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Expert Advice for Diagnosing and Supporting Kids With ADHD

Co-founder Dr. Hallowell talks about ADHD and the newly opened Hallowell Todaro Center in Seattle

Published on: January 21, 2015

Dr. Edward (Ned) Hallowell’s name is well-known in the ADHD world. He is a child and adult psychiatrist who has both ADD and dyslexia. As the author of Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder and the founder of The Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, Mass. and New York City, he is a recognized authority in the learning disability field. Seattleite Lesley Todaro teamed up with Dr. Hallowell to create the newly opened Hallowell Todaro Center, the first ADD/ADHD center in Seattle, which serves people of all ages with learning disorders, anxiety, depression, executive functioning problems, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, bi-polar disorder, and PTSD.

Tell me about the new center in Seattle. What makes it a place for families dealing with ADHD?

My whole approach with learning differences is strength-based. I say to people I don’t treat disabilities, I help people unwrap their gifts. Buried within these disabilities are tremendous strengths. My job is to root out those strengths and promote them. That shift makes a tremendous difference for the child or adult getting help. You don’t want to get your problems fixed but your talents identified. That’s the problem with the deficient-based model: it bypasses looking for strengths. You build a life on developed strengths, not remediated disabilities.

Buried within these disabilities are tremendous strengths. My job is to root out those strengths and promote them. You build a life on developed strengths, not remediated disabilities.

Buried within these disabilities are tremendous strengths. My job is to root out those strengths and promote them. You build a life on developed strengths, not remediated disabilities. 

People have a lot of preconceived notions about ADHD. How would you describe it to people so they understand it better?

The most accurate analogy is this: You have a Ferrari engine for a brain with bicycle brakes. A person with ADHD has trouble controlling the power of the brain. I’m a brake specialist. Work with me so you can win races instead of sitting out at the curb.

What trends are you seeing in the ADHD field right now?

The main one is one I have been spearheading: to see ADHD not as a disability but as a trait composed of strengths and weaknesses. Experts are supposed to identify the strengths and move aside and deal with the problems as best we can. 

What would you say to any parent who has a child who is anxious because of any of these issues (learning disorders, anxiety, depression, executive functioning problems, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, bi-polar disorder, and PTSD)?

You get the facts; the facts are very reassuring. My first rule is never worry alone. The more your child knows the facts, the more pleased she will be rather than anxious. You can’t ease your child’s anxiety [about her issues] overnight and you can’t do it with a pill. It’s a matter of educating and retraining how the child feels about themselves. 

Nine to 10 percent of kids ages 3 to 17 in the United States have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. If it is so common, why is there such a stigma to having ADHD? 

Stigma is rooted in ignorance, with ignorance being fear. It’s the idea that anyone who is different is bad. I believe the next big prejudice that is going to be dissolved is [against] gay people and after that, people with different learning styles.

What about the idea that we over-diagnosis ADHD in America, and it exists less in some parts of the United State or in other countries?

It’s the same answer: ignorance. This ignorance is on the part of some doctors. You find some doctors who believe in it, or some doctors who diagnose it too readily. (It’s a slipshod diagnosis driven by insurance.) You have some doctors who say [they're] not going to diagnosis no matter what, or you have some doctors who say, 'I am going to make my patients happy and diagnosis it.' Both are erroneous.

I think we will be seeing more centers for ADHD. The condition is common enough that it warrants it. If it were a rare condition, you’d go to the Mayo Clinic. Diagnosing ADHD is high stakes. I have two self-made billionaires [with ADHD] who work for me. One of them says to me, “If only I had this diagnosis in college, I would have done so much better.” I tell him I think he has done pretty well. But absolutely, yes, an early diagnosis is good. If you give them the right kind of treatment, they change the world.

If you (or someone else) think your child has ADHD, why is it important to get an official diagnosis?

Why? If you strep throat, should you bother to get a diagnosis? The diagnosis dictates what you are going to do about; if you have strep, you do want antibiotics. Lots of kids and adults have trouble paying attention and organizing, it doesn’t mean they do have ADHD. But if they do, the treatment can change their lives. It dictates what you are going to do or not do about it.

Why should an adults who think they have AHD find out if they do have ADHD?

The majority of adults are not diagnosed — 80 percent. People with undiagnosed ADHD have unexplained underachievement. They think it’s because [they're] lazy and lack discipline. A diagnosis of ADHD can change a person’s life dramatically.

If you look at a checklist article about diagnosing ADHD, you see that a person just needs to have six symptoms from the symptom list. Looking at the list at any given day, it seems like everyone in my family has ADHD on that day. Why is that?

That’s why checklist diagnoses are so stupid. It’s much more complicated than checking off symptoms on a list. On any given day for any human being, a person could give themselves a diagnosis of depression from a checklist. Half of the days of my life, I could check the boxes on the depression checklist, but I’m not depressed. Checklist diagnosis introduce a lot of error. You need someone with a lot of knowledge and a half an hour to 45 minutes of conversation. If I have the parent, the teacher or teacher comments, along with briefly talking with the child, I can make a diagnosis. 

what you should say to your child about an ADHD diagnosis? 

I say to them: "I have great news for you. You have an amazing brain; you’ve got a Ferrari for a brain. Do you know what a Ferrari is?" And they say, “Yes.” Then I say, "you have bicycle brakes — you have trouble controlling the power of your mind. But I’m a brake specialist, so I will help you learn how to apply the brakes." It’s like Niagara Falls, until you build a hydroelectric plant, the falls are just a lot of noise and mist. But if you build a hydroelectric play, you can light up the state of New York with Niagara Falls. Parents have to have ongoing conversations with their child about ADHD. You want to talk to her about it often; it’s a rich and complex diagnosis. It’s not a fixed point. You grow into it.

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