All the Children Are Above Average…Or Are They?

Oak Grove Middle School Band, a remedial band for kids with Attention Deficit Disorder … so all of their tunes were extremely short.

We are a family dominated by our routines. One of those is being dedicated public radio listeners (we are members of WKSU in Kent, Ohio).  Our Saturdays often move along to a soundtrack including Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me and This American Life. We frequently find ourselves listening to A Prairie Home Companion on Saturday evenings during dinner.  The kids have been known to burst out laughing at times although I admit that their eyes do glaze over when there’s an opera singer on the show. This weekend was different in that we were scattered about the county but I did listen to part of the show while driving.  Guy Noir was on but instead of enjoying the piece as I usually do, I was horrified by it. I was troubled by it as a mental health advocate and researcher. I was also troubled by it as the parent of a child with ADHD.

The bit involves Guy Noir as a chaperone for the “Oak Grove Middle School Band, a remedial band for kids with Attention Deficit Disorder… so all of their tunes were extremely short.” Remedial? What year is this? One of the strongest myths associated with ADHD/ADD is that such people are stupid or lazy or both. These myths can be magnified when school or work performance is impacted negatively or when kids (and adults) behave impulsively. “Children with ADHD have been called troublemakers and spoiled brats, and undiagnosed adults may go through life labeled lazy or dumb” (Common myths, 2010, para. 3). Since ADHD/ADD is so strongly associated with children, particularly males, the stigma can be even more intense for girls and adults (Sherman, 2003).  Hinshaw argues that:

[s]tigmatization can be difficult for anyone who has ADHD, but the burden falls more heavily on girls and young women. People continue to think of ADHD as an exclusively male problem. According to this stereotype, if a girl exhibits common ADHD traits, there must really be something wrong with her. Something similar may be operating with adults. Since ADHD is commonly thought of as a childhood disorder, adults who have it, or claim to have it, come under suspicion. The thinking seems to be, “Either you made it up to compensate for the failures in your life, or there’s something very wrong with you” (Sherman, 2003, para. 9-10).

Guy is with the band because he’s broke and  his niece plays clarinet with them. She is presented as a self-absorbed, snotty, and negative child with a partially shaved head and a tattoo which serves to reinforce the bratty troublemaker stereotype of kids with ADD/ADHD. This goes hand in hand with the myth that all these children really need is better parenting and more discipline not to mention the belief that they just need to try harder (Common myths, 2010).

It wasn’t easy to keep the ADHD band all headed in the same direction.

At this point in the story, the band members appear to scatter without a plan leaving their burned out and unconcerned teacher behind. “His clarinet section was going off in six directions, his percussion section had disappeared. It didn’t bother him.” Another of the many myths is that “[p]eople with ADHD don’t “want” to focus or complete tasks” and “don’t care about consequences” (Tartakovsky, 2011). The image in the minds of listeners is intended to be one of attentionally-impaired teens and tweens running wild and unsupervised because they have so beaten down their teacher that he can’t wait to get away from them.

The myth of contagion is added to the mix with the introduction of the assistant principal who gets stuck like a malfunctioning turntable when trying to say “special needs children”. Guy asks if she has “some kind of tic” to which she replies, “It’s only when I’m around special needs chi—— for special needs chi—–for special needs chi——.”

Guy continues his clever narration with, “[s]o we wandered around, me and the ADHD band, and it occurred to me that most of the people I saw in Washington were special needs people, and the Congress is designed for verbally aggressive listening-impaired people, and that months go by and nothing gets done….” Verbally aggressive and listening-impaired. So that’s what people with ADHD/ADD are like. Right. They are as bad a Congress.

In his final conversation with the assistant principal, Guy tries to strike an enlightened tone saying, “They’re just children. We’re grown-ups. We all have special needs.”

Principal: You don’t understand, Mr. Noir. We have programs for these people.

Noir: Fine. But just call them children.

Principal: But they’re not. They’re special needs chi— —–special needs chi—– special needs chi—— special needs chi—— special needs chi——(FADES)

Noir: I didn’t bonk her on the head. I left her there in the bushes and the ADHD band went off to the Smithsonian and the kids were going in sixteen different directions…

To me, this was the most distressing part of the bit. These people. These other not normal people who need programs. As Carl Sherman (2003) states,

[t]here’s nothing shameful about having attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) — or at least there shouldn’t be. But in our society, people who have the disorder are seen as somehow “defective,” despite ample evidence suggesting that ADDers can be just as competent, personable, and skilled as “normal” people (para. 1).

In the same piece, Stephen Hinshaw remarks that

…many people still don’t believe that ADHD is a bona fide medical condition.They see it as an excuse for sloppiness or laziness. The fact that ADHD symptoms appear to come and go,depending on the situation, only feeds the doubters’ contempt. They say, or think, things like, “Why can’t you pull it together? You’re fine with certain friends — how come you can’t sit down and do your homework?” (Sherman, 2003, para. 3).

As Hinshaw notes, one of the most dangerous aspects of this constellation of negative beliefs is that people will internalize them. “…I’ve gotten to know hundreds of children who have ADHD, and I’ve heard many say things like, ‘I just can’t make it,’ or ‘I’m just not cut out for school.’ The stigma has so poisoned their motivation that they’ve given up even trying to be successful” (Sherman, 2003, para. 7). According to Hinshaw, another also damaging response to the cultural stereotypes is denial. “You consider the stereotypes of ADHD and think, ‘That’s not me.’ You want nothing to do with such a shameful identity” (Sherman, 2003, para.8). In addition to self-hatred and denial, one of the real effects is the avoidance of getting appropriate treatment. As Jonathan D. Carroll (2012) suggests, social stigma associated with ADD/ADHD can delay or even prevent appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

If you’ve stuck with me this far through all the quotes, citations, and academic arguments, you may just be ready to smack me around for being a smug liberal (criticizing one of my own no less) who can’t take a joke and is only interested in censoring hardworking radio show hosts. This has nothing to do with my sense of humor (I have one), or my politics (I refuse to apologize for being progressive), or my profession (I won’t apologize for being a psychologist either). Here’s an exercise for you: Try placing some other vulnerable group in place of “ADD” in the name of the band.  Let’s say it’s a remedial band for autistic children who are then depicted as spinning and hand-flapping while simultaneously achieving great feats of memory or mathematics. The backlash would be swift and biting. Then why is it OK to use ADD/ADHD? Because people still don’t believe it’s real and that it causes real suffering for those it touches. I wonder how many of the kids in the real band from Oak Hill Middle School are living with diagnoses?

It’s always disappointing when someone you enjoy being entertained by, someone you’ve long considered to be enlightened and intelligent, does something insensitive and hurtful. It’s even more disappointing when the person you see getting hurt is just 10 years old. As my daughter listened to the piece, I could see the wheels in her head turning. By the time it was half over, she said, “they are making fun of people with ADHD aren’t they?” I said, “Yes they are. Do you want me to write a letter to let them know how you feel?” She said, “Yes, please.”

If only Mr. Keillor had taken Guy’s statement that “They’re just children. We’re grown-ups. We all have special needs” to heart before making kids like mine feel even more isolated than they already do.

If you feel the same, here is the address:

Prairie Home Productions, LLC
611 Frontenac Place
St. Paul, MN 55104

phc@mpr.org

You can also make your opinion known to your local public radio affiliate.

References:

Carroll, J. D. (2012). Stereotyping ADD and ADHD. Retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://adhdefcoach.com/2012/05/02/stereotyping-add-and-adhd/

Common myths, misconceptions, and stigmas surrounding ADHD. (2010). retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20434636,00.html

Sherman, C. (2003). Overcoming the ADHD stigma. Retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://www.additudemag.com/adhd/article/2003.html

Tartakovsky, M. (2011). 9 myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes about ADHD. retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/06/24/9-myths-misconceptions-and-stereotypes-
about-adhd/

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About Tammy Daily

I am a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Mount Union. My training is as a Social Psychologist and I study the impact of negative images of people with mental illness in the mass media. I have been teaching a class since 2004 called Movies and Madness which examines the ways in which people with mental illness and mental health care providers are presented in the mass media.

Posted on May 28, 2012, in Blog, Course Posts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This post is well-written, thoroughly cited/supported, and (most important) passionately presented. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. This Garrison Kiellor bit just wasn’t a funny piece at all for anyone who has a loved one with ADHD. Making jokes about mental health is just a low blow and a cheap shot. One that causes real pain.

  2. Sheri Siefke

    Bravo! Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. You have shown how the insensitivity of others imposes suffering upon children diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. The portrayal of those who have ADD/ADHD as uncontrollable, spoiled young children, or lazy troublemaking adolescents only serves to miseducate the public and perpetuate the stigma.

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