The Inconvenient Truth About ADHD at College

04/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Watch the news or read the newspaper, and it's easy to conclude that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) -- akaa Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) -- is nothing more than a conspiracy to stop children from being the rambunctious and normal little people that they naturally are. In this dystopian narrative, anyone who doesn't "color within the lines" is immediately medicated so that they can hover like quiet, meek sheep during their school day. And while this almost certainly does happen to some kids, it's the exception not the rule. In reality, there's very little dispute that medication helps kids master tasks -- like performing better in school -- that are critical for success and happiness in later life.

So while medication gets all the press, the real problem for ADHD students is our culture. It begins with a mistaken premise that most children with the condition will eventually outgrow it. For many years, people thought that the ADHD brain would eventually "catch up" and be "normal." When that happened, medication and behavioral therapy would become superfluous. For some lucky individuals this is just what happens, but for the majority it's just a pipe dream and utter bollocks.

What we know to be certain is that at least 50% of children with ADHD retain potentially debilitating aspects of the condition throughout life. In reality, the number is probably much higher, but it's difficult to get the 18-25 year old cohort to accurately self-report on their mental and behavioral health. Hence the drop in reporting of ADHD symptoms at this age is highly suspect.

So if most kids won't outgrow it, logic would dictate that ADHD children should be raised with the idea that their condition is chronic and lifelong. That would fortify them with realistic expectations, instead of providing them with a false hope that one-day all of this need for active management will simply go away.

But culture is as tough as nails and just about as inflexible. Thus, the fantasy of leaving ADHD behind persists. Many students rather arbitrarily choose the start of college as the perfect time to declare themselves cured; this is the precise moment when the parental support structure drops away. The results are often academically horrific and unfortunate in other ways as well. (ADHD individuals are unusually prone to impulsive, high-risk behavior.) Mix some questionable lifestyle decisions with failing grades and suddenly you find a college student who is now too ashamed to ask for help. That leads to crisis, failure, dropping out and permanently crushed potential.

Fortunately, many colleges have programs and accommodations that are potential helpful; unfortunately, many if not most are insufficient, understaffed, built around a limited understanding of ADHD and embarrassing for students to use. As a result, individuals in need tend to distance themselves from the very resources that are meant to help them.

The easiest way to address this situation is also the least expensive: tell children with ADHD the truth. The condition, for the majority, is for life. That may sound cruel, but it's infinitely superior to the current practice of peddling false hope and communicating the idea that continued treatment - pharmaceutical or therapeutic - is a moral failing.

Michael B. Laskoff
CEO, AbilTo