Medicating our 2e children

by Miriam Darnell

One parent brought up the topic of over-medicating our children, and how we don't look for the true causes of errant behaviors before we pour pills down their throats.

My response to her concern is:

The systems we currently have in place in our schools and support/medical services are so frustrating and toxic to our children! As a culture, we tend to be a bit medication crazy, hoping a magic pill will cure everything and our children will be "normal" like all the others. Well, I hate to break it to you, but there are no magic cures for the complex problems that plague our children today. There are just too many factors that can contribute to behavior challenges for there to be a cure-all pill. We have to look at environmental factors such as emotional problems in the family, allergens and toxins in the home or in the food, and stressors in school such as noise levels, boredom, and unique learning styles that aren't being addressed by teachers. Then there's the internal factors of heredity, chemical imbalances, vitamin deficiencies, sensory integration dysfunction, oxygen deprivation at birth, head injury, food sensitivities that prevent the body from absorbing enough nutrients... the list goes on and on.

At The Brideun School for Exceptional Children (where I taught language arts to 2e students for 5 years), we had an overwhelming number of children who were on 5, 6, 7 medications (the first few to control whatever the problem was that they supposedly had, and the rest to help them cope with the dangerous side effects of the first). It was such a mess to have to sort it all out and get to the bottom of the children's true needs. The first thing we always had to do was take the kids off the meds and put them on a sensory diet right away (controlling the amount of stimulation they had to cope with using headphones, vision shields, letting them wear weighted vests, or body socks, etc.). What we found when we really looked at the various symptoms was that only about 5% of our students really needed drugs to help regulate their systems. The rest were suffering from things like severe sensory integration dysfunction (which could be worked with holistically), anxiety (which could be dealt with in many healthy ways, from counseling to learning coping strategies), food allergies (which, when properly identified, solved a whole lot of ADHD-like behaviors), and most surprisingly, sleep disorders. Three of the most oppositionally defiant and violent students we had at our school, when tested, were found to have severe sleep disorders. They were waking up an average of 150-200 times a night! When these students were given oxygen treatments at night, the difference we saw in their behaviors during the day blew our minds. They were completely different kids.

You can't just say the kid has Asperger's and leave it at that. If they truly do have it, and I agree with the many parents who claim that the numbers are dramatically inflated for the convenience of the diagnosis, you still have to work with the individual behaviors and needs that are unique to each child. There will never be a medication that treats Asperger Syndrome, because it's the variety of symptoms that come with that label that need to be addressed, not the syndrome itself. That would be like giving a kid a drug for having a high I.Q. It's not the intelligence that's the problem, it's all the stressors that come with it that need to be dealt with (such as the higher incidence of physical awkwardness, sensory over-stimulation, depression, anxiety, and suicide that plague the highly intelligent population).

This is not to say that no child has ever benefited from medication. Some meds work for some children, and when administered intelligently and in moderate doses, can sometimes change brain chemistry for the better. I just feel that meds should never be the first thing you try when your child displays undesired behavior. If the behavior is their way of communicating that they need something different at home or at school, it's far better to attend to their needs than suppress the trouble with chemicals.

Oh, and one more thing to ask yourself. How "normal" do I really want my child to be? Very few of the great minds who have shaped this world were quiet, well-behaved, balanced, perfect children. Quiet, "normal" people pass through this world unremembered in the history books. Maybe you're one of the lucky ones who has a child who's here to make a difference. You just have to find a way to get them through these rough early years with their self concepts still in tact. Not an easy task, but if you're reading this, you care enough to make it happen!

Good luck!