[Photo credit: woodleywonderworks, Flickr]
Dr. Nicole Brown’s quest to understand her misbehaving pediatric patients began with a hunch.
Brown was completing her residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, when she realized that many of her low-income patients had been diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
These children lived in households and neighborhoods where violence and relentless stress prevailed. Their parents found them hard to manage and teachers described them as disruptive or inattentive. Brown knew these behaviors as classic symptoms of ADHD, a brain disorder characterized by impulsivity, hyperactivity, and an inability to focus.
When Brown looked closely, though, she saw something else: trauma. Hyper-vigilance and dissociation, for example, could be mistaken for inattention. Impulsivity might be brought on by a stress response in overdrive.
“Despite our best efforts in referring them to behavioral therapy and starting them on stimulants, it was hard to get the symptoms under control,” she said of treating her patients according to guidelines for ADHD. “I began hypothesizing that perhaps a lot of what we were seeing was more externalizing behavior as a result of family dysfunction or other traumatic experience.”
Considered a heritable brain disorder, one in nine U.S. children—or 6.4 million youth—currently have a diagnosis of ADHD. In recent years, parents and experts have questioned whether the growing prevalence of ADHD has to do with hasty medical evaluations, a flood of advertising for ADHD drugs, and increased pressure on teachers to cultivate high-performing students. Now Brown and other researchers are drawing attention to a compelling possibility: Inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive behavior may in fact mirror the effects of adversity, and many pediatricians, psychiatrists, and psychologists don’t know how—or don’t have the time—to tell the difference.
Though ADHD has been aggressively studied, few researchers have explored the overlap between its symptoms and the effects of chronic stress or experiencing trauma like maltreatment, abuse and violence. To test her hypothesis beyond Baltimore, Brown analyzed the results of a national survey about the health and well-being of more than 65,000 children.