Kids on Speed? is a 3-part documentary airing on ABC1 in Australia that focuses on the very controversial issue of over diagnosis of ADHD in children with problem behaviour and prescribing medication such as Ritalin as a quick fix for that behaviour. It is well known that doctors don’t always thoroughly assess a child properly before giving a diagnosis of ADHD and are soon to start them on stimulant medication without explaining or planning other methods of treatment with the parents, or even exploring other possibilities for their symptoms. At first the trailer and title alone makes you feel like this is just more negative media spin attacking Big Pharma and blaming the parents. Instead, it serves as a meeting ground for all sides of the debate to discuss a very important issue that has for far too long given the spotlight to the opposing side of the debate, who have the children’s best interest at heart but are missing the bigger picture: the fact that these children are struggling to control behaviour they don’t understand and the parents are trying to do what they think is best for them all the while shaking off ignorant criticism about the way they raise their children, from how they discipline them to what they feed them and how much time they allow them to watch TV or play a video game. And at the heart of it all is a very differently developed brain that struggles to keep up with the demands of a society that was built to cater for the average processing capabilities, what we living with a neurological disorder call the ‘neurotypical brain.’
Kids on Speed? is part documentary, part factual intervention and part social experiment. It brings together three experts, Prof. Mark Dadds, Prof. Michael Kohn and Dr. Samantha Hornery, and four families with five children with challenging behaviour. As well as trying to teach good behaviours in these children the experts, headed by Prof. Mark Dadds, also use a revolutionary system of retraining parents on how to deal with the problem behaviour.
In the first episode we are introduced to five playful charming and bright eyed youngsters with uncontrollable hyperactivity and poor impulse control leading to defiant and unruly behaviour. We meet Seth, a rambunctious six year old who it seems can barely sit still or focus for longer than a minute. He argues with his mother Emma and will refuse to listen to her and often ends up shrieking at the top of his lungs to have himself heard. Both his parents are frustrated with his behaviour and at a loss of how to control it. His father worries that he may have passed his ADHD onto his son. Seth’s poor ability to focus and willingly follow instruction is also leading to him falling behind in school.
The experts suspect a sleep disorder is leading to Seth’s mild ADHD but he also has oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), a behavioural disorder with a compulsive need to argue and disobey orders. The experts don’t recommend Seth take any medication.
Next there is brother and sister Samuel (6) and Emily (11) whose rough playing often ends up with one exerting too much force and hurting the other and a violent fight erupts from this. Both children are slipping behind in grades which is a worry for Emily especially because she is about to enter high school and some of Samuel’s threats to other children at school are disturbing to his parents.
Both Emily and Samuel are diagnosed with classic ADHD as well as ODD and medication is recommended.
The oldest out of the boys being seen by the experts is James, a big 10 year old boy whose explosive meltdowns mimic those of autism. Indeed, doctors had suspected it in him but he was diagnosed with ADHD. When he is not screaming and running about the place like most children in the program he is quietly spoken and seems to show a lot of emotional immaturity.
James is thought by the experts to have ODD instead of ADHD and emotional immaturity. He is the most puzzling case though and medication isn’t yet recommended.
Lastly there is 7 year old Corey, an only child who is dealing with more than the behavourial issues of ADHD. He has anxiety on top of his ADHD and past medication for it made him threaten to kill himself and other children. He was taken out of school and homeschooled by mother Kathryn who gave up a successful career to help him.
The experts all agree that he has ODD, ADHD, anxiety and also suspect autism. They recommend he go back on medication but start on the lowest dose possible.
It’s interesting that all of the children are given the diagnosis of ODD; their defiant behaviour seems to be out of frustration of having no control over their impulses. The ODD doesn’t seem to have manifested in their personality yet and hasn’t led to such conduct issues we often see in teenagers and young adults with the disorder who end up stealing, starting fires and engaging in other illegal activities.
Between each segment we are show newspaper clippings of often negative rhetoric about ADHD, headlines stating such things as ‘The Ritalin generation’, ‘Pillpoppers: 32,000 Kids Taking Drugs,’ and ‘Has Normal Childhood Become a Disorder?’ The ominous undertone probably acts to serve as a balance between describing facts of ADHD such as how changes in the brain of people with ADHD leads to problems focusing, organizing and controlling behaviour and from what we see the families deal with which is their everyday, but I think the balance is never truly reached and instead flips between explaining ADHD in a factual way and yet again casting doubt on the need to diagnose and medicate children confusing the audience to the aim of the documentary. But the simple fact here is that they tried to reach that balance.
In episode two the treatment begins. The children on medication are beginning to show some promising results. They’re all doing their school work and are acting out less until the rebound effect hits Samuel and Emily after school. Corey is able to focus better but the Ritalin is making him too tired to continue on with his studies. The anti-anxiety medication will take time to work but already he seems calmer.
For the two children who medication wasn’t recommended for their behaviour seems a lot harder to control. There are moments where they seem to listen and obey but then act out again. This is where the new parenting strategies really come into play. It’s found that James progress depends on his parents getting along better and agreeing on parenting strategies. Seth’s sleep study is delayed and Prof. Mark Dadds has noticed that his mother Emma has not properly implemented the strategies they have discussed in their meetings but she acts like everything is going fine when in her follow-up meetings with him. By the final episode he really confronts her about it and it turns out she has her own demons to fight about her own childhood; when she is emotionally frustrated she begins to mimic behaviour that she picked up from her mother. But we see her trying her best to control her emotions around her son and he begins to show more progress.
Continuing into episode three we see even more improvement from Samuel, Emily and Corey. Corey is having a massive turnaround but is still finding it hard to socialise with other children and is not yet ready to go back to school. Seth is making some improvements but his poor sleep is affecting his overall behaviour the following day. Samuel and Emily are acting out after their medication wears off and parents take turns in putting them in time out. James’ family has to band together to help make things easier for him, literally. Father Stewart starts a family band and it’s good to see James being calm and focused while playing the drums. Even without medication both Seth and James begin to show improvements which does show that medication doesn’t always have to be necessary for children with ADHD. James is started on medication for the family meet-up retreat but reacts negatively to it and is taken off.
At the retreat the children take turns to talk about what they’ve learned from the course. Everyone is happy and smiling and the children are getting along well. In the first episode many of them – or all of them – couldn’t sit still or focus and were often disrupting, now they sit calmly and are attentive. None are fighting or complaining or wandering away. Even though we see that more work is needed for each child seeing this much improvement over just nine weeks is a good note to end on.
What does this documentary mean for ADHD Awareness? It’s a start to calm the waters between the overdiagnosing and overmedicating debate. It has offered information about ADHD in factual and unbiased ways. We’ve been given 3 hours’ worth of footage of everyday families trying their best to do the best for their children that require a different strategy of dealing with the challenging behaviour. These children have a different chemical make-up in their brains and won’t respond to the usual methods of parenting like most of their non-ADHD siblings can. We see glimpses of non-ADHD siblings as being calm and not exhibiting the same defiant behaviour which should make people realise that ADHD or ODD has nothing to do with poor parenting otherwise all the children in the family would show symptoms. It defies all logic to continue to blame the parents after witnessing that. We also witness the quick results in behaviour and learning after a combination of medication and behavioural strategies are used and the persistence of parents to implement those strategies in the absence of medication which took more time but eventually started to show some results.
ADHD Awareness in Australia is still in its infancy which seems a bit ridiculous because it’s been around a lot longer than Asperger’s syndrome and even removing Asperger’s from the DSM hasn’t made people forget about it. Most of this setback of awareness could be blamed on the media stigma that has somehow linked medication that helps these children with later on drug addiction that while is similar to speed at the same time turns children into zombies (because anyone on speed is a zombie, right?) and recent stigma that sees most children in schools as being shoved into a box and any child that exhibits the slightest difference is diagnosed and labelled and medicated into mediocrity. While I won’t deny it’s happening, it’s not the case for many families dealing with ADHD. As we have seen in the program children with ADHD are difficult to manage and the disorder left untreated affect education and social skills and as Prof. Mark Dadds says in the last episode will lead to these problems in adulthood which does include breaking the law and occupying our jails.
Kids On Speed? serves as the perfect building ground to kick off awareness more beneficial to those suffering with ADHD and raising a child with it. As was briefly mentioned in the last episode of KOS was that a well-known brain disorder is not receiving the kind of government funding it deserves that similar conditions like autism get. Instead, parents and individuals with ADHD must deal with the symptoms themselves.
And once better understanding is made of classic ADHD then we can move onto the non-hyperactive cousin of ADHD: the space cadets of the disorder. ADHD-Primarily Inattentive is still overlooked in children and though less obstructive in behaviour, the symptoms are similar yet manifested is different ways often leading to the same learning and social issues. The children are often introverted and low on energy. Their ability to focus is blinded in a fog rather than being unable to calm themselves down to focus. It’s like everything takes great effort as the child or adult affected moves through life in a half-awake state and this affects every area of their life. They are more prone to depression as those with hyper-impulsive issues are more prone to anxiety. The issue here is that ADHD-PI is almost never picked up in a person until adulthood and already they’ve got a lifetime of problems related to going through life without a diagnosis or even awareness of their symptoms which has a disastrous impact on their own self-esteem.
This October is ADHD Awareness Week and I usually write something for it. I’ve been going at it all wrong though; focusing on classic ADHD and ignoring the PI in my diagnosis because of my own hyper-impulsive issues related to more bipolar symptoms. But I have had 24 years of PI symptoms and the absence of hyperactivity and I think it’s an issue the public need to be more aware of. KOS was a very eye opening documentary even for those who know a lot about ADHD already but it’s focused on just classic ADHD and if we really do want to change people’s perspectives on ADHD then we should get our focus solely off those hyper-impulsive symptoms and begin to look at ADHD symptoms as a whole. We need to see ADHD as a brain difference that leads to many impairments that affects behaviour and is not simply a behaviour disorder.
Note: The author has suffered severe side effects from taking the stimulant medication Ritalin due to a trial of medication before diagnosis and lack of information about the small percentage of people who react negatively to stimulant medication; people with heart problems, a predisposition to mood regulation disorders and epilepsy. She does not blame the pharmaceutical industry for the harmful affects but accepts that the medication was wrong for her and is committed to changing how doctors diagnose and medicate ADHD by making sure they do a full family background check so no child or adult has to go through these life shattering side effects again.
For more information and sample videos on the documentary KIDS ON SPEED? visit ABC’s website