March 23, 2019

ADD, ADHD — Life in the Fast Lane

School is out and Ashley is breathless, begging to go to Disneyland. "Leora has ADD so she gets a special pass that allows her to skip all the lines," she says. "And she can bring her friends and they can skip all the lines, too!"

A call to the Happiest Place on Earth confirms it. Those with attention-deficit disorder (ADD) can use the "disabled fast lane" with a Special Assistance Pass — no medical documentation required and five friends can join in. Knott’s Berry Farm has a similar policy, but proof is needed and only three friends may come along.

How did we get here? And how did we get to bring so many friends with us?

Two forces in our culture are at odds here — the desire to respectfully accommodate differences, and the ease with which we claim victimhood for ourselves and for our children.

A close reading of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act reveals the secret: All are entitled to enjoy the full range of goods, services, privileges and advantages offered in public accommodations (parks and museums). No discrimination is allowed against individuals or "those they have a relationship or association with" (Ashley plus five).

The definition of disability includes those with nonvisible disabilities, including psychiatric conditions such as attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder (ADHD).

Visit a disabilities advocacy Web site and read the postings of people describing both the physical pain and humiliation caused by visits to nonaccommodating amusement parks. It’s clear that laws protecting their rights are enlightened and compassionate. As a clinical psychologist, I know that ADD is real, that many children suffer from neurologically based problems of concentration and hyperactivity. I’ve also had a fair number of adults in my practice who suffered from lifelong undiagnosed and untreated learning and attention impairments that deeply affected their self-esteem and adult achievement.

But I also know that ADD is becoming the disability of choice for parents who want to smooth the path and help their children take advantage of every loophole, ethical or not. The advanced diagnostic techniques developed by psychology are being perverted.

For older children there are eveb more alluring opportunities to take advantage of than a day at Disneyland. Starting this September, untimed SATs will no longer be flagged. In the past, when disabled test-takers were given extra time, a notation was included in the transcript. No longer; this practice discriminates. In order to protect the rights of students with disabilities like ADD or anxiety disorders, the College Board, which owns the SAT, will no longer indicate in its official records that a student has been given extra time.

And where are the highest numbers of requests for untimed SATs coming from? Not surprisingly, they are coming from the wealthiest progressive private high schools and the wealthiest communities. They are coming from public schools where extra time is available without penalty to any child with the right diagnosis. They are coming from parents looking for a competitive edge.

What’s going to happen when these students get to Princeton and need special services? Are they just going to show up at the offices of the disability support staff and whisper, "Surprise!"?

What are we — loving, ambitious, good-intentioned parents — unwittingly teaching our children? We are teaching them to believe in their own helplessness. Remember when we used to say, "Josh has ADD"? Now we say, "Josh is ADD." What happened to the rest of him? He’s disappeared.

If you have a child with symptoms of ADD you can help her without inadvertently undermining her self-confidence and sense of personal and community responsibility. Start by reading anything by Edward M. Hallowell, author of the classic, "Driven To Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood Through Adulthood" (Touchstone, 1995) or by the brilliant developmental pediatrician, Mel Levine, author of "The Myth of Laziness" (Simon & Schuster, 2002). If you’re getting a learning-disabled child ready for a bar or bat mitzvah, make sure your synagogue has a copy of Al Pi Darco "According To Their Ways," a special-needs educational resource manual published by the Reform movement’s UAHC Press.

If you are considering medication:

  • Don’t rely on your own intuition and the prescription pad of your "glad to be of help" pediatrician. Get a formal evaluation by a psychologist specializing in testing children, and have the medication supervised by a child psychiatrist.

  • Meet with your child’s teacher at the start of the school year so you can work together, coordinating expectations at home and at school.

  • Don’t let the blind lead the blind: Since many children with ADD have a parent with a similar condition, put the more organized and focused parent in charge of homework supervision, planning and other "executive skills."

I can’t imagine many people are exploiting the disabled fast lane at Disneyland, but the use of untimed SATs is on the rise. And if we take advantage of laws intended to repair the world, we are teaching our children corruption.

Wendy Mogel is the author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.” She is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.