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Families Cope with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Norma Porter | 8/27/2009, 5:26 a.m.

Medication, Diet Make a Difference

The Pittman family basement is papered with to-do lists and post-its. They are helpful reminders that reinforce the house rules. The lists, in triplicate, provide detailed instructions to put toys back in their appropriate bins, to stay focused and to refrain from teasing.

These are just a few of the methods that Anthony and Michelle Pittman of Bowie, Md. use to help their five children, particularly the two who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), to better cope.

€A lot of African Americans don€t do it because they think that it€s something that is cooked up. This is a real medical condition,€ Michelle, 42, said.

€I€ve worked at Oak Hill, I€ve worked in public schools and I€ve worked in therapeutic day schools. I€ve seen ADHD at its worst and I€ve seen it at its best,€ she said.

ADHD is a diagnosis applied to children and adults who consistently display certain characteristic behaviors over a period of time. The most common behaviors fall into three categories: inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

Michelle, a clinical social worker for District public schools said that she sees how the disorder affects the children she works with on a daily basis. They are fidgety, loud and disruptive. She can speak from first-hand experience as well. Her son, Joshua, 12 and her daughter, Olivia, 19 have both been diagnosed with the disorder.

Many African American families quickly dismissed ADHD years ago as a disorder created to place African American children in special education classes. Children diagnosed with ADHD were prescribed drugs like Ritalin to ease the problem. However, psychiatrists and psychologists alike recognize ADHD as a real disorder that can stifle children academically and socially.

Anthony, a 45-year-old sound engineer who works for NBC-4 in Northwest, said he initially felt that ADHD was also a €made up€ disorder. However, when he and Michelle began to notice developmental delays and behavioral problems with Joshua, he started to believe that something was amiss.

€There were things that weren€t lining up right. He should have been walking at a certain age. He didn€t even crawl-- he kind of scooted. We thought it was cute and we used to call him €Scooty,€€ Anthony said.

€The daycare would call us a lot. They wouldn€t say that he was a problem, but that there were developmental delay problems. We would wonder what€s Joshua going to do today?€ he said.

Joshua was diagnosed with ADHD when he was five-years-old in 2002, but not before several years had elapsed, Michelle said.

Dr. Rahn K. Bailey, chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., and a noted authority on the study of ADHD in African American children, said that in order to diagnose a child with ADHD he or she must meet five criteria: inability to focus, impulsiveness, hyperactive, declining memory and altered attention spans.

€ADHD is a neurobiological dysfunction that directly impairs the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the part of the brain that is directly behind the forehead, which deals with cognitive thinking,€ Bailey said. €Children are usually diagnosed in elementary school around the age of seven.€

Bailey said that six out of 100 African American children and adolescents meet the criteria for ADHD. While many African American parents might reject medication, Bailey said, treatment of ADHD should include a combination of medication management and behavior modification.

It took Anthony and Michelle two years before they decided to put Joshua on medication to treat the disorder. Anthony was against medication but Michelle wanted to see if it made a difference.

The two parents finally agreed on medication once they recognized that counseling and behavior modification, alone, did not do the job, Michelle said.

€After seeing Joshua sitting next to the teacher, getting into trouble, and the children coming home [telling us] what Joshua did in school, we saw that he wasn€t really learning because he was always getting into trouble. So, I thought let€s try it,€ Michelle said.

Today, Joshua has stopped going to counseling and is temporarily off of his medication due to an insurance complication. However, his mother said that he has managed to excel. He€s enrolled in the talented and gifted classes at Heather Hills Elementary School in Bowie. And, his grade point average has placed him on the honor roll twice during the last two quarters of the school year.

Michelle also said that a combination of medication management and behavior modification also helped his older sister, Olivia, to succeed. Olivia currently attends the University of Maryland Eastern Shore where she is majoring in fashion marketing as a sophomore.

While some psychiatrists like Bailey insist that medication management and behavior modification successfully treats ADHD, clinical psychologists like Dr. Jeff Menzise, a naturopath and adjunct professor of psychology at Fisk University in Tennesssee, and Dr. Kristal Owens, founder and director of the Empowerment Center in Southeast, said that proper nutrition is the best treatment for ADHD.

€We rarely look at diet and nutritional habits and the information that we know about how it impacts behavior,€ Menzise said.

€Part of my recommendation would be to get a nutritional assessment to find out what their diet is like and then draw that correlation as to how they€re dietary habits impact their behavior outcomes.€

Owens and Menzise both agree that children diagnosed with ADHD should avoid salt, sugar and processed foods, along with any foods that are high in fructose corn syrup and fast foods.

While the Pittman€s agree that medication management of their children€s ADHD improves focus and behavior, they also recognize that diet plays an important role in their lives.

€If I allowed Joshua to eat the things that most children his age like to eat, he would be in orbit every day,€ Michelle said.

€We keep the candy stashed. We try to keep him away from processed deli meats and a lot of milk, which builds up mucus on the brain and has an effect on ADHD,€ she said.