Kids on Speed? My thoughts

Many people have asked me over the past 10 days for my views on the Australian Broacasting Corporation’s (ABC’s) recent 3-part series about ADHD. Entitled “Kids on Speed?”, the show followed the journeys of 5 children from 4 families who had been diagnosed with ADHD. Three professionals – a psychologist, a paediatrician, and an educator worked with the children and their families over a 9 week period.

First let me say that I find no justification for the title of this show. It was stigmatising, sensationalising, and inaccurate. The SANE StigmaWatch would have taken the ABC to task if they had done something similar with schizophrenia or depression. The title, and equally stigmatizing trailer contents caused outrage amongst people with ADHD. Two consumer groups have complained that they contravened the ABC’s code of conduct, and the trailer was modified before the show as a result. It will be interesting to see what the further outcome of those complaints will be. It has come to light that the producers of the show were advised by ADHD clinicians not to use that title a year ago, but persisted with their attention-grabbing tactics.

I wish to acknowledge Michael Kohn, the paediatrican in the series. It is fair to say that Dr Kohn was the only ADHD expert involved, and the show could have been very different without his solid, authoritative, evidence-based commentary and intervention. His comments were informative, helpful, and I would have liked to hear more of him across the series. It was wonderful to see best practice medical treatment up close, and the families clearly benefited from Dr Kohn’s input. I also wish to acknowledge the fact that the behaviour management programmes put in place were of obvious benefit to all members of the family. Also, families affected with ADHD viewing the series felt that they were able to identify with much of what was going on for the series families. There was also some advantage to the testing and tutoring provided by the educational expert.

With respect however, I don’t believe that this programme showcased best practice in the education realm. While much time was spent teaching parents to modify their parenting, with good results, there was no attempt shown to educate the teachers of the children in the show. Given that children spend half of their waking hours at school, and find the school environment exceptionally challenging (Corey wasn’t even attending school), this was a glaring omission. The heartbreaking footage of Seth’s teacher stopping the entire class to stare at him while he fidgeted was aired in the first and last episode. If the teacher had been given some training on how to teach children with ADHD, she would have been empowered to show us a different scenario in episode 3, and Seth could have been a lot happier at school.

I was disappointed that the programme did not include any children with ADHD Predominantly Inattentive subtype. The children in the show had extremely challenging behavioural difficulties, which are not caused by ADHD, but this was not made clear. In a way, this programme resurrected the old stereotype of ADHD as “kids out of control”, that we worked so hard to change in the media 10 years ago. As a result, there will be more people with ADHD,  who will be overlooked and go without treatment until things get really serious for them, simply because they are not hyperactive.

Finally, I am concerned about the exposure of vulnerable families in this “hybrid of observational documentary, factual intervention and social experiment”. There are strict guidelines around the ethics of research, and the professionals (who are all researchers) treated their participants with the utmost respect. However, there were some inappropriate choices by the editing staff, which exposed very brave families more than was necessary.

If I could have 3 wishes –

  1. I would like the ABC to choose a team of ADHD experts when next they choose to feature  ADHD in a series.
  2. I would like them to listen to clinicians and consumer groups when they are notified of potentially stigmatising content.
  3. I would like them to tell the world that ADHD comes in all shapes and sizes, and that it makes the world a better place.