All-American Affliction? One Expert Says We've Just about Cornered the Market on Attention Deficit Disorder

By Renee Stovsky Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 14, 1994 | Go to article overview

All-American Affliction? One Expert Says We've Just about Cornered the Market on Attention Deficit Disorder


Renee Stovsky Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


PAY ATTENTION, oh fellow Americans.

George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot may have much more in common than their 1992 bid for the presidency.

They may be three of the estimated 10 to 20 million Americans who suffer from attention deficit disorder, or ADD. Hallmarks of the disorder include distractibility, impulsivity and restlessness.

Boston psychiatrist Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of this year's best-selling "Driven to Distraction" (Pantheon, $23), a primer on both childhood and adult ADD, is certainly not one to casually diagnose the disorder without thorough clinical evaluation.

But he doesn't dismiss the Bush/Clinton/Perot theory as pure cocktail chatter either.

"When people ask me to describe a typical adult with ADD, I tell them to think of Ross Perot - a creative, resourceful, successful entrepreneur with a very high-energy, shoot-from-the-hip kind of style," says Hallowell, whose recent St. Louis appearances were co-sponsored by The Miriam School and Jewish Hospital of St. Louis.

Hallowell's armchair observations of Clinton and Bush point to the same conclusion.

"Clinton has many of the characteristics associated with ADD. He's warm and engaging but also impulsive, erratic, inconsistent, chronically disorganized and supposedly hypersexual," says Hallowell.

And Bush? Remember how he liked to "relax" on vacation by maniacally playing sports? "Highly distractible, indecisive, constantly on the go," says Hallowell.

All three, he adds, are left-handed as well - another trait commonly associated with attention deficit disorder.

If the American public, consciously or not, leans toward leaders with such characteristics, what does that say about American society in general?

Two things, according to Hallowell. First, we are an "ADD-ogenic" culture - always in a hurry, always distracted, addicted to sound bites and channel surfing. So we may not see impulsivity or restlessness as either unusual or negative.

"Modern life can create ADD-like symptoms in all of us. The difference is that they are just that - symptoms. I like to call it pseudo-ADD syndrome," he says.

"In true ADD, symptoms aren't enough for a diagnosis - you must consider their intensity and duration. Besides, there's no such thing as `coming down' with ADD. Its onset is not adulthood, and it is not situationally dependent."

Second, it may just be, Hallowell says, that Americans are genetically predisposed to ADD.

Scientists think there is a familial tendency toward ADD and many commonly associated problems, from learning disabilities to substance abuse. Just think about who colonized our country, Hallowell points out. Many were people who were persecuted for various reasons - but many were thrill-seekers as well.

"The original settlers were a rough-and-tumble bunch of mavericks. They couldn't accept authority, took tremendous risks, lived by innovation and invention," says Hallowell.

He believes many of America's greatest historical figures - from Benjamin Franklin (what totally normal person would stand outside in a lightning storm with a kite and a key?) to Thomas Edison (a tireless, eccentric inventor who always had a number of projects and experiments in progress at once) - had ADD.

Whatever the reason, an estimated 10 times as many people are diagnosed with ADD in the United States than in European countries like Great Britain or France. (The Japanese have barely studied the disorder.)

Listen long enough to Hallowell - who is 44 and has both dyslexia and ADD himself - and you might actually become envious that you don't have the diagnosis. That's no coincidence.

Hallowell believes many of the traits of the ADD-afflicted are highly desirable. "Generally, they are warm, funny people, full of creativity, energy, intuition," he says. And while they may "tune out," they also have the ability to "hyperfocus" their attention at times - an effective problem-solving strategy. …

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