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Why normal childhood behaviour is being mistaken for ADHD and autism



Back to school



Early years educator



By Michael Hawton

31st January, 2019

By Michael Hawton, former teacher, psychologist (MAPS) and Parentshop founder.

I’ve been working in the area of child and family psychology for over 30 years. I have interviewed children in clinical settings and in legal settings. I’ve had to prepare hundreds of assessments regarding children, who have not been able to ‘sit still’ or who look like they ‘worry a bit too much’.  In these circumstances, any experienced psychologist will ask whether or not this child’s behaviour is normal (or not) and then, how this can be treated to ease the child’s distress or the distress of the parents.

When parents and educators see children behaving poorly, they understandably turn to professionals like doctors, paediatricians and psychologists for assistance. As a psychologist, I have found that one way to help these families is to undertake a thorough assessment, possibly by referring to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual - version 5 and to see whether or not these children have met the criteria for a diagnosis.

Typically, psychologists go through a process of assessment, because they believe that a diagnosis can help a child get the right medicine or the right support. Sometimes though, children don’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis, so the help parents receive might not include medicine or money for support; it may well involve counselling or a psycho-education course, such as referring the parents to a parenting course.

Nevertheless, a worrying trend I have seen is that diagnoses are currently being made more frequently than say, 20 years ago. A case in point is the rate at which boys in the state of Missouri, in the USA, are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD). In that state, over 30% of all boys have been diagnosed with ADHD and are on stimulant medication.  Even Connors, who invented the well-known Connors test used to assess ADHD in children, thinks that’s far too many children who are, not only being labelled with ADHD, but who are also being wrongly medicated.

In Australia, a growing number of parents look for a diagnosis for their child, because they believe that there is something wrong with their child’s brain. In my opinion, far too many parents are seeking out the right ‘pill’ for what always a multi-faceted problem.

While unusually-behaved children don’t always meet the norm, that doesn’t mean that they have something wrong with them or that they need medicine.

Perhaps a story will better illustrate my point. Dr Ken Robinson once gave a TED-talk about the esteemed English dancer, Gillian Lynne.  He asked Gillian about why she became a dancer. Gillian said that when she was at school she didn’t do well and her teachers had told her parents that she had a ‘learning disorder’. She couldn’t concentrate and she was fidgety.  Robinson said that maybe nowadays she would have been diagnosed with ADHD, but 30 years ago that diagnosis hadn’t been invented. So, Gillian’s mother took her to the doctor. The doctor listened sympathetically to her mother and he talked directly with Gillian. When he was finished talking with Gillian, he left her to go and speak to her mother in another room. As he left, the doctor put the radio on. Upon his return to the room where he left Gillian, he said to the mother “just stand there and watch her”. Gillian was moving to the music. The doctor said to Gillian’s mother, “Mrs Lynne there’s nothing wrong with your daughter. She needs to dance that’s all.” After that, Gillian went to dance school and became one of the most famous dancers and dance choreographers to have lived. She choreographed Cats and Phantom of the Opera.

In the year ahead, I hope that that you find the ‘odd’ dancer in your midst. When someone says we better get him or her assessed, perhaps you might think twice and ask yourself what other factors, apart from this child’s brain or parenting issues, are influencing his behaviour and to only go down the medicine path as a last resort.

To find out more about guiding children’s behaviour, click here to learn more about the Talk Less Listen More online course for early years educators.

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About the author

Michael Hawton is the founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents.


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