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Joi Ito on ADD

Joi Ito recently blogged about discussing Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) with David Smith over dinner in Japan:

Today, I had dinner with David Smith who has ADD. I think his ADD is worse than mine. We talked about a mutual friend who has, as David puts it, "terminal ADD". We talked about the hyper-focus that ADD provides and ways that you can use ADD to do things many people can't do. Harnessing ADD, rather than neutralizing it has interesting benefits. We talked about how modern society has allowed many people, who might have been dysfunctional in the past, to make valuable contributions to society. It's interesting how labels and the notion of disease can cause people to blame these things for their problems instead of trying to figure out how to turn these bugs into features. I realize that some people really do have diseases and I'm not trying to belittle their struggle. What I'm saying is that before we label ourselves and start taking therapy and drugs we ought to think about how all of these elements interact to create the human being that we are and place this in the unique context that each of us are in.
What follows is an edited and expanded version of a comment I wrote on the topic in his blog.

When my oldest son (now 16) was in elementary school, his teacher -- a good teacher and a good person -- wanted to have him evaluated for ADD, based on his behavior in the classroom. The school principal -- a good principal and a good person -- concurred with her. My son's mom, my then-wife, did a great deal of research into ADD as a result. We spent a lot of time talking about her research and what she had discovered.

We came to the conclusion that for any given aspect of human behavior you want to look at, you can view individuals' behavior as lying somewhere along a spectrum, as opposed to being in one bucket or another. But spectra are confusing for people. We don't want to know that our child is a little more this or a little less that. We're used to binary medical diagnoses: benign or malignant; infected or cured; broken or healed. We like to think in simple terms, so we make buckets. We've created one called "ADD."

As it happens, there are all sorts of incentives for everyone to place a child into the ADD bucket:

Pharma: Sell more drugs.

Physician: Generate more income.

Principal: (in some cases) Obtain more school funding.

Teacher: (in some cases) Move child into separate class.

Parents: Reduce feeling of responsibility for acts of misbehavior by child.

Child: Reduce feeling of guilt for letting down parents.

Who doesn't have an incentive to label a kid as ADD? No one.

In the end, we decided to decline an evaluation for our son, so that he wouldn't be labeled as ADD, and to home school him for a while so that he could get more one-on-one attention. It's impossible to say whether that helped; after re-entering the public school system a couple of years later, it wasn't as if he was problem-free. But now, in the 10th grade, he's an honor roll student. I can still see signs of behavior in him that some would label ADD, and that doesn't bother me at all -- it's just part of who he is.

Now, as it happens, I count both Joi and David Smith as good friends, and have known them for quite a while now -- Joi for a few years now, and David since the late 1980s. Do they have some behavioral traits that could be considered ADD-like? Sure. But those traits are part of them, part of who they are. Without those traits, they wouldn't be the people I know -- and I like them as they are.

There are plenty of human behaviors that can be frustrating, even exasperating to others at times. But that shouldn't give us license to label those behaviors, declare them undesirable, and try to medicate them away -- especially when we're making decisions for children not yet ready to make them for themselves.


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