Think ADHD or dyslexia and drugs seem an almost automatic response - and here in Australia we're popping pills into our kids at the rate of more than 150,000 scripts a year of dexamphetamine (speed) alone. Alarm bells are sounding loudly but, of course, there are successful alternative approaches, as Amanda Rankin explores.
DADD, ADHD, ODD, dyslexia, autism, Asperger's syndrome; the list of learning disorders is long and complex, and seemingly growing as we find more labels to attach to them. But let's be honest, it's a far cry from the bad old days when children with any of these conditions were simply deemed plain dumb.
Depending on which literature you read, between two and fifteen per cent of Australian children suffer from some learning disorder relating to academic skills such as reading, writing, spelling and mathematics, along with physical coordination problems such as gross motor clumsiness or motor planning difficulties. One of the most talked about disorders is Attention Deficit Hyper-activity Disorder (ADHD), more commonly referred to as ADD. This is a chronic, complex neurological condition that includes a cluster of learning and behaviour problems, and is believed to affect up to five per cent of Australian children, most of whom will carry the symptoms with them into adulthood.
Much of the media attention on ADD is - surprise, surprise - negative, whether it be questioning the over-prescription of the stimulant drugs Ritalin or Dexamphetamine or showing out of control children reeking havoc in school and their homes. Whatever the discussion, whatever the disorder, the child in question is considered to have a "problem" that must be fixed. And, of course, we love a quick fix offered by a pharmaceutical drug. Heaven (or Ritalin) help the child who is different in a world of mass conformity.
Now, this article is not out to knock medication or question the very real diagnosis of ADD (or, if you prefer, ADHD) as a neurological condition. There is a stack of literature showering praise on drugs such as Ritalin and probably a bigger stack of parents and children who couldn't survive without it, plus a whole pile of scientific research proving the difference in brain function of an ADD child. Their brain has a neurochemical imbalance that causes poor neural transmission within specific receptive centres of the brain, those concerned with learning and behaviour. Put simply, their brain is literally wired differently.
How bad or good are the drugs? Ritalin (methylphenidate) is an amphetamine and has been used to treat ADHD/ADD since 1958. While it might seem strange to give a hyperactive child an amphetamine, the stimulants actually normalise the imbalance in the brain's natural neurotransmitter chemicals, therefore enhancing normal brain function. The child with ADD is able to focus attention, which allows them to be less impulsive, more organised and more able to study and learn at school. This ability to focus can be a godsend for frazzled parents, teachers with twenty other children to deal with, and for the ADD child her, or generally him, self.
Proponents of Ritalin are adamant that the repercussions of not prescribing medication are greater than the side effects. Untreated children can leave school illiterate, violent and with the belief they are dumb and inferior. Family relationships can be destroyed through the sheer stress involved in raising an ADD child. Dr Christopher Green, author of Understanding ADHD, believes the immediate results of Ritalin on a particular child prove the diagnosis of ADD and that children on the medication, in his experience, relate better to family and friends and therefore form the strong relationships vital for long-term happiness.
Those against the drug argue there are side effects including anorexia, insomnia, nervousness and irritability, heart arrhythmias, palpitations and psychological dependence. Children on Ritalin are said to be more likely to become addicted to smoking and illicit drugs. And, of course, Ritalin is not a "cure", so when does the child ever stop using it?
Research has shown that the long-term outcomes for children treated with Ritalin or similar stimulant drugs are not significantly better than for untreated children. In his book You and Your ADD Child, psychologist Ian Wallace insists a multi-modal treatment program is vital for long-term gains. One that may include carefully monitored use of medication along with parent management training; school management; individual counselling; remedial work and specific therapy; support network building; self-esteem enhancement and social skills training. All of which sounds like a lot of hard work for parent and child alike and possibly why a Ritalin prescription seems a whole lot easier.
KINESIOLOGY - Access to the Subconscious
One completely safe and successful alternative approach to helping children with learning disorders is kinesiology. After working closely with clinical psychologists, speech pathologists and neurologists, Melbourne-based kinesiologist, Dr Charles Krebs, developed his Learning Enhancement Advanced Program (LEAP)® in 1985 and now travels the world teaching other kinesiolgists and psychologists his techniques.
Krebs is not against the use of prescription drugs and says the problem is more that far too many children are prescribed Ritalin when they don't need it, and then it has side affects. "Ritalin does work for a group of certain people because they really have a biochemical defect," says Krebs. "There are ADHD kids who respond really well to Ritalin and there are ones that it makes no difference to - at least not to their learning. You can drug them so they don't move so much, but they don't change at all in their learning abilities."
Whatever the disorder, Krebs believes all of the learning disabilities have some degree of brain integration problem and LEAP® can help correct these malfunctions. The program uses non-invasive acupressure and energetic kinesiology as a tool to identify "stress" within specific brain areas that have "blocked" integrated function. Most of the academic tasks are subconscious and kinesiology can provide access to subconscious functions by testing muscle response.
Krebs discovered kinesiology in 1984 after a near fatal diving accident left him paralysed from the waist down. He was told he would never walk again, but six months later he hobbled out of hospital, albeit with the help of two canes. He knew nothing about alternative therapies, but decided to try every therapy available to further fix his injuries, and gained immediate results from kinesiology. He walked out with just a slight limp after only one session.
"So, then I became interested in kinesiology and how it worked and two days after my first treatment I was in a kinesiology class," says Krebs. "I wanted to know how (the cure) happened, because it shouldn't have happened according to the model that I taught in university
Unfortunately, none of the kinesiologists he worked with could satisfy Krebs's need to validate kinesiology scientifically, so he began to research it thoroughly, ultimately leading to his work with learning disorders and the devising of his innovative program.
"LEAP® works extremely well with a high percentage of children with learning problems," he says. "About seventy to eighty per cent will be corrected and for the other twenty to thirty per cent, depending on the nature of their particular problem, it will help improve their function, but won't necessarily totally correct it. For that, you may need other ancillary types of treatments. It takes about ten to twenty hours to go through the whole program and LEAP® is a protocol, it's a whole program and, at the end of that time, most children's reading and spelling and writing problems are resolved to a large degree."
Krebs admits only about four per cent of the parents who bring children to his practice in Melbourne know anything about kinesiology, and who does? It is one of those energy therapies that is hard to explain and certainly mainstream medicine has a problem relating to it because, states Krebs bluntly. "As soon as you say the word energy, there's a magical shield that drops down and they can't hear you anymore. In standard orthodox Western medicine body energy does not exist. Therefore, you are outside the paradigm of Western medicine and Western medicine's paradigm is baloney."
Doctors can also find themselves excluded if they step over the line and embrace alternative therapies. "You've got to fit the model that's there and that model has very powerful reasons for being there. It's controlled by the drug companies for the drug companies. This kid is going to spend tens of thousands of dollars on Ritalin and that can be eliminated by something that doesn't use any drugs? They see that as competition."
DIET - Brain Food
The same can be said of nutrition. "Of course, diet can help," says Krebs of nutrition's role in assisting learning disorders. "We know damn well it can. If people are eating junk food, they can't be getting the same nutrients as when they don't. If you don't have nutrition, what do you think your brain lives on?"
Considering doctors get four to eight hours of nutritional training in a 4000 hour medical degree, it's no surprise that the impact of nutrition is ignored and that most mainstream doctors insist that there is absolutely no connection between diet and learning and behaviour disorders. Others will disagree. In The DEAL for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids Dr Peter Dingle refers to research that shows significant nutritional deficiencies in many ADD children, along with increases of heavy metals, particularly lead, mercury and cadmium.
Dingle states: "Sadly, little real evaluation of ADD/ADHD children is actually carried out. They are not evaluated for chemical, nutritional or allergic factors, or behavioural or environmental issues arising from their home environment. Instead they are rushed onto drugs (p.128)."
There are many nutrients that are vital for efficient brain function, particularly the Omega 3 oils (EFAs), so supplementation of fish oils and flax seed may be beneficial to ADD children. Magnesium plays a part in the production of noradrenaline and supplementation of magnesium has been found to reduce hyperactivity. Manganese, iron, copper zinc, vitamin C and vitamin B6 are other nutrients involved in the production of noradrenaline, so the connection between nutrients and the brain's function are fairly evident.
Orthodox and unorthodox health professionals alike all seem to agree on one thing. Children with learning disorders are special, perceptive and unique individuals who require multi-modal treatment to ensure they reach their full potential. It is the responsibility of society - not just teachers, parents and psychologists - to ensure they are accepted for who they are and given the chance to shine. Let's not be too quick to label that hyperactive boy as naughty - he might be the next great sportsman. And don't judge that daydreaming girl to be off with the fairies - she might just come up with the cure for cancer.
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