Kids with ADHD have "gifts" -- and by helping them develop these gifts, parents give their children more control of problem behaviors, a child psychologist argues in her popular book.
In The Gift of ADHD, child psychologist Lara Honos-Webb, PhD, tells parents not to focus on the disturbing words "deficit" and "disorder" in their children's ADHD diagnosis.
"I tell parents it is a brain difference, not a brain disorder," Honos-Webb says. "Children's sense of identity is not yet formed at the time of ADHD diagnosis. Reframing the disorder as a gift helps them define themselves by what is working, not by what isn't working."
What isn't working for ADHD kids usually becomes apparent in school. Kids with ADHD have trouble sitting still. They have trouble focusing their attention on a single task. They're given to outbursts of emotion.
Despite their challenges, Honos-Webb says, these children tend to be gifted in specific areas: creativity, exuberance, emotional expressiveness, interpersonal intuition, a special relationship with nature, and leadership.
It's more than just a way of looking at ADHD, she says. It's a treatment strategy that motivates ADHD kids and improves their self-esteem.
"Just by finding and focusing on gifts, people change in positive, noticeable ways," Honos-Webb says. "You build on strengths and motivation; you give them the confidence to try harder. And the more they try, the more they can change their brains."
Is ADHD a gift? Emory University psychologist Ann Abramowitz, PhD, doesn't see it that way. Abramowitz, an ADHD and special education expert, directed Emory's Center for Learning and Attention Deficit Disorders from 1989 to 2001.
"ADHD is not a gift," she says. "If a child has ADHD symptoms but is not impaired, we don't diagnose ADHD. So by definition, there is suffering going on."
Abramowitz and Honos-Webb agree that ADHD too often is carelessly diagnosed, often by a child's primary care provider under pressure from frustrated teachers and distraught parents. Since there's no definitive test for ADHD, proper evaluation takes time, expertise, and judgment to rule out other factors that might affect a child's behavior, such as a disruptive family situation or an unmet medical need.
Abramowitz doesn't agree that ADHD kids are specially gifted, or that being told they have ADHD necessarily harms their self-esteem. But she does agree that it's important to build on whatever special strengths a child with ADHD may have.
That approach makes sense to Elza Vasconcellos, MD, a pediatric neurologist at Miami Children's Hospital. Vasconcellos treats children with ADHD -- and is the mother of a child who has ADHD.
"ADHD kids have a lot of gifts and a lot of good things about them," she says. "Many are very artistic with music, with art. They are talkative, able to multitask, and social. When I talk to parents, I try to encourage those gifts."
On the other hand, Vasconcellos says, ADHD often makes it hard for children to use their gifts.
"With drawing, for example, some of these children cannot even focus long enough to draw a straight line," she says. "And while they may tend to be more social, some are so impulsive other kids have trouble being around them."