'Disorder' is in the genes

12th December 2003 at 00:00
ADHD is the result of forcing boys into a role for which they are biologically unsuited, argues Antoinette Tricker

I found Elaine Williams's piece on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (The Issue, Friday magazine, November 14) interesting and well researched.

But as the mother of four teenage boys, three of whom have been diagnosed with ADHD, I believe it is neither a disorder nor a figment of the imagination.

My three sons have all the classic symptoms of the condition; they are restless and impulsive and find it difficult to concentrate when others are talking. My eldest son, in particular, has a high IQ and is gifted in music, language and sport. But after years of being misunderstood and punished by teachers, he walked out of school at 14, never to return. I was left to salvage what was left of his education and restore the self-esteem of a child whose underlying difficulties had gone unnoticed.

All three boys take after my father, who possesses enormous physical energy but is unable to concentrate on the minutiae of life. My second son, however, is nothing like his brothers. He is a clone of my husband, with the same easy-going conformist attitude to life. He has no problems concentrating on his school work, never gets into trouble and is organised, relaxed and tidy - the antithesis of an ADHD child.

These obvious genetic differences between my sons made me keen to explore other parents' experiences, so I enlisted the help of members of my local ADHD support group, who responded - anonymously and with great honesty - to an in-depth questionnaire. Their answers offered strong evidence that the condition is genetic. Within the 63 families taking part, 76 children had either attention deficit disorder (ADD) or ADHD. Of these, 66 were boys and 46 had displayed worrying signs before the age of two. A quarter had caused concern to parents from birth.

If a child is born with ADHD, this contradicts the notion that it is caused by bad parenting. Further powerful evidence to refute the theory is that, between them, the 76 children with ADHD had 148 siblings who did not have it. Logically, bad parenting would cause all children within a family to develop along similar lines.

The naughtiness in ADHD children arises because demands are placed on them that, neurologically, they cannot meet. With fewer neurotransmitters (such as dopamine) in the brain, information cannot pass across its circuitry and is lost. Yet we seem reluctant to accept this fact.

Like most parents in my survey, I, too, am convinced there is a hereditary component to ADHD, but have come to believe it is part of a much wider genetic picture than is currently acknowledged.

In my view, having an attention deficit is probably a perfectly natural trait within males. Perhaps men have never produced as much dopamine as women; just as women have never produced as much testosterone as men.

We know the male brain is different from the female, and that the two sexes use their brains differently. We know, too, that nearly all human societies have fallen into identical groupings, with men primed to remain alert and physically active throughout the day, and women adopting a more passive and sedentary role.

Last, we know that humans evolve to suit their environment, but that any genetic changes take effect over many hundreds of years. Modern society, how-ever, introduced one radical change, almost overnight in evolutionary terms, which forced men to undergo a complete reversal of their traditional role: full-time education.

Since its introduction, boys no longer lead an essentially physical existence. Instead, they are expected to spend up to six hours a day sitting still and listening - a role traditionally more suited to women.

Yet, while our expectations of boys have changed radically, we have done nothing to ease the transition for them. Where some cannot shake off centuries of genetic programming and adapt instantly to their new, diametrically opposed lifestyle, we label them as having a disorder. And we punish them for possessing qualities that throughout history have always been regarded as expedient in the male.

Now these qualities no longer suit society's brief, it condemns boys who present with them as a problem. But I believe it is the other way around, that it is society that has created a problem for boys. And it is society, ultimately, that will pay the price if it fails to accept that boys are not yet the new girls.

Antoinette Tricker lives in Saxmundham, Suffolk

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