The Guardian ran an article this week with the headline “Too few children in England treated for ADHD, figures show”. It reported that ADHD is an underdiagnosed condition, particularly among girls, and more children should be receiving medication. I was alarmed by this conclusion, especially put alongside our contrary experience of ‘ADHD’ children visiting Jamie’s Farm. Our experience has been that medication may not be the answer for a group of symptoms that have a subjective measure and no obvious defining diagnostic form.
We have lived and worked with 100s of ‘ADHD’ children over the past 10 years. Their symptoms of hyperactivity, inattentiveness and impulsiveness seem to significantly wane on a diet of good food, with less sugar and additives, no technology, lots of exercise and motivating, purposeful hard work, with times in between to run and play.
I sought to check the diagnosis for this condition. It seems nothing is certain, and a lot is subjective. The common picture of a child either diagnosed or waiting diagnosis for ADHD is that their behaviour is troublesome, probably both at home and in the classroom. All are different, some extreme, and I have no doubt for some children the medication allows them to take part in life in a more acceptable way, that in turn generates more love and positivity.
However, many of these children are described to us by their teachers and parents in ways that do not match how they behave and feel about themselves while on the farm. After four days of living and working together the children’s behaviour has changed so remarkably that many teachers remark, “I do not recognise this child”. In the space of a couple of days, these previously ‘difficult’ children become the superstars; hardworking, compassionate to others, sleeping and eating well and most of all becoming happier.
Hard work aside, the pleasure of being with these children is listening and learning. Many describe how they are struggling at home, where there is often a lack of space and they feel frustrated. They spend many hours alone in their rooms with technology, giving their young brains the constant highs and lows caused by computer gaming. This stimulates the fight or flight reactions that we humans ideally keep in reserve for critical situations.
Often these are urban children who are not allowed outside to play, as the streets are unsafe. In many cases they have a lone parent who is worn out from working or maybe managing other siblings and not resourced to engage their natural energies. Diet is often sugar loaded, additives are in plentiful supply, the buzz of caffeinated and fizzy drinks firing up those who need them the least.
Children in full urban schools have little outdoor space to let off steam. Times for physical activities in schools are squeezed to make more time spent on desk based activities. Lessons are getting longer and pressures to make the academic grades more intense. A boisterous, energetic, impulsive boy or girl is going to struggle.
Once a child thinks they are failing, they can easily give up trying. There is nothing to lose. Labels stick and children believe they are ‘badly behaved’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘too much’. Natural curiosity can be misinterpreted as disruptive behaviour. The need to do, rather than to sit, frustrated by lack of opportunity.
There is no doubt that living with or teaching an ‘ADHD’ child is exhausting and challenging, especially if we have to contain their energy and curiosity. But, maybe, some of the extraordinarily talented individuals of our time are themselves undiagnosed and untreated, their boundless energy and curiosity moving mountains. ADHD itself may come to be seen as a spectrum rather than a defined condition, alongside autism, now seen as a rainbow, with us all having a colour and a place.
Written by Tish Feilden
Founder & Lead Therapist, Jamie’s Farm