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Conflating ADHD and Creativity (and Beating Up on Parents—Again)

February 21, 2012

This weekend the New York Times published another op ed piece in what’s become a de facto series of attacks on psychiatry—the fourth so far this year trivializing the impairment that can come with a disorder and the usefulness (in some cases) of medication.

The last two were about how kids with Asperger’s are just “clumsy, lonely teenagers” who don’t benefit from either a diagnosis or intervention. This one, “The Art of Distraction,” is about how kids with ADHD shouldn’t get medication, because distraction enhances creativity.

One commenter, Dr. Leon Zacharowicz, nailed our feeling about this piece pretty succinctly:

Will the next series of articles be about asthma and how having shortness of breath every now and then is a good thing, kind of like falling in love?

The piece is by Hanif Kureishi, a celebrated novelist, playwright and screenwriter, who uses his own success as a writer to argue that there’s nothing wrong with being distracted and failing in school—It worked for him!—and that parents who give children medication for ADHD are strong-arming them into a narrow notion of achievement. He thinks they’re driven by a fear of creativity, akin to a fear of sex. Seriously:

Ritalin and other forms of enforcement and psychological policing are the contemporary equivalent of the old practice of tying up children’s hands in bed, so they won’t touch their genitals. The parent stupefies the child for the parent’s good. There is more to this than keeping out the interesting: there is the fantasy and terror that someone here will become pleasure’s victim, disappearing into a spiral of enjoyment from which he or she will not return

This is one of the most weirdly insulting attacks on parents I’ve seen and, as Judith Warner wrote about another piece in the Times series, “was like a ride backwards in a time capsule.” Kureishi frames psychotropic medication (and neurobiology itself) as a kind of Orwellian conspiracy. He sees the freedom to fail in school as a civil rights issue.

The analogy to sexual repression might make more sense if you know that Kureishi got his start as a writer in pornography. And I’m tempted to argue that his hostility towards parents reflects his antagonistic relationship with his own. He writes movingly of his miserable childhood, of humiliations at his father’s hand, of feeling “badly beaten” in school, of envying the competence of others, of his depressed teenage years.

He also describes the gradual process by which he learned how to manage his own distraction effectively:

In the end, a person requires a method. He must be able to distinguish between creative and destructive distractions by the sort of taste they leave, whether they feel depleting or fulfilling. And this can work only if he is, as much as possible, in good communication with himself—if he is, as it were, on his own side, caring for himself imaginatively, an artist of his own life.

That’s a great description of how many people with ADHD eventually learn to manage their impulsiveness and distraction (often with an assist from medication, I might add), and we’re delighted that it worked for Kureishi. Indeed many people with ADHD describe their creative passions as their salvation. Acting, writing, music, dance, visual arts, and sports have become the focal point for countless people who have struggled to focus more broadly in their lives. Who wouldn’t applaud them, and hope that every child will find that transforming passion?

What we don’t applaud is the romanticizing of unhappy childhoods: Just because some children with ADHD or other disorders become brilliant writers or actors doesn’t justify watching children struggle and not trying to help them. It doesn’t justify making the bogus leap that taking medication will prevent them from finding that passion. And especially it doesn’t justify attacking compassionate parents as prudes who are afraid their children might have too much fun being distracted.

Tagged with: ADHD in the News
Caroline Miller
Caroline Miller
Caroline Miller is the editorial director of the Child Mind Institute. In that role she directs development of resources on … Read Bio