated in their own posts. What I set out to do in this post was provide some foundational perspectives on how I view the ADHD controversy, how I study those controversies, and some over-arching, long-term objectives that I would like to see come out of my advocacy. I would like to figure out a way to engage in public discussion about some of the perceived problems with the ADHD diagnosis and medications that are prescribed, while also acknowledging the reality of the many individual lived-experiences with ADHD. More importantly, I would like to find a way to shift these discussions with ADHD critics so that it is harder and less acceptable for them to make sweeping and poorly substantiated generalizations that ultimately stigmatize those with ADHD and those that care most about them (this is a topic that will receive much attention in future posts). I realize this is a lofty goal. However, having the end-game in sight helps us develop more productive steps that can help us reach that objective in the long-term.
Next Week’s Post: Why we’re losing in the court of public opinion – and how to
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