Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Special Education Policy and Practice in Australia

Article excerpt

With growing numbers of Australian children receiving Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnosis, special educators will increasingly be expected to provide interventions. We outline Australian special education policy and practice regarding ADHD in the public school context. Drawing upon American comparisons, we consider how recent government legislation may have made the label `disability' appear pragmatic to those seeking special education assistance, and discuss whether making ADHD an educational disability category would expand the range of interventions currently available. Although biological aspects of ADHD have received much attention, the important social aspects remain relatively unexplored. We propose that a socially sensitive reconceptualisation will assist special educators to better meet the needs of young people with impulsive, inattentive and hyperactive behaviours.

Introduction

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is defined by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) (1997) as a syndrome resulting in hyperactive, impulsive and inattentive behaviours that cause social impairment in home, school and work settings. ADHD is considered a medical/psychiatric disorder; however, this runs the risk of oversimplifying a complex phenomenon. ADHD cannot be adequately viewed from a unitary perspective, because ADHD is a disorder that crosses many different domains. It is unrealistic to expect one overarching construct--no matter how broad--to have sufficient explanatory power (Whalen & Henker, 1996). For example, in addition to the medical perspective, psychological approaches must be acknowledged. Problems such as depression, anxiety, cognitive distortions, temperament, motivation, and even giftedness can produce ADHD-like behaviours (British Psychological Society (BPS), 1996; Maag & Reid, 1994; Tally-Ongan, 1997).

ADHD is now one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders among Australian and United States children (Gadow, 1993; Prosser & Reid, 1999; Valentine, Zubrick, & Sly, 1996), and the rate of ADHD diagnoses has been increasing. Some suggest this reflects increased awareness of and necessary treatment for a medical condition. Others link increasing diagnosis to special education policy. For example, Diller (1998) argued that the United States (US) increase in ADHD was a result of the Education Department's clarification of services available to diagnosed students. The former view represents the `reductionist' or medical perspective that regards ADHD as a biological phenomenon. The latter `sociological' perspective views ADHD as a phenomenon within a social and cultural nexus and permits understandings that are dictated by political and economic factors.

This paper reviews the present and future possibilities for special education interventions for ADHD in Australia. First, we compare the Australian and overseas (especially the American) situations to outline how existing policy shapes ADHD interventions in the public school context. In the second section, we argue that contemporary Australian policy may be the catalyst for the growth in calls for including ADHD as a disability category. We conclude by arguing that an emphasis on the social and educational aspects will enable special educators better to meet the needs of students diagnosed with ADHD.

ADHD and special education policy in United Kingdom, United States, and Australia

Some nations, for example the United Kingdom (UK), favour psychological and educational interventions for inattentive, impulsive and hyperactive behaviours (BPS, 1996). Others, like Australia and the US, are increasingly considering these behaviours as a disability requiring specific medical interventions.

Within the UK, diagnosis is comparatively low, being based on the rigorous International Classification of Disorders (World Health Organisation, 1993) criteria. …