01/02/2014 11:27 am ET Updated Mar 04, 2014

ADD/ADHD, the Industry and One of My Kids

As television and magazine adverts for ADD/ADHD meds have increased significantly, and as debates over them and the authenticity of the condition itself do continue, I'm put in mind of the precise instant I decided the issue, for some children, went well beyond 'antsy', 'forgetful', 'inattentive', 'poor behavior', when it became plain to me the conditions are quite real.

By the late 1980s/early 1990s, my colleagues, teachers and admins were more and more moving in the direction of embracing the diagnosis despite our own reservations and lack of anything like our own expertise, and despite some colleagues' old-school sense that the condition was a fraud perpetrated by pill-pushers and weak-kneed, ever-enabling parents.

Then, on one day, in one moment, a 14-year-old boy, convinced me beyond any doubt.

At the private school in Philadelphia where I was middle division head, a fair percentage of our 180-some fifth-through-eighth-graders enrolled with any number of diagnoses that had bearing on the kinds of accommodations we'd offer in our teaching-day. Extra-time testing, recording as an alternative to note-taking, and some very small classes were just some of the measures we'd take in order to reach all sorts of learners. Many traditional academic independent and public schools did that then. Most do now and good-on-them for it.

ADD/ADHD presented a particular challenge for faculties in schools not founded for special-needs children. Of course, we had specialists, great ones, in fact, who taught their colleagues well about all sorts of challenges our kids and families faced. Some longer-tenured teachers were at best skeptical about the diagnoses. There was a sort of tug-of-war with me at the center between them and our more recently educated, mostly younger faculty, all of whom had little doubt that families of, and kids with, the condition were, typically, sincere, and often at a loss to get some skeptical teachers to recognize their concerns.

Micky was 14, likeable, popular, more than reasonably bright, and rarely came to any class with the necessary texts and materials. He'd turn in partial, crinkled, slopped-up homework papers, clear in his own mind that they were complete. Often teachers would have to retrieve relevant pages from the detritus-ridden, old and soggy sandwich-laden black hole that was his backpack. Some colleagues wanted to have his last name replace "tardy" on the standard daily and class-by-class newly computerized attendance reports. By mid-September we'd had several consults with Micky's parents, our learning specialist, counselors, and Micky's outside psychologist. I say mid-September because by then, early as it was, some faculty wanted to strangle him for his deer-in-headlights, rush-about, yet usually harmless-to-others, continuous personal mayhem.

Lunch hour for middle schoolers was often three minutes of food-inhalation followed by 47 of basketball, tag-football, hanging-out, or just running about in the gym. On that Friday, I made my after-lunch rounds, in halls, classrooms, my Dean's office. Coming out of her office, I saw Micky, 10 minutes late to his next class, running very fast toward me. He knocked me into a bank of lockers and I went town on my bum. He stopped, afraid. He stood over me. I looked up at him with an expression that said, "It's OK. I'm OK."

It was then I couldn't help but notice that Micky. was hardly prepared for that next class and this time he wasn't simply without books.

I said, "Micky, you seem to have become separated from your trousers."

In fact he'd been racing to History with his sneakers and socks and BVDs and nothing else.

Micky looked down, reddened. "Mr. W., hurt?"

I shook my head, stood up. In a friendly voice, but one that had to betray astonishment, I inquired, "Micky, have no idea where your trousers are, do you?" We were just outside my Dean's office and she stepped out, eyes-widening. Anne shot me a look that said, "SEE?" She'd been wanting me for over a year to acknowledge ADD/ADHD more forcefully. I nodded at her, shook my head again, and smiled.

"Micky, any idea where your trousers might be?"


I believed him.

"Where did you spend lunch hour?"

"At lunch."

"Yes. How about after you finished lunch?"

"I really like those burgers!"

"What did you do, Micky, after lunch?"

"Played basketball. In the gym. I think."

Anne took Micky's hand. "You and I, Micky, are going to find your khakis!" And off they went to return in 10 minutes having found the now grime-streaked, balled-up khaki trousers and once-white polo shirt stashed well underneath the gym stands. Micky had absolutely no idea how they got there. We got him a change of clothes from the school store.

That was it for me. I was convinced. We did reach more faculty over the next few years. We also helped Micky's family find, the following year, a school that could far better than ours teach to his needs. Our parting was amicable. My understanding is that Micky graduated from that school, went to college. on to grad school, and is now, at about 36, a practicing psychologist.

When I see the ramped-up advertising now, as I stay on top of the professional literature as it migrates into the popular press, I recall Micky and Anne, and, while I believe myself to be a healthy skeptic still, I smile.

An Epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder -, Sunday, 12/15/13