Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has clear and specific symptoms such as finding it hard to concentrate, making careless mistakes, not being able to listen, becoming easily distracted and being disorganized and forgetful. Sure, you may think that could apply to anyone, hey, that’s often me before my second cup of coffee! Combine it then with constant fidgeting and squirming, running and climbing when not appropriate, interrupting, talking excessively, is seemingly “on the go” and acting as if “driven by a motor.” You may begin to think he’s had one too many coffees!
The effect of all of these symptoms on a child and their family is challenging. For a child diagnosed with ADHD these symptoms are not just every now and again, they’re every day, to the max, and completely relentless. It’s not like you’ve given him one cup of coffee, it’s more like he’s consumed 50 cups of coffee! But is ADHD just the name given to a bunch of issues that are actually symptoms something else? What is causing my son to have ADHD?
New theories are now emerging that what is being diagnosed as ADHD is actually the symptoms of other disorders such as Sensory Processing Disorder and Auditory Processing Disorder. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder where people are over or under sensitive to smell, taste, sound, vision, touch, movement and perception of body position. The body is often in “fight or flight” mode and on full sensory alert. Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) means that kids can't process the information they hear in the same way as others do, as their ears and brain don't fully coordinate. A child with Auditory Processing Disorder will often have the same symptoms as ADHD inattentive type.
My son, who has a diagnosis of ADHD also has the symptoms of both SPD and APD. He is oversensitive to sound and must wear earmuffs at night and oversensitive to movement, he needs to be constantly moving to feel “normal”. He cannot concentrate in a noisy room and I’m sure everything he hears goes in one ear and out the other, by-passing his brain completely! But when he’s on his ADHD medication all of those symptoms become manageable. He doesn’t need to constantly move and the information his ears collect is siphoned to his brain, which is then able to process it.
Methods of treating SPD and APD are Occupational Therapy and modifying children’s environments to help them cope. For two years we attended weekly occupational therapy sessions to “desensitize” my son to movement. We implemented strategies such as sitting at the front of class and going for lots of trips to the office to “deliver” important notices. All of these things helped, but it was more like he’d had 30 cups of coffee, rather than the usual 50. Knowing what is causing the ADHD like symptoms means helping them to relieve those symptoms, with or without medication, or coffee.
Stimulant medications, such as Ritalin boost the levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain and have been used to treat ADHD for some time now. Not surprisingly, the latest studies have shown that stimulant medications also improve the symptoms of both Sensory Processing Disorder and Auditory Processing Disorder. Stimulant medications work by pooling serotonin levels in the medial frontal cortex of the brain, causing changes to behaviour.
Other ways of increasing serotonin levels are spending time outside, in the sunshine and doing exercise. Bright light naturally increases the body’s serotonin levels. Boys used to spend hours outside, walking to and from school, getting exercise and sunshine, they would often then become farmers or labors doing physical work, ploughing fields and building railway lines. Historically boys and men were built as hunters, and so too are their brains.
So does your child have ADHD, SPD, APD or do they just need more sunshine and exercise? Each child is unique and for some walking to school or playing outside in the park may be enough, for others, additional help, therapy or even medication may be needed. I believe that having an understanding as to what is behind a disorder, and causing the symptoms of a disorder, makes a huge difference as to how you treat that disorder.
To all the parents out there who are worried about their child, please see a professional for an opinion. Low levels of serotonin can lead to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues in the long term. Find an outdoor sport or hobby that your children enjoy and go outside and enjoy it with them. The sunshine and exercise will improve everyone’s mood and behaviour, and may even create a serotonin pooling party!